The Unbreakable Mr. Wyss

Oliver Wyss’ American soccer dream has been a winding path, but it might have led the right man to the right place at the right time


By John Wilkinson | Photo courtesy of OC Blues FC

[O]liver Wyss moved to California in 1994 with a soccer version of the American Dream: to become the first Swiss player to suit up in a U.S. professional league.

In the 21 years since his arrival in Los Angeles, Wyss has found success, but he has also seen his dream interrupted by nightmares. First, a life-threatening illness derailed his playing career, and then two more claimed the lives of both his son and daughter.

Through it all, Wyss has found ways to adapt, survive, and even use his heartbreak as fuel to help others. Now, the sum of those experiences may have led the right man to the right place at the right time.

As the 40-year-old Wyss prepares for his first season as the head coach of the USL’s Orange County Blues FC, which begins on Saturday, he’s charged with leading a team from its rocky past to a more stable future, at a time when anything less could mean being left behind by a league entering a period of growth and ambition.

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[B]orn and raised in Solothurn, Switzerland, Oliver Wyss grew up in the academy system of local club FC Solothurn, made the first team by age 15 and appeared in Swiss youth national teams from the U-14 level through the U-21s.

When he made the move to the U.S., his aim was to land in MLS for its inaugural season, but the ground kept shifting beneath him. The new league was delayed by a year, so he joined the Los Angeles Salsa of the then-first division American Professional Soccer League (APSL). And when they folded, he jumped to the Anaheim Splash of the Continental Indoor Soccer League.

It was there, during a preseason game with the Splash, that the course of Wyss’ life changed.

“I realized that something was sincerely wrong with me,” Wyss said. “I couldn’t feel my pulse and my feet.”

By the time he got to a hospital, he was “extremely sick.”

Wyss was diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia, a disease in which the body stops producing enough blood cells. He needed a bone marrow transplant. “And I was very, very fortunate,” Wyss said. “The only thing that saved me was that my brother was a perfect match bone marrow donor.

“So I went through from the absolute high, being a professional player, to the absolute low, fighting for your life.”

He won that fight, but his playing career was a casualty. At just 22, Wyss had to refocus the fierce ambition that had originally led him the nearly 6,000 miles away from home.

He found two new directions: coaching and philanthropy.

In 1997, Wyss joined Orange County’s West Coast Futbol Club as a coach and has been there ever since, rising to become director of the boys program and a board member for a club with more than 50 teams — two positions he still holds.

A year later, inspired by the children he met while in treatment, Wyss and his then-girlfriend (now wife), Jamie, founded Soccer For Hope, a non-profit that has raised more than $2 million to help children with life-threatening diseases. They’ve donated money to hospitals and foundations nationwide, as well as provided direct family support such as buying wheelchairs and paying medical bills.

Wyss never would have imagined that less than a decade later his own two children would be in that same fight.

“At City of Hope (National Medical Center) I was in the same ward where there were a lot of children,” Wyss said. “That made a deep down impression on me, and also it was inspiring to me how children at the absolutely youngest age would fight for their lives.”

Wyss never would have imagined that less than a decade later his own two children would be in that same fight.

First, it was the couple’s youngest, their son Hudson. His older sister, Abella, followed soon after.

Hudson was only 10 months old when he was diagnosed with choroid plexus carcinoma, a rare, cancerous brain tumor. Later, doctors found two cancerous brain tumors in 4-year-old Abella. At times, the siblings shared a hospital room and battled their diseases side-by-side, but neither could ever fully win that fight.

Hudson was 3 when he died in June 2008, and while Abella was once declared cancer-free and even appeared in the movie “Playing For Keeps” alongside Gerard Butler, her cancer came back and she died in 2013 at age 11. The tragedies bolstered the Wyss’ resolve to help others through Soccer For Hope.

“We want to make a difference because we lived it,” Wyss said. “Not only as supporters, but we lived it as a family ourselves through both our children. And at the end of the day it’s these children, especially Abella and Hudson for me and my wife, they inspired us. They’re the ones who are the real heroes. It’s easy for us to give; these are the ones who are fighting these illnesses.”

“I believe that as a human being you should be philanthropic,” Wyss added. “And you shouldn’t be philanthropic because you want something in return, you should be philanthropic because it’s the right thing to do. … And that’s part of the culture I want to create at the OC Blues. I want the players to feel that they have a certain responsibility towards their community and get the community behind our team.”

