Today's interview is brought to you by MeritFit. MeritFit.co is a Kansas City based fitness and nutrition blog run by one of my good friends and certified Personal Trainer, Dustin Duewel. He played soccer for 12 years, inspiring his passion for fitness and nutrition. Check out his blog for all kinds of useful information to up your game and get ahead of the competition.
Morning everyone! As the rain and clouds settle in here for the second day, I've got a quick update for you. AP is adding a lot of new contributors! Real soon, you're going to start getting a lot more content from guys across the country, covering more soccer in places like the northeast, east coast, mid west, and possibly even one of American soccer's final frontiers, Montana.
Now, to preface going into this interview, we talk a lot about the US Open Cup, which is how I heard about the team. Unfortunately, AC Brea Steaua United (the name will be explained in the interview) fell in the first qualifying game to SFV Scorpions SC by a score of 3-1. Even though they aren't in the competition anymore, Cristian gives a lot of insight into not just the importance of the US Open Cup for an amateur team, but some interesting tidbits about players and how you can have your pro status 'removed' by USSF for a small fee. Check it out.
Tell readers about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with AC Brea Steaua United?
My name is Cristian Cozma and I am the manager of the team. I started the team in 2010. We were originally the amateur men's team for PDL club SoCal Seahorses, but in 2010 they decided not to keep the men's team and just stick with the PDL. I gathered the guys, got some sponsors and registered to play in SoCal Premier League as Steaua United FC.
The name is a combo of Steaua Bucharest (the team I follow from Romania, as I was born and raised there) and Man United as at the time, most of the guys were Man United fans.
In 2015, we partnered with AC Brea Soccer and since then, we represent the club and the City of Brea in all amateur competitions. We became AC Brea Steaua United.
At this point, Cristian actually shared a very detailed article on himself and the team that was done by Libertatea Newspaper, a Romanian news site. With permission, it has been used in it's entirety below.
Cristian Cozma, a Steaua Bucharest supporter from Oradea, Romania founded in 2010 a Romanian soccer team in California.
Steaua Bucharest has no stadium, no training camp, no players - only 13 players are valid for the derby with Dinamo and is 6 points behind the leader Astra in the Liga 1. Instead, Cristian Cozma is proud of his team, AC Brea Steaua United, which he founded in 2010 in Whittier, California, and who plays in SoCal Premier Division, the fourth tier of the US soccer
"In October 2000, my wife and I moved to California" begins its story Criss Cozma, a former junior at the representative team of Oradea, FC Bihor. So it should not be surprising that once he got to US "sought a semi-professional team to play" so he signed up with Southern California Seahorses, soccer club founded in 1983.
In 2004 he suffered a serious injury when during a match, broke five ribs. "I was out for 2 years, i could not play. I returned in 2006, but then in 2010 i stopped playing with Seahorses". From here, really starts the story of Steaua from US.
"I have gathered a few friends to begin our adventure. Being the manager and sponsor of the team, the boys let me choose the team’s name. And because I love Steaua Bucharest since 1985, one year before they won the Champions league, i named it Steaua. I also like Manchester United, so there you go, we now have Steaua United FC" says Cozma, who has no problems with the logo, such as the current Steaua Bucharest. "I contacted a friend designer in Oradea and he created a logo that represents us."
Over the years, the team was composed of Romanian, other Europeans, Americans, Mexicans, Brazilians, Argentineans, Nigerians, Japanese, Koreans, etc. American player Jacob Barron is now with the second league club, USL Pro, OC Blue Stars but he also plays with us since the soccer seasons are not overlapping. Andrei Budnyi played in the 2nd league Ukraine and for the USL Pro club, Charlotte Eagles. And Gediminas Butrimavicius played with Lithuania against Ronaldo’s Portugal.
