Now four matches into a long losing streak, Saturday’s 1-0 home loss to FC Tulsa also marked the sixth consecutive time for Oakland Roots to fail keeping a clean sheet, resulting in the club sinking to seventh place in the Western Conference—level at 40 points with sixth-place Colorado Springs and eighth-place Monterey Bay. Just a few weeks ago, Roots controlled their ability to host a playoff game, but they now find themselves within a point of ninth-place El Paso.
In the 10th minute, Phillip Goodrum drifted free of Neveal Hackshaw and Danny Barbir to head home a perfect Marcus Epps cross for the game’s only goal. Over the course of the match, Roots finished with twice the number of shots as FC Tulsa (12-6), but failed to create an opportunity as clear cut as the visitor’s only goal.
Lindo Mfeka picked up two yellow cards nine minutes apart in the first half, sending Oakland into the break down a man. The Roots’ winger tripped a Tulsa midfielder in the 35th minute, and committed a frustrated challenge from behind in the 44th minute to see himself excused.
Referee Melvin Rivas was quick to go to his pocket, producing ten yellow cards with each team picking up five, while both teams picked up reds cards when Marcus Epps was sent off in the 79th after a tussle with Bryan Tamacas. Rivas’s control strategy of booking players early and often did not work. The soft bookings for both sides did nothing to prevent emotions from spilling over in the second half, and players being frustrated with his quick cards and inconstant whistle likely contributed to the overwrought emotions of the field.
When asked if he thought the referee lost control of the match in the second half, Noah Delgado responded firmly with one word, “Yeah.”
Despite playing the second half with ten players, Oakland limited Tulsa to just two long distance shots in the second half. The energy of the second half, with a full-strength side, may have produced a different result, but the damage of the first half proved insurmountable.
Over their last four outings, Oakland has scored just two goals—both by Johnny Rodriguez, and one of them a penalty in the loss to Las Vegas. Prior to this stretch, the club scored in nine consecutive matches, with Rodriguez’s contributions being flanked by multiple teammates. On their current form, Oakland look unlikely to break their opponents defense down with the ball and have struggled to win possession in dangerous areas to restart counterattacks.
For both better and worse, injuries have been the main difference between the good times and now. Tarek Morad, Joseph Nane, and Daniel Gomez missed the matchup with FC Tulsa, and, on pre-injury form, are probably Oakland’s three best choices in the midfield.
The defensive stability and veteran calmness of Nane, the club captain, and Morad leave Roots without the same level of sturdiness. Prior to his injury, Nane had been a penciled in starter all season and allowed Delgado to rotate Hackshaw in the midfield. Morad, naturally a central defender, has shown a perfect skillset for what Delgado is seeking at defense midfielder.
Gomez, meanwhile, was not an expected starter when the season began, but after starting the season in a limited role, he emerged as one of the team’s most important players. Prior to his injury, Gomez appeared to be the player most likely to move from the fringes of the active 18 to immovable from the staring XI.
“Danny Gomez played there and had a great run. Jojo played there, I thought Tarek had some great games in the midfield. Getting Koze back is a boost for us and getting him minutes to play. Now its details and finding the right combination against the opponent,” said Delgado.
In their places, the pair of offseason signings Irakoze Donasiyano and Napo Matsoso got their second consecutive start. Neither of these two can compare in sheer size to Nane or Morad, and the couple of smaller midfielders do not always gel as nicely in Oakland’s system.
Matsoso, the defensive midfielder among the two, has been good in the counter-press this season, but does not have the same physical tools to win areal duels in a similar way to Hackshaw, Morad, or Nane when he lined up in the midfield. When he is able to play in a more free role, Matsoso is fast and physical, and has helped the Roots gain possession of the ball in dangerous areas.
Donasiyano has been injured much of the season and was placed in the tricky position of being needed almost immediately upon his return. The Burundi national has struggled to find opportunities to excel this season, and with games running out, is running out of time to put his stamp on this team.
Both players arrived in the East Bay this season with something to prove. Matsoso was a fantastic depth piece for a USL Cup-level Louisville City the past four years, and came to an Oakland side where he had more of a path to regular first team action. Donasiyano did not have his MLS contract with Nashville SC renewed this offseason, and came down a level for the Roots. While they may not be perfect fits in the roster’s current setup, both very high quality players, and, while others work their way back to fitness, are Oakland’s best bet to getting back into the playoffs.
When asked about when we can expect players like Gomez, Morad, and Nane to return, Delgado sounded lukewarm in his response.
“Hopefully we get them all in training next week. With Tarek, it depends on the concussion protocol. Jojo looks pretty good. Gomez is running, so we’ll see if he can give it a try,” said Delgado.