The Tampa Bay Rowdies' Lewis Hilton and Orange County SC's Ronaldo Damus could have major roles to play if their side is to claim the 2021 USL Championship Final on Sunday night.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A little over seven months after it began, the 2021 USL Championship Final arrives on Sunday night as the Eastern Conference title-winning Tampa Bay Rowdies play host to the Western Conference title-winner Orange County SC at AL Lang Stadium at 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN | ESPN Deportes | SiriusXM FC).
During a dramatic past month in the playoffs, the Rowdies’ quality and desire to claim a first Championship title has been on display for much of the season has carried them through. The run of results, capped by a thrilling extra time victory against Louisville City FC last Saturday night, kept the pre-postseason favorites alive and at home as the two-time Eastern Conference title winner.
The road has been trickier for Orange County, which made a mid-season coaching change before righting the ship to claim its first trip to the Championship Final in its 11th season overall after consecutive penalty shootout victories in the Conference Semifinals and last week’s Conference Final.
So, what could be the key factors for either team lifting the trophy? Here are three reasons why each club could claim the crown.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies, led by Sebastian Guenzatti, celebrate their second consecutive Eastern Conference title last Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
1. Defensive Solidity Provides Foundation
As the Tampa Bay Rowdies earned the best record in the league, the balance across the lineup was in full evidence. Tampa Bay recorded the second-best goal differential in the Championship at +32 and was one of seven teams to record at least 55 goals with captain Sebastian Guenzatti leading the way with 21 tallies to earn All-League First Team honors
But if there’s one thing the Rowdies could hang their hat on this season it was their defensive efficiency. Tampa Bay conceded the fewest shots on target in the league during the regular season with 86, while also recording 82 blocked shots. That could prove a major challenge for an Orange County attack that was in the middle of the pack this season with only Haiti international Ronaldo Damus providing a consistent scoring threat.
Orange County was around league average in total shots (OC: 384/ League: 394.8), shots on target (OC: 142/ League: 141.7), Conversion Rate (OC: 14.5/ League: 15.3), and goals (OC: 44/ League: 46). Should the Rowdies’ defense live up to its prior performance, it could be a very long night for the visitors at Al Lang Stadium.
2. Set Pieces Could Prove Pivotal
The aerial presence the Tampa Bay Rowdies have utilized in their success in the final third has been impressive all season, to the tune of the side leading the league with 13 headed goals across the regular season and playoffs. That’s accounted for 20 percent of the club’s 65 overall goals and set pieces have been a major factor in that number.
Tampa Bay’s ability to create off corner kicks and free kicks is among the best in the league with main set-piece taker Lewis Hilton leading the league with 48 chances created from set pieces out of 70 overall. The Rowdies as a result have recorded 10 goals from corner kicks – tied for third in the league behind Louisville City FC and Phoenix Rising FC on 11 – and an additional four goals from free kick situations.
Orange County has been good at defending set pieces overall this season. It’s only allowed three goals off corner kicks and two off free kicks, a sign of the organization the side has had in place in its own penalty area. The challenge for the visitors, however, could be matching up with Forrest Lasso (6-foot-6) and Steevan Dos Santos (6-foot-4), both of whom provide major targets for Hilton’s deliveries and a potential path for success for the hosts.
3. Pacific Division Performance
Sunday night will mark the first meeting between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Orange County SC in their histories, but the return of interconference play this season to the Championship gave Tampa Bay a chance to experience competition against three of Orange County’s Pacific Division foes. Judging from those results, the Rowdies could feel confident about their chances.
The Rowdies claimed victory at home against both division winner Phoenix Rising FC (2-1) and Oakland Roots SC (3-0) while also winning on the road against Las Vegas Lights FC (2-1) on the final day of the regular season to clinch the best record in the league. What’s more, in all three of the contests, the Rowdies held a decisive edge in Expected Goals.