Some Romanian players that played for Steaua United FC (currently AC Brea Steaua United) are Cristian Rus, former junior Gloria Bistrita roommate with Lucian Sânmărtean (former Romanian National team player). Stephen Pek and Radu Cristea (ex CS Oşorhei / Bihor - third division), Jimmy Bohunita who played one season in the first Irish league, Cristi Mocean and Adrian Bojin (Arieşul Turda. In 2017, the American Steaua has only 2 Romanian players, Lucian Ursan and Andrei Sarega (CFR Cluj and FC Drobeta)
First season, AC Brea Steaua United had joined the SoCal Premier Division, league that was composed of very strong teams. After retirement from professional football, the league had some famous players playing here. International player American Alexi Lalas (45 years, former rock star with 96 selections and 9 goals, ex-manager for San Jose, New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy) and Eric Wynalda ( 46-year-old striker with 106 selections and 34 goals), both now TV analysts, former opponents of Romania in the World Cup 1994.
Also, the Frenchman Frank Leboeuf (47, defender with 50 selections and 4 goals at national, world and European champion) and Welshman Vinnie Jones (50 years, nine selections), both of them actors today. All four players have played for Hollywood United/Doxa Italia.
While playing for the Seahorses, Cristian Cozma had as direct opponent the German striker Jurgen Klinsman (51 years), the current coach of the Americans. "He played for OC Blue Stars as Jay Goppingen. It was a Cup game in 2003, Seahorses vs OC Blue Stars and Jurgen score 3 goals for their 5-2 win." Klinsman, 106 selections, 46 goals first representative was World and European champion. As a coach, he led Germany to the 2006 World Cup 3 and won the Gold Cup with the US in 2013.
"We exist because we have around us sponsors that love soccer. To play in this league, it costs us about $ 7,000 per year- registration fees to the league, playground, training field, the fees for the referees, equipment, organizing friendly matches, etc." said manager Cozma. "We had in 2012 a partnership with the Genova International Soccer, an academy working with several clubs in Europe, including CFR Cluj (Romania), and since 2014 we partnered up with local club AC Brea, representing the club and the City of Brea in all competitions.
Gigi Becali and AC Brea Steaua United have a common bond. "We organize many charitable events, especially during the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. We help young and promising players to fulfill their dream of playing soccer at a higher level and grow as soccer players. My wife is a person who helps me go forward with this project, i believe that without her patience and understanding, i wouldn’t be able to do anything like this for a sport that i love", concludes Cozma, who was coaching children at AC Brea in between 2006-2008.
The team currently ranked 6th in the 2015 championship led by Real Sociedad and starring Juventus has an Instagram page, @acbreasteauaunited and a Facebook page (AC Brea Steaua United ). "I am a good friend of Sorana Cirstea (WTA tennis player, ranked 21 in 2013), she is our most important supporter, also Victor Ionita, her former coach, who also played for us in a friendly in 2014 before the tennis tournament in Indian Wells. Some of our players and I, go every year to Indian Wells and support the Romanian players in the tournament. Okay, the Romanians and Ana Ivanovic (Ana, former No 1 WTA and GS winner, retired in 2016)" said Cozma.
"We are a small team in a sea of thousands of small teams but with a big heart ... a team that makes a difference on and off the field, a team that this past Sunday played in the memory of the 61 dead in the #Colectiv fire in Bucharest last week and prayed to God for their families and for those still suffering in the hospital.
We want to send them and to all a thought and a spirit of hope, even if two continents and an ocean is separating us, their suffering, the love for our neighbor and the love for the game of soccer, brings us together" concluded Cristian Cozma.
Sounds like you've had some pretty good players wear the Steaua United jersey. Who are some of the players you have on the team right now that really stand out to you? Players that fans and readers should keep their eyes open for?
We have 22 players on the roster for the US Open cup. Three of them stand out: Joshua Ayers who last played professionally indoors with Ontario Fury; Jacob Barron, who played professionally with USL club OC Blues and Andrew Sarega who played second Romanian div with FC Drobeta, Turnu Severin and a few games with Liga 1 club and former Champions of Romania, CFR Cluj. Andrew is also a Councilman for City of La Mirada, and helps the soccer community in the City and the surrounding areas grow!
With the abundance of league options in the US right now, and especially in Southern California, why did you start playing in the SoCal Premier Division, and what is the league doing right that has convinced you to keep playing there, despite the growing amount of league options?
Why do we play in SoCal Premier? To our knowledge, there are only 2 leagues in Southern CA that are qualified to have teams play in the US Open Cup. SoCal Premier (formerly known as the Coast Soccer League) and UPSL.
