Orange County SC tops San Antonio FC on PKs in Western Conference final
Orange County Soccer Club edged San Antonio FC in a penalty-kick shootout on Saturday to capture the Western Conference title of the United Soccer League Championship.
Sean Okoli netted the final tally, as Orange County won the shootout 5-3 in front of a sellout crowd of 5,386 at Championship Soccer Stadium in Irvine.
“This is why we started the game as kids, for big moments like this,” Orange County coach Richard Chaplow said. “I said to them before we went out that pressure is a privilege, that they’ve worked to get that pressure, and I thought they handled it incredibly well again.”
Seth Casiple, Dillon Powers, Ben Mines and Thomas Enevoldsen also scored in the shootout for Orange County (16-10-9).
Orange County will travel to take on the Tampa Bay Rowdies (26-7-2) in the USL Championship final on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN.
Justin Dhillon missed wide left in the fourth round of penalty kicks, opening the door for Okoli to clinch the match.
The teams went to penalty kicks after the score was tied at 1-1 after 120 minutes of play.
Chaplow gave high marks to his team’s fitness to go through back-to-back games that went to extra time.
“We looked like we could have gone another 120 minutes,” Chaplow said.
The walls were covered and the floor sopping wet inside the Orange County locker room, evidence of a champagne-popping celebration. During the trophy presentation at midfield, Orange County general manager Oliver Wyss referred to the local club as a team of destiny.
“It’s a season of a lot of ups and downs — as a club, individually, each and every one of us,” Okoli said. “So to have the character, the perseverance, the resilience to bounce back and keep going week after week, it shows the true character in that locker room, and I’m very proud to be part of this group.”
A long throw-in by Brent Richards led to the opening goal in the 39th minute, as Ronaldo Damus pivoted on the spot and sent a pirouetting kick inside the left post.
“Every time I make a goal, it makes my job feel satisfying that we come out here and we work so hard,” Damus said through an interpreter after scoring his team-leading 16th goal of the season. “But it’s also the coaches that help me perform better each week and help motivate me to keep going.”
Richards’ impact would be felt throughout much of regulation. The right back made a couple of successful challenges, and he looked to join the attack in transition.
Defense has been the subject of much praise during Orange County’s eight-game unbeaten streak. A three-match run of clean sheets came to an end in the second half. Connor Maloney’s cross found the head of Marcus Epps in the center of the box, and his bid beat Orange County goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky in the 67th minute.
Over its previous seven matches, Orange County had conceded one goal.
Orange County poured on the pressure at the end of the first extra period. Jordan Farr was forced to make a leaping stop when center back Michael Orozco crashed the net, part of a three-save sequence by the San Antonio goalkeeper.
A crowd on edge wanted to believe that Casiple had the go-ahead marker in the 116th minute. His screaming liner narrowly missed the right post, leaving some with their hands on their heads.
“We kept attacking them, and it showed,” Orange County midfielder Eric Calvillo said. “It showed a lot. We had a lot of chances going toward the end of the game that we probably could have scored and should have scored, but at the end of the day, we got the job done. We got the win, and … we got one more game to go.”
The second-half turnaround that has led to Orange County’s playoff run has been keyed by a commitment made on the defensive end. Rakovsky has been unapologetic about the way his team has grinded out games down the stretch.
“No one asks you, ‘How did you play? Did you score 10 goals?’” Rakovsky said. “No, they just say, ‘Champions of the West,’ and that’s all that matters.”
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3:15 p.m. Nov. 23, 2021: This story has been updated with quotes from post-game interviews.
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