IRVINE, Calif. -- Kevin Alston's aim is to return to Major League Soccer, and his performance this season in USL could hit the target.
The former New England Revolution and Orlando City SC fullback has expertly manned the right-back slot for Orange County SC, playing a key role in a tight race to the Western Conference regular-season championship and into this weekend's quarterfinals.
Alston, 30, signed in early June, and his arrival coincided with Orange County's run to the top. They were 6-4-2 when he made his debut and are 15-4-4 since, with just two losses in 17 games since a July 7 loss to LA Galaxy II.
Alston, a pacy and athletic fullback known for his defensive acuity, is “by far the best fullback in the USL,” says Orange County head coach Braeden Cloutier, whose team on Saturday takes on Reno 1868 FC at Orange County Great Park. “He can still definitely be playing in MLS.”
The 2010 MLS All-Star spent the last two seasons with Orlando City, but a preseason hamstring injury kept him off MLS fields in 2017, and there wasn't much interest after the Lions declined their option on his contract after the season.
It might have played out to Alston's advantage.
He's getting a regular 90 minutes in a competitive league, showing off his value to MLS scouts, and in terms of locker-room guys, there are few better.
“The stars aligned, and it worked out perfectly ...,” said Cloutier, the former MetroStars, San Jose and New England midfielder. “Seeing how hard he works and what kind of person he is in the locker room, I mean, man, I'm telling you, I hit the lottery.”
Alston has, too. His bout with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a rare but treatable form of cancer, provided perspective he's carried with him since, and he's happy just to be playing.
“I cherish it,” said Alston, who missed five months of the 2013 season while receiving treatment, then returned to the Revolution for the stretch run and picked up MLS's Comeback Player of the Year honor. “Nothing's guaranteed. I just cherish the opportunity to play.
“Everyday I cherish it and life in general. Soccer was my life, and when I was sick, I could have stayed home or stayed near the hospital. I told them I still want to come in the locker room everyday and be around the guys. Because it kind of takes your mind off things. That's my extended family.”
He was New England's first-round draft pick in 2009 and started 114 league games in his first four seasons. He had a reserve role for two seasons after 2013, went to Orlando City in 2016 through the Re-Entry Draft, and started 21 games for the Lions his first year. Last year he was limited to a dozen USL games with Orlando City B.
He was looking for a place to play when Orange County came calling.
Cloutier, in his fourth year with the club, had Oscar Sorto playing at right back, but barely a month into the season the former LA Galaxy Homegrown defender told the first-year head coach that he was done, that he didn't “want to do this anymore.” It took Cloutier, who had worked with Sorto in the Galaxy's academy, “completely by surprise,” and he wasn't sure how he was going to fill the hole.
“I believe in positive thinking and the law of attraction ... that we needed to move on and something positive would happen out of this,” Cloutier said. “And sure enough, needle in the haystack. Kevin Alston was out here in L.A.”
Alston was invited to train with Orange County for a week, and Cloutier checked up on the veteran fullback. He called Steve Ralston, who played with Alston in New England in 2009 and 2010, and the San Jose Earthquakes' interim head coach, “had nothing but positive things to say about his personality and his attitude.”
“I knew what kind of player he was,” Cloutier said. “I just wanted to make sure he was somebody who was going to come in here and contribute in the same way as [team leaders] Aodhan Quinn and Christian Duke and Richard Chaplow, keep building this foundation. And Stevie said, 'No, he's fantastic.' ”
Alston has lived up to the billing, on and off the field, and Orange County, who debuted as the Los Angeles Blues in 2011, are enjoying their finest season.
OCSC -- led by 20-goal forward Thomas Enevoldsen, who played for Denmark at the 2010 World Cup, and 16-assist playmaker Quinn, the son of former US national-teamer Brian Quinn -- went 20-8-6 to edge Sacramento Republic and Phoenix Rising for the Western title, then beat up on Saint Louis FC, 4-0, in last weekend's playoff opener. Alston had an assist on the second of Michael Seaton's three goals.
Cloutier calls him “probably the biggest gift we've been given this season.”
“[I'm] just happy to be playing somewhere,” Alston said. “My goal was to come in and help any way I could. I've just been defending, just trying to be solid in the back.”
If MLS clubs are watching, all the better. Alston would love to return to the top division.
“I think that's always a goal,” he said. “I wanted to play in MLS this year, but things don't always work out the way you want. I had a lot of injuries last year, and I understand that.
“At the same time, I enjoy life at this point. Whatever happens, happens. I can't stress about things I can't control. I'll continue to play hard on the field and see what happens next.”