Orange County Soccer Club scores a long-desired goal by reaching USL final

When James Keston bought the Orange County Soccer Club five years ago, he hoped for nights like Saturday.

“We wanted to build a world-class organization that’s competing every year in the playoffs,” he said. “But to get to this point — stadium completely sold out, people excited all over the area — it’s really so far ahead of what we expected we would be.”

How far? When Sean Okoli scored in the fifth round of a penalty-kick shootout with San Antonio FC, it gave Orange County its first Western Conference title and sent it on to next Sunday’s United Soccer League championship game against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in Tampa, Florida.

Just as Keston had envisioned.

“This is what we always wanted,” he said. “We’re finally at that point.”

Playing before a record crowd of 5,386 at Championship Soccer Stadium in Irvine, OCSC went ahead in the 39th minute when Haitian international Ronaldo Damus pirouetted to redirect in long a Brent Richards throw-in from the right touchline for his 16th goal of the season.

San Antonio (16-8-11), the Mountain Conference runner-up, matched that in the 67th minute when midfielder Marcus Epps headed in a Connor Maloney cross from the center of the box. The goal was the first Orange County (16-10-9) has given up in three playoff games and just the second it has conceded in its last eight games overall.

Neither team would score again, sending OCSC to a penalty-kick shootout overtime for the second time in three weeks. After both teams converted their first three tries, San Antonio’s Justin Dhillon pushed his shot wide left in the fourth round, giving Okoli the chance to win it.

And he didn’t disappoint, slotting his shot into the lower left corner, beating San Antonio keeper Jordan Farr cleanly.

Orange County Soccer Club coach Richard Chaplow

(Orange County Soccer Club)

Saturday’s game marked Orange County’s second trip to the Western Conference final. In 2018, after winning a franchise-best 20 games in the regular season, OCSC lost to Phoenix Rising on a late goal by former Chelsea star Didier Drogba.

“One of the greatest players in the last 50 years of global soccer sent us home,” Keston said. “In 2018, we were very excited to be there. But it almost was a sense of surprise. At this point, we know the organization, we know the players we have on this roster, and we expected to be here.”

But the team almost didn’t make it. A midsummer stretch in which it won only once in eight games dropped OCSC to fourth in the Pacific Division. Keston responded by firing manager Braeden Cloutier and replacing him with Richard Chaplow, the captain of the 2018 team. OCSC has gone 9-3-4, including the playoffs, since.

“To get so close in 2018, my final season as a player, and to get back here three years later is a great achievement. To go one step further now and be able to actually be champions of the West is a big achievement,” said Chaplow, standing alone in the tunnel leading to his team’s dressing room, wearing a black-and-orange Western Conference champions T-shirt that was already on sale at concession stands.

“This is why we started the game as kids, for big moments like this. And 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.”

For Keston, who began pacing the stadium more than two hours before kickoff, Saturday’s win not only fulfilled the vision he had when he bought the team, it also moved him one win closer to another goal he has had almost as long.

“We’re here to win a championship,” Keston said. “That’s the only reason why you’re involved in these games.”

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