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Why Orange County SC must give the U.S. Open Cup their all

It’s a challenge, but there’s plenty of motivation here.

Courtesy of Orange County SC

Orange County SC embark on their 2017 U.S. Open Cup campaign on Wednesday, as they play local PDL side FC Golden State Force in Glendora.

It’s the Open Cup, so it’s a single-elimination format. The team that wins, advances. The team that doesn’t, has to wait for next year.

Truthfully, Orange County has not performed particularly well in recent years in the Open Cup. Their last win came in 2013, and all time they’ve won two games out of eight in the tournament proper since 2011 (their official record is 2-5-1, the draw was a shootout loss last year).

Truth be told, there are a few extenuating circumstances that have worked against OC over the years. Because the tournament is by and large geographically-based in the early rounds, there’s pressure on either side of the USL team. Local amateur teams are often among the best in the country, and an exceptionally motivated side may have enough to catch the pro side, who are probably not as interested in general in the tournament. That has absolutely happened, especially the last few years, to Orange County.

Then there’s the pressure above them. Until Chivas USA’s demise, they joined the LA Galaxy as teams that usually dispatched lower-division teams with ease. Even in years where the Galaxy would lose their first game, Chivas would make a run and wipe out all the local competition, and vice versa. Back in the day, the Blues were frequent cannon fodder for the MLS teams.

All that said, even with the high competition in the amateur and higher pro ranks, the truth is Orange County have a major opportunity at hand with the Open Cup. Realistically, can they win the whole thing? It’s unlikely, as the last lower-division champion was the Rochester Rhinos in 1999. It’s possible a non-MLS team could hit a combination of a good draw and a good run and win it all, but given the track record, that’s pretty unlikely.

But even without that, there’s plenty of motivation. Most notably, a good run in the tournament will help the club and the players.

It’s no secret that the Orange County organization, going through two rebrands and featuring two owners in less than a decade, have struggled for the spotlight, around American soccer generally, the vastly expanded USL and even in the local Southern California market. Would, say, a run to the Open Cup quarterfinals change everything? No, but it would help get their team and the new brand on the minds of hardcore soccer fans all over the country, and would give them some additional USL coverage. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and if they can begin to build a reputation as a team to be feared in the Open Cup, their stock will generally rise over time. That begins with the first such run in some time.

And then there is the players. It’s an open secret that this OCSC roster is effectively on trial for the 2018 Los Angeles Football Club squad. A few players may earn invitations to training camp at the start of the year, and maybe they can win a roster spot for the MLS team.

But the way to show you can boss the competition is to not only beat the lower division opponents in the Open Cup, but to also go toe-to-toe with MLS opposition when the time comes. If you can hang with MLS competition, your chances for earning that all-important official trial invite go up substantially. But before you get to that point, you need to defeat the amateur teams in your midst, and they have more motivation than you. Can your professional status overcome that? Can you set yourself apart on the unique stage where you play across the divisions?

I hope the answer is yes. It’s one game at a time, and certainly the game against FC Golden State Force is full of uncertainty. Any one-and-done format encourages that, and it’s part of the fun of the Open Cup. But hopefully this is a year in which Orange County SC play their way into being giant killers, instead of taking an early bow once again.

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