Orange County had an exceptional 2018 season, topping the West during the regular season and narrowly losing out to Phoenix in the Western Conference Final. It was a surprise to media, fans, and even to the club staff. But with the 2019 season, expectations are much higher and many view the team to be USL Cup contenders.
Spearheaded by contract extensions for Michael Seaton and Aodhan Quinn at the end of last season, Orange County brought a key group of players back. Christian Duke enters the second year of his contract, while outside backs Owusu-Ansah, Joe Amico, and Kevin Alston, center back Walker Hume, winger Darwin Jones, and striker Giovanny Ramos-Godoy were re-signed in early December. Most of these players contributed heavily to last season’s successes, but a couple players have big roles to fill.
Walker Hume is one of these players. He was used sparingly after the emergence of Jos Hooiveld last June, however his performances over the last two seasons suggest that he is quite capable of leading Orange County’s back four. The bigger question lies in Aaron Cervantes, 2018’s third-choice keeper. Orange County’s youngest ever player, he has had varying performances throughout the preseason and still looked to be a project for the future. Still - no other keepers are present on the roster, so the teenager will have his hands full as he looks to make his professional debut in Reno.
Additionally, the club brought in a few fresh faces, most notably in English winger Harry Forrester (Tractor Sazi) and his central midfielder compatriot Liam Trotter (AFC Wimbledon). Both come to Orange County following disappointing spells at their respective clubs, but both have also had success in years prior within the EFL pyramid. Forrester arrived lacking fitness and Trotter arrived with some serious questions about his speed. Nonetheless, both should be some of the more naturally talented and experienced players in a deep midfield and are likely eying trials with MLS clubs at the end of the year. To do so they will have to play big roles for Orange County in 2019, but first they must displace an established midfield rotation.
Charlie Adams (Real Monarchs) completes the English contingent at the club, arriving after a career year in Utah, tallying 6 goals and two assists in 32 appearances. He is another left-footed and attacking-minded midfielder who will likely pair up with Aodhan Quinn at the front of the midfield. Rounding out the international contingent are two familiar faces: Japanese midfielder Koji Hashimoto and Dutch winger Jerry van Wolfgang (née van Ewijk) (Reno 1868). Hashimoto had a quiet 2018, with an injury hampering much of his summer. However, he scored a wonderful free kick in San Antonio and scored OC’s lone goal of the Western Conference Finals. van Wolfgang’s return provides a great deal of pace and a natural left winger to bolster in the Orange County front three. He also brings dangerous right-footed option for free kicks. He is another player likely eying a chance to enter the MLS as he nears the prime of his career.
Of course, the club’s focus on developing local talent is continuing, with the return of UCI graduate Giovanni Ramos-Godoy and the arrivals of fellow Anteater alum Danny Crisostomo and former OCSC U23 player and Concordia graduate Connor Gordon. Further, Encinitas product Sebastien Des Pres arrives from Fleetwood Town, a young and strong defensive-minded midfielder. All four are young and talented players who will likely provide competition and cover for Orange County’s starters. Each showed their quality in the the preseason and will likely earn some minutes in the Open Cup, but also offer the club “super subs” to continue breaking down defenses and shore up close leads late in matches.
2018’s Open Cup result for Orange County was extremely disappointing, with the 4-2 loss the FC Golden State Force featuring the entirety of the regular starting eleven. Fans expected a better performance last year, and this year will be no different. With the greater squad depth in 2019, it is likely for the club to give backup players a chance to show their abilities in what we hope to be a decent cup run.
But the league is certain to be the club’s main focus, and anything short of the Western Conference Finals is going to be a disappointment. Losing Thomas Enevoldsen and his 20 goals to Indy Eleven will be a massive hole to fill. It seems like the recruitment staff have put their faith in Seaton up top and looked out to the wings for more chances and goals this year. Head coach Braeden Cloutier and his staff have an established style and there have been no suggestions that there will be a change to the high press that was ever-present in 2018. Even with just one current center back, analysis website FiveThirtyEight predicts Orange County to easily drive into the playoffs and again feature against Western Conference giants and rivals Phoenix Rising FC in the Western Conference Finals. While Phoenix is the early favorite for that match, there’s a lot of soccer to be played in the meantime, and those returning from last year will want to set the record straight.
There are rightfully questions involving the extremely deep midfield in relation to natural strikers and central defenders, but MLS loans are likely to fill out the rest of the roster as they have in years past. Still, the team should start the season strong, relying heavily on the returning core and the new guys who have been training together through the late winter. When defensive questions are answered and some of the new big names impress, Orange County fans will have a lot to look forward to throughout the summer and deep into the fall as well. Only one thing is for certain, and it comes in the form of a cliché: time will tell.