‘In the end, it’s a business’

Inside Temecula FC’s struggles to gain footing with local community

Temecula FC is part of the National Premier Soccer League and is the only professional soccer team in the valley. Courtesy photo

Brandon Jantz, the owner of Temecula FC, is just a soccer person; he is no businessman, he said.

But to own a professional soccer team, is – by default – to be a businessman. Make that team a minor league club in Temecula Valley struggling to draw interest in the community while unsuccessfully attempting to partner with other local clubs, and it is a business – just a suboptimal one.

“We get like 0% from outside our own club in terms of support,” Jantz said.

Temecula FC is part of the National Premier Soccer League, which is not officially designated by U.S. Soccer but considered a fourth-tier league. It is the only professional soccer team in the valley. It is a place where players can grow and develop, where local fans can watch a pro team without having to trek to Los Angeles.

But six seasons in, the investment has not yielded the desired results, and Temecula FC has been on the edge of folding its NPSL team in recent months. When the club made a huge push to sell 1,500 tickets for its final game of the regular season June 22 in an effort to save the team, it only sold half.

Since then, Jantz has been attempting to raise funds through sponsorships, though he has not had much success there either. He wants to see a turnout of 750 fans to the team’s Riverside County Cup match, Oct. 26, or else he might have to confront reality.

The team plays its home games at Chaparral High School, its third home stadium after Linfield Christian High School and Galway Downs. At Galway, they had to construct a pop-up stadium that was a 12-hour process. Nobody could find them on a map. And it was windy. At one of the games at Galway, the wind broke three canopies.

“We’ve definitely had a lot of interesting experiences over the last six years,” wife Ashley Jantz said, who helps with food sales and game day operations.

Welcome to minor league soccer in the United States.

Many who purchased tickets to the June 22 game were not even from the Temecula area – or California, for that matter. They were simply soccer fans who wanted the team to stay afloat.

“Today, it’s them,” Gerald Weis, a Hartford City FC supporter who bought two tickets, said. “Tomorrow, it could be us. It could be any team.”

The fans that were there tried their best to make noise. The DJ encouraged people to “let us know how you feel.” The supporters’ section – termed the “Dirty Birds” – consisted mostly of Roweena Levins, the coach’s wife and her children, who banged on drums throughout the match.

She wondered aloud what the future of the team holds. Instability seems incessant.

“It’s sad that it’s had to come to this,” Levins said. “Even if they do get the money for next money, what’s going to happen after that season? Where can they get the support from?”

Jantz deliberately keeps the cost of joining the youth club relatively low – $650 a year. It is hard, though, when the cost of renting a field is up to $125 a match. Throw in another $500 per team to be in the league and $50 in insurance for each player and each figure adds up. And that’s not including the $1,500-2,000 it costs to rent out a stadium for each NPSL match.

Despite being the only semi-pro soccer team in a 45-mile radius, Temecula FC has not figured out a way to connect with the community, to develop a consistent fan base and to make the imprint that Jantz hoped it would.

“Every year, (the team) has grown stronger but the support, I just feel like it’s going down and down,” Joey Ciochetto, a forward on the team said.

Jantz, 40, grew up in the Temecula area. After high school, he played professionally in Europe before returning to the United States. He wanted to become involved in the youth soccer system, but he couldn’t stand the way the system worked in America. He disliked the way players were coached. The focus was on winning rather than development, on tangible results rather than gradual improvement.

This approach was not how youth soccer worked in Europe, where the sense of community is emphasized, where parents let the coaches do their jobs, where the final score is not as important as development. Temecula FC head coach Austin Levins, who coached professionally in Ireland before moving to the United States in 2017, said: “It’s winning at all costs.”

With Temecula FC, Jantz hoped to spur a change, to run a team the right way. He cashed in his 401(k) to take a run at the NPSL, and in 2014, Temecula FC was born. Attendance was sparse at first – 40-45 people a game. After a year, his co-owner backed out, putting all his debt to Jantz.

Nine months in, Jantz added a youth club to try to bring more engagement. The crowds soared to around 200 people each game. But it introduced Jantz to what he called the politics of Temecula. It was toxic, he said. Nasty. Sabotage, even. It was killing his team, he said.

There was the city, which he said was not working to promote his team. For six straight years, he reached out to set up a meeting about partnering with the Temecula Valley Soccer Association, only to be told that per city policy, recognized youth leagues could not be combined with an adult league.

There were other local youth leagues that Jantz claimed were deliberately telling their player to stay away from Temecula FC games out of fear that they would want to join Jantz’s youth team instead. James Wilcox, who has worked as Temecula’s community services manager for the past 22 years and manages sports programs, said that he is unaware of where Temecula FC stands financially and declined to discuss specifics regarding the club.

