Orange County SC had a solid 2019 USL Championship season. Going from looking like they were dead in terms of the postseason chase in late summer, they rallied and reached the playoffs, only to stumble out of the gate and get knocked out in a tough 90 minutes of action.
With the 2019 campaign in the books, it’s time to look back at the season that was. Let’s begin by looking back at OCSC’s goalkeepers, and contrary to past seasons this was a very active position, with every player in the position on the roster getting minutes this year.
Carlos Lopez Cortez
The first starter to begin the season, the local product, who turned pro in the Club Tijuana system, had more time in a professional set-up and was older than his counterpart, Aaron Cervantes, who was 16 at the start of the campaign. Then 22, Lopez Cortez got the nod, and it didn’t turn out great. With only three first-team games under his belt prior to 2019, Lopez Cortez had a tough opener, on the road against Reno 1868, and two second-half goals put OCSC down 2-0, before Michael Seaton and Aodhan Quinn, in stoppage time, tied up the match.
It was worse in the next game, with OCSC playing their home opener and getting crushed 5-3 by Tulsa Roughnecks. Orange County scored first and had the lead twice, but Luca Lobo led a comeback that was totally unstoppable.
From there, Lopez Cortez, who made one save while conceding seven goals, moved to a backup role and did not feature again. He might be a bit unfortunate given the circumstances within a very small sample size, but it was a couple tough results for the still-young goalkeeper, and we’ll see what the future holds for him.
Game three came, and the second goalkeeper, youngster Aaron Cervantes, got the nod. Cervantes was signed as a 15-year-old before the 2018 season, but he didn’t play that year for the first team. This year, with him and Lopez Cortez to begin the season, it was a trial by fire and Cervantes held his own.
The teenager played 12 games across all competitions for OCSC, notching three clean sheets, saving 60 percent of the shots he faced in USL Championship play, a fair rate, and won USL Championship Save of the Week a couple times.
As you would expect with a goalkeeper so young, sometimes Cervantes had shaky moments and was not quite ready to be the “main man” week in and week out. That’s not to say he wasn’t impressive, but for a team that came within a game of reaching the USL Cup final a year earlier, top goalkeeper play was needed to help make them competitive again this season. The good news is that Cervantes’ playing time was sandwiched around Patrick McLain’s stint, and Cervantes looked better in the second chunk he played this season, and his improvement was a definite bright spot on the season for the club.
Cervantes was voted No. 9 of USL’s “20 Under 20” list this year, and has a few more years of eligibility on that. He didn’t play for the USMNT U-17s at a disappointing U-17 World Cup in which they crashed out in the group stage, but make no mistake: The future is bright for Aaron Cervantes, if he can keep a level head and continue to work hard.
While Orange County had a couple of prospects at the position, it was pretty clear the team needed veteran experience, too, and the first player to take this role in 2019 was Patrick McLain. The 31-year-old had considerable experience in MLS and USL, as a starter and backup alike, and joining Orange County SC after their excellent 2018 and in need of a starter was seemingly an attractive option for the player, too.
In some interesting symmetry, McLain played 12 games for Orange County, had three clean sheets, and his save percentage was a superior 71 percent. He brought the veteran knowhow the team needed, and while defensive errors and inconsistency still plagued the team overall, a stability came to the goalkeeping position.
But it was somewhat short-lived, as McLain parted ways with OCSC just a few months after joining. Initially, he was rumored to be on the verge of signing a new deal with an MLS club, but that did not materialize. In the meantime, McLain seems to be jumping in on other ventures related to goalkeeping in an off-field capacity. Whether we’ve seen the last of him playing professionally remains to be seen.
After McLain departed, Cervantes stepped back in, but with the U-17 World Cup coming, Orange County needed to find another starter, and they found him in Frederik Due. The Danish goalkeeper had gotten his feet wet in the USL Championship with expansion side Hartford Athletic, who were in the middle of a very tough debut campaign. His numbers weren’t exactly stellar, but for a player who at 26 was entering his peak, his signing proved to be a stroke of genius.
Due played nine regular-season games for OCSC, allowing just seven goals in that stretch and posting a stellar 0.78 GAA, by far a career high for the player, while saving just a tick under 70 percent of his shots.
Orange County’s season revived with Due featuring, and the combination of a veteran goalkeeper finding his groove and the lineup in front of him finally clicking meant the pieces came together. OCSC went from about 15th in the Western Conference standings to 5th.
Ultimately, all’s well that ends well, and while the playoff loss was a bitter pill, Orange County saved their best for last in the regular-season and approached the team that was a juggernaut in 2018, after looking like they had lost that mojo entirely. Lopez Cortez started the season in a pinch, Cervantes showed glimpses of a terrific young talent, McLain brought stability that was short-lived, and Due looked like a player who could be a building block in the future for the club if all parties choose. We’ll see what the future holds for Orange County SC and these players, and most seasons won’t feature this much upheaval at the position, but we got a little bit of everything in the GK position at the club in 2019.
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