Orange County SC's Giovanni Ramos Godoy high-fives with fans after the club's Western Conference Semifinals victory against Reno 1868 FC. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
IRVINE, Calif. – Before the 2018 USL regular season appeared on the horizon in March, certain teams were placed in certain categories in terms of expectations for the upcoming year, as is commonplace for fans and media alike.
With the squad Orange County SC had assembled on paper, the side that had missed the USL Cup Playoffs in 2017 wasn’t quite in the category of strong USL Cup contenders, but its offseason signings had put the club and new Head Coach Braeden Cloutier firmly into the championship dark horse category.
So that makes it understandable that for Cloutier, there’s a curious yet understandable mixture of feelings in how things have played out for his side, which will play in its first Western Conference Final on Saturday night when it hosts Phoenix Rising FC at Champions Soccer Stadium (10 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
“To tell you the truth, I’m not surprised, but I am surprised, if that makes any sense,” said Cloutier this week. “Ultimately the work we put in this past offseason with Peter Nugent and I really just grafting and trying to put together a good-quality team, and within that working with Frans Hoek to create a philosophy and identity and a structure within a system of play and create player profiles within that, it took a lot of hard work.
“Then going out and finding the players is never easy. We really started with a completely clean slate except for a couple of players like Richard Chaplow, we had to build from scratch. Through the process, at the end of the day when we started the season we looked back and we were like, ‘yeah, we’ve been able to put together a really quality side that I think can do a bit of damage in the league.’”
Orange County has done a lot more than a ‘bit of damage’, to use Cloutier’s words. In finishing on top of the Western Conference, the side produced some of the best attacking soccer seen in the league over the course of the regular season as it finished fourth in the USL with 70 goals and second with 51 assists as the recruitment strategy that Cloutier and Nugent implemented paid off handsomely.
Orange County SC Head Coach Braeden Cloutier helped assemble then lead his side to a first-place finish in the Western Conference in the 2018 USL regular season. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
The arrival of players like Cloutier’s first two signings Aodhan Quinn – who finished second in the league with 14 assists this season and contributed 11 goals – and Christian Duke helped redefine where Orange County saw itself under the new leadership of owner James Keston. One of the original members of the league’s modern era when it kicked off in 2011 under the stewardship of Ali Mansouri, the club has taken a major leap forward in the past two years.
“I’m grateful to Ali, because Ali is extremely passionate, he loved it, but he just couldn’t sustain it to where the league was heading,” said Cloutier, who joined Orange County as an assistant coach prior to the 2015 season. “James came in and gave us that ability to lay a foundation. The evolution of the last four years for me has seen where the club has been and where the league is going, and then this last offseason obviously getting the opportunity. We were able to start three, four months sooner than we ever had before in identifying players.”
Quinn and Duke represented one of four areas of recruitment that Orange County targeted, which have helped the side achieve the success it has found this year. Picking up experienced veterans from MLS sides like Kevin Alston, or loanees like goalkeeper Andre Rawls and defender Alex Crognale, has been critical defensively. As has finding the right fit from the international market where the club found attacking pieces in Danish forward Thomas Enevoldsen and Michael Seaton – who had been in Europe after stints with D.C United and the Portland Timbers in MLS – who have combined to score 35 goals this season.
That goal total is second in the league this season to only Louisville City FC’s duo of Cameron Lancaster and Ilija Ilic (38 goals), and with both Quinn and Seaton already having been announced as returning next season, the sort of continuity that the defending USL Cup champion has built within its squad is something Orange County is aiming to model itself after this offseason and beyond.
“For us to build any kind of stability and keep this thing going in the right direction, you have to have a good, solid base of players,” said Cloutier. “You look at what Louisville did the last couple of years, I think they retained I think 15, 16 guys from the previous year. It makes a solid foundation, it helps obviously as a coach because then you’re not having to educate 17, 18 players on how you want to play, these guys already know how you want to play and for them to come back now makes our job a lot easier this offseason of identifying and signing new players.
“On the back of a good season you get a lot of interest from the top players from around the league, where it’s not just guys looking for jobs, it’s guys that have the ability to do the research and opportunity to pick and choose where they want to go. They obviously see what we’re doing here and want to be a part of it.”
Midfielder Aodhan Quinn's arrival this offseason at Orange County SC was one of numerous key moves the club made to turn itself into a championship contender this season. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
With more player announcements set to be made soon from within the current squad according to Cloutier, the building blocks appear to be in place for Orange County to establish itself as a championship contender year-in and year-out.
But after a breakout campaign that has seen OCSC claim not only its first postseason successes, but also put itself one win away from reaching the USL Cup for the first time, the last thing Cloutier wants to do is rest on his laurels.
“The big thing is for the success we’ve had this season, there’s not one of us that sits back and says, ‘OK, we’ve made it,’ and gets to sit back and take out a cigar,” said Cloutier. “Even for me and my development as a coach, I think I’ve only scratched the surface of what I’m capable of doing. I constantly want to get better and improve, so a combination of that, the squad, the style of soccer I want to play, everything is still kind of in its infancy.”