The Santa Ana Winds defeated the San Pedro Monsters 4-1 in the final round of Open Division qualifying to punch their ticket to the 2018 US Open Cup. Photo: Santa Ana Winds
Santa Ana Winds FC owes its recent form to the continuity of play achieved in United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) play and US Open Cup qualifying. The club has had spells of quality over time with wins over clubs like La Máquina FC and the Los Angeles Wolves, but consistency has eluded them, until now.
The club enters the 2018 US Open Cup for the first time in their second attempt. In 2017 Open Cup qualifying, Winds FC fell one game short of qualification, to another Santa Ana-based UPSL club and regional standout, La Máquina FC. Winds FC’s goal is to have its recent success against some of the UPSL’s best, be reflected in this Open Cup where they drew a county rival, Orange County FC (NPSL), in the First Round.
Winds FC began play in the SoCal Premier League in 2006, and played there for five seasons before joining the NPSL in 2011, a stay that lasted only one season due to a split in ownership. One faction stayed in the NPSL and operated the former Santa Ana Winds FC under different names, while club owner Leonel López kept the Santa Ana Winds FC name and founded a new league: the UPSL.
Since then, the Winds has won one league title, was a finalist in the most recent UPSL National Championship and has seen it’s league grow exponentially into a league with more than 160 teams from around the country. But at the root of the UPSL’s growth is the Western Conference (that has undergone name changes over time), one that has been comprised of some of the best clubs, and former Open Cup entrants, in the Los Angeles region including the aforementioned La Máquina and LA Wolves, and 2017 entries Anahuac FC and Moreno Valley FC. The division continues to attract clubs, even from other leagues, namely San Diego Zest FC (PDL), California United (NASL) and Orange County FC (NPSL), precisely because of the division’s competitiveness. Being in this division allowed Winds FC to forge itself into the seasoned squad that it looks like now.
Winds FC qualified to the Open Cup by defeating fellow UPSL club Newcastle United (based in Upland, CA), and SoCal Premier League standouts Outbreak Soccer and punching their ticket with a win over the San Pedro Monsters FC. The Santa Ana club recently reached the quarterfinals of the Cal South State Cup, and fell 5-4 to another SoCal Premier League standout and former Open Cup entrant, Chula Vista FC on April 7. This State Cup tournament provides a path to the larger USASA National Amateur Cup tournament. The last two USASA Region IV Champs (Moreno Valley FC and LA Wolves FC) came from Winds FC’s UPSL Western Conference, speaking again to the competitiveness of this conference.
The Winds FC attack is spearheaded by strikers Jordan Gorman and Kramer Runager, the son of former NFL player and Super Bowl champion Max Runager. The Winds midfield attack is engineered by 2017 UPSL MVP Kyle O’Brien and Jorge Herrera. Other standouts include left backs Juan Arellano and Juan Carlos Fuentes, among others. Overall, each Winds FC player is characterized by his quickness and ability to create space for himself, particularly from the wings and midfield, feeding into the attack.
Santa Ana drew Orange County FC, a club active in the NPSL and the UPSL (under the name OCFC 2), for the First Round of the 2018 Open Cup. This will be the first-ever Open Cup game for both teams. The last time these two clubs faced off was at the Orange County Great Park’s Championship Stadium, site of the upcoming May 9 opening round match, in the UPSL playoffs where Santa Ana advanced after winning in penalty kicks by a score of 6-5, after finishing in a 2-2 draw. Winds FC is 3-0 all-time playing at Championship Stadium (vs LA Wolves, East Bay Stompers Jrs, and OCFC 2), and 2-1 overall against OCFC including exhibition games, UPSL season and UPSL postseason play. Their May 9 Open Cup match features an intra-county face off between Santa Ana Winds FC, headquartered in the City of Santa Ana, the county seat, representing Central Orange County, and Orange County FC, a club headquartered in Lake Forest, Calif. representing South Orange County.
“Our team is aware of the importance and great opportunity that is the Open Cup,” said Santa Ana Winds general manager Marco Paniagua. “We believe that we have the conditions to give more than we have in recent games. We’ve had some injuries that have affected our system and style of play that we’ve been developing since early 2017, but we believe that the team will come out strong and go forth with the right attitude, playing the style that characterizes us by controlling the ball well, going out wide and creating the spaces to be decisive with every scoring opportunity.”
When asked about his opinion of Orange County FC, led by US Soccer legend Paul Caligiuri, Paniagua knows it will be a tough battle in their Open Cup debut.
“We know they’re a team that’s started out well in their league,” said Paniagua. “We respect every club we face, we know they have good players, but here the most important thing is the work that we do as a group and to focus on our game and get a result. Every game is different and in our case the mental aspect plays a large part, and how we manage the game during the 90 minutes.”