James Keston tried to be diplomatic. He stayed (mostly) on the high road and said all the right things.
But you didn’t have to scratch too far below the surface to get him to admit Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match in Portland is more than just a game for him.
Keston owns the Orange County Soccer Club, champion of the second-tier USL Championship in 2021, which is in Oregon to play the Timbers, the MLS team one could argue was stolen from him.
Now Keston wants justice. Or revenge.
He’ll settle, however, for a win.
“It certainly has a very strong sense of accomplishment to be able to beat this team in their house in front of what I expect will be a respectable crowd,” he said last week, pausing frequently and choosing his words carefully. “That would certainly be a mark of achievement for me that would stand above most others.”
First the history.
In 2007, Keston said, he and his father, Michael, had the exclusive rights to put an MLS expansion franchise in Portland. To do that, they would need a place to play and the Kestons and the league quickly settled on the city’s 90-year-old minor league baseball stadium. Problem was the baseball team, along with Portland’s second-tier soccer club, had recently been purchased by businessman Merritt Paulson and his father, Henry, the U.S. treasury secretary and the former CEO of Goldman Sachs.
The Paulsons also had MLS ambitions, so they simply sat in their ballpark and waited.
“We wanted to sit down and talk,” Keston said. “They were not so inclined and waited until our exclusivity ran out and then obviously went ahead and made the deal.”
So the Kestons, who manage a large real estate company that includes an investment component, quickly changed their focus to Seattle and got “pretty near the finish line” before the real estate market bottomed out, sinking the deal. That allowed Joe Roth, the former chairman of 20th Century Fox and Disney Studios, to step in and negotiate terms Keston said were nearly identical to the ones he had proposed.
The Timbers have gone on to play in two MLS Cups, winning one. The Sounders have done even better, winning two MLS Cups, four U.S. Open Cups, a Supporters’ Shield and the CONCACAF Champions League.
Both teams’ values have skyrocketed as well. Paulson said he paid between $32 million to $34 million for the Timbers, a team Forbes estimates is now worth $650 million. Seattle’s expansion fee was approximately $30 million; the team is worth 22 times that now.
Keston, meanwhile, paid $5 million to buy the Orange County Blues in September 2016, rebranding the team as the Orange County Soccer Club and moving it, a year later, to Championship Stadium in the Orange County Great Park. And though he’s clearly disappointed at missing out on MLS, he’s not unhappy with the way things worked out.
“I would not trade the experiences I’ve had with OCSC for anything,” he said. “Being involved in a league like MLS, that would have been a very different experience. And, I think for me, a far less personal experience.
“The thing that excited me most about soccer — still does — is American players, American player development. USL has a place that’s absolutely necessary in making sure that we are doing this right.”
Keston and Oliver Wyss, OCSC’s general manager, have made their mark by signing teenage defender Kobi Henry out of Inter Miami’s academy and sending him, two years later, to Stade de Reims in the French first division. This year’s team includes teenagers Bryce Jamison and Korede Osundina, who both played at the Barca Residency Academy in Arizona.
“These are guys that we’re going to be seeing on a major stage in a couple years. And we don’t want it to be one of them, or two of them. We want it to be 20 or 30 of them,” Keston said.
That work hasn’t produced much on the field as of late; since winning the USL Championship title in 2021, Orange County is 8-17-16 after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Birmingham Legion. But all that will be forgiven Wednesday with a win that would eliminate Paulson and the Timbers from the U.S. Open Cup in a matchup that has become more than just a game for Keston.
“We had an exclusive negotiating right in Portland. We were very interested. It was our top choice,” Keston said. “And Mr. Paulson and his team refused to meet with us. It certainly was a frustration then and now you never know how history could have gone.
“It certainly puts a little chip on my shoulder. This is one that would be very, very satisfying to win.”
⚽ You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Look for it every Tuesday morning at latimes.com/soccer. Listen to Kevin Baxter on this week’s episode of the Corner of the Galaxy podcast.