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[A]midst his philanthropy and personal tragedies, Wyss was making his mark in the club coaching ranks.

He earned his “A” license from U.S. Soccer, won youth titles and helped West Coast FC build a developmental partnership with the L.A. Galaxy. He also took over a high school program and worked representing players. Any opportunities to advance his coaching career into the professional ranks, however, were sidelined in favor of his family and the roots they had put down in Orange County.

“I’ve been approached in the past (for pro jobs),” Wyss said. “Obviously for the last years with my daughter fighting her battles, it was impossible. But yes, my goal was to be a professional coach, and I want to coach at the absolute highest level.”

Those in charge of the Blues took notice of Wyss’ achievements and saw him as ready for a higher level.

Former general manager Jon Spencer was the first to bring up Wyss’ name, and Tom Payne, a business consultant hired part-time to lead the club’s front office, said the decision-makers liked Wyss’ track record in youth soccer, his interest in the owner’s vision and his deep ties to the area.

“He’s not somebody who’s going to jump from us to another team in four months because he gets an offer somewhere else,” Payne said. “We needed that stability and consistency.”

Wyss’ first chance to prove himself at the professional level comes with a club in desperate need of success, one that has seldom been associated with “stability and consistency,” one that has gone through three coaches and two names in the past four seasons.

Originally the Los Angeles Blues (despite the fact they played in Fullerton, a northern Orange County city), the club rebranded in February 2014, embraced the territory and moved south to Irvine, in the heart of the county.

But the timing of that move — just before the season — left the Blues “scrambling the whole year,” Payne said.

“I was literally still hiring,” he added. “I don’t think we had a director of ticket sales until mid to late January, we had no reps.”

The late start last season led to the type of result you’d expect: a 13th place finish, second worst in the league.

Now, for all the signs of booming growth as USL approaches its 2015 season — the third-division league recently rebranded, announced plans to seek second-tier sanctioning from U.S. Soccer and will nearly double in size this season — it will only go as far as its teams can take it. And right now, the Blues are among a class of clubs still struggling to find their footing.

“Listen, being transparent and real, we’re one of those teams. When I talk about sort of — this sounds like a really harsh term and I don’t mean it that way — but lowest common denominator teams, we’ve been one of them,” Payne said. “We’ve been at the bottom end of the spectrum, and from a business perspective there’s no reason for us to be in that position here in Orange County.”

Having seen the other end of that spectrum from 2003–2012 as part of the Galaxy’s front office, Payne is tasked with laying a sustainable foundation for the Blues. The Galaxy’s former president of business operations is in his second year as a consultant to Blues owner Ali Mansouri, and while he shores things up off the field, he thinks that in Wyss he has found the man to fix the club’s on-field struggles.

The addition of MLS-owned team in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Salt Lake City immediately ups the ante, which Payne expects will “force us to be better on the field but also off the field.”

For all the signs of booming growth in USL, the Blues are among a class of clubs still struggling to find their footing.

It’s up to Wyss to handle the on-field improvement, and given the Blues’ struggles last season, he’ll have every opportunity to implement his vision.

It’s a major step up from the youth ranks, but it’s a competitive challenge Wyss embraces. In some ways, he even thinks it’s simpler. There’s still a focus on long-term development — as Payne said, “If we’re not mining Orange County and Southern California for players, then we’re not very smart” — but the main goal is to win and to start doing it soon.

That task begins Saturday night, at home against Arizona United SC, and Payne says he has no plans to return to the bottom of the league table.

“Now do I think we can drive numbers like Portland, Sacramento? No. Because there’s realities to our market.” Payne added. “There’s 13 professional sports teams here, there’s the beach, there’s everything here. This is not Portland or Seattle, I get that. But there’s no reason we can’t be the best in show at what we do every single day.”

Wyss unabashedly says his goal is to win a championship, even if aiming for the playoffs might be a more realistic stepping stone. “The reality is, if I don’t go in with that belief and my players don’t believe that, why compete?” he said.

And that’s what might make Wyss the perfect fit in Orange County. Time and again, no matter the personal or professional scale, he has shown no interest in backing down from a challenge.

Howler

Follow John Wilkinson on Twitter @JWilks26.