Teams in soccer’s fourth tier fight to stay afloat

Ty Otto, the owner of Oxnard Guerreros FC, stopped during his afternoon walk along a state beach in Ventura County last Thursday to count the number of people wearing masks. 

“Thirty people, maybe three masks,” Otto said.

As COVID-19 continues to affect sports around the United States, the consequences of the pandemic and people ignoring social distancing guidelines are being felt not just at the top, but also by lower-tier leagues such as the National Premier Soccer League.

While California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that sporting events in Otto’s state could resume on June 1 without spectators, the NPSL — unofficially the fourth-tier league in the country, though it has not received a designation by U.S. Soccer — had already canceled its season as structured. 

Otto is a former semi-pro soccer player who sold his party bus business and quit his job as an after-school soccer coach to start the Oxnard club in 2016. He said that he will push through the financial hit due to the pandemic.

But like many lower-tier franchise owners, he doesn’t have the overhead to spend forever.

“I’m worried about the long term,” Otto said. “If [the pandemic] goes on through 2021, it will be an issue.” 

COVID-19 threatens ‘expensive hobby’

In late March, as sporting events were being suspended, the volunteer group of the NPSL’s Board of Directors went back and forth: Postpone the season or cancel it outright? 

“Nobody really knew what to do,” said NPSL chairman Kenny Farrell.

Farrell, who also runs the NPSL’s New Orleans Jesters, thought about the demographic of the league’s owners. Most of them also run small businesses to support themselves. Two weeks into the economic shutdown, they were beginning to feel its effects, with no indication of when people could head back to work.

Farrell knew that if he kept postponing the season until they were ready to play, owners would have to worry about spending money on the necessities — housing for the team, uniforms for the players, contracts for the home stadium sites. 

With that in mind, Farrell made the call on March 26. The NPSL became the first American national soccer league to cancel its 2020 season. 

“It was the right decision,” said Brandon Jantz, the owner of Temecula FC, who represents the West Region on the board. 

No soccer means delays and schedule adjustments for MLS and other leagues. For NPSL teams, the threat is much more existential. (Getty)

Jantz’s team debuted in the NPSL in 2014, but has struggled financially and nearly folded last season. Jantz grew up in Temecula, a city about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. He played professionally in Europe before returning to his hometown. While working a corporate job, he convinced his wife to let him cash in his 401(k) for a shot at owning an NPSL team.

With four kids aged between kindergarten and seventh grade, Jantz feels fortunate to have his family and health intact. He didn’t join the NPSL to buy a Ferrari or a house in Hawaii. But he has rent, car payments and children to feed. Jantz estimates the pandemic is costing him between $60,000 and $80,000 in league dues, facility fees and marketing. He spent $15,000 alone on renting a stadium for games that won’t be played, seats that won’t be sold and food and drink that will expire. Since starting Temecula FC, Jantz has invested more than $300,000 into the franchise.

“If you take the soccer side out of it and look at the business side of it, it’s horrible,” Jantz said. “If I just ran a restaurant or a retail shop, I probably would have already filed for bankruptcy, washed it, gone on to something else.”

Jantz still works 10-hour days, keeping in touch with coaches around the league and running Temecula FC’s eNPSL team. But he’s generated zero revenue since March 14 and feels uncomfortable asking for money when his community is suffering. 

“Our service is games and entertainment,” Jantz said. “And we can’t provide any of our services.” 

Just how many teams drop out because of the pandemic won’t be clear until September, according to Farrell. Even in a typical year, a few teams will fall out. But Farrell expects more teams than normal to fold. 

“I’m spending tens of thousands of dollars a year,” said Meir Cohen, the owner of the NPSL’s Las Vegas Legends. “Some years, I lose six figures for the game I love.”

Cohen, who owns a sports complex 15 minutes away from The Strip where the team trains, doesn’t think the pandemic will shut down the Legends. He’s worked too hard to get here. Cohen grew up in Israel, and fell in love with soccer at the age of 9, using the game as an outlet after his parents divorced. He joined the Israeli army at 18, and thought his soccer career was over. 

Cohen moved to Los Angeles in 1996, and worked in a dry-cleaning business in Hollywood where he served some of the industry’s biggest movie stars. On the side, he managed a soccer facility. But he soon realized his passion in the latter. He looked around for an area where he could build a soccer community, and settled on Las Vegas. In 2012, the Legends were born as an indoor soccer team, and this season was their first in the NPSL.

“Even in tough times, you don’t throw away your love because it’s hard,” Cohen said. “It’s not something that you just quit. It’s not easy. I know everything costs money, and for some guys they may not afford it. I understand some guys might have to shut down their organization. I’ll do my best to keep the dream alive.” 

The NPSL is offering partial refunds in credits to clubs that will apply toward next season’s dues. Yet for some owners, it might not be enough.

