A year ago, it was the Orange County Blues who were riding high entering the USL playoffs after qualifying as the Western Conference’s top seed, only to be stopped in their tracks in their first playoff game, their season over in a single game.
On Saturday, the tables were turned, as the Blues came in as the unheralded lowest seed in the West, traveling up to face the No. 1 seed, Sacramento Republic, and handed their opponents a one-way ticket to the offseason, with a penalty shootout victory after the teams went 0-0 for 120 minutes.
As anyone who knows soccer can tell you, anything can happen in one game, winner-takes-all circumstances. So the Blues’ win was not impossible. But it was improbable, and yet it happened. What contributed to OC’s historic playoff win?
Were the Blues looking to avenge their loss in the playoffs last year at the hands of the LA Galaxy II in this game? It seems unlikely as a real motivational factor, especially considering only three (Didier Crettenand, Brenton Griffiths and Josh Cohen) who played on Saturday were even on the roster last year. Did it play a small factor? Possibly, but the motivation of getting a playoff win at all was probably the overriding factor.
On a personal level, at least one player had extra skin in the game — captain Ivan Mirkovic. After winning the USL league title in 2014 with Republic and spending his first two seasons in USL with Sacramento, Mirkovic moved south to Orange County this season. Quickly establishing himself as a regular with his new side, Mirkovic admitted when asked by Angels on Parade before Saturday’s game that he was eager to play his old side.
“There’s always extra motivation playing at Bonney Field in front of 12,000 people, it’s a playoff game,” he said. “I’m excited, first of all, to be in the playoffs and have this chance, and secondly playing in the place where I spent two and a half years. So that gives me extra motivation.”
Everyone stepped up
There were no passengers on the Blues side on Saturday. While the offense could not get a goal despite numerous chances, the attack looked dangerous at various points in the night and kept Sacramento from pushing numbers forward to get a goal of their own.
But the real stars, during the run of play, came on the defensive end. Andrae Campbell played perhaps his best game for OC at left back, and Griffiths and Maurice Pluntke shut down Republic in the center all 120 minutes. Matt Sheldon played another steady game, and Josh Cohen did his job and then some, punctuated by his PK save on JJ Koval in the shootout.
And speaking of the shootout — the Blues made impressive work of the shootout, going 5-for-5, including three substitutes (Roy Meeus, Dusan Stepanovic, Orr Barouch) and putting the full pressure on the hosts. It was an impressive showing, and that last factor may have played a crucial role all night.
The context was obvious: The Blues had nothing to lose, having qualified for the playoffs in the first place by the skin of their teeth. In contrast, Sac Republic had everything to play for, aiming to win their second USL championship in three seasons.
Obviously, the Blues want to win the title, too, but the body language on display was stark as the game wore on. Republic started well, but as the minutes ticked by, first in regulation and then extra time, the fact that they couldn’t take the lead appeared to make them more and more tight. The Blues, on the other hand, were relaxed, even smiling over the course of the game.
And when the margin is at its thinnest, with the Blues winning by a single penalty in a shootout, that body language and perceived psychological difference may have been the 0.1 percent needed to get the victory.
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