Orange County SC's Ronaldo Damus holds the 2021 USL Championship Final MVP award after scoring two goals in his side's 3-1 victory against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In some ways, Ronaldo Damus is the embodiment of Orange County SC’s established philosophy.
The 22-year-old arrived at the club this offseason both as a striker who had shown the ability to be a difference-maker in the attacking third of the field in the past two seasons at North Texas SC in USL League One while also offering the promise of a player who had the potential to reach even greater heights in the future.
After scoring twice on Sunday night in the 2021 USL Championship Final to lead his side to a 3-1 victory against the Tampa Bay Rowdies at a sold-out Al Lang Stadium, making him the first player to claim the league title in both League One and the Championship, the two elements combined to play a key role in Orange County’s first league title in its 11th season in the league.
“The way I say it in life is ‘day by day,’” said Damus through a translator following the game. “I was a champion in Texas, but when I came here the mission was the same, to be a champion in Orange County. We have succeeded and got to that point where we are champions.”
Damus ended the postseason with four of Orange County’s five goals, giving him 18 for the campaign overall. That productivity led to Damus’ inclusion in Haiti’s squad for the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup in the middle of the season and saw him make five appearances for the side across qualification and the main tournament.
Getting the chance to earn that experience, in addition to the experience Damus has now gained as a central figure in Orange County’s success, was what the club was envisioning for him at the start of the year.
“I think Ronaldo’s development is a credit to the entire team, the coaching staff and his teammates,” said Orange County President of Soccer Operations & General Manager Oliver Wyss. “It’s been an absolute pleasure seeing him develop, he’s scored in some crucial games for us, but truly it’s a team credit. I think when he will look back at this incredible season – and hopefully we’re lucky enough to keep him, but I’m sure he will open up some interest from other [clubs], we have an option on him – but it’s a very proud moment.
“It's been a difficult season for him as well because his family and his long-term girlfriend have been back home in Haiti, and he’s shown true professionalism. He fits perfectly on our team, he has a relentless work ethic, has proven many times to be the difference and the team has accepted him as one of our own, and we love him for that. I think it’s a very special moment for me personally, and obviously for everyone in the organization.”
Orange County SC's Ronaldo Damus scored 18 goals in the USL Championship regular season and playoffs this season, including four of the club's five goals in the postseason. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Damus’ success combined with the club’s league title is also a landmark that Orange County has been aiming to achieve since Wyss joined the club in 2015 prior to its purchase by current owner James Keston the following year. Since then, the team has aimed for a high level of on-field success supplemented by the ability to develop top young talent.
Last year’s transfer of U.S. Youth International Aaron Cervantes to current Scottish Premiership champions Rangers FC was the first major step in that area. With Damus and youngsters like midfielder Francis Jacobs and U.S. U-20s center back Kobi Henry – who came on late as a substitute on Sunday – also in the pipeline, the dual-aims the club has set for itself remain in sync.
“[Orange County Assistant GM & SVP of Player Recruitment & Soccer Operations] Peter Nugent found [Damus] and felt very strongly about him, and sure enough he’s come and proven himself,” said Wyss. “It’s what we want to accomplish, it’s the best feeling when it works out, it’s not as easy as it sometimes looks because there’s a lot of work that goes on beyond there, but it’s also a proof of concept that you can win, you can compete for a championship while developing young players if you have the right structure in place.”
“I think that’s what we’ve been working on for a few years, it’s nights like this where you reach the pinnacle of the USL Championship and one of our top asset players being the MVP of the game.”
For Orange County Head Coach Richard Chaplow, the night capped off what has been a stellar season for his leading scorer while also showing the potential of what could be around the corner.
“I remember watching Ronaldo, scouting him before he joined us,” said Chaplow. “Natural goalscorer, you see that tonight, finds the back of the net time and time again, probably could have had a hat trick, but he’s been great for us. I’m delighted he’s been named MVP, he deserves that, but with him there’s more growth, there’s more to come and we’re excited where that could take us.”
Certainly, there seems to be no lack of ambition from Damus himself. After recording 39 goals in 5,272 minutes in the past three seasons in the USL Championship and USL League One, an average of a goal every 135.2 minutes, the Haitian forward is hungry for more.
“Coming to Orange County and playing for Orange County was just a piece of my dream,” said Damus. “After the championship now, it’s just another part to continue being me. I’m going to continue to work harder and next season we’ll see what’s in store.”