Ethan Zubak played just 341 minutes for Nashville SC over the last two MLS seasons, so it was no surprise the team declined his contract option this winter. What was a surprise was Zubak’s decision to move on to the Orange County SC of the second-tier USL Championship instead of another MLS club, a decision that made it appear as if his career path had hit a dead end.
But that would be true only if you didn’t know where Zubak, 25, hoped that path was headed. The former Galaxy forward never planned on spending his whole career in MLS; he wanted to play in Europe. And by joining Orange County, Zubak, whose signing was announced on Christmas Day, wasn’t taking an offramp on that path, he was pulling into the fast lane.
“The goal right now is to play here and to achieve things here individually and as a team,” he said. “Whatever opportunities, if you play well, that come your way are always welcome. Maybe Europe.”
And for American soccer players, it’s easier to get to Europe from Orange County than just about anywhere else.
Over the past three seasons, OCSC has transferred four players to European clubs; according to the authoritative German website transfermarkt, no team in the U.S. or Canada has sent more. Over the past 10 years, just four MLS clubs — the Red Bulls, New York City, Chicago and Vancouver — have moved more players to the continent than OCSC, which sent 29.
Orange County isn’t so much a soccer club as it is a European travel agency — which is exactly what Zubak was looking for.
“Over the past six, seven years we’ve created that pathway to Europe. So I think now people are looking at us not as a step down, but just to kind of pivot into maybe their objectives. And they see a clear pathway to Europe,” said Peter Nugent, the team’s president of soccer operations and one of four members of the front office or coaching staff who either played, coached or scouted at the top levels in Europe. “That’s what we’re trying to establish. So these players, they’re excited to come here rather than reluctant to come here.”
That certainly describes Zubak and Cameron Dunbar, a former teammate who played 21 MLS games with the Galaxy and Minnesota United before coming to Orange County on loan last summer. In December he decided to stay, signing a multiyear contract with the club — and that pathway to Europe was a big reason why.
“That’s been my goal since I was 7, 8, 9 years old,” said Dunbar, 21, still the only Carson native to play for the Galaxy. “That’s always been the goal. When I was at the Galaxy, when I was at Minnesota, it was always in an effort to get over there.”
“Orange County,” he continued, “has been great at developing those young players, players really trying to blossom in their early career, and send them on their journey.”
The latest player to be sent on his journey followed a path very similar to the one Zubak and Dunbar have trod, signing with an MLS club as a homegrown player, but playing sparingly with the first team before having his contract option declined. So Milan Iloski — formerly of Real Salt Lake — came to Orange County, led the USL Championship in scoring in his first season and was transferred to FC Nordsjaelland of the Danish Superliga following his second.
Iloski, 24, was the second OCSC player to jump to Europe last season, following teenager Korede Osundina, who is playing in the Dutch second division while on loan from Feyenoord. Before that, Orange County sent two players from its 2021 national championship team to Europe, selling defender Kobi Henry to French club Reims and forward Ronaldo Dumas to GIF Sundsvall, a second-tier team in Sweden.
Another player hoping to make that jump is defender Owen Lambe, who played with Dunbar at Galaxy II before signing with Orange County a year ago. When it became clear he was never going to get a chance to prove himself in Carson, he was moved 30 miles down the freeway to Irvine.
“Coming here, I felt like it was a better chance for me to just get a lot of game time, which is most important to my development,” said Lambe, 23, who is entering his second season with Orange County.
“The pathway’s been pretty clear,” he added. “It almost gives you an idea of what you can look out for or what you can hope for as the next step.”
And taking that next step requires proving yourself on the field. Lambe, who never played in a regular-season game with the Galaxy, is one of eight men on OCSC’s preseason roster had who previously played for MLS clubs but received little playing time, combining for just 78 first-team appearances and 24 starts since the start of the 2020 season. With the average MLS career lasting just a few years, spending those seasons on the bench was time wasted.
Coming to Orange County, on the other hand, provided an opportunity to demonstrate the talent that got those players signed in the first place.
“In everyone’s career, there’s one thing that changes, that allows them to really blossom,” said Zubak, who scored three goals in 17 starts for the Galaxy in 2021-22 but was sent to the bench, then to Nashville, after the team signed Dejan Joveljic in August 2021. “There are a lot of talented players that I played with that aren’t playing anymore, because either you weren’t in favor with the coach, a more expensive player was brought in and they weren’t allowed to shine, or maybe they got injured. So as much as you could be a great player, you definitely need things to go the right way for you.”
For many players then, the transition to the USL Championship isn’t so much a step down as it is a step in the right direction.
“The group here is actually a very talented group,” Zubak said last week after his third training session with Orange County, which plays 25 miles from where he grew up in Corona. “I really expected there to be a massive drop-off from MLS to the USL, but it’s actually a good level. I do feel like I’m still becoming a better player.”
Good enough, he hopes, to earn a trip to Europe.