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How Orange County showed green shoots of recovery despite late draw

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/20/23, 7:24AM EDT


Points dropped against Tampa Bay were a reminder of 2022, but display showed potential for return to success

Orange County SC's Milan Iloski was twice denied his first goal of the season as OCSC had to settle for a draw against the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC

You couldn’t blame Orange County SC supporters for getting a sense of déjà vu at the end of Saturday night’s home contest against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

The hosts had taken a halftime lead through Lasse Nielsen’s first goal in the club’s colors five minutes before the break, and then had multiple chances to add to that lead in the second half that were denied by a resolute Rowdies’ back line.

And then, inevitably, Tampa Bay found an equalizer with an well-executed set piece that pulled them level with eight minutes to go.

There were numerous reasons why Orange County went from the 2021 USL Championship title to a last-placed finish in the Western Conference last season, but the club’s inability to hold onto leads was among them. OCSC dropped 23 points from winning positions overall in the regular season, and only won twice after holding halftime leads.

Despite that, the green shoots of a potential recovery for Head Coach Richard Chaplow’s new-look side were clearly visible on Saturday night.

The hosts outplayed the perennial Eastern Conference contender – albeit one undergoing its own transformation at the moment – for good spells. Orange County had marginally less possession, but looked much more incisive when it had the ball as Milan Iloski was left frustrated by Tampa Bay defender Aaron Guillen’s brilliant goal-line clearance in the 61st minute, and then by Rowdies goalkeeper Phil Breno on a half-volleyed finish from United States U-19 international call-up Korede Osundina with 13 minutes to go.

At this point of the season, it was a performance after which Chaplow’s glass felt half-full.

“I thought it was an impressive performance by us,” said Chaplow. “We deserved the goal and probably could have scored a second, maybe one more going into halftime. We [told] the team at halftime to keep the foot on the gas and push even harder because in the first half I just didn't feel like we quite created enough good chances from the moments we had.

“Then second half, obviously they come out, they change everything … in shape and structure and personnel, which shows how good we were first half. We lost a little bit of momentum for 5-10 minutes but had by far the better chances again second half.”

There’s more positive news coming for Orange County, which should have late-offseason acquisition Thomas Amang as well as Marc McNulty to add to its attacking options. Owen Lambe was an unused substitute on Saturday, too, and should offer a good two-way option on the right.

“We are still strong and will get stronger,” said Chaplow. “And the performance today I think was a level up from last week. We just didn't get the points we deserved.”

The next level Orange County needs? The ability to put away results contenders always seem to find.

After leaving too many points on the table a season ago, it would be the final piece OCSC needs to become a contender again.

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