Braeden Cloutier entered his first pro head coaching job this year with Orange County SC with a blank slate in many respects. Bringing back just six players from 2017’s roster, the longtime assistant coach took over the manager’s mantle with a roster that combined prospects and experience, and with five games left in the USL regular season, OCSC sit tied on points atop the Western Conference.
Just about every coach walks in to a new job planning to put together a good season, but when Cloutier spoke exclusively to Angels on Parade this week, he admitted things have come together perhaps better than he ever anticipated.
“To be honest, [the season has been] better than I expected,” Cloutier said. “I knew that we were going in the right direction, all the hard work we had been doing, [assistant GM] Peter Nugent, and [GM] Oliver [Wyss] and myself had put into the offseason and built out through the team, our philosophy, an identity and then the profiles of what we wanted in our positions, I thought a lot of hard work went into that. But overall, it’s been a process throughout the season, you know there’s going to be a honeymoon period, then we knew there was going to be a period of adversity and now we’re coming into a period of the business end of the season, where we’re fighting to get into the playoffs and obviously we’re in a good position to finish in that top four.
“It’s been a process. And I couldn’t have written the script any better. It’s taken a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication, but that, ultimately [having] the players buy in to what we’re preaching, but I definitely think it’s been better than expected.”
Cloutier was asked what led to the squad finding rhythm this year, and in balancing contributions from players headlining the statistical categories, like leading scorer Thomas Enevoldsen, goalkeeper Andre Rawls and midfielder Aodhan Quinn, among others, to those whose contributions don’t always fill the stat sheet, like midfielders Christian Duke and Richard Chaplow, defender Kevin Alston, and forward Darwin Jones, the head coach concluded, “It’s all come together perfectly, that each one of them is contributing for himself individually, but collectively for what he’s done for the team in the good position we’re in.”
Orange County are coming off a statement game, a remarkable comeback from 2-1 down at home on Saturday against OKC Energy FC in the 93rd minute, scoring two very late goals to win 3-2. Cloutier attributed the ability to battle back for that victory to a preseason boot camp the team went through.
“In preseason we had a boot camp that was basically everything in that game on Saturday night put into a nutshell what we wanted to do in the boot camp, where we wanted to make an adverse situation, things going against you, but ultimately knowing that we have to pull together as a team to eventually get the outcome that we wanted, and like you said, basically that game put everything into that,” he explained.
“I’ve been on teams in the past as a player, I’ve been here in this organization in the last few years, where those type of games, when you give up a goal, maybe against the flow of play, you go down 2-1, I’ve been on teams where you basically give up. This team has found a way to keep fighting, not only to the 90th minute, but all the way in injury time, when they never gave up, kept fighting. And then when we scored to make it 2-2, they still had a feel of ‘You know what, there’s still 30 seconds to a minute, we’re going to get another chance.’ And it just felt like, even at that moment, with the players saying, even with a tie, ‘We want to win this game.’ Something that, for me as a coach, that I’ve wanted to instill from day one, and to see through the process, and to come out in that game, it was a tremendous feeling, you can sense it through the stadium.”
Cloutier seemed to indicate the result was a landmark occasion at Orange County SC’s home stadium at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, which they moved into just over a year ago.
“One thing, with the crowd, you want to feel the electricity in the crowd kind of helps that momentum, and I felt for the first time on Saturday night, everything just kind of come together in the perfect storm and we get that result and to feel what it was like in the locker room after the game...it’s a drug that people can’t understand, that you can’t replicate.”
Orange County SC have just five games left in the regular season, with Sunday’s road game against Fresno FC up next, and while they haven’t clinched their playoff spot just yet they’re all but assured of passage to the postseason. When asked about Orange County’s struggles early in the season against fellow “top four” competitors, Cloutier stressed both the ability of the team to come through their lumps early on, and the competition shown throughout the Western Conference.
“Definitely the Monarchs [game coming up on Wednesday] is an audition for the playoffs and where we’re at, but I tell you what, this weekend’s game against Fresno, last weekend’s game against Oklahoma, teams that are fighting for playoff spots, those games are never easy. But the teams that have been in the top four, the Phoenixes, the Sacramentos, the Monarchs, but in the Western Conference, there’s eight or nine teams. You’ve seen what San Antonio’s been able to do lately, you’ve seen what Swope’s been able to do lately, they are still very, very good teams. And even when we’ve played them, they’ve not necessarily been in the top four, they’re still very good opponents. This year, we’ve beat San Antonio twice, we’ve beat Swope twice…
“Against the top teams, even though at the beginning [of the season] we didn’t quite get the results we wanted I still thought they were very good games, very close games…Result-wise, back and forth, but I tell you what, everywhere I’ve gone, there’s not been one team that’s had anything negative to say about us, it’s been all positive, that we’re a very good soccer team and it’s a very difficult game,” he said.
It’s clear that Orange County’s ambitions are on winning a title this season, and Cloutier spoke about wanting to set the club in a good direction for the next several seasons, too. But he’s also looking at the here and now, and earning respect from opponents is a good initial step.
“For me, knowing that, it speaks volumes for where we’re at and what our opponents think of us. I know we can beat anybody on any given day, there’s not any one team that we’re really scared of. I definitely am respectful of everybody, but I think when we’re on our game and things are going right, we can beat anybody.”
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