America is infatuated with sports. In terms of popularity, they dwarf all other forms of recreation or entertainment. Whether playing, watching, talking about, reading about or betting on them, sports dominate American society. Sports can bring people together and serve as much needed distractions from the world’s problems as well as personal problems. Often, the only source of pride and unity a city has for itself is in the success of its sports teams.
Financially, the economic boom that occurs when a franchise comes to town can alter a city’s future. Therefore, naturally, every city in America wants one. Right now, the debate rages on in Los Angeles as to acquiring an NFL franchise and the excitement and financial impact that it would bring, not just Los Angeles, but Ventura County as well, seeing that L.A.’s teams, for better or for worse, are our teams.
One would think the Ventura area simply wouldn’t have enough people to merit or sustain a professional sports team, even on a minor league or semiprofessional level, but one would be wrong. Though it’s not one of the four major team sports in this country (baseball, football, basketball or hockey), Ventura County’s only professional sports franchise is the Ventura County Fusion and it plays the most popular sport in the world — soccer.
Regarding the real football
Soccer, or football as it is called in the rest of the known universe, transcends sports. In the rest of the world, it’s more a way of life. Entire countries shut down when their teams play in the World Cup, and supporters of city-based teams celebrate and mourn with the clubs much as one would with the successes and failures of one’s own family.
Played in more than 200 countries, soccer is, hands down, the most popular sport in the world. It’s also a rather complicated sport to follow in terms of all the leagues and levels of competition. Making it even more head-spinning are the often intertwined lines of international, professional, collegiate and amateur.
Here in the United States, the big time for soccer is the MLS, Major League Soccer, which was founded in 1993 and had its first season in 1996. Comprising 18 teams, with the closest to Ventura County being the Los Angeles Galaxy, it has nowhere close to the popularity or profitability of the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL; but with soccer’s popularity seemingly gaining momentum every year in the United States, many believe that in the near future, the MLS could be on the same level as America’s most popular sports. Locally, though, Ventura, due to numerous factors, including a year-round ideal climate, a large Hispanic population — soccer, aka futbol, is extremely popular in Central and South Americas — and some of the best youth programs in the country, is a flat out soccer hotbed.
Birth of a franchise
Meet Ranbir Shergill, the founder and current general manager of Ventura County Fusion. He’s a man who lives and breathes soccer during the day and probably dreams about it when sleeping at night. Moving to Southern California from his football-infatuated England in 2000, he was involved in coaching and playing soccer himself along with pursuing several other business ventures, but he was always fascinated with the idea of bringing a team to the Ventura area. Teaming up with fellow Englishman and former English Premier League goal keeper Graham Smith, the Fusion’s director of soccer, they both found Ventura County to be an ideal location for a franchise. So in 2006, Shergill took the plunge and franchised the Ventura County Fusion as an expansion team in the PDL.
The PDL (Premiere Development League) is part of the USL (United Soccer League), and the Fusion plays in the Southwest Division of the Western Conference. Nationally, the PDL has 68 different teams that play in four conferences, and each season is made up of 16 games against division rivals. If a team makes the playoffs, it moves into tournament play amongst other teams in the overall league for an eventual winner.
Players are primarily 18 to 23 years old and are often college players who are out of school for the summer and looking to still be active in the sport. The ultimate goal for a PDL player is advancing to a professional career with a major league soccer team or, even more so, in terms of money and exposure, being chosen to play in any of the massive international leagues such as the English Premier League.
When the Fusion’s first season officially launched in 2007, many thought Shergill and company were flat out crazy to start a team in Ventura County as most of the PDL’s other teams were in significantly larger markets. The idea that the area would support such a team, with home games being played at a high school field, didn’t seem likely. Any doubters were quickly silenced, though, as a mix of top-notch marketing and recruitment found the team off and running, narrowly missing the playoffs in their first two seasons. Then, in 2009, Ventura’s own version of a “Miracle on Ice” or “Tyson vs. Douglas” upset occurred. The Fusion shocked the soccer world by winning the 2009 USL PDL National Championship, defeating the Chicago Fire by one goal. The thrilling game was shown nationally on the Fox Soccer Channel and it took place at, you guessed it, Buena High; and in the process, the Fusion became the first-ever Ventura County sports team to be broadcast nationally.
Beyond being champions of the league, another factor that helped put Fusion on the map was its groundbreaking exhibition games with international teams. With the many connections of Smith and Bob McNabb, director of player development and a former member of a team in the legendary English Premier League, in the Fusion’s inaugural year, the team played what’s known as a “friendly game” against Everton FC of the famed English Premier League. It was the first time a PDL team had ever done so and it brought a huge amount of attention to the club. Since then the Fusion has played more than 20 games with international teams and major league soccer teams, with most occurring right here in Ventura County. To put it in perspective for non-soccer fans, it’s like being able to see the New York Yankees playing the Ventura College baseball team in Ventura. Local soccer fans have marveled at seeing World Cup players and Olympians in front of a few thousand people, and overseas fans have been known to fly out just to see such games up close and personal. The big winner, regardless of the score, of course, is the Fusion because such attention and opportunity have led the team to be a destination for aspiring players who Fusion management aggressively recruits.
