Here we are, Roots fans. Oakland Roots lost 2-1 to El Paso, officially ending its season in 10th place. It capped a nine-game winless run over the final two months of 2023, ending its season at 11-9-14 after being in third-place as of August 23. This year had all the looks of highs both on the field and off, and while eyes were wide with anticipation when in position for a home playoff bid, the only record achieved by the end of this year was a winless streak on their way to crashing out.
Ivan Ornales provided a recap in the blog with times and details of goals.
It was an emotional postgame interview with coach Noah Delgado; initially stepping in front of the camera before realizing he needed a moment to gather his thoughts. Staring off to the Hayward night sky, Delgado leaned on the metal fence with both arms before taking a breath and turning back towards the group of journalists.
Here’s our three talking points from Saturday, reflecting and dissecting on a difficult final interview of the 2023 season with coach Noah.
Where did things go wrong?
August 23’s win over New Mexico to put Oakland Roots up to third feels like it was a different team. Roots were defeating teams by showing solid defense and controlling offense, having won seven of its 11 matches with the lesser side of possession. But as the winless streak continued, it became clear Roots didn’t have a voice on the field or in the locker room.
Joseph Nane suffered what turned out to be a season-ending injury on August 19 against Colorado Springs, taking away Roots’ foremost captain. It forced Delgado to revert Neveal Hackshaw to the back line after he emerged as a game-changer at midfield, while Hackshaw and Bryan Tamacas’ national team duties also proved to have a negative impact.
“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, especially here at home has been early goals… I thought we started well getting down to their end and then one poor call from the ref and we’re down 1-0,” said Delgado.
“It’s hard to replace someone like [Nane]. He has 15-16 years of professional experience, he’s someone who’s been with the club for a while. Obviously, his football is still good and his leadership is important. It’s hard to replace someone that valuable.”
Oakland once ranked as one of the best defenses in the USL Championship following their 1-0 win over Charleston Battery on August 4. Something seemingly changed with the defensive mindset following their two-week break after the win over Charleston, allowing 24 goals in the final 11 matches. Oakland allowed just as many goals, 24, in the 23 matches before the 3-2 loss to Colorado Springs on August 19.
Locomotive scored it’s two goals in quick succession in the seventh and 14th minutes. It came in similar fashion to several other games during the nine-game skid–San Diego in two-, six-, and 16-minute increments (17′, 19′, 25′, 44′); Orange County scored three goals in an eight-minute span at 45+2, 45+5, and in the 50th; Las Vegas had two goals in a minute in the 56th and 57th.
Delgado repeated a sentiment he’s stated in previous interviews, describing how defenders lose “concentration” in critical moments.
“It’s concentration at moments for all of us. It’s stopping the bleeding; you can look at tonight, Orange County, San Diego. Where it’s just 1-0, we’re confident that we’re going to score eventually. It came to the end where we’re giving up continuous goals. I think we ended the season with nine shutouts, we were at that point 60 percent of the way through the season,” said Delgado.
But how does a team degenerate from contending towards the top of the conference with one of the best defenses? Suffering multiple injuries with Nane, Tarek Morad, Irakoze Donasiyano, Napo Matsoso, and Danny Gomez all played a part, while going without Tamacas and Hackshaw undoubtedly had an impact. Delgado points out the rigors of international duty made things increasingly difficult on the pair.
“There’s a few different issues going on there,” said Delgado about the defense’s collapse. “Changing players in and out. International guys had some heavy duty on them as well. After Gold Cup, it was hard for [Tamacas and Hackshaw] to recover. I think its a bit physically; they did some good stuff and you could see how much they were flying. But that’s how the game is now, you get these players at a high level like Hackshaw and Tamacas. They go, they play the games here, and then they travel like crazy and go to war for their country. I don’t know if you saw the Trinidad game, but it was tough conditions. It’s just working on integrating them better and getting that right from us.”
When asked if the USL Championship could do a better job at scheduling to not interfere with the international schedule, Delgado said his feedback would be obvious.
“I think it’s pretty obvious, right? It’s the last game of the season and your top players aren’t available? Yes, I think that’s something that should be looked at, I hope they are working on it. But not having them, even just to have them as a presence on the bench makes a difference. It’s great to see the 51O guys like Etsgar [Cruz], he almost had a chance. I thought Luis [Saldaña] was dangerous at times. They’ll continue to be a big part of this and so will 51O, so that was a plus, but its hard to replace a Hackshaw or Tamacas,” said Delgado.
