ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Orange County SC won the 2021 USL Championship Final on Sunday night as it took a 3-1 victory against hosts the Tampa Bay Rowdies before a sellout crowd of 7,521 fans at Al Lang Stadium, giving one of the league’s original clubs its first league title to cap its 11th season.
Coming through the postseason without trailing in any of its four contests, Orange County saw numerous standout performances to overcome the homefield advantage and raucous atmosphere generated on the night. Here are the three things that decided the game in the visitors’ favor.
Orange County SC goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky's key first-half penalty save kept the visitors on level terms and helped the side settle after a testing first 20 minutes. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Penalty kicks have been hard to come by in the Championship Final’s history – the only prior one came in the 2011 edition when Lewis Neal scored in extra time for Orlando City SC as it took victory against the Harrisburg City Islanders. When Tampa Bay was awarded a chance to take the lead from the spot in the 19th minute, then, it seemed a golden opportunity for the hosts to get an all-important lead. When the Rowdies’ had held a lead at home this season, they had taken victory every time.
Then, up stepped Patrick Rakovsky. One of the stars of Orange County’s postseason run this November, the German goalkeeper went the right way and turned Sebastian Guenzatti’s shot wide of the left post to keep the game scoreless. Rakovsky’s penalty save was the first in the Championship Final’s history and helped take the sting out of the hosts’ attack after OCSC had been under pressure for most of the opening 20 minutes.
“I had a strange feeling in my gut he was going save it,” said Orange County Head Coach Richard Chaplow. “It’s not a feeling you always have, but I just felt the way we’ve been this season coming into the playoffs, things had been turning for us and again, Patrick stands up big, but after that the guys really rallied, it seemed to settle us down a little bit and then we got control of the game a little bit more.”
Ronaldo Damus and his Orange County SC teammates celebrate after his second goal of the 2021 USL Championship Final on Sunday night. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Ronaldo Damus has been the key figure in Orange County’s attack this season, with no teammate logging more than four goals all season. After scoring both of the side’s goals previously this postseason, the Haiti international bagged another pair of goals as his opportunism to strike twice in the span of 13 minutes in the first half highlighted a hard-working display that saw Damus consistently try to challenge the Rowdies’ back line.
The opening goal was handed to Damus on a platter, certainly, as Tampa Bay’s Jordan Scarlett made a regrettable attempt to pass across his own penalty area only to see the ball deposited in the back of the net. The Rowdies certainly could have gotten tighter to Damus as well on his second goal as his first touch popped up waist-high before he deposited it sharply into the left corner of the net.
After claiming the USL League One title in 2019 with North Texas SC, Damus is the first player to win both the League One and Championship Final individually. His appearances at the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup also hinted at the potential as a member of Les Grenadiers moving forward. After scoring 18 goals this campaign overall, the 22-year-old’s future could just have taken another step forward.
Orange County SC's defense had to deal with 46 crosses and 24 shots from its hosts, but withstood the pressure to come away as champions. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Throughout its postseason run, Orange County’s defense had provided the backbone for its success. That proved the case again on Sunday night as while Tampa Bay held a 24-7 advantage in shots and a 2.56xG-1.00xG advantage in Expected Goals according to Opta, the OCSC defense came up with blocks and clearances to supplement a six-save performance by goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky between the sticks.
In the middle of that display was center back Rob Kiernan, who impressed throughout as he battled with Rowdies forward Steevan Dos Santos when the hosts tried to pivot play into central positions and was on the spot to lead the way in cutting out a barrage of crosses from either flank. Kiernan led all players with 13 clearances and three interceptions, while Michael Orozco and Brent Richards also put out fires at the back as the Rowdies were left unable to add to their goal early in the second half by Leo Fernandes.
Orange County as a side ended the night with eight blocks – Kiernan and second-half substitute Nathan Smith came up with two apiece – while fending off a barrage of 46 crosses overall by Tampa Bay. That willingness to sacrifice and make the big stop in the key moment carried the side across the line to its first Championship Final victory.