Major League Soccer

New USL League One team in Antelope Valley builds on buzz with crest, name reveal party

New USL League One team in Antelope Valley builds on buzz with crest, name reveal party

Seven and a half months ago, John Smelzer — a longtime sports and media executive who began his career on the 1994 World Cup organizing committee — announced he was bringing professional soccer to the Antelope Valley.

But that was about all he announced because his team had no name, no logo, no coach and no players. Those blanks are now being filled in with the hiring of former Galaxy youth coach Brian Kleiban as manager and Nehemias Blanco as general manager. Blanco previously served as vice president for Central Valley Fuego FC in USL League One, the third-tier league Antelope Valley will be joining in 2025.

The team’s crest, colors, official name and a season ticket campaign will be announced at a public street party Friday evening, with two blocks of downtown Lancaster closed to traffic between Fern and Date avenues.

After that, the work of building out the team will begin in earnest.

Read more: How a pro soccer team hopes to create a new identity in the Antelope Valley

“It’s exciting. A blank canvas to get to work on and build from scratch,” said Kleiban, 44, who, in two decades as a youth coach in Southern California, helped launch the professional careers of Julián Araujo, Efraín Álvarez , Jalen Neal, Jonathan  Pérez and Uly Llanez.

“We have the luxury of building out the way we want. I want to have players that understand the game. Obviously the athleticism is important in professional sports. But the mentality and getting to know these guys and see what makes them tick is going to be key for us.”

USL Antelope Valley will play its home games at Lancaster Municipal Stadium, a 5,300-seat baseball park Smelzer and the city of Lancaster are spending $11 million to renovate for soccer. Antelope Valley is one of seven teams joining the five-year-old League One next season, expanding its reach to 19 cities.

The soccer team will replace minor league baseball’s Lancaster JetHawks, who folded in 2020 after 25 seasons, as the Antelope Valley’s only professional sports franchise. Smelzer, who said he’s been encouraged by the reception his team has received, expects Friday’s crest unveiling to draw a crowd of 2,000, more than half the teams in League One are averaging for their games this season.

A rendering of a proposed soccer stadium at The Hangar, the former stadium of the Lancaster JetHawks. (City of Lancaster)

“The support we’ve received from the USL, the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale and the entire AV community has been awe-inspiring,” he said. “We will work tirelessly for as long as it takes to reward that support.”

Kleiban, who coached with Chivas USA’s academy, at Total Futbol and most recently with LAFC So Cal Youth, plans to exploit both his MLS connections and his deep ties to the area’s youth soccer leagues in building his team.

Despite his success as a youth coach, Kleiban was fired by the Galaxy in 2019 after Llanez and Alex Mendez left the Galaxy for clubs in Germany. Both players were coached by Kleiban, whose brother Gary served as the players’ agent. Kleiban said he has no regrets.

“My experience with the Galaxy has opened the doors and got me to where I am today. And I’m super grateful,” he said. “I always like to look at the positive side of things so Uly moving on or Alex moving on, my brother's involvement repping them and moving them overseas, I think opened the door for the next group of players.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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