On Tuesday night, the Orange County Blues played their final game of the 2015 USL regular season, clinching the top spot in the Western Conference with a scoreless draw against defending champions Sacramento Repubilc FC. The narrative coming out of the match is how big of a turnaround the Blues have made in a single season, going from second-worst overall in the league last year to best in the West.
And while the history of the Blues, and this incarnation of the USL itself, is not very long, the 2015 performance by the club is the best in their history. Let's take a walk down memory lane and compare, shall we?
Here's the season-by-season comparison of the Blues' season finishes:
|2011||8-7-9||3rd, National Div.||First round (Div. semifinals)|
|2012||9-12-3||8th (single table)||Did not qualify|
|2013||11-8-7||6th (single table)||First round (quarterfinals)|
|2014||9-18-1||13th (single table)||Did not qualify|
|2015||14-9-5||1st, Western Conf.||Bye to Conf. semis (ongoing)|
Although the number of games each season is not consistent, you'll notice that the Blues broke a club record for wins in a season this year, and kept themselves to fewer than 10 losses, which seems to correlate with their playoff qualification hopes.
And while the league has changed substantially, especially this year with the number of teams going from 14 to 24, the expansion of the league has likely helped the Blues. No, I'm not talking about possible talent dilution, which I think is negligible, and I doubt the Blues existing prior to the massive expansion this year didn't help a ton, either, given the massive overhaul of the front office, coaching staff and roster this year. But with new teams in LA, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Arizona and Salt Lake City coming aboard in the last two years, OC is not at a massive disadvantage in being isolated from the rest of the league and not having an undue burden on traveling to Pittsburgh, Charleston, or Harrisburg on a limited budget.
But as we've seen with their prior seasons, the Blues have tasted no success in the USL playoffs, being knocked out at the first hurdle the first two times around. This year, their No. 1 seed gives them a bye to the second round, but when they finally get some postseason action, it will be a one-game showdown against Sac Republic or LA Galaxy II, two teams that have traditionally been tough opponents for the Blues but who the Blues have also beaten this season.
It's hard to put a season still in progress in full context, but this is the Blues' best season in their five-year history, regardless of the outcome in the playoffs. In that way, anything on top of what they've done already is gravy, really.
But that's not how teams themselves think about things in the moment. Few believed the Blues were capable when head coach Oliver Wyss and his players insisted from the first day of the preseason that the team's goal was to win a championship, and yet they've positioned themselves well to do just that, three games out from winning the league. It won't be easy, and it may be a bonus in setting the bar within the organization, but the Blues have the skill and confidence to win it all, and it will be interesting to see just how high they can set that bar moving forward.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!