It’s only a friendly, a match that counts for nothing, but Orange County Soccer Club has hopes that Thursday night’s clash with Club Tijuana can be something of a game-changer.
The Irvine-based club, which plays in the USL Championship — the second tier of professional soccer in the United States and Canada, behind MLS — expects the match against a top Mexican club will lure many who have never seen OCSC in action, perhaps aren’t aware of its existence.
If a few of them like what they see, enough so to come out to Championship Stadium at Great Park in Irvine to see another game or two, then it’s a triumph, no matter what the score.
“[This game] kind of opens doors to some people who haven’t quite seen us play yet here in Southern California, [especially] the Mexican market,” OCSC head coach Braeden Cloutier said. “So, hopefully, we’ll have a big crowd, and then we’ll introduce ourselves to some new people and some future fans.”
Making his club debut will be center back Michael Orozco, a U.S. national team veteran who grew up in Orange and has spent his entire professional career south of the border, the past four years with Club Tijuana. Orozco, 33, is excited to play close to home and “show everybody here in Orange County that this is the pro level and this is the real deal.”
“Yes, it is [more special to debut against Club Tijuana],” said Orozco, who last week signed with OCSC after training with the team for several weeks. “Playing against the old team, the team that I called home, but the chance to play here in Orange County is the best thing, and to play against Xolos is going to be fun. And it’s something to build on.”
The Xoloitzcuintles, who debuted in 2007 and won a Liga MX championship five years later, are preparing for a July 19 season opener, and so their plan is to use their best players, likely for at least a half. They have a dynamic attack led by Argentine forwards Ariel Nahuelpan and Gustavo Bou and Ecuadoran forward Miller Bolaños, backed by Uruguayan midfielders Diego Rodriguez and Ignacio Rivas.
OCSC won the Western Conference regular-season title last year with a 20-8-6 record but fell one step short of the USL title game. This year’s group was largely rebuilt following the departures of 14 players — including Danish forward Thomas Enevoldsen, who netted 20 goals — and has struggled to find a rhythm, thanks to several injuries and suspensions. The team in 12th in the 18-team Western Conference with a 4-5-7 mark and plays Saturday night in Carson against L.A. Galaxy II, the L.A. Galaxy’s reserve team.
Cloutier, who played for three MLS clubs, counts heavily upon attacking midfielder Aodhan Quinn and outside back Kevin Alston, who played nine seasons in MLS. The additions of English midfielders Liam Trotter and Harry Forester and of Brazilian defender Leonardo, who spent eight years with the Galaxy, have been key. Orozco is expected to help a defense that has conceded multiple goals 10 times in 16 games.
“I see him doing pretty much what happened last year when we picked up Kevin Alston [at midseason],” Cloutier said. “It was roughly around the same time, where we were in need of one more piece to stabilize things and bring some leadership. I think we’ve lacked a little bit of leadership at times, and having the opportunity to bring in a player like Michael? I mean, his career speaks for itself.”
Orozco, who made 29 appearances in eight years for the U.S. and scored the lone goal in the Yanks’ historic victory over Mexico at Estadio Azteca seven years ago, says he’s “just another piece to the team, to the chemistry.”
“Being part of the national team, playing in Mexico for about 15 years, I can help my teammates be solid in the back, help everybody else around the field, and just build a winning team, where we can all go one direction, and that direction is a championship.”
Thursday could be the start to that, and perhaps more. Club Tijuana offers an example.
“I’ve played [in indoor soccer] in Tijuana in the mid-'90s [when there wasn’t a top-tier team],” Cloutier said. “Then all of a sudden, you go down there, and wow. There’s a really nice, big stadium and a fantastic atmosphere. What they’ve been able to build in such a short period of time is something that I think kind of mirrors what we want to do here in Orange County.”
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SCOTT FRENCH is a contributor to Times Community News.