On August 9, Orange County SC went to Washington to play Tacoma Defiance, the last-placed team in the USL Championship Western Conference. Despite grabbing an early lead, OCSC conceded twice and lost 2-1. It was a loss that at the time looked like it could be the story of their season — start well, but fail to hold on and drop costly points.
But the exact opposite has happened, in fact. Since that loss, Orange County have won four games in a row, most recently a 2-1 victory over Portland Timbers 2 in Portland, and have vaulted all the way up to 5th place in the West. Their spot in the playoffs isn’t yet assured, but with the team in form and racking up wins, there’s optimism they can not only reach the playoffs but maybe even make another run in the postseason this year.
What’s the reason for the turnaround? Three key reasons behind shift in Orange County SC’s season:
1-2 punch in goal
The season has been a revolving door in terms of goalkeeping for Orange County. Carlos Lopez Cortez started the season as starter, but after struggling in his initial games, the youngster was supplanted by Patrick McLain, a veteran MLS and USL Championship goalkeeper who brought stability to the position.
But McLain, who had been rumored to be nearing a move to an MLS team in the summer transfer window (although that move did not materialize), departed, and the third ‘keeper on the roster, 17-year-old Aaron Cervantes, got a chance to get some run in goal.
Cervantes, who showed promise but also youthful falterings in his initial action early in the season, settled into the position. Only problem, the 2019 U-17 World Cup is coming up, and there’s a good chance Cervantes will be headed there.
Enter the fourth man in between the sticks, Frederik Due. The Danish veteran already got his feet wet in USL Championship play, beginning the season with Hartford Athletic before making the move to Orange County. While Cervantes has played well, Due has made game-saving plays during the current winning streak, and while he seems likely to retain his place, Cervantes’ ongoing maturation means the prospect is a comfortable second option for Braeden Cloutier.
The return of the three-headed attack
Last year, Orange County succeeded with three men carrying the load on the scoring front, in Thomas Enevoldsen, Aodhan Quinn and Michael Seaton. The trio was so successful that Enevoldsen and Quinn were both USL MVP finalists, a remarkable feat for one team in the growing league.
But with Enevoldsen departing in the offseason, the attack started slowly this season and injuries and suspensions limited Quinn and Seaton in the initial months.
The player who seemed to keep things afloat during the inconsistent stretches this season was Darwin Jones, the forward/winger who joined last summer and was initially a complimentary piece for the main scorers. This year, with the attack needing a spark, Jones stepped up, and in recent weeks, Jones and Seaton have rounded into form together and found a way to take turns playing scorer and facilitator to each other.
Now, Seaton leads the team in goals with 11, Jones is right behind him with 10, and the duo are tied atop the team’s standings in assists with Harry Forrester with five.
But Quinn has also bounced back after a quiet start to the season, and is the third-leading scorer with seven goals and second in helpers with four assists. The midfielder is not bossing games in the way he did in 2018, but after struggling to imprint himself on games early, he’s turned it up and is pitching in again.
In short, with multiple options firing again, Orange County have become difficult to stop, because defenses can’t hone in on one player to mark or foul out of the game.
The return of Christian Duke
Christian Duke is a prototypical midfield captain, a hard-nosed player who offers on-field leadership, does the dirty work in the middle, and facilitates the game for the rest of his teammates.
But Duke began the season injured, and it kept him out for months to start the season. While Cloutier used a variety of options in central midfield in his stead, the options used just didn’t replicate what Duke could provide. Missing Duke put more pressure on the defense, which was more liable to make mistakes, and the team couldn’t dig deep in tough moments and hold on for a result with the same regularity.
Duke has now made eight appearances this season since returning in July, and while he won’t garner headlines for swashbuckling goals, dramatic tackles or vital saves, he has provided a stable base for the rest of the lineup to play their best, and it’s showing right now.
Anyone who followed Orange County SC’s remarkable 2018 season, when they seemed to win every week, in all manner of ways, has to understand that replicating that exact form was bound to be unlikely. At the same time, with the club keeping so many key players from last season, they seemed like a good bet to still reach the playoffs. While this season has been marked by a series of ups and downs, and the job isn’t done yet — they have seven games left in regular-season play, and haven’t booked their ticket to the postseason — they have been getting wins and also looking like the team that was so much fun to watch in 2018. With the pieces falling into place, Cloutier’s group once again have their destiny in their hands, and the next test comes on Saturday at Orange County Great Park against El Paso Locomotive.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!