The Saga of Santa Ana’s Elusive Pro Club: Peter Wilt to the Rescue

In this story I’ll recount the details of some meetings I had with Peter Wilt and Michael Collins in Santa Ana, in November of 2016. The purpose of the meetings was to study the feasibility of launching an NASL expansion club at Santa Ana Stadium.

The many smoke signals I’d been sending over the years concerning Santa Ana’s potential as a futbol/soccer market finally got to the well-respected sports consultant Peter Wilt, of Club 9 Sports. Peter reached out to me via email to see if we could meet to talk about how to potentially launch a pro club in town. We met at the C4 Deli in downtown Santa Ana with Michael Collins, who was the executive director of the NASL Orange County bid, and representative to main investor Peter Capriotti. We discussed potential names for a club in Santa Ana, including reviving the LA Aztecs name, along with California Surf and Santa Ana Winds FC, the demographics, his plans for a multi-tiered structure with promotion and relegation, who could be potential local investors, and more.

I helped to setup meetings and communications with then Downtown Development Liaison Victor Negrete, Councilman Vincent Sarmiento and Director of Parks and Recreation Gerardo Mouet, who became an interim City Manager not long afterward. We toured Santa Ana Stadium and found that the width of the field needed expanding. Other things the stadium needed were some upgrades to lights, seating and the locker rooms. Gerardo Mouet took note of all that and ran it through the Public Works division to see what the cost would be, starting with the field expansion, and they determined the cost to be $5 million. Expanding the field would’ve required the removal of some seating on the east and west sides of it. The expansion group then asked what the cost would be if only a portion of one side of the stadium’s seating was removed, but there was no response from the City from that point on.

This was all happening while the NASL was on life support. Peter Wilt and the expansion groups he was consulting, including San Diego–now known as 1904 FC, were literally acting to hold the league together, in trying to meet the US Soccer Federation’s imposed time constraints. This was before Rocco Commisso bought the Cosmos. In one of our dinner meetings, at Chapter One in downtown Santa Ana, where we gauged the interest of that restaurant owner’s possible partnering, Michael Collins received a call from then interim NASL Commissioner Rishi Seghal, just to check on things and to give updates, and the OC group was informed that Brian Helmick wanted to take the SF Deltas to the USL. We have to recall that this was when the Cosmos were without an owner, and much uncertainty hovered over the remaining NASL clubs. Most urgent, was that they had these aforementioned deadlines to meet, conforming to the USSF’s pro league standards that required a league to have x amount of teams by a certain year, bla bla bla.

Somewhere in between these meetings, we grubbed at the Olde Ship and the Native Son Alehouse in the downtown in addition to those other aforementioned spots, I compiled a 25 page rough guide of sorts, to steer this group in their quest for arriving in and understanding the Santa Ana market.

In retrospect, Peter Wilt’s visit to Santa Ana was just them doing their due diligence. He explained to me that they were also looking at Titan Stadium at Cal State Fullerton, and given the time constraints placed on the NASL by the USSF’s PLS, the league had to launch a team ASAP. Titan Stadium had a natural grass pitch and was not as old as Santa Ana Stadium, which was built in 1963 and had artificial turf with a gridiron (ick) installed in 2007. The Orange County NASL group was eventually announced as an expansion club and later named California United FC. They were supposed to begin play in 2018 in Fullerton. Well, that all amounted to a rush job, thanks to the PLS. The standards were such an issue that they, in part, played a role in setting off the NASL’s lawsuits that caused remaining teams to defect and leave the league inoperable.

Ultimately, it all worked out fine on the Santa Ana side. We didn’t get a team that would not play when expected, and it really wouldn’t have launched in 2018 anyway, due to the need to upgrade the downtown stadium. But, as I wrote this piece it became clear to me that, specifically in this case, the USSF’s PLS directly hindered any possibility of investing in pro soccer in Santa Ana because of their arbitrary nature and their one-size-fits-all approach, particularly with the time constraints placed on leagues. The establishment of a pro club, ideally, needs germination and not a prescribed x amount of time to reach a financial level, or for a league to hit an x amount of teams mark. See the 2018 Open Cup Handbook, where the USSF wrote in that pro clubs are eligible for the cup so long as they’re in a league with four–FOUR teams.

But the saga continues, as clubs quietly work in the background, from the ground up in hopes of establishing that ideal club that’ll create opportunities for players and staff, and one that the people of Santa Ana can call their own.

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