Former La Canada boys soccer coach and LAFC Chelsea president Don Sheppard gambles $2 million to make dream happen

Above: LAFC Chelsea founder Don Sheppard with his coaching staff Josh Henderson (left), Teddy Chronopoulos (center) and Lorrie Fair (right), at the Rose Bowl.

By Fred J. Robledo Staff Writer
– Forget a carwash or raffle tickets – that’s peanuts compared to the fundraiser Don Sheppard is staging for one of the biggest and most respected youth club soccer programs in the country. When organizers of the inaugural World Football Challenge asked him if he would like to be involved financially, Sheppard, president of the La Canada Flintridge-based Los Angeles Futbol Club Chelsea, weighed the risks and rewards of a lifelong dream for his club program.
Professional soccer powers Chelsea, Club America, AC Milan and Inter Milan will compete in the World Football Challenge, a series of six matches to be held from July 19-26 throughout the United States.

“Soccer in the summer is a real gamble,” said Sheppard, whose youth soccer club has 800 boys and girls playing on more than 50 teams. “Los Angeles and New York are the two toughest markets in the country because of the alternatives for people with available dollars.

“After thinking about it long and hard, I had just two conditions. Chelsea, which is our partner, had to be one of the opponents, and it had to be in the Rose Bowl.”

After getting his wish, Sheppard invested $2 million of his own money to host an international soccer match between England’s Chelsea and Italy’s Inter Milan at the Rose Bowl on July 21. All net proceeds, if any, will go to Sheppard’s LAFC Chelsea soccer program.

The match will celebrate three milestones at the Rose Bowl: The 10th anniversary of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final; the 15th anniversary of the 1994 World Cup final; and 25th anniversary of soccer at the Rose Bowl in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Even more impressive, Chelsea is bringing its star-studded cast that includes Michael Ballack, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry, while Inter Milan brings Luis Figo, Ziatan Ibrahimovic, Hernan Crespo and Javier Zanetti.

“Getting the clubs’ best players to participate was paramount in making this decision,” Sheppard said. “You can’t attempt to fill the Rose Bowl and cheat people.

“This had to be a spectacular game with first-team players. We didn’t want to treat it like an exhibition. We wanted to treat it like a world-class soccer event that fans would be proud of and would want to return if we decided on doing this game again next year.”

After embarking on a grass roots marketing effort that involved reaching out to nearly every ethnic community in the surrounding areas, 60,000 tickets already have been sold. That makes Sheppard believe they can sell out a soccer match at the Rose Bowl for the first time since Brandi Chastain’s penalty kick lifted the United States to the 1999 World Cup title over China.

“If I had lost $2 million I would probably lose my wife too,” Sheppard joked. “But I can comfortably say we’re past the break-even point.

“There are huge initiatives underway to selling the last 30,000 tickets, and as you know the walk-up crowd on game day in Southern California is usually a good one, so we’re very optimistic.

“If we fill the Rose Bowl, we could make as much as $1 million for our program, which I think would make it one of the greatest youth fundraisers in history. Nobody on earth does a promotion like this and gives it back to charity, but this has been a dream of mine for a long, long time.”

Giving back, especially to economically disadvantaged families and communities, is something Sheppard has done since selling his consulting business in 1999.

“The Rose Bowl and this community owe Don Sheppard a tremendous thank you for bringing world-class soccer back to the Rose Bowl,” Rose Bowl General Manager Darryl Dunn said. “His enthusiasm and passion for soccer and particularly youth soccer is contagious.”

After retiring, Sheppard became the La Canada High School boys soccer coach for three years earlier this decade. He then founded LAFC four years ago in hopes of using his money to eliminate the high cost of club soccer, especially for those in Hispanic and other ethnic communities who couldn’t afford it.

LAFC Chelsea’s players come from all over Southern California and range in age from 8 to 18. The club has placed several of its players on U.S. National team rosters.

“Some of the best soccer players, Latino youth, have been left out of the mainstream of soccer because they couldn’t pay,” Sheppard said in a recent New York Times story. “We changed that because we removed the pay-to-play. That’s been a huge barrier.”

For years soccer has grown at the youth level in the United States, but developing inner-city youth, particularly those who can’t afford the high cost of club soccer, has been an ongoing problem. Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation, realizes that all too well.

“One of the issues we have in the United States is that elite-level soccer at a youth level is and has been for the most part pay-to-play,” Gulati told the New York Times.

“If we can get the star athletes when they are 13, 14, 15, 16 to stay with soccer rather than play other sports where the economic payday down the road may be greater, that would be a plus for us. If we can get the best athlete interested in soccer, that’s a plus. We’ve got to do more in that community.”

That has long been Sheppard’s vision.

With a coaching staff that includes former Major League Soccer professionals like Dan Calichman, Teddy Chronopoulos, Josh Henderson, and most recently the addition of former U.S. women’s national team star Lorrie Fair, LAFC quickly has become one of the most respected club programs in the country.

Then last summer Sheppard partnered with England’s Chelsea, further expanding his vision of developing Southern California’s best young talent at an affordable cost.

LAFC became the third U.S. club to partner with Chelsea, which expanded the English Premier League’s presence with youth talent in the United States.

As a result, LAFC Chelsea can offer more scholarships, run more clinics with Chelsea staff and players, and send advanced players to England for training.

“For a world-renowned club like Chelsea to recognize our mission and be a part of it shows the caliber and quality of their organization and their commitment to develop U.S. soccer,” Sheppard said. “We are a young program and a partnership like this allows us to reach the next level on skill development, player participation and overall club exposure. We have a top-tier coaching staff and now with Chelsea our players will receive an international view of the game they may not have received otherwise.”

Prior to the Chelsea-Inter Milan match is a four-day festival of soccer outside the Rose Bowl, from July 18-21. It includes a 7-on-7 tournament.

Before Chelsea and Inter Milan take the field on July 21, there will be a full-day fanfest outside the Rose Bowl. It will be followed by a 6 p.m. celebrity game. Chelsea and Inter Milan play at 8 p.m.

Sheppard said when he finally makes his way to the field during halftime of the Chelsea-Inter Milan game, he will have a quiet moment looking around the stadium.

“I can’t imagine the emotions of that day,” Sheppard said. “This is for our youth, for our community, and will help us continue to grow and realize the vision that we have at LAFC Chelsea, which is to continue to provide scholarships and training to the kids who need it the most.”

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