Orange County Soccer Club (15-7-10) defeated Oakland Roots SC (11-8-13) in the second round of the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs, which was presented by TwinSpires: Western Conference Semifinal, at the Championship Soccer Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 13.
The game featured opportunities from each side; however, it eventually ended in a 0-0 draw and advanced to extra time, followed by penalties. The win secured OCSC’s first appearance in the USL Championship Western Conference Finals since 2018, where they fell to Phoenix Rising FC and Chelsea legend Didier Drogba.
“I thought we came out pretty fast and had some good quality chances down
the sides of them but just weren’t able to get any sort of occupation in the box to get a
shot on goal with them,” OCSC head coach Richard Chaplow said. “Then it kind of fizzled out and went a bit a bit slower, but the guys obviously hung in [and] did a great job of righting their transition moments.”
Throughout the game, OCSC’s defense stepped up despite being short handed, with defender Rob Kiernan serving a one game suspension and defender Kobi Henry recently being called up to the U.S. U-20 Men’s National Team.
“We had a little bit of adversity, and in the week we had an injury scare with [Michael] Orozco,” Chaplow added. “So, for him to go 120 minutes shows what sort of character and warrior he is. He is our captain and is our leader to have him on the ropes.”
OCSC’s first chance came in the ninth minute when forward Ronaldo Damus’ right-footed strike, which was assisted by midfielder Ben Mines, went wide left of the goal.
30 minutes in, Oakland struck back when midfielder Guillermo “Memo” Diaz fired a shot that ricocheted off the left side of the goal post off a pass from defender Emrah Klimenta.
The game went into extra time tied 0-0 with neither team showing any edge.
OCSC had another opportunity in the first extra time period as second half sub forward Sean “Ugo” Okoli fired a shot from just outside the box. However, it was saved by the Oakland goalkeeper Paul Blanchette — one of his four saves of the night.
114 minutes into the game, Blanchette came up with another big save when OCSC midfielder Mikko Kuningas sent in a curling ball that deflected off the Oakland defense. This tested the goalkeeper’s reaction time as it was acrobatically saved by Blanchette.
With two minutes left in the second extra time period, OCSC had another close opportunity to put points on the board. Fouled by Oakland midfielder Joseph Nane, OCSC obtained a free kick from midfield. The ball was sent to Ugo, who passed a header to captain defender Michael Orozco on the right side of the goalie box. Orozco then sent a header toward the direction of forward Darwin Jones in the middle of the box. Jones got a faint touch on the ball and was spun around; however, the ball was already in the arms of Blanchette when he spotted it again.
Since both teams were unable to put any points on the board during the two extra time periods, the game went into penalty kicks. Oakland defender Tarek Morad calmly made the first penalty shot. This put pressure on OCSC’s Kuningas, who also delivered on his penalty shot.
Both teams then converted each of their next four penalty shots, putting the game into sudden death.
The first penalty shot in sudden death came from Oakland defender Akeem Ward. His right-footed strike was saved in the bottom right corner of the goal by OCSC goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky.
Pressure was placed on OCSC’s Damus since a conversion would send them through to the next round of the playoffs. Damus calmly walked up to the line, nearly unfazed. Trotting to the ball, he shuffled his feet a tad and fired a shot to the left side of the goal. It was saved by Blanchette. The joy from the visiting crowd quickly vanished as the assistant referee held up his flag. It meant that Blanchette had come off his line early, and he had to kick the penalty again. This time, Damus didn’t disappoint. His strike was fired to the right side of the goalpost and flew past the outstretched arms of the Oakland goalkeeper, giving OCSC the win and earning him man of the match honors.
“After the first shot, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and on the second one, I knew the goalie was going to be ready, so I just had to concentrate more,” Damus said.
Chaplow added some of his thoughts after the game.
“To beat somebody five times out of five is impressive,” Chaplow said. “So delighted. We were able to pull it off, we didn’t want it to go through penalties. But you know, it’s, again, it’s character building everything that’s been thrown at us in the past two months or whatever. It’s been two and a half months as we’ve grown from and delighted that we could do that again today.”
The game marks the seventh straight win for OCSC. They will look to continue that streak as they take on the second place team from the Mountain division, San Antonio FC, at Championship Soccer Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. The game can be streamed on ESPN+ and Cox Communications TV. To buy tickets now or to learn more about OCSC and the USL Championship Playoffs, visit orangecountysoccer.com/playoffs.
James Huston is a Sports Staff Writer for the fall 2021 quarter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.