With new USL clubs appearing each season, it can be difficult to keep up. Resident USL Expert, Busby Cagle, is here to help. Each week, we will spotlight one USL club, looking at the history of the club, the players, the fans, and the prospect of success in the near or distant future.
If you missed the previous Spotlights, catch up:
Home Ground: Championship Soccer Stadium; Irvine, California
Manager: Braeden Cloutier
2017 Finish: 10th, Western Conference
Nickname: Definitely Not “The Blues”
It's Not Always Sunny in SoCal
Messi or Ronaldo? Three at the back or four? Gegenpress or park the bus? Football is filled to the brim with divisive subjects, but if there’s one thing all supporters of the beautiful game can agree on, it’s that rebranding clubs is always a great idea. Right Wimbledon? Cardiff? And what’s this? OCSC have done so not once, but TWICE in their seven year history? Clearly, the OCSC front office understand what the fans truly crave: the need to purchase entirely new gear to ensure they’re showing their support for the current iteration of their club.
OCSC prototype model 1.0 was a bit late off the assembly line, but shipped with the first delivery of the USL, regardless. Announced as a franchise only five months before the start of the inaugural season, the L.A. Blues struggled to find a foothold both on and off the pitch. The club averaged fewer than 400 fans per home match, and those that did show up were typically left feeling bluer than their side’s kits, L.A. winning only three times on their own turf. Their away form, shockingly -- given the minimum of 2,000 miles between them and their East Coast-centric opponents -- was what propelled them to the playoffs in year one. The Blues took 10 points from their opening four-match road trip, and suffered only three defeats on their travels.
A 2014 move from sunny Fullerton to presumably sunnier Irvine brought about the first name change, and Orange County Blues FC was born. The grass was certainly not greener at first, as the relocated Blues had the worst season in franchise history, finishing second from the bottom with a minus-23 goal differential. It was a season to forget. Or to remember, and vow to never, ever emulate. Not sure which attitude the club opted for, but either way, it worked, almost unbelievably well.
Rebuilding, Rebranding, Repainting
Just one year removed from the lowest point in club history, the Blues found themselves finishing 2015 on top of the Western Conference and earning an automatic berth in the conference semi-finals. It was truly teamwork that made the dream work, as Orange County managed this feat without any player in the top ten in the league for goals or assists, and only one player squeaking into the USL All-League Second Team, defender Brenton Griffiths. The OC season finale would leave fans wanting more however, as LA Galaxy II prevented the Blues from picking up a first playoff victory.
At the tail-end of the 2016 USL season, machinations started in motion to transform the club into what we know today. Investment group owner James Keston bought the club in September, and immediately set to work reshaping the Blues in his vision.
Step one? Drop “the Blues”. And thus, the evolution was complete (for now); the L.A. Blues, a USL mainstay from the very beginning, became Orange County Soccer Club. In just six years, like Theseus’s ship, the California club was replaced plank by plank. New name, new location, and finally, new colors.
LAFC Affiliation - What is it good for?
Keston’s takeover also brought about an affiliation with MLS newcomers LAFC. Despite the fact that LAFC first took the field about three weeks ago, the ink has been dry on this deal for over a year-and-a-half.
What benefits come from joining up with a nonexistent team? Not much it turns out, as OC’s sole LAFC loanee, young striker Rodrigo Pacheco, picked up a single goal in his seven appearances in 2017. Starting forward Jerry van Wolgang didn’t fare too much better, and his team-leading eight goals could only bring OCSC a tenth place finish in the west, and yet another season without playoffs.
Orange is the new Blue
Despite their history of stability, Orange County decided 2018 was the time for a shake-up. In their first three matches of the new campaign, only two returning players, right back Oscar Sorto and midfielder Richard Chaplow, have made appearances.
After taking one point from an opening two-match home stand, OC used their experience as perhaps the most well-traveled team in USL history to pick up their first win in Oklahoma. A 13th-minute scuffed half volley from Thomas Enevoldsen was enough to separate the two sides. Despite conceding a slight advantage in possession to the home side, Orange County saw the majority of the chances on the night, and most importantly, managed to put one home. The win moved them up to sixth in the Western Conference, though most sides still have at least one game in hand on them.
Playing in a hyper-disciplined 4-1-4-1, early evidence suggests manager Braeden Cloutier’s modus operandi is grinding out low scoring results. Orange County’s first three games produced a total of four goals (2 for, 2 against).
The return of OC forward Michael Seaton – who served a one match suspension for a questionable red card in a one-nil home defeat against Sacramento – should make the attack a bit more threatening. Seaton holds the unique honor of being the first person to play in the MLS born after the league’s creation in 1996.
Will Cloutier’s defense-first mentality be enough to turn the tides for the club from Orange County? We’ll likely have to wait until May for the first real test of this theory, when Orange County visit last year’s Western Conference Champions. Real Monarchs SLC will be the first side OCSC face that scored more than 50 goals last season, and they will certainly be directing all their firepower at the Orange County backline.
However, with a win under their belt, OCSC hope to build on this momentum to mount a return to the playoffs for the first time in three years. A relatively weak series of upcoming fixtures could see the club pick up a good deal of steam, and a solid run of form can be all the inspiration a team needs to propel itself to bigger and better things. Mmm, whatcha say about that?
Saturday, March 31 at Tulsa Roughnecks FC; 4:00 PM EDT
All USL matches are streamed live on the league’s Youtube channel at www.youtube.com/user/USLPRO
Author: Busby Cagle