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The best that never won: 2018 Orange County SC

Remembering a team that came so close to realizing their big ambitions.

Liza Rosales / Liza Rosales Photography

This week, SB Nation is introducing a theme across the network — what was the best team that never won on our sites? While the parameters of answering that question are flexible, one answer immediately came to mind for me.

It has to be the 2018 Orange County SC team. Not only was it their best season to date (they opened their 10th season in the USL this year before the coronavirus shutdown), it was a team that seemed destined to win it all, too.

OCSC were undergoing big changes ahead of 2018, promoting assistant coach Braeden Cloutier to head coach and bringing in a slew of newcomers to join the roster. Among the headliners were Christian Duke, captain for most of his tenure at the club, fellow midfielder Aodhan Quinn, Danish forward Thomas Enevoldsen joining the USL circuit for the first time, and forward Michael Seaton. Two key players also joined on loan from MLS sides, in goalkeeper Andre Rawls and defender Alex Crognale.

It took until the third game for Orange County to win their first league game, but they started out 4-1-1 and scarcely looked back. OCSC never lost two straight games all season and lost just eight league games in the regular season.

The only blight on the campaign early on was a shock U.S. Open Cup loss to PDL side Golden State Force, a contested goal or two still sticking in the craw of Orange County fans all this time later.

But in the league, it was OC that was golden. They were pushed to the brink by Sacramento Republic and Phoenix Rising, but Orange County SC ended up finishing atop the Western Conference, with 66 points on the season, and a whopping +30 goal difference.

And having a spotty track record in the postseason meant the expectations, even with the conference’s top seed, were perhaps a bit tempered.

But there was a feeling it was a season of destiny for Orange County. The number of road results, dramatic finishes in which OCSC ended up winning or rescuing a draw late indicated they had that special something that could power them all the way to the title.

Indications got better once the playoffs started. A Seaton hat trick and an early red card for their opponents produced a rout at home over Saint Louis FC to start their postseason, before they narrowly beat Reno 1868 FC 1-0 in the Western Conference Semifinal.

That set the stage for the Conference final, the farthest Orange County had ever advanced in the playoffs in their history, at home against Phoenix Rising. While Phoenix posted a record-breaking 2019 regular season, their record against Orange County SC in 2018 was even, at 1-1-1. It was not going to be an easy game, but in Irvine and coming off two straight playoff wins it seemed like they could very much get it done.

But the run came to an end there, Phoenix won 2-1, with Didier Drogba’s second-half goal proving to be the winner on the night. Orange County’s championship hopes were dashed.

The season was still terrific for Orange County. They had two MVP finalists, in Quinn and Enevoldsen, which is remarkable considering OCSC have never garnered much national attention and with USL’s ranks swelling, there were tons of players to choose from.

Enevoldsen finished second in the USL Golden Boot that year, with 20 goals, while Quinn finished second in the league in assists, with 14. Quinn chipped in 11 goals himself, while Enevoldsen had nine assists. Plus, Seaton was a strong scoring option, posting 12 goals and six assists in 2018.

Rawls finished in the top 10 in shutouts while not starting every game, while Orange County’s defensive corps combined experience and youth. Imports Thomas Juel-Nielsen and Jos Hooiveld combined with Americans Crognale and Walker Hume in the middle, while intriguing wide defenders like Noah Powder combined with the veteran presence of Kevin Alston when the former MLS man joined up midseason.

Orange County SC succeeded because they had a terrific and productive attack, a cohesive and deep defense, and plenty of good luck along the way. They seemingly had it all, but in a one-game playoff round, they just couldn’t get it done.

On a personal note, that playoff loss will forever be in my memory, as I went to Irvine to see the match, and as soon as I arrived, I learned my 5-year-old broke her arm at the park. On the hourlong drive back home, as I left before the game kicked off, I learned she would need surgery and my heart broke. That event had nothing to do with the playoff loss, but in my memory, they are inextricably linked, the personal and external sadness of that night.

I’m happy to report my daughter’s surgery was successful and Orange County SC bounced back last year, too. They didn’t realize their championship dreams, but the stability reached in recent years under current owner James Keston and the front office and coaching staff is a tangible accomplishment in itself. And from all signs, those title aspirations remain as much in the forefront as ever.

All that said, it really seemed like 2018 was going to be OCSC’s year. They came up short in winning the title, but it was a lot of fun to watch a team that was good and playing fun soccer, especially after some ups and downs, and I’ll always have a soft spot for the 2018 Orange County SC team, title win or not.

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