In the latest edition of the SoccerNation Sitdown, our own Nate Abaurrea is joined by Matt Morse, the President of So Cal Premier and the Director of Coaching at AC Brea in Orange County.
Part 1 of the conversation focuses on So Cal Premier. Morse and Abaurrea talk about what makes the amateur league so special and unique, highlighting some of its biggest strengths as well as some of the challenges faced by the league which has operated as a non-profit organization since 1976.
Nate Abaurrea: Matt, thank you so much for joining us.
Matt Morse: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.
Nate Abaurrea: We here at SoccerNation are excited to take a good look at So Cal Premier. First off, tell us a little about the background of the league, and how it came to be what it is today.
Matt Morse: The league was founded in 1976. We are known by many for our Men’s Open Division, which is considered one of the top amateur leagues in the region, if not the whole country. We also have a U-23 division, an over-35 division, a women’s division, and just last year we started our first rec-league for ages 11-18. In total, there are close to 70 teams that are part of So Cal Premier.
Our Men’s Open Division is definitely something we take pride in. The league follows a European calendar and an international standard format. There are three divisions within, and there is promotion and relegation each year. Teams that join the Men’s Open Division start in the third tier, and it is entirely up to them to reach the Premier Division over a multi-season period. Most teams aspire to make it to the top and stay there. Others are content with just being a part of the league. It is very similar to the non-league structure in many European countries.
We also have our own cup competition, and many of our teams compete in the U.S. Open Cup. We have had some amazing success stories over the years of teams from So Cal Premier making incredible runs in the Open Cup.
Nate Abaurrea: How did you first become involved with So Cal Premier?
I first played in the league in 1991 and immediately fell in love with the culture. I joined the board in 2001. The first thing I did was help build the league’s first website and get the league into the technologically advanced age. I moved up to the Vice President position soon after, and six years ago I became the league’s president.
Nate Abaurrea: What would you say is the purpose of So Cal Premier, especially the Men’s Open Division?
Matt Morse: I feel that the purpose of the Men’s Open Division and the league as a whole flows with many of the same philosophies as our club in Brea.
So Cal Premier is an amateur league, designed to provide a high level of soccer for the amateur player. That’s why promotion and relegation is so important for us. It inspires these guys. Players who are 19 or 20 years old can assemble a team in our third division, start a club and rise in our ranks.
One of our clubs, PSA Elite of Irvine; they are such a great story. They’ve gone deep in the US Open Cup a few times in recent years. They started as a third division team in our league. They advanced and advanced, got to our Premier Division, and then started making runs in the Open Cup, while they no longer play in our league, the directors of the team, Alex Lujan and Gary Barry and Jon Spencer are still involved heavily in the game and I am sure we will see them resurface in the near future.
I love that structure. It’s not a thing where there’s a guy or a group of people with a bunch of money, throwing as much as they can into a project. It’s completely raw. It grows naturally. And like I said before, some teams want to just stay in the third division and be a part of the culture. But most teams want to advance.
It’s a non profit league. I don’t take a paycheck. It’s grassroots in every sense. Being in Southern California, there’s lots of great talent out here. There have been other leagues who have followed our model but ended up folding. We’re here to be a home to quality soccer in Southern California. The history of this amateur league, the players and teams that have come through is what gives us credibility.
Nate Abaurrea: There have actually been multiple teams from So Cal Premier over the years who have gone on to be members of various professional soccer leagues in the United States. How do you feel about this?
Matt Morse: I have no problem if a team rises to the Premier Division in our league, and then wants to go to the NPSL, the PDL, or the USL. I think it’s great.
When you bring up past examples, that of O.C. Blues (the USL club now known as Orange County Soccer Club) is the one that really sticks out for me. They started in our league, the same way that every other team has. They were known as the LA Blues when they played in our league. They were outstanding and rose to the Premier Division. They continued growing as a club and ended up purchasing a 2nd division team. Now they’re a part of the USL. Who knows, maybe wouldn’t have been able to follow that path had we not provided that first step at little to no cost financially.
If professional leagues want to look to us for teams, let’s have it. I love it. I have no problem with it, as long as its done in an ethical fashion.
Nate Abaurrea: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges faced by the league?
Matt Morse: The number one challenge is time. It’s totally a volunteer thing.
I’ve got seven board members who put in so much of their time for the love of the game. We want to put things out on the level of professional for-profit leagues, but we can only do what’s within our means. We’re never gonna be able to put out daily press releases or that type of stuff. That’s a disadvantage for us, but we don’t let it hold us back.
There are leagues everywhere right now that are actively looking for teams. When people are running a business they’re gonna go after customers. We don’t have time for that. You might say that’s a challenge. But if a team wants to come to us, all they gotta do is look at our history and track record, and they’ll know that they’re making a good decision.