Club Tijuana came north looking for a challenge. Orange County Soccer Club provided one, giving the top-tier Mexican club all it could handle in a tight contest decided by an early penalty kick.
It was win-win for foes looking for something other than a result, and if the soccer wasn’t always pristine, it was certainly entertaining for a crowd of 3,151 — most cheering on the visitors — at Championship Stadium at Great Park.
Gustavo Bou’s spot kick in the 16th minute was the difference for the Xoloitzcuintles in a 1-0 victory, who notched their second shutout win in as many games in their preparations for next month’s start of the Liga MX season. They had a few more good opportunities, but not many, as OCSC — looking to rise after a difficult first half of their campaign in the second-tier USL Championship — used defensive organization and strong ball movement to keep things fairly even.
“I’m very proud of my group,” said head coach Braeden Cloutier, who last year guided OCSC to the USL’s Western Conference regular-season championship and within one game of the title showdown. “Exactly what we needed, and the right time we needed this to try to get ourselves back on track.”
Former U.S. national team defender Michael Orozco, who left Tijuana at the end of the spring season, made his debut for OCSC, marshaling the backline in the first half as the Xolos struggled to penetrate and create chances.
“I’m really happy to get my first minutes in, especially against a team I played for for three years, in front of my family and friends,” said Orozco, who is from Orange. “We’re working to get better every game. We want a championship here. We were very close last season, and I’m here to add a piece to it so we can get that championship.”
Oscar Pareja, who took charge of Tijuana this year after building FC Dallas into one of Major League Soccer’s best clubs, said his team got plenty from the encounter.
“We’re trying to get more rhythm,” he said. “That’s normal [that our connections aren’t sharp this early in preseason]. We’re trying to get some volume, and I think the next couple of weeks is going to help us do that. Not a surprise to me [that OCSC gave us a real test]. They have a good coach, and the guys play well, too.”
The Xolos, who won a Liga MX title in 2012, got the only goal it needed after Bou chipped into the box to leave Washington Camacho one-on-one with OCSC goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes, and left back Hugo Arellano -- with OCSC on loan from the LA Galaxy -- took Camacho down from behind. Referee Joseph Salinas pointed to the penalty spot, and Bou’s easy chip to the left hit the net as Cervantes leapt the other way.
Tijuana had two good chances to add to their advantage in the first half, but Orozco cut off a Bou shot from a give-and-go with former Chivas USA midfielder Miller Bolaños in the 38th minute, and Bolaños’ bending ball five minutes later from the left flank at the edge of the attacking third got past an open Ariel Nahuelpan at the edge of OCSC’s box.
Orange County had better possession early and took five shots in the first 13 minutes, none of them troublesome. Winger Darwin Jones created the first real opportunity, a low cross from the right into the goalmouth for Jerry van Wolfgang, but Tijuana goalkeeper Gibran Lajud grabbed the ball before he could get to it.
Kevin Coleman appeared to pull OCSC even in the 29th minute, racing in to put away the rebound after Lajud spilled van Wolfgang’s shot after a Tijuana turnover in the box, but he was flagged offside.
Pareja kept his starters in until the 72nd minute, then changed all 11. OCSC, looking ahead to Saturday night’s key league game against LA Galaxy II in Carson, began pulling off starters after a little more than a half-hour and had changed everyone but Coleman by the start of the second half, bringing on regular starters Michael Seaton and Joe Amico at halftime.
Cloutier thought the game would help OCSC, which is 4-5-7 and 12th in the 18-team Western Conference, as it looks to rise after a difficult start to the campaign.
“The big thing we’ve been preaching this past week is play vertical, play through the lines, and we did a really good job of that and creating opportunities,” he said. “Last week [in a 2-0 loss to Portland Timbers 2] we were too slow against a team that just sat back. We were just sideways, sideways, and backward. We never looked to play through the lines, and tonight we played with more urgency.”
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SCOTT FRENCH is a contributor to Times Community News.