Game Notes & Player Ratings: Two stoppage-time goals lifts Oakland Roots over Orange County

You’ve got to love this game. Emotional, exhilarating, heart-wrenching, dramatic; so many words can describe the Oakland Roots’ 3-2 comeback victory against Orange County SC. Both Juan Guerra and Ottar Magnus Karlsson’s postgame interviews put in perspective the victory when reflecting on the passing of Memo Diaz’s father earlier this week–the win carried much more value than just three points on the table.

“It was a hard week for everybody, man. We’re heartbroken. We’re happy that we got three points, but we’re heartbroken. I’ve been hurt these past three days,” said Guerra with eyes welling, gathering his emotions. “I’m happy we were able to win tonight, I’m sure Memo was able to watch it.”

When reminding Karlsson that he’s the leading goal scorer in Oakland Roots’ history, he quickly responded that Memo and the Diaz family were on his mind.

“I’m not really thinking about that. At the moment, tonight is about Memo. We talked about before the game about what happened a couple of days ago. Our minds are with Memo’s family and that’s all I’m really thinking about right now, that was for him, ” mentioned Karlsson.

“It was really sad news for everybody, it was emotional when we heard the message, especially for him and his family.”

Karlsson stepped to the ball in the fifth minute of stoppage time for his free kick around 10 yards above the penalty area. He describes a sense of reassurance that his shot was about to land while aligning the ball in front of him.

“When I scored that goal, it felt like it was supposed to happen. For somebody up there [looks toward the sky], we did it for him. It was like it was automatic, I had some feeling when I stepped down to take the ball. It was kind of effortless, to be honest. I’m happy that it went in and I’m happy we got the win,” said Karlsson.

Ottar approached with his tip-toes toward his attempt before following through with a left-footed rocket toward the right post and past Patrick Rakovsky.

Pure. Pandemonium.

Karlsson’s emergence as a leader doesn’t came as alarming to the players, coaches, or front office. But the 25-year old Icelander is making waves in his first USL Championship season likely unexpected by many throughout the league. He’s first-place in the Golden Boot race with 10 goals, two ahead of San Diego’s Kyle Vassell, and already the face of the franchise in goals scored.

“I’ve played in many countries so far, so I’m used to stepping into new environments. For me, it’s always nice to be in new surroundings and get a new opportunity to show my qualities. I’m really happy that I’m here. The fans are amazing, it’s so nice to have them every game. I really feel like we’re a unit,” said Karlsson. See his full interview on Youtube.

When trailing 2-1, all the signs were pointing toward Orange County walking out of Laney College with three points after Roots dropped an early 1-0 lead. But Juan Carlos Azocar struck in at 90+3′, thanks to elusive dribbling by Lindo Mfeka to find Darek Formella on the left side, while the Polish winger found Azocar on the overlap.

Azocar, taking a step to his right in possession, curled his right-footed shot from the left side past Rakovsky. It marked the Venezuelan’s third goal in a Roots’ uniform, currently second on the team.

Prior to the mayhem that ensued in those final two minutes (which required me to re-think all of the seven questions I had written), Oakland trailed 2-1 just three minutes earlier with the visitors carrying all of the momentum while making it difficult for Roots to find clear shooting lanes.

“Tonight, we were good at times. We were a very strong team in the first 25 minutes and we were doing things the way we want to do them, but then we lost rhythm after that. We gave them the ball, we started making silly mistakes. Their goal comes and I think we got nervous, and lost the rhythm of the game. I wasn’t happy with the last 20 minutes of the first half and I wasn’t happy with the second half either,” said Guerra.

Pulling off wins when you’re not playing at your best is the characteristic of any playoff organization. To reach the postseason, Oakland will have to continue finding ways to eek out victories, but also put together more solid performances for a full 90 minutes.

“Us getting three points tonight is important, we keep moving up and have to start thinking about Saturday. We’ve played games this year where we played very well and we lost. We also played games where we dominated and we tied. Tonight wasn’t the prettiest, but we won. That’s something important because good teams that make it far in this league find ways to win even when they aren’t at their best. Tonight, we weren’t at our best and got three points,” said Guerra.

The Roots are still looking to put together that perfect 90-minute performance. In Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Sacramento, Oakland struggled in the first half. On Wednesday, things began to unravel in the middle stages of the first half and it carried into the second before the Comeback Kids maintained their late-game reputation. Now, the mission is to put together a full game in Monterey this Saturday.

“Like you said earlier, this week hasn’t been easy. It’s a three-game week where the guys are still recovering from the Sacramento game, where we pushed to the last minute as well. It’s games that demand a lot, mentally and physically. Tonight, we had to push to the last second. Saturday, we’re going to play a Final again and you have to play away where they are doing things very well,” said Guerra. “In order to start putting together 90-minute performances, first of all, it’s concentration levels. Second of all, when we lose confidence against teams like Orange County, you can’t do that. If we lose confidence, they in-turn start getting confidence, start grabbing the ball, and expose you in areas that you’re weak.”

Oakland pulled ahead early in the ninth minute when Karlsson used his right foot to kick in a ball that trickled around in the area after Chuy Enriquez sent in a corner. But from there, OC coach Richard Chaplow made adjustments to his system.

