Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC
On Saturday the two sides will continue what has quickly become a tense rivalry as they meet for the first time in the USL Cup Playoffs. After neither side was able to take victory in the regular season this year, the teams instead producing three thrilling draws, the Western Conference Semifinal (8:30 p.m. ET | Preview) is sure to be another tight one at Toyota Field.
“I think at this time of year, each game you have to play on its merits and OKC is always put together really well, and they come with a game plan and I feel like all the games we’ve played against them have been extremely tight, hence the five draws,” said SAFC Head Coach Darren Powell. “For us it’s a matter of finding places to break them down, because they’re extremely well organized while also making sure we continue to defend the way we’ve been doing all year.”
As OKC continued to prove last week, a team's record does not matter anymore once the playoffs arrive. with Energy FC's upset of Reno 1868 FC one of three games out of the eight matchups that saw the lower seed advance on the road. With that in mind OKC Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen is not taking anything for granted in a big match in San Antonio.
“This game here has its own life, the regular season is one thing and the playoffs are completely different," said Nielsen. "It’s a big mental game too for the guys, how do they respond playing in those stressful situations? And it is stressful, you lose and you’re out, you win and you continue, so there’s a lot on the plate for the guys.”
A measure of the tension between the club's? In this season's prior three matches there were only two goals scored between the sides as they finished in a 1-1 draw on July 14 at Toyota Field. That reflects the emphasis both clubs have placed on defensive solidity, with SAFC sporting the best defensive record in the USL, and Energy FC having conceded only three goals in its past five contests, all victories.
“Maybe the score has not been the highest, but the quality has been really high. It has been two very, very good teams against one another and I expect the same on Saturday,” said Nielsen. “Two teams that will come out and give everything they have and it’s a complete 50-50 game. If anyone is favorite it must be San Antonio since they are hosting.”
Hosting certainly provides an advantage for SAFC. The side has lost just once at home in 2017, allowing only 10 goals in 16 regular-season contests, making it phenomenally difficult to beat. That advantage comes not only from getting the home support behind you but also having familiarity in the build-up to a game instead of heading out on the road into an environment that may not be completely familiar.
“At home you have your own routines, the players have their own routines, the training has its own routine because there’s not the travel,” said Powell. “For us, we pride ourselves on being able to play teams wherever we have to play them, and feel like we have to come out and focus on our performance on a daily basis and on a game by game.”
As the No. 6-seed in the Western Conference, the road to USL Cup is certainly going to be a longer one as far as Energy FC is concerned. After a gruelling trip to face 1868 FC last week, Energy FC hit the road on Thursday to make the trek down to Texas.
“Being in Oklahoma there’s not a lot of direct flights lots of places, so it would be the same time traveling flying to San Antonio like it is taking the bus,” said Nielsen. "It is what it is, if we’d have qualified higher in the regular season we would have some more home games, we didn’t, and we’re paying the price for that now.”
With the team on a five-game winning streak, though, spirits are high for Energy FC. After seeing standout forward Jose Angulo claim October's USL Player of the Month award on Thursday, the manner in which OKC's attack has come around in recent weeks has been pleasing for Nielsen.
The addition of Angulo, the 2013 USL Most Valuable Player, in a mid-season loan deal from Saint Louis FC has certainly paid off handsomely. With 15 goals in the regular-season, Angulo matched his career-high, and could pose plenty of questions for SAFC's defense.
“He [Angulo] is in a good run of form, so our job will be to set ourselves up defensively, and each player will have his particular role to play,” said Powell. “It’s never necessarily one person’s responsibility, it’s always the collective, collectively how we want to defend, and how we want to attack.”
San Antonio also has an in-form striker in Ever Guzman, who was also nominated for Player of the Month in October. While the Mexican forward notched the game-winner last week against Tulsa Roughnecks FC for SAFC, however, Nielsen refused to focus on one player, showing concern for everything Saturday's hosts will throw at his side in the attacking third.
“I think Guzman is a very intelligent player and he’s a very good finisher in front of the goal, when you have a quality player like Kris Tyrpak on the bench I think it just tells you all about their quality,” said Nielsen. “It’s a top quality team, Billy Forbes, Guzman, and they have [Jamaican international Omar] Gordon on the opposite wing now. There’s a lot of individuals that deserve a lot of credit from San Antonio but overall I think they’re very good as a team.”
As tough as Saturday's contest will be for both sides, it could also set the winner up for a first trip to the USL Cup on Nov. 13.
“In any playoff campaign, you have to beat the best to be the best. If that means we have to beat OKC to get to the next round, well, we’ll have to do that,” said SAFC winger Billy Forbes. “OKC has a good team but to us we’re not going to think too much about OKC because we have to do what’s worked for us all season long.”
“Mentally, and physically we’ve got to prepare ourselves," said Nielsen. "It took a lot out of the guys that game in Reno and we’ve got to prepare ourselves physically, mentally, for another tough, tough battle. The good thing is that we have played San Antonio three times this year, so we know what they stand for, I’m not saying that’s going to benefit us, but it’s definitely going to benefit this week leading up to it, we know what we’re going to face.
“The problem is, San Antonio is so good at what they’re doing so no matter if you know, or you don’t know it doesn’t really matter. We know they are good as a team and have some good individuals and again we’ve got to pull out something extraordinary to win in San Antonio.”