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Why it was smart for Orange County SC to have Keisuke Honda train with them

Team that needs higher profile got major boost this week.

L-R: Oliver Wyss, Honda, Frans Hoek, Logan Pause.
Courtesy of Orange County SC.

The initial reactions to the news this week that Japanese star Keisuke Honda was training with USL club Orange County SC were rather incredulous on social media. This...is random, seemed to be a prevailing theme.

Why wouldn’t it be? It truly isn’t every day that a big star, out of contract, comes to a lower-division team for a training stint. It’s not totally unheard of either, as Didier Drogba once trained with Sacramento Republic while a member of the Montreal Impact.

Even if Honda was training at a leisurely pace, looking to get the muscles working again while he ramps up for a preseason with an as-yet-unannounced club somewhere in the world, the benefit for Orange County’s players was likely evident, as they get to see someone who has played on the biggest stages going through his preparations, maybe trading tips or words of encouragement at some point.

That wasn’t lost on Orange County head coach Logan Pause.

“It is not every day you get the chance to work with a world class player, it was a fantastic opportunity for our players to see first-hand the quality of a player who has played at the highest level possible,” said Pause in a team statement on the training stint.

But Honda hanging around Orange County this week provided a big boost to their international profile, too, and that is pretty damn important for a team that is always in need of a boost.

I’ve written about this before regarding OCSC, but it’s worth repeating. In a Southern California market that is jam-packed with entertainment and sporting options, carving out a good number of fans who’ll loyally follow the team and attend games is a challenge. The strategy to double down on the local Orange County identity when the club rebranded in the offseason seems to have been a smart one, to really differentiate itself as Orange County’s team (although they will have competition when NASL’s Orange County team kicks off next year). But even so, OC residents have plenty of options within the county and it’s not a far drive to Los Angeles or San Diego, so this conundrum will almost certainly remain a perpetual challenge.

But even within USL circles, Orange County has been largely invisible in the wider consciousness. Despite having arguably the two best seasons in club history the last two years, fans (and media) in other USL markets tend to basically forget the team a lot of the time. Granted, with the league now up to 30 teams, there are going to be sides lost in the shuffle, but it’s never a good thing for the default identity to a team in a league to essentially be, “Oh yeah, them.”

I imagine a few people out there think welcoming Honda was a gimmick, something that could distract Orange County from the actual players on the roster and the real games. I guess if they became a hostel of sorts for international stars, none of whom would ever think of signing with the team, and the team started playing badly and losing all the time, maybe it’s ok to rethink the strategy.

But Honda didn’t just put “Orange County SC” on the lips of American soccer fans and media this week, word also spread around the world. Add to that, actual fans came out to Irvine to see him up close.

If just 10 or 15 of those folks did become Orange County SC fans moving forward, it would have been a pretty good move, wouldn’t it? Even if the numbers are modest, Orange County have to be innovative and use every strategy available to pull in fans, and there is absolutely no downside to bringing in a star to help him train and spread the word about it.

And if Honda were to sign with OCSC’s affiliate Los Angeles Football Club? Well, that’s an entirely different story, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the here and now, bringing in Keisuke Honda for a week was a success, and a case of good publicity hopefully helping Orange County SC gain more traction as a club, locally, nationally, and internationally.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!