There are no compensation or long-term contracts since many players are still in college or are from overseas, and this year’s team features members from more than nine different countries. Housing and food are provided when needed, and players can earn extra money working at the many youth camps Fusion offers. That also means that year-to-year, Fusion will have only a few returning members, but the team’s alumni have gone on to achieve often staggering success.
It’s an unbelievable track record but since 2007, the Fusion has had 27 players move on to play professional soccer in the United States and overseas. The most well-known have been Thousand Oaks resident Chance Meyers who was selected No. 1 overall in the 2008 MLS draft by the Kansas City Wizards, and Anton Peterlin, who was the first-ever player from a PDL franchise to be offered an English Premier League contract, signing with Everton PC. As a proud Shergill puts it, “is something out of a feel-good Hollywood movie.” Both players’ career advancements, once again, put the Fusion and Ventura County in the eyes of the international soccer world, and talk amongst those in the know is that current Fusion standout, former Westlake High star and current UCSB player, Danny Barrera has the potential to follow their leads.
Kicking in the community and economy
With all its success on the field and accolades in the soccer media, the Fusion has expanded operations to be much more than just a developmental team playing a few months each year. To increase attention and revenue, it has two additional aspects that have local communities and businesses buzzing.
First is the extensive series of youth programs. Fusion offers week-long day camps at local parks throughout the summer, where kids from 5 to 16 years old can learn firsthand from Fusion coaches and players. It is also hosting the 30th year of the Britannia camp in August, which promises a week of “British Soccer with British Coaches” where campers are provided boarding as well. It also has more than 20 Fusion Youth Academy Teams, with a total of more than 400 players participating in different divisions of the Coast Soccer League. Last but not least, it offers free clinics throughout the year and two massive tournaments that see more than 100 teams visit Ventura for each. The focus on youth soccer assures that future Fusion line ups will be stocked in years to come with local talent, as well as helping to breed a local crop of young and educated fans who attend Fusion home matches, decked out in jerseys and rooting on players that have just coached them at camps.
Then there’s the Fusion’s push to bring international teams and MLS teams to train in Ventura County. With many teams in climates that don’t enhance off-season outdoor practice conditions, Ventura’s year-round soccer friendly climate is ideal. Shergill and company have a full marketing plan, and actively pitch teams from around the world to set up shop locally for anywhere from a week to longer to get ready for their seasons.
It’s not an unrealistic proposal either, as it has already succeeded in bringing 12 MLS and international teams to train in town, teams with players that are superstars in their countries and cities. This, of course, brings major revenue to the local economy when a small army of relatively rich international athletes, coaches and staff are staying at local hotels and eating in local restaurants. Stories have surfaced of stunned bars being emptied of all Guinness on tap on a dead week night, and hotels like the Crowne Plaza being filled to capacity with players kicking balls back and forth down at the beach. While it may not have the public attention of the Dallas Cowboys setting up shop in Oxnard almost every year, the players enjoy the relative anonymity that the United States provides; and to spend two weeks in Southern California any time of year is a treat to some players who live in freezing cold or incredibly hot locales.
There’s usually one important condition for the Fusion’s management’s help in securing fields, practice facilities and lodging; and that, of course, is an exhibition game with the Fusion. It’s just another example of the Fusion’s staff thinking outside the box and creating more excitement for their team and their sport and, just like a major franchise in a larger city, helping provide a boost to the economy.
While the Fusion has done more on and off the field than anyone could ever have imagined, the staff and players feel as if it’s only the beginning. Currently undefeated this season, with only a few games left before the playoffs, the team is fixed on bringing another PDL title to Ventura and perhaps once again trying to bring the title match here as well.
From a business standpoint, now settling into the 5,000-capacity home stadium at Ventura College, the staff hopes to increase attendance, which currently hovers around 1,000 for regular home games but can quadruple for exhibition games against visiting international teams such as the upcoming game at Oxnard College with English Premier League team West Bromwich Albion FC. That type of growth has just as much to do with the United States moving in a soccer-friendly direction as well as with the MLS being treated with the same respect in the media as other major sports.
In addition, the staff and team want to continue to develop youth teams, camps and tournaments to the point that regardless what occurs nationally, Ventura County becomes one of the most important soccer destinations in the country. While they may be lofty goals, with what the Fusion has accomplished so far in a market the size of Ventura County, anything seems possible.
The Ventura County Fusion is undefeated so far this year with a record of 9-0-4 and is sitting in first place in the Southwest Division. It still has several games left this month, including three non-league exhibition games with international teams. Here’s a list of the upcoming action that you can experience in your own backyard.
Friday, July 8, 7 p.m.
VC Fusion vs. BYU Cougars (PDL League Game), Ventura College Sportsplex
Sunday, July 17, 3 p.m.
VC Fusion vs. West Brom (English Premier League Team), Oxnard College Stadium
Wednesday, July 20, 12 p.m.
VC Fusion vs. New Zealand U20 (World Cup Team), Oxnard College Stadium
Friday, July 22, 6 p.m.
VC Fusion vs. Independiente (Argentina Primera División Team), Oxnard College Stadium
Saturday July, 23, 7 p.m.
VC Fusion vs. Los Angeles Legends (PDL League Game), Ventura College Sportsplex
For more information on the Ventura County Fusion and its many programs, including tickets, visit www.vcfusion.com