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Orange County SC draw tough match-up vs. Saint Louis FC in playoffs

Despite being the No. 1 seed, OC will have a battle on their hands.

Liza Rosales / Liza Rosales Photography

If you were to ask me about the toughest match-ups across multiple games this season for Orange County SC, I’d say Rio Grande Valley FC, Saint Louis FC, and Sacramento Republic.

Well, Republic were the No. 2 seed behind first-place OC, so they’re a good team, period, while RGVFC didn’t make the playoffs and won’t be troubling OCSC in the postseason this year, guaranteed.

Saint Louis, however, did reach the playoffs, their first-ever berth, in fact, and guess what? They’re facing Orange County in the playoffs on Saturday at Orange County Great Park in Irvine (7 pm PT).

Why do I think Saint Louis is a tough match-up for Orange County SC? Let’s take a look back at the last two meetings between the teams.

May 12: Orange County SC 1, Saint Louis FC 1

Orange County took the lead in the 78th minute, with an own goal by Saint Louis defender Phaneul Kavita off an Aodhan Quinn free kick, before Lewis Hilton tied up the game four minutes later. OC’s Kontor Owusu-Ansah was fouled in stoppage time by Jonathan Barden, who was given a straight red card. Andre Rawls was the big star on the night for OC, keeping his side in the game with Saint Louis dominating most statistical categories and the run of play.

What we said at the time: “On balance, the draw was fair and Saint Louis are a pretty good team, so it wasn’t a result to sniff at for Orange County.”

July 21: Saint Louis FC 2, Orange County SC 2

Another meeting, another stalemate. The second game on a mid-country road swing for the SoCal side that week, Mats Bjurman got OC on the board in the 30th minute with a flicked header off a long Owusu-Ansah throw-in, but the teams traded goals in the second half. Kyle Greig tied it up in the 70th minute, on a turn and shoot from the edge of the box, then substitute Giovanni Ramos Godoy gives Orange County another lead six minutes later, with a beautiful finish from 18 yards out. But Saint Louis have the last laugh, as Pierre Da Silva scored in the 79th minute on the second rebound after OC goalkeeper Luis Lopez coughed up a save, and the teams settle for a draw.

What we said at the time: “Saint Louis are the only team to have gotten a result when Orange County scored first this season, something they’ve done twice now (OC are 10-0-2 when they score first in league play, for the record).”

What makes Saint Louis FC so tough for Orange County SC?

Saint Louis has struggled more than OCSC over time, with Orange County in the middle of their best stretch in team history, and STLFC reaching the postseason for the first time.

But the teams’ profiles are strikingly similar. Both teams are helmed by men who have been around the USL for a few years at this point, Braeden Cloutier for OC, Anthony Pulis (yes, Tony’s son) for Saint Louis. Pulis came to Missouri after managing Orlando City B, before that team was shuttered for a year, and he brought several players with connections to Orlando with him, like Da Silva.

It’s also notable that as independently-owned USL teams, neither side is just winging it with a bunch of kids who need to play and take their lumps. Like Orange County, Saint Louis has a slew of players familiar to those who have kept an eye on USL over the years: Greig, Wal Fall, Joey Calistri, Corey Hertzog, Albert Dikwa, Kadeem Dacres, Christian Volesky, etc. This isn’t the first rodeo for these guys, they aren’t wide-eyed like many USL players tend to be, and that means Orange County doesn’t have an edge in that department.

That experience has also led to a balanced approach in playing, with both teams comfortable defending and taking the initiative with the ball. If anything, Saint Louis are more confident playing with the ball than most opponents Orange County has faced, so the gameplan changed a bit for Cloutier in facing Saint Louis. With Saint Louis dominating most of the categories in the first meeting, Orange County kind of split the stats in the second meeting, on the road.

Recency bias

The x-factor here is in the fact that these teams haven’t played since mid-July. A lot has happened in the meantime. Saint Louis went from missing the playoffs yet again this year to clinching in dramatic fashion, and that momentum could be powerful for them. They were 3-1-1 in their final five games of the regular season, and will certainly like their chances.

Orange County, meanwhile, did lose their season finale, so there’s perhaps a bit of concern there, but they finished the season 4-1-0 and again, finished atop the Western Conference. Even with Saint Louis playing them well this year, they shouldn’t be quaking in their boots.

This will be the first ever home playoff game for Orange County, while it will be the first playoff game, period, for Saint Louis. With the 8 seed play loose with nothing to lose? Will Orange County find tough sledding against a tricky opponent? Or will season form win out and Orange County take care of their opponent? We’ll have to wait and see, of course, but it should be a tense, fascinating match.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!