Laguna Niguel native midfielder Chris Wehan scored the only goal in the Orange County Soccer Club’s (OCSC) 2021 United Soccer League (USL) Championship season home-opener, leading to a 1-0 victory against Sacramento Republic FC at Championship Soccer Stadium in Irvine on Saturday, May 22.
It was the first time in over a year that fans were in the stands. Although just 30% of the stadium was filled, OCSC expects to return to full capacity within the next few home games in adherence to state and local health regulations.
OCSC players such as starting goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky felt the difference of playing in front of fans, rather than the cardboard cutouts that filled stadiums throughout the pandemic.
“It gives you more incentive to win the game,” Rakovsky said. “It’s an awesome feeling when you go towards the fans and they are screaming, supporting us.”
The fans decked out in orange, black and white looked forward to seeing OCSC bounce back from a 1-0 road defeat against Tacoma Defiance.
OCSC head coach Braeden Cloutier sent out a new formation that sought to incorporate more consistent play within the midfield which they lacked in their last game. The most notable of the changes was captain Michael Orozco moving from the backline to a defensive midfield position. Orozco’s usual center-back position was filled by Rangers FC loanee and OCSC debutant defender Rhys Breen, who had just cleared quarantine after flying in from Scotland several weeks earlier.
This change allowed OCSC to control the majority of the possession and to stay solid on defense. Sacramento Republic FC were only able to get off just one shot on target early in the first half.
The game was chippy as both teams fought for the ball in the air and on the ground with hard slide tackles. In the first half, OCSC forward Eero Markkanen was almost shoved out of bounds by a Sacramento defender who attempted to cut off the Finnish striker’s run on the wing. The 6’6” 214-pound Markkanen did not fall to the ground and was able to get off a powerful left-footed shot on goal that was deflected out of bounds. A short, yet passionate, confrontation ensued between Markkanen and the opposing player, but no yellow cards were issued. Towards the 30th minute, the play on the pitch settled down before OCSC capitalized on a scoring chance.
Following a deep goal kick from Rakovsky, OCSC forward Thomas Enevoldsen took possession of the ball near midfield. With a burst of speed, Enevoldsen jolted down the middle of the open field. Heading towards the right side of the goal, Enevoldsen made a no-look pass forward to his left to Wehan, who had slipped behind the defense. Wehan was left unmarked due to OCSC forward Ronaldo Damus’ crossing decoy run drawing the defense out of position, and swiftly struck the ball with his right foot past Sacramento Republic goalkeeper Tomas Gomez. Championship Soccer Stadium erupted into cheers and celebrated OCSC’s first goal of the season in the 33rd minute.
It was a special goal for Wehan in his home-debut in front of his hometown fans.
“It was an all around really good performance,” Wehan said. “We have a lot of momentum to build off of, and it just feels good to get off the mark and get our first three points of the season.”
Rangers FC’s academy product, Breen, played a huge and vital role in the OCSC defensive backfield. Breen held his ground on defense by blocking shots, using his head to clear balls into the box and using his big, physical frame to his advantage. However, no clearance was more important than in the 85th minute.
With Sacramento Republic putting together one final desperate push to salvage a tie, the ball was sent into the box and cleared away not once, but twice by Breen. This kept Sacramento Republic FC off the scoreboard and may have saved the win for OCSC.
“It’s been brilliant,” Breen said. “Since I came in it’s been very, very positive from the training session to the game and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season ahead.”
In the final minute of the four additional minutes of stoppage time, OCSC substitute midfielder Brian Iloski was knocked on the head on an aerial challenge by a Sacramento player which prompted another gathering right outside the penalty box. Several OCSC players demanded the referee to punish the opposing player for the dangerous challenge to the head hoping to add to the eight yellow cards handed out that evening. Breen and Rakovsky proceeded to pump up the crowd as they sensed that victory was near.
Shortly after, the final whistle blew and Breen pumped his arms and celebrated with OCSC’s most loyal supporters group, County Line Coalition. The rest of the team joined him and celebrated by running around the stadium high-fiving fans and soaking in the important victory.
“We are very happy,” Damus said. “We are going to keep working hard, keep the same mentality, and put in the work.”
The team hopes this win will build confidence moving forward into their next home match against LA Galaxy II before traveling up to play Sacramento Republic F.C. again.
OCSC will host LA Galaxy II on Saturday, May 29 at 7 p.m. Tickets for the game can be found online, and the game can be viewed on ESPN+ and Cox Communications TV.
James Huston is a Staff Writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.