“There was a lot of vision from their side of what they expected to bring a semi-pro team to the city,” Wilcox said.

Youth sports in the Temecula Valley have been growing in recent years. Wilcox said the growth has leveled off recently because of the influx of teams and leagues that have formed, whether they are recognized or unrecognized.

Local youth soccer clubs include Temecula FC, Temecula Valley Hawks, Temecula United Soccer Club and Surf Soccer Murrieta. The area is diluted with options.

“It’s almost to the detriment because there’s so many different clubs,” David Reisinger, Chaparral High School’s athletic director, said. “All the clubs are watered down.”

Still, Temecula FC’s NPSL team is the highest level of professional soccer in the area, unless fans want to make the trip up to watch the Galaxy or LAFC.

So why isn’t it gaining traction?

“It’s got to do with local support,” Marc Riley, a former coach at the Temecula Valley Hawks who has worked with Jantz, said. “There is no other professional men’s team that plays in Temecula Valley. It makes me wonder why people wouldn’t support it, if it’s the only one.”

Without assistance from other youth clubs, it is hard for the NPSL team to establish itself. When Jantz first started the team, he received some advice from other team owners on the three pillars of local support he needed to be successful: political, media and business.

He’s struggling to find any of it. Instead, he’s turning away and looking inwards. Even if the NPSL team folds, Jantz plans to build on the club’s youth programs. There are currently five teams, and Jantz wants to double the amount. He is no longer talking to other local clubs or recreation leagues.

“There’s no need to keep fighting a fight that’s not going to be won,” he said.

Through it all, Jantz appears in it for the long haul. Players, coaches and supporters see him as genuine, ambitious, humble and passionate.

“Brandon does everything – literally everything,” team captain Ryan Brent said. “I’m well aware of all the work that Brandon has put in, and it’s really frustrating to see all that pushed aside.”

Nick Ramirez, 18, who is on Temecula FC’s reserve team but used to play on the NPSL team, said the culture around this club is different from others that just care about wins.

“I notice with us, it’s the opposite,” Ramirez said. “All the coaches care about are development, getting us to the next level, a higher team.”

Ramirez’s father, Conrad, a season-ticket holder who bought 10 tickets to the last home game, is a believer in Jantz’s vision of developing players. The coaches are honest about ability, he said. If players aren’t up to par, the team won’t take their money. That kind of tough love is brutal, but necessary for parents who have invested in soccer for their children.

“That’s one of the refreshing things about Temecula FC,” Conrad said. “If you don’t have the fitness, you don’t have the skills, you’re not going to play.”

One year, Jantz took the NPSL team on a trip to the United Kingdom, where they stopped by England and Scotland to play against local clubs and to take in a Newcastle game. Jantz wanted the team to see the different culture of soccer in Europe.

Temecula’s FC existence is important to other minor league soccer teams in the area, such as AC Miracle Hill, a team in the lower-level United Premier Soccer League that is based in Desert Hot Springs, about 90 minutes from Temecula. To their president, Rigoberto Escobedo, Temecula FC provides a nearby option for their players to take the next step.

“It’s important to U.S. soccer that Temecula FC stays alive,” Escobedo said. “They offer a path to professional soccer in Southern California. If the club dissolves, then where will all the athletes from the Temecula area go? The future of pro-development soccer in Temecula is at stake.”

The mascot for Temecula FC is a quail. Its logo is a red quail balancing its feet on a soccer ball. Jantz picked the quail because they are ground animals that work in a family. They are all about community. Jantz sees the other side of the argument, the notion that rival youth clubs do not want to lose their customers to his team. But he believes the community will benefit if everybody set profits aside.

When he started the youth program, Jantz said he reached out to some local teams, hoping to set up outlets for his top youth players and offering to do ticket sales to help fundraise. He had big plans. But every single club told him, “Go pound sand.”

Youth soccer, for all the purity that Jantz wants it to be, is still a business.

“It’s a model he wants for the community, but business-wise it doesn’t mix with what it’s giving back,” Riley said.

Jantz said he doesn’t get it – the politics, the nastiness, the toxicity. He just wants to build his vision of the sport in Temecula, he said.

But it hasn’t worked to plan thus far. If Jantz has to cut the NPSL team, he’ll try to bring it back the following year, he said. Still, that leaves an entire of young soccer professionals out of a gig, forcing them to make long commutes to other NPSL teams or play overseas.

“We feel horrible about it,” Jantz said. “In the end, it’s a business, and we have to make money to keep the players out on the field.”