IRVINE, Calif. – Second chances don’t come along often, especially in penalty shootouts.
When presented with one, however, Orange County SC’s Ronaldo Damus made the most of it.
The Haiti international scored the decisive goal in the sixth round of a shootout to send Orange County to a 6-5 victory from the spot against Oakland Roots SC before a crowd of 5,218 fans at Championship Soccer Stadium after the sides had played to a 0-0 draw through regulation and extra time in the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs, presented by TwinSpires, on Saturday night.
With the game scoreless after 120 minutes, the game went to a penalty shootout where each side was immaculate from the spot through the opening five rounds. Oakland’s Joseph Nane and Yohanes Harish – brought on with a minute to go in extra time – set up the visitors with a chance to win with outstanding takes in the fourth and fifth round, but Orange County’s Thomas Enevoldsen and Sean Okoli matched them as they sent the game to a sixth round.
There, OCSC goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky came through as he saved Akeem Ward’s shot to the right side of the net to open the door to victory. Damus stepped up and after a stuttering run-up saw his shot to the left corner saved as well as Oakland’s Paul Blanchette made the save as he once again chose the right side. The joy for the visitors was short-lived, however, as the assistant referee ruled Blanchette had left his line early.
Handed a reprieve, Damus converted, sending Orange County to its second Western Conference Final in club history. OCSC will play host to San Antonio FC for the conference crown and a place in the 2021 USL Championship Final next weekend.
Regulation and extra time had less drama than the shootout, as Orange County had the first chance in the fifth minute as it dug into its bag of set piece routines and carved out an opportunity for Brian Iloski. The winger waited unmarked after initially being one of the players over the ball 25 yards from goal in the left channel. The shot was struck well, causing a slight mishandling by Blanchette, but the rebound was steered wide of the left post by Nathan Smith.
Oakland also had a good early half-chance for Quincy Amarikwa, whose long-range effort was saved by Rakovsky before Damus almost struck in the 10th minute with a skipping shot from the top of the penalty area that skipped just wide of the left post. Roots SC went closest to breaking the deadlock in the first half, however, when on the half-hour mark Emrah Klimenta switched a good pass to Memo Diaz as he moved in from the right flank unmarked and delivered a low shot that rang the left post and caromed away to safety.
Neither side was able to produce a telling moment in the second half either as Oakland finished with more shots, but little end product. Orange County’s introduction of Okoli midway through the half also resulted in some additional pressure for the hosts that saw the veteran forward head wide soon after coming on.
After a quiet second half for both sides, Orange County had the first good chance in extra time as Sean Okoli fired a curling shot from 25 yards that was saved by Blanchette. The visitors also had a nervous moment in stoppage time in the first period when Blanchette was unable to cleanly claim a corner kick at the top of the six-yard area, only for the defense to smuggle the ball to safety.
Moments later, OCSC thought it had taken the lead as the hosts turned over possession in the Oakland half and quickly sprung Okoli into space on the left for a precise cross that Damus sent home with a diving header into the right corner of the net, only for the offside flag to be raised on the Haitian international to keep the game scoreless as the team’s changed ends.
Blanchette had to be sharp again in the 114th minute as a low cross by Orange County’s Mikko Kuningas from the right channel was sliced on target after a misplayed attempt to clear by a defender forced Oakland’s goalkeeper into action, but Orange County found a way through in the shootout to claim a tension-filled victory.
USLChampionship.com Man of the Match
Dillon Powers, Orange County SC – Powers scored his shot in the shootout for the hosts and was solid throughout the 120 minutes, winning 11 of 18 duels and making five interceptions while completing 50 of 66 passes.
Orange County SC – Mikko Kuningas, scored; Dillon Powers, scored; Seth Casiple, scored; Thomas Enevoldsen, scored; Sean Okoli, scored; Ronaldo Damus, scored
Oakland Roots SC – Tarek Morad, scored; Jeremy Bokila, scored; Ariel Mbumba, scored; Joseph Nane, scored; Yohanes Harish, scored; Akeem Ward, saved