UPSL is a new league, while SoCal Premier was founded in 1974. While UPSL uses a playoff system, SoCal Premier league is set up very similar to leagues in Europe with our season dates (September - May), promotion/relegation system and inter-division cup competition. Top flight is the Premier Division and consists of very high level teams of current and former professional players. The Major Division tends to be very balanced competitively with every team always competing for the top spot so that they can get promoted into the Premier Division.
First Division is the starting point for all or most of the teams. Many teams have enjoyed a long stay in the 1st division and many teams have used this flight as a first step to see if they have what it takes to compete in this league. After the long season those who come out on top are promoted to the Major Division and are on their way to the top.
The U23 Division fields teams of aspiring Pro players. Most of our U23 teams have professional affiliations such as Corinthians of Brazil, Genova of Italy, CFR Cluj of Romania, Pumas of Mexico, etc.
With your recent entry into US Open Cup Qualifying, do you have any goals for what you hope to accomplish in terms of reaching a particular round or getting some additional exposure? Christos FC really showed how a good run in the US Open Cup can be a club altering event.
This is our second year playing in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Last year we got destroyed by Strikers FC.
There are many teams who enter the Open Cup and register pro players from Mexico or other countries who are currently without a contract. Mostly from second divisions. For a $50 fee, US Soccer removes their pro status and they become amateur. But if Messi becomes amateur, he is still Messi...
We don't do that. We play with the players who are playing every weekend in the league games, giving them the opportunity to play at this level. We could go out there and recruit pro players too but we would take away this opportunity from our players. Our players who formerly played pro, are not young anymore and they did not play at high competitive level for quite some time. They still have the experience though. So at this point, what we want is to display good soccer skills, sportsmanship and respect. For the game, opponents, officials and fans.
If we can win the first game, we will take it and enjoy it.
On the topic of players, how have you gotten so many former pros, especially from overseas, on your team? Is Southern California just that popular of a destination for former players, or do you actively recruit?
We are not recruiting pro players, if they come to us we allow them to play. We are a team that builds friendships and brotherhood, helping out the community. Most of our players coach kids for free and the team participates in charity events yearly.
Who would you say is the most famous or skilled player ever to take the pitch for the team?
Skilled? I would say Juan Estrada. When he was 16, he signed with Barcelona Academy. Extremely talented, skills like no other players his age. But he never truly pursued soccer and quit. Most recently, I would say Gediminas Biutrimavicius, he played for Lithuania against Cristiano Ronaldo.
You said that AC Brea and Steaua United teamed recently. How did that relationship come about, and how has it changed things, if it's changed them at all?
We partnered up with AC Brea because my former SoCal Seahorses coach, Matt Morse, became director of AC Brea. We have access to use all City of Brea fields for practice and games, although, starting this year we will be playing at La Miranda HS Football Stadium.
This question may sound weird, but why does AC Brea Steaua United exist? I mean, there's no way to advance up the pyramid on merit, and being amateur limits your appeal to sponsors and fans without serious effort. So why do this? Why run an amateur men's soccer club?
We are a group of players who just love to play the game of soccer. It's not that is tough to find a field to play, but in order to get to play on one, you have to be a nonprofit organization, which we are not. So that's why we partnered up with AC Brea.
And yeah, that's why we exist. Because we love the game. We are amateurs, we have families and jobs that come before the game of soccer and at this point, as an organization, we are not planning on becoming semipro, pro or move to higher division. We are still working on growing AC Brea youth teams and develop young players and maybe there will be a time in the future when AC Brea Soccer will be represented in a higher league.
As I mentioned before, SoCal Premier, like UPSL, is an Elite amateur league, still at the top of all other amateur leagues in CA.
One thing you seem to have done really well based on your website is secure sponsors. How did you go about finding and securing sponsors for your team, especially being amateur?
All the sponsors are friends and family of mine or the players, people who love the game of soccer. We give back to the community, so businesses are more willing to donate when they see the players and the management involved in charity events.
Many of our players coach kids for free, donating their time and energy to the growth of the communities around us. As a team, we participate in at least 3 charity events throughout the year. Some do mission trips to Mexico, Ukraine or Japan. We think of ourselves as a Christian team embracing everyone and making a change around us thru the game of soccer.