“Richard did a very good job. They started playing with a back-four with a 4-4-2 and we were gaining possession in the first 25 minutes and then he changed to a back-five. We tried to change to a back-four in order to gain more spaces in the buildup, but it wasn’t really working well. And then their goal came, and that’s when I felt we started getting nervous and we weren’t connecting as fast as we usually do. It was hard to progress down the field. If there’s a team I don’t want to be behind to, it’s Orange County; they defend very well and won a championship last year based on understanding how to defend. They absorb and embrace the pressure of defending,” said Guerra.

Similar to the Sacramento 1-1 draw, Guerra changed the system to a 4-4-2 in the final 10 minutes when subbing Johnny Rodriguez in for Danny Barbir to pack Oakland’s midfield with more midfielder. And, once again, it paid off.

“With 10 minutes to go, we decided to go in a 4-4-2 again. We put Johnny in and he was great. I think the 4-4-2 allowed us to pin back those three centerbacks and it allowed us to create more space for Lindo to operate in between those pockets. For 12 minutes, Ottar and Johnny were pinning back those defenders, and then Lindo was floating in those gaps very well. We were exposed defensively in a few transition moments, but we had to gamble,” said Guerra.

Given the success of the 4-4-2 for Guerra, it’s worth wondering if he’ll consider playing the formation earlier in matches. He thinks that it’s still important to continue building a base formation and find proper times to transition in order to keep opposing teams off balanced.

“Matches have so many characteristics. It’s not just tactical, it’s the moments and situations. It depends what the moment requires. We’re flexible, we can transform, and we can build out with four or three at the back. That gives me a lot of weapons and gives me a lot of ways to plan games. The most important thing for me is that the players adapt to them very well. The 4-4-2 to finish the game was the right idea, I don’t think it was the formation that was the issue from the 25th minute to the 75th, but more had to do with confidence levels,” said Guerra.

In the end, the comeback victory will be a moment Juan remembers forever.

“100 percent. So far this season has so many moments that I’ll remember forever. But, we’re not done. We have a lot of ways to go, this team has so much heart and character, and they also have a sense of belonging. They understand this city and organization that we represent, and they understand that they represent each other. We’re going to keep throwing punches all the way to November. We’re in a clear ascending curve.”

The win improves Oakland’s record to 3-7-4 with 16 points and gives the organization its first win against OCSC in seven attempts. Roots are currently in 10th, which could become ninth with a Las Vegas loss versus Colorado Springs tomorrow. They are two points shy of the seventh-place qualification zone and three points back of New Mexico in sixth. Top-10 Player Ratings

  1. Ottar Magnus Karlsson, 8.8

In 90 minutes, Karlsson scored twice with both shot attempts, completing nine of 16 passes, 1/2 long balls, created one chance, won 1/4 ground duels, 2/3 aerial duels, two recoveries, drew one foul, and finished with 26 total touches.

2. Juan Carlos Azocar, 8.1

In 90 minutes, Azocar scored once with four shots, two on target, and one blocked, while completing 22 of 27 passes, 1/6 crosses, took one corner, 4/6 successful dribbles, dribbled past one defender, won 8/12 ground duels, three recoveries, drew four fouls, and finished with 55 total touches.

3. Darek Formella, 7.6

In 90 minutes, Formella recorded one assist, had two shots on target, and completed 25 of 32 passes, 2/4 log balls, created two chances, had 1/3 successful dribbles, won 6/14 ground duels, 1/1 aerial duel, one recovery, drew six fouls, and finished with 53 total touches.

4. Emrah Klimenta, 7.5

In 90 minutes, Klimenta completed 39 of 59 passes, 5/13 long balls, created one chance, 1/3 successful dribbles, won 1/1 tackles, 2/6 ground duels, 4/4 aerial duels, blocked two shots, had one clearance, two interceptions, five recoveries, and finished with 80 total touches.

5. Chuy Enriquez, 7.5

In 69 minutes, Enriquez recorded one shot on target and completed 8 of 14 passes, 2/8 crosses, created two chances, took five corners, 1/3 successful dribbles, won 1/1 tackle, 5/8 ground duels, five recoveries, drew three fouls, and finished with 36 total touches.

6. Jose Hernandez, 7.4

In 90 minutes, Hernandez completed 58 of 71 passes, 2/4 long balls, 1/3 successful dribbles, won 1/1 tackle, 39 ground duels, one clearance, one interceptions, 11 recoveries, drew one foul, and finished with 81 total touches.

7. Benny Diaz, 7.3

In 90 minutes, Diaz recorded two saves by diving with one inside the box and completed 31 of 42 passes, seven throws, one high claim, 10 recoveries, and 52 total touches.

8. Matias Fissore, 7.3

In 69 minutes, Fissore completed 31 of 38 passes, 1/2 crosses, 2/4 long balls, created one chance, 1/1 successful dribble, dribbled past two defenders, won 1/3 tackles, 5/9 ground duels, 1/1 aerial duel, one interception, six recoveries, drew one foul, and finished with 51 total touches.

9. Tarek Morad, 7.0

In 90 minutes, Morad recorded one shot and completed 77 of 91 passes, 9/14 long balls, blocked one shot, won 1/1 tackle, 1/2 ground duels, 3/4 aerial duels, three clearances with one by header, nine recoveries, and finished with 102 total touches.

10. Danny Barbir, 7.0

In 83 minutes, Barbir recorded two shots with one on target, missed one big chance, and completed 57 of 67 passes, 4/9 long balls, dribbled past one defender, one clearance by header, blocked one shot, nine recoveries, and finished with 78 total touches.

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