Rob Lopez, who runs Xolos Academy FC in Riverside, invested around $40,000 upfront in the season. His youth program is doing well, but he is concerned financially about the NPSL club and is exploring options to be able to sustain the team for 2021. He’ll be happy if he and his wife — both have jobs working in school districts — recoup half of what they spent. 

“This is our hobby,” Lopez said. “But as my wife says, ‘It’s an expensive hobby.’ ” 

For Farrell, he must strike a balance between responding to individual clubs who might be struggling and looking ahead to the future of the NPSL. He said recent owners who have joined in the last three to four years are more business-savvy and the brand of the league is improving in the soccer landscape.

“We’re in a good place as a league right now,” Farrell said. “We’ll come out of this fine, and we may even come out stronger. I feel very good. I don’t feel at this point in time the league is going to stutter or go out of business.” 

Soccer dreams delayed by pandemic

These days, Angel Cervantes, the goalkeeper and team captain for Oxnard Guerreros FC, finishes his eight-hour shift as a construction worker, goes home, walks his dog and then heads out for a run or a bike ride. 

“Sadly,” Cervantes said, “we’re still working.” 

Cervantes, like many minor-league soccer players, supports himself financially with other jobs and chases the soccer dream on the side. But with the pandemic closing non-essential businesses such as restaurants, players who work in the service industry have taken a hit. Others who run their own soccer clinics are also not making money. 

“I’m not working at the moment,” said Brenton Frame, Cervantes’ teammate who is both a personal trainer and a soccer coach.  

Patrick Mullins is a former New Orleans Jester who’s made it in MLS. Other NPSL players are hoping to emulate him, but the pandemic has altered that pursuit. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Levins projected that three-quarters of his Temecula FC roster might not return when training resumes, if the players are suffering financially and need to prioritize their jobs.  

“It could change the dynamic of the whole squad very quickly, due to the transient nature of the way soccer is at our level,” Levin said. “It’s a sad state of affairs. It’s not something we could have anticipated or made any headway on. This is a very once-off scenario.”

In Las Vegas, where casinos have been closed, about 40 percent of Las Vegas Legends players work in the hospitality industry. They have day shifts and then join the team at night for evening practices.

Brandon Vargas, a 22-year-old forward on the Legends, has dreams of moving up the ranks to the second-tier United Soccer League, then to the MLS and finally to play for Juventus. He’s played soccer since his mom signed him up for a league at age 2. When he was 16, Vargas thought he and his brother had a deal to play professionally for a third-division Mexican club, but there was a paperwork issue. 

Instead, he stayed in Las Vegas and now — just as he hopes to get his name out — he can’t play. Vargas has been relegated to lifting weights and kicking the ball around his backyard, forced away from the teammates he loves playing with. 

“Soccer — that’s all I think about,” Vargas said. “It’s all I love to do. It’s killing me.” 

The pandemic has also given lower-tier owners time to pause and think about how U.S. Soccer should restructure itself to better promote development for younger players. Last month, U.S. Soccer shut down the Developmental Academy program amid the pandemic, creating confusion about the future of the youth soccer landscape.

“That was really hard, but I saw it coming,” said Harry Tachian, the owner of A.S. Los Angeles. “It’s because [player development] is one of the weakest things. That is one aspect of soccer in the United States that is missing.”

With no official designation by U.S. Soccer, teams don’t have direct channels to move their players up to the next level. At Xolos Academy FC, Lopez has a relationship with a professional team in Tijuana that recruits his players because of connections he inherited from his dad, who played professionally in Mexico. 

But with no alignment in terms of promotion and relegation, clubs without these built-in networks might not be able to connect with higher-tier leagues, all the way up to MLS. And with several lower-tier leagues that also include the United Premier Soccer League and the USL League Two, the hierarchy of American soccer is a pyramid structure with saturation at the bottom. 

“Every club finds their own niche to be able to connect their talent up,” Lopez said. “That is sad there is no support from our U.S. Soccer federation.” 

Farrell characterized the league’s relationship with U.S Soccer as “very good.” He disagreed with the notion that players don’t move up the ranks of American soccer — two of his players from New Orleans are in MLS — and said while the NPSL has no official relationship with MLS, he has plans to put his league in a position in which it can’t be ignored. 

“People talk about the pyramid, I talk about the mosaic,” Farrell said. “It’s all over the place. I’m not saying that’s OK, but that’s the way it is. Just respect everybody for what they are doing, and stay focused on what you do. If there are bridges, then let’s work together on that.” 

But first, the NPSL and other leagues must figure out a reopening process, once it is safe to do so. Camaraderie, community and culture is what ultimately drives a minor league soccer club and keeps all the stakeholders — players, coaches and owners — invested. They long for the day that they can see the pitch again.

“I’m going to hug my players,” Tachian said. “After they get the vaccine.” 

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