We are in it for the community.
How would you define success for AC Brea Steaua over the next, say, five years?
I can't say or know where I see the team or the club in 5 years from now. We don't have a plan yet, there is a vision to grow that needs to be discussed within AC Brea Soccer at all levels. Growing young players and developing them, is one thing the club is focused now...from there, sky is the limit!
How does your partnership with AC Brea impact player development? Are you able to give young players an opportunity to play at a higher level based on their ability?
Players who are 18-19 yrs and are coming from within the AC Brea Youth teams, they start playing with the second adult team Brea Select, team competing in the same SoCal Premier league in third div. If they are good players, Steaua give them a chance to play in Premier and promote them to the first team. Diego Gonzalez and Ben Pedro are the best examples, both players started with the youth teams and are playing with the second adult team.
However, they play at least half of the games with Steaua as well.
What are two or three things you think would make a big difference for teams like Steaua access was easier? Could be anything from someone who specializes in securing sponsors for non league teams, better fields, or more varied uniform choices.
To answer the second question, i have to say securing sponsors. Because money after all allows you to do greater things. Like in someone's life, money may not always bring happiness but for sure helps with many other things.
Since you're on the ground in SoCal, how would you describe the local soccer scene to someone on the outside, like me?
I am assuming your question is about the amateur level soccer... So, if you google amateur soccer in SoCal, 2 leagues come up: UPSL and SoCal premier (formerly known as coast soccer league)
These 2 league provided, and still provide, teams that play a higher level soccer at semipro level. Formerly Doxa Italia, and currently PSA Elite, La Maquina, LA Wolves, Outbreak to name just a few.
There are also hundreds of academies that grow and develop their own players from a young age.
AC Brea B01, coached by my friend Marius Rus (formerly with Gloria Bistrita, Div. A Romania) has two players selected for Calsouth PRO Championship. Other players have already been contacted by LA Galaxy or LAFC academies. These players will be the future of the American soccer in my opinion.
If you could change one thing about lower league soccer in the United States, what would you change or fix?
Now, what lower league soccer in SoCal needs, is sponsors. SoCal Premier recently became a 501 (c) (3) and now will be able to receive donations. This way, the league can contract better fields or sports parks, increase prizes, attract more teams and create more competitions.
Who would you consider to be your biggest rival in the SoCal Premier League?
To answer your second question, since we started playing in the top division of our league, our biggest rivals were probably Buena Park FC and while we have a good relationship with them like we have with all other teams on and off the field and we partnered up in Charity events with BPFC, all of our games are played at a higher intensity.
Let's wrap this up with some short questions. What's your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
I like watching any game from EPL and top teams from La Liga. I also follow and watch Steaua Bucharest (FCSB) from Liga 1 Romania.
Favorite soccer players, one past, one present.
Past: Hagi (there are a few more like Zico, Maldini, Zidane…but you said one)
Current: Falcao (and Iniesta-if I am allowed to have 2)
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to people reading this?
Soccer related book, I would recommend Why Soccer Matters by Pele. A book that tells the story of one of the greatest athletes of our age.
Not related to soccer and my favorite ever, The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. A novel about an Andalusian shepherd boy who lives an adventure following his dream.
If you could meet one person from soccer history, who would it be?
Falcao. There is something about his style that fascinates me. They do not call him El Tigre for nothing…
Where can people find out more about you and AC Brea Steaua United FC online?
People can find out more about us on the league page at www.socalpremier.org, on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (AC Brea Steaua United)
What would you say to someone asking you why they should get out there and support their local non-league team, like AC Brea Steaua United FC?
Our games are fun, fast paced and entertaining. We may not have big names on the roster, but occasionally you may be surprised to see a former pro player, a World Champion (remember at this level I played against Jurgen Klinsmann?). In 2015, Ronaldinho agreed to play 8 games with local amateur club Corinthians USA FC.
Didn’t happen because of issues with his visa, but there were talks about it. Our league attracts retired pro players and why miss see them play in your City? If you have nothing else to do on a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon and you feel like getting out of the house, come support your amateur soccer team!