With the club’s season in the balance, Orange County SC Head Coach Richard Chaplow went into Friday night’s crucial contest against rival Phoenix Rising FC with a luxury he hasn’t had for most of the year.
“We have pretty much a full healthy roster for the first time this season, which is a crazy thought,” said Chaplow. “So, the competition for places is strong now, and the guys know they have to play for the shirt.”
From the stalwarts that helped lead the side to the USL Championship title a season ago like former United States international Michael Orozco and recently returned midfielder Dillon Powers, to newcomers like Erick “Cubo” Torres, the hosts put in a display that lived up to their preseason billing. The 2-1 victory against Rising FC – which is facing its own battle for postseason contention – before another enthusiastic crowd at Championship Soccer Stadium pulled OCSC within seven points of the playoff positions with 10 games to play.
Powers played a key role, providing the assist on the second goal of the night by Milan Iloski, who scored twice to move to a league-leading 18 goals this season in a game Orange County almost had to win.
“Obviously a win is massive for us in the place we are right now as a group,” said Chaplow. “The guys were phenomenal tonight. It was a real calm and controlled performance, inspired by our fans in the fight that they’re showing for us off the field, which is something we discussed before going out. It was nice that the guys took that energy and fight into the game.”
As positive as others were on Friday night, though, Iloski remains the essential element. His two goals against Phoenix now give him six tallies in the past three games, and this season his combined 18 goals and three assists have seen him directly contribute to 53.8 percent of Orange County’s 39 goals.
Orange County SC's Milan Iloski is congratulated by teammate Erick "Cubo" Torres after his second goal of the night against Phoenix Rising FC at Championship Soccer Stadium. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
After sitting out in the club’s 3-3 draw against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC last weekend due to a minor injury, Iloski remains second on the club in minutes played, trailing only 19-year-old defender Alex Villanueva. That pressure will not relent any time soon, with OCSC set to return to action next Wednesday night for another key game against a side it will need to pass to return to the postseason, Las Vegas Lights FC.
That’s followed by what on paper is a brutal run-in, including visits to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Sacramento Republic FC, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and a potentially crucial final game of the season at current Western Conference leader San Antonio FC on October 15.
“A lot of these guys have played a lot of a minutes, so they are battle hardened,” said Chaplow. “A few of them have felt it last week, such as Cubo and Milan … so it is nice to have them both back tonight. Obviously, Milan gets his goals and Cubo was back out there doing his thing for us. Rest and recovery is always important, but we have to enjoy this one and look forward to Wednesday.”
With Iloski leading the way on Friday night, though, Orange County opened the door a little wider to another improbable late season run.