TBRvPHX (5/15/21) – Tampa Bay 2.49xG, Phoenix 0.66xG
TBRvOAK (9/3/21) – Tampa Bay 2.97xG, Oakland 0.15xG
LVvTBR (10/30/21) – Las Vegas 0.76xG, Tampa Bay 1.94xG
There’s been a substantial edge when it comes to home teams in prior Championship Finals – Real Monarchs SLC was the first road team to win, breaking a streak of eight consecutive home wins, in 2019. The Rowdies are strong favorites going in, and for good reason.
Orange County SC's Michael Orozco and President of Soccer Operations Oliver Wyss celebrate the club's Western Conference title last Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
1. Never Underestimate a Proper Underdog
It’s not hard to understand the sentiment from Orange County SC captain Michael Orozco when he was asked about the feeling in the squad after none of its players were named to the USL Championship All-League Team last week despite putting together another fine season on the West Coast.
“To be honest, I feel like it’s a little bit of disrespect because the team has been putting in great performances,” said Orozco. “We were No. 2 in our [division], great players, great talent in terms of the team. I think not being in either the ‘A’ or the ‘B’ team, I don’t think it’s fair … but we are who we are because of our hard work. We don’t depend on anybody, we depend on ourselves and we have one thing in mind, which is the Championship, and then obviously we’ll get some kind of credit.”
The underdog mentality is one that can be pervasive these days – even clear favorites say ‘no-one believed in us’ as they battle for glory – but in this case Orange County’s absence from the league’s honorees this year could provide a powerful motivator to make a strong start and overall statement in the club’s first Championship Final.
2. Grind the Gears, Make it Happen
The mid-season coaching change that moved former club captain and assistant coach Richard Chaplow might have marked a turning point in Orange County SC’s season, but the club’s ability to grind out victories down the home stretch – notably a 1-0 result against San Diego Loyal SC on October 20 that proved decisive in the battle for second place in the Pacific Division – paved the way to the playoff run the side is currently on.
It hasn’t always been flowing, champagne soccer – two high-flying home performances against Las Vegas Lights FC produced 6.86 Expected Goals out of the club’s 22.72xG since Chaplow’s appointment on August 19 – but it has been effective as the club’s defense has bent but not broken with goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky taking center stage. Orange County has become a difficult side to play against – it hasn’t trailed for a minute this postseason – and has held leads well, dropping only two points from a winning position in the final 13 games of the regular season.
As good as the Rowdies’ attack has been this season – including 10 goals so far this postseason on an Expected Goals mark of 9.13xG – Orange County’s ability to stay tight in its defensive third could offer a chance for the visitors to grab victory.
3. Ronaldo Damus Could be Gamechanger
Over the course of Orange County’s strong finish to the season, there have been a few players come up with key moments in front of goal. Ben Mines – on loan from FC Cincinnati – delivered back-to-back game-winners against Phoenix Rising FC on October 13 and then three days later against Oakland Roots SC. Against San Diego Loyal SC on October 20 it was Eric Calvillo’s turn, while Thomas Enevoldsen scored in stoppage time to send the side to victory against the LA Galaxy II on the final day of the regular season.
If there’s one player Orange County needs to get a big game from on Sunday night in the attacking third, though, it’s likely to be Ronaldo Damus, who has notched both the club’s goals this postseason to move to 16 goals for the campaign overall. Damus has been the central figure for OCSC’s attack – no-one else in the squad has recorded more than four goals – but despite opponents knowing the Haiti international is the man to key on, he’s still found a way to make a positive impact.
Damus own potential progression could be in the spotlight as well on Sunday. After claiming the USL League One title two years ago with North Texas SC, he made the move to the Championship with Orange County this season and has provided the ability for the side to both stretch opposing defenses and hold up play when necessary. His +9.00 Goals Added rating ranks 11th in the Championship through the regular season and playoffs and is comfortably the highest mark in the OCSC squad. If Damus comes through for the visitors, it may not only prove crucial for Orange County, but could help propel the next step for the 22-year-old striker.