Sunday, November 28, saw the Tampa Bay Rowdies host the USL Championship final in what was supposed to be the perfect conclusion to an incredible, record-breaking season. The visitors on this historic occasion were Orange County SC, one of the pioneers of the current iteration of USL, and a team most people – myself included – expected to be comfortably brushed aside by the burgeoning Rowdies, who had the wind in their sails after pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in USL playoff history the week prior. However, nobody could have ever imagined what would actually transpire on this November evening in St. Petersburg, Florida; it was proof that football really is a game of great intangibles, and that sometimes, it just feels like fate conspires against a team.
Everything – except maybe for the pitch, which was in pretty poor condition – was set up perfectly for the Rowdies to take home their first USL title. After last year’s disappointment of making the final only to see it cancelled at the last minute due to Covid, this was their shot at redemption; in fact, it felt like destiny for them to get back to this point and that’s how the Rowdies went about their business during the regular season, playing one of the most dominant campaigns the USL has ever seen. Not only that, but many people felt that the Rowdies were best prepared for this fixture considering that they had truly seen it all in the preceding playoff games: after dismantling Tulsa, they had to squeak past Birmingham, before coming from 2-0 down to beat perennial Eastern Conference finalists Louisville in extra time.
On the opposing side stood an Orange County team that had only made Richard Chaplow their permanent head coach on November 9. A team, whose motto was defence first, absorb pressure, and hope to nick one – OCSC had won six consecutive games by a one-goal margin before beating Oakland and San Antonio on penalties to get to the final.
As soon as the referee’s whistle pierced the noise of the raucous Al Lang crowd, everything seemed to go according to the Rowdies’ plan. They were the dominant side, probing Orange County’s deep backline. It felt like only a matter of time before they would find the breakthrough. When they were rightfully awarded a penalty and 22-goal man Sebastián Guenzatti stepped up to take it, it was a mere inevitability. But then, the script was flipped. Patrick Rakovsky saved the spot kick, and suddenly, it was the visitors who were in the ascendency. Shortly after Guenzatti’s miss, Sarah Gordon pertinently noted on the broadcast that we could now see a shift in momentum. Moments later, Orange County were celebrating.
Jordan Scarlett handed Ronaldo Damus the opener with an uncharacteristic error in possession. The Rowdies were now on the ropes. Damus struck again a little over ten minutes later before Mikko Kuningas made it three with a sumptuous free kick on the stroke of half time. The Rowdies managed to pull one back, but it was too little too late, Orange County had snatched the championship right from underneath the hosts’ noses.
Of course, it’s easy to say that fate conspired against the Rowdies with Goalkeeper of the Year Evan Louro injuring himself in the post-Louisville celebrations, Guenzatti missing a penalty, and Scarlett’s mistake, but that would only serve to discredit what was a truly outstanding performance from OCSC. Chaplow knew exactly how to set his team up to limit Tampa’s attacking potency. They expertly condensed the central areas with their deep block, preventing the hosts from slicing them up with that patented quick interplay.
Moreover, OC were more than happy to cede control of wide areas because they knew that they had more than enough numbers to deal with what the Rowdies could throw at them from those positions. Proof of concept was the fact that star forward Steevan dos Santos was nothing more than a peripheral figure for most of the game. Particularly at the end of the first half, the Rowdies looked completely at a loss as to what to do, they just could not crack open that stout rearguard.
On the other side of the pitch, it was Ronaldo Damus that impressed on the big stage. Not only did he score twice, but he looked completely unfazed by the occasion. His smart pressing and movement proved invaluable in alleviating the constant pressure his side endured. The 22-year-old played an incredible 2021 season and he’s surely destined for bigger things.
This final was genuinely one of the most extraordinary games I have ever watched. Orange County, a team that looked incapable of scoring more than once in the weeks building up to the final, hanging three first-half goals on one of the best defences in league history was a twist in the tale that I’m sure nobody foresaw. Sometimes, football just doesn’t go according to plan – and that’s why it is such a great sport.
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