The last two seasons saw Oakland Roots not only fight down the stretch to qualify for the playoffs, but garner enough momentum to win their first round playoff matchup. This season will end differently after failing to defeat El Paso Locomotive–succumbing to a 2-1 loss. An air of inevitably to this doomed fate permeated despite the typical electric atmosphere we’ve come to know and love at Roots games.
The Function was chanting “Let’s go Oakland” and “Dale, Dale” prior to the Roots’ players walking onto the field, it’s something that hasn’t happened in their three years within the USL Championship. But Roots, again, couldn’t match the energy in the stands.
It took until the final game of the season, but I got five of my closest friends to come to an Oakland Roots. They got to experience the unique atmosphere of all 6,135 supporters in attendance and see what exactly it feels like to be in the midst of a record losing streak.
In a way, it was cathartic that El Paso scored two goals within the first 13 minutes. The first should have been ruled out for offside, but both came on the counter.
Locomotive’s first goal in the seventh minute came when Eric Cavillo played a ball through Oakland’s back line to Emmanuel Sonupe charging alone toward Paul Blanchette. It was another egregious error by the USL officials, where Sonupe was barely even on the screen by the time the pass was sent.
El Paso’s next goal in the 14th was much more justified. Coming at the end of a free kick, tall Locomotive defender Noah Dollanmeyer headed home a perfect cross from Petar Petrovic, landing between Tarek Morad and Baboucarr Njie.
Clearly the demise for Oakland Roots would be the same as it had been all season long. Sprinkle in a prevented penalty kick from Johnny Rodriguez in the 39th and you could easily understand the resignation of the crowd. Should the referees correctly spotted the offside run by Sonupe and Johnny bagged the PK, the result could’ve gone Oakland’s way.
Anuar Pelaez’s bicycle kick goal in the 47th serves as a reminder to the epic highs Roots reached amid some jarring lows. It came after a failed clearance landed to the feet of Trayvone Reid before it cycled around back to him for a shot that was blocked. Reid shot deflected to Pelaez, taking one touch with his right foot to flick it back up in the air, setting himself up for a right-footed bicycle kick.
But that was pretty much it from Roots. They drew four corners from the 57th minute through the 67th, but couldn’t put anything on target from them.
Now, we’ll have five months to speculate as to what that will bring. When you make the playoffs in consecutive seasons and state the team’s goal is a home-playoff game in the preseason, missing the postseason is a glaring failure. Perhaps the law of averages this year could be different after two consecutive trips to the postseason. This time, Oakland’s number was up.
There will be time to speculate which players will and won’t be a part of the short term and long term future. Njie was a bright spot on the night by consistently make things happen on his own, creating space where there is none and beating markers. Njie will undoubtedly be a part of next year’s squad after being transferred in during the season. Pelaez is another peculiar subject, showing great talent and potential, but the staff was likely expecting more than eight goals in 34 games largely on spot-duty.
We’ll be back at Pioneer Stadium in 2024, where they will have to do far better than this term’s 4-6-7 record at home.
As for the next chapter in Oakland Roots’ story, Noah Delgado remains hopeful. He is bullish on the quality of this squad and hopes that 2024 will give them more opportunities to show how good they can be. Whether it’s been injuries, a schedule that plays through international breaks, or other factors, there was just too much holding this team back as the season waned.
“It’s hard to put a finger on. Obviously, injuries with Jojo [Joseph Nane] and the international stuff with Bryan Tamacas and Neveal Hackshaw, definitely was an impact on certain games where we probably could’ve closed things out and gotten results one way or another. But that’s kind of how the game goes, I think Jojo not being here was a big one, you could see the decline since his injury. An Achilles heel has been early goals… I thought we started well and then one poor call from the ref and we’re down 1-0,” said Delgado
Oakland Roots Starting 11 (Noah Delgado; 3-4-3): Paul Blanchette; Emrah Klimenta, Tarek Morad, Danny Barbir; Memo Diaz, Irakoze Donasiyano, Daniel Gomez, Baboucarr Njie; Jeciel Cedeño, Johnny Rodriguez, Lindo Mfeka
46’ Trayvone Reid for Mfeka
46’ Anuar Pelaez for Donasiyano
76’ Napo Matsoso for Gomez
76’ Luis Saldana for Njie
84’ Etsgar Cruz for Morad
El Paso Locomotive Starting 11 (Brian Clarhaut; 3-5-2): Benny Diaz; Marc Navarro, Erik McCue, Noah Dollenmayer; Miles Lyons, Chapa Herrera, Liam Rose, Eric Calvillo, Petar Petrovic; Emmanuel Sonupe, Josue Gomez
62’ Nick Hinds for Sonupe
70’ Ricardo Zacarias for Petrovic
USL Playoffs without us
Now all Oakland Roots fans will be watching the USL Championship Playoffs as (mostly) neutrals, and the first round matchups yield these ties:
1 Pittsburgh Riverhounds vs 8 Detroit City
2 Tampa Bay Rowdies vs 7 Birmingham Legion
3 Charleston Battery vs 6 Indy Eleven
4 Memphis 901 vs 5 Louisville City
Despite the Riverhounds topping the East, it’s hard not to think of the Rowdies as the team to beat in this conference. This is usually the time of year where they save the best for last and they can score goals when they need to most. The Tennessee vs Kentucky duel in the 4 vs 5 slot is intriguing as well.
1 Sacramento Republic vs 8 New Mexico United
2 Orange County vs 7 El Paso Locomotive
3 San Diego Loyal vs 6 Phoenix Rising
4 San Antonio FC vs 5 Colorado Springs Switchbacks
If Roots fans are hoping for their NorCal rivals to get upset, New Mexico United will have an extra day of rest going into this encounter so…that is something, I guess. For how dominant San Antonio has looked in stretches this season and with their status as defending champions, it’s weird seeing them down in the 4th seed. A very strong 4 seed, make no mistake.
The biggest matchup of the entire first round of the playoffs is undoubtedly San Diego vs Phoenix. San Diego Loyal’s final match in existence will either be getting knocked out or lifting the trophy, and they have to get through heated rivals Phoenix Rising. It would be cruel if that’s how the story ended for them.