After a tumultuous season, Oakland Roots SC rallied late to earn a place in the 2022 USL Championship Playoffs presented by Hisense, and are now among the final eight teams vying for the title. | Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC
Sitting in a hotel in Pittsburgh, Oakland Roots SC interim Head Coach Noah Delgado had had enough.
With 35 minutes gone between the LA Galaxy II and Las Vegas Lights FC in the final game of the 2022 USL Championship regular season – the game that would determine Roots SC’s playoff fate – he turned off the stream and told his assistants no more updates.
“I didn't want anyone to tell me updates or anything,” Delgado said this week. “I was sitting with the other coaches, and they would say ‘Hey!’ and I would say ‘I don’t want to hear it, let me enjoy this time I have right now.’”
On the other hand, midfielder Charlie Dennis – like his teammates – was glued to the action.
“Me and a couple of the lads were downtown at a bar, and we had the phones out watching,” said Dennis. “That game was end-to-end, it could have ended 5-4. It ended up being 1-1, luckily, and we all celebrated in the hotel.”
Oakland’s second consecutive trip to the postseason couldn’t have come with much more drama throughout the season. There were the on-field heroics – Oakland scored 18 goals in the final 15 minutes of games in the regular season, double their best 15-minute span otherwise, to salvage 16 points from losing positions, third-most in the Championship.
Then there were the off-field challenges, including with two months to go in the season the departure of Head Coach Juan Guerra to Phoenix Rising FC. Midseason coaching changes aren’t uncommon in the USL Championship – last year one of the teams to make a midseason change in Orange County SC ended up claiming the league title in the postseason – but a manager jumping to a side his former club was battling for playoff position had no precedent in league history.
For Delgado, who had been retained by Guerra after working as an assistant coach to Jordan Ferrell during Roots SC’s first season in the Championship in 2021, the week proved a whirlwind.
Oakland Roots SC interim Head Coach Noah Delgado led the side to five victories in its final nine games of the season, enough to rally to the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference. | Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC
“Everything happened really, really quickly,” said Delgado. “I didn’t want to see him leave, as a friend, but I wished him the best and then got ready for the new role.”
For the players – who at the time were preparing for a crucial away game at San Diego Loyal SC – it moved just as quickly, only with less clarity on what was happening behind the scenes.
“We were training one day and then next thing you know, he was gone, he was out the door and that was that really,” said Dennis. “There was a lot of stuff, rumors going on, we didn't know too much as players. Then slowly the situation got resolved and Noah stepped up from his assistant role into the head coach role.”
As one of the players signed by Guerra last offseason after he had taken the reins in Oakland, Dennis has mixed emotions – but a sense of reality – about the way the situation played out.
“Originally, he was the one that brought me to Oakland, I’ll definitely forever be grateful for that,” said Dennis. “He gave me the opportunity to wear the Oakland jersey, to play, he gave me the minutes, so to see him go wasn’t the nicest thing, but I know that’s part of the game. It’s professional football. It’s a tough business, and it is a business at the end of the day. He had to do what was best for him.”
Delgado, meanwhile, had a playoff drive to try and orchestrate.
“It was a unique moment where everyone’s really kind of not knowing what’s going on,” said Delgado. “I said, ‘hey, we’ve got nine games left to play. We know where we stand outside the playoffs, but we have an amazing opportunity to do something special. It's important that we come together as a club, as a team, as a staff, and take advantage of this opportunity that we’re getting.’”
There was, at least, a sense of continuity with Delgado taking the helm. His familiarity with the squad – those he’d worked with in 2021 and the newcomers this year – saw the side deliver an inspired performance to win 3-1 against SD Loyal in his first game on August 24. Consecutive defeats to Sacramento Republic FC and San Antonio FC, however, left Roots SC rated a 13 percent chance to reach the postseason as it faced Phoenix and Guerra on September 10.
A pair of goals in the opening half-hour by Lindo Mfeka – his first tallies of an injury-hit season – paved the way to a nerve-wracking but gratifying 2-0 victory for the visitors.
“It was really a six-point game,” said Dennis. “I think you’d see in the quality that we showed on that day, we’d showed it at times throughout the season, that we’re a team that on our day can go up against anyone in the league. It was great to go there and win and really make a statement to the league that we’re going make a push here.”
The result began a five-game undefeated streak that catapulted Oakland up the standings. The run included a victory at home against Eastern Conference contender Birmingham Legion FC thanks to a late winner by Juan Carlos Azocar and on the road against a Hartford Athletic side that had seen a bounce in form under new Head Coach Tab Ramos.
Roots SC had to sweat out the Los Dos-Lights FC game of the season after falling on the road to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC – a Las Vegas victory would have sent Lights FC to the postseason ahead of them – but after earning a place in the 2022 USL Championship Playoffs presented by Hisense the side made the most of its chance. Oakland’s 3-0 victory against San Diego last Sunday night saw Dennis score a standout finish, Mfeka find the net again, and the visitors advance to the Western Conference Semifinals for a second consecutive year.
The resilience the squad has shown to come through when needed has been the most pleasing aspect for Delgado, who is now 6-3-1 as the side’s head coach across the regular season and playoffs.
“Being able to play under pressure,” said Delgado about what’s impressed him most. “We’re playing in moments where you know you have to get results, you have to get wins, you have to get some points out there. [Then] dealing with change, a coaching change, staff change, dealing with all that. I think at the end of the season they won five out of nine games with one draw, and previously we won six games before that all season.”
That ability to play under pressure will be key again on Friday night as Roots SC visits Western Conference No. 1 seed San Antonio FC for a place in the Western Conference Final. Oakland earned a 1-1 result when it last visited Toyota Field behind a stellar six-save display by goalkeeper Paul Blanchette as SAFC piled on pressure to try and claim victory late, and after falling 2-0 in the rematch at Laney College in early September the side is under no illusions as to the challenge ahead.
“They’re a direct team, they’re a physical team,” said Dennis. “They’re powerful, they’ve got some great players and defensively they’re very strong. I think they’ve conceded the least goals in the whole league. But, yeah, we know areas of the field that we can get the better of them.”
“I think it'll come down to fine margins. Whoever shows a bit more quality will go through to the final.”
Oakland Roots SC midfielder Charlie Dennis has started nine of the side's last 10 games, playing an important midfield role in Oakland's late-season resurgence. | Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC
After coming within a penalty shootout of advancing at this stage a season ago, Oakland believes its passage to this moment has prepared it for whatever comes next.
“They just got to a point where the trainings were very intense and people understood what was on the line,” said Delgado. “Now they’re at a point where they’re just really understanding moments, and how important these moments are.
“[San Antonio is] a team that works extremely hard defensively, very solid physically, a big, physical, athletic team. We’re going to have to match it with our work rate, where we have to keep the ball, being able to defend set pieces, create a rhythm and try to make it our style of play.”