The Orange County Blues extended their winning streak to three games, as they defeated the Austin Aztex 1-0 at Anteater Stadium on Saturday. Rookie Nikola Ilich's first career goal made the difference in the scoring column, while another rookie, goalkeeper Billy Thompson, blocked a penalty and made three key saves in the game's dying moments to preserve the win for 10-man Orange County.
The Blues grabbed the lead in the 35th minute, when Ilich, off the bench about 10 minutes earlier when Didier Crettenand exited the game, a worrisome sign moving forward, took Christopher Santana's cross from the right on the volley and blasted it past Devin Perales, who had a terrific first half.
Orange County proceeded to use the strategy they've had of late, of grabbing a lead and then going into a defensive stance, with one variation, attempting to hold onto the ball as much as possible. Given the nerves of having to hold on game after game for 45 minutes or more, it seemed like a prudent strategy, and kept the Aztex at bay.
But Luka Petricevic received a second yellow card in the 74th minute for a challenge on Trevin Caesar in Orange County's half, repeating a troubling trend for the Blues of late in getting players sent off.
Three minutes later, Thompson came out to meet Caesar on a breakaway, a successful strategy as the Aztex player pushed his shot well wide to preserve OC's lead.
As one would expect, there were nervy moments with the Blues down to 10 men late, including a moment where Thompson overran the ball with Kristopher Tyrpak bearing down on goal flanked by two defenders, but the ball was shepherded just wide of the goal.
Josh Suggs was called for an apparent handball in second half stoppage time, after Thompson rushed out of his net and missed the ball once again. But Thompson became the hero, as he blocked Julio Cuero's tame penalty attempt and then blocked a second chance to keep the Aztex off the board. He then followed that up with another late save, and OC held on for a really big win in the Western Conference playoff race.
The result gives the Blues three key points, which put them back in the sixth and final playoff slot over the Tulsa Roughnecks, who had taken over in the standings after a midweek win. Of course, there's still work to do, as OC are just one point ahead of Tulsa with seven games left in the season. The Blues' next test? A road game against Arizona United SC next Saturday. The win over Austin was a good result, but there's more soccer to come.
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