But the Oakland’s defense was just one of the issues. Roots’ offense sputtered toward the finish with 10 goals over the nine-match winless run. Although fans typically indicate Edgardo Rito’s transfer to Hartford after nine games as a turning point for the offensive ineptitude, the more polarizing moment may have been sending Darek Formella to Phoenix in a straight-up trade for Baboucarr Njie in late July.
Formella’s six goals in a Roots uniform still ranks third on the team, and although Njie’s inclusion was important with Tamacas on international duty, Oakland never replaced Formella’s goal-scoring. Oakland had 25 goals in 19 matches with the Polish forward. Roots still scored 20 over the 15 games without him, but half of those goals came through the immediate six matches after his departure–meaning the well quickly dried.
“It ties a little to Lindo’s injuries, where he didn’t get as much time as we wanted to during those streaks. Making up for some Formella’s goals came from Pelaez in that role because Johnny went out to the wing and Pelaez played the 9-role the last few games. But Formella was a good player,” said Delgado about how Formella’s departure impacted the attack. “We still had a gameplan, we worked to a different formation where we put Lindo more as a 10 and got Trayvone some minutes, he got some goals from that position.”
Delgado still believes their ability to land more than one goal like against San Diego, San Antonio, and Monterey should be enough to get the job done with solid defense. Roots also scored the opening goals losses to Orange County, Las Vegas, and Louisville City.
“We were scoring two goals in a lot of games; the Monterey and San Antonio 2-2 draw. So it was conceding the goals down the road, I think that was the biggest issue,” said Delgado.
Message to team and fans
Roots went into the season with its goal to achieve a home playoff game, only to crash out towards the home stretch. Delgado was asked what would his message be to players who may not be on next year’s roster. The coach started speaking, but stopped to close his eyes and take a deep breath before finishing his thought.
“Just how much it means, not just myself, the staff, and all the fans. We’re just disappointed,” said Delgado. “Like you said, we had some record highs and some very good stuff. We we looking at it like ‘Fuck, we’re gonna roll,’ then things happened and it comes to this, which is not good. Not good.”
Delgado said he wouldn’t be quick to relay a message after the loss, but will give his players time to process. He was proud to see players respond in the second half after being booed off at halftime.
“I’m not a huge talker after games like this, everyone is super emotional and today’s toing to be emotional as well. This is going to hurt us for a while, it’s going to sting, there’s no way around it. But I love them, we’ll take a couple of days to look at some stuff, start having some meetings, do some training after the season, go home and visit families wherever they are over the offseason. But you could see them emotionally at halftime, saying ‘it’s not fucking over boys, we’re in this, let’s go.’ How I thought they came out in the second half showed a bit of their character,” said Delgado.
Saturday was a record crowd for Oakland Roots, selling 6,135 tickets to eclipse the former record by over 400. The year also marked a high for club profitability, attracted well past the 4,100+ investors in its community investment round, while Oakland Soul was a clear success in its first year of operations. Roots’ product on the field, unfortunately, couldn’t match the progress being made by the organization or intensity shown in the stands.
“You see the club growing so much and the support of the fans, the front office, and everything has been awesome and it’s great to see it keep growing. It’s getting better and the league is getting better as well, so it’s keeping up with the standards of the league while the club’s growing,” said Delgado.
Delgado’s message to the fans: “I’m sorry. It’s hard to put into words, but we’ll be back strong, I promise that.”
Where do we go now?
How does a disastrous ending change things going forward for the organization?
After things were going swimmingly well for 3/4 of the season, there’s now a huge elephant in the room going into 2024. Does the club press on following a nine-game skid to miss the playoffs for the first time, or is someone bound to take the fall?
Murmurs of “change” rumbled around Pioneer Stadium on Saturday night with huddled discussion of staff members in multiple areas of the Hayward field. There was a non-committal tone over everything and everyone leaving the weekend, so what does that mean for 2024? Is it time to hit the reset button, or will people have the opportunity to learn from mistakes? Exit-interviews, assuming they occur, feel increasingly important.
It would unquestionably be justified if Oakland Roots decide to move on from coaches, technical staff, and a majority of the roster this offseason. How short would the leash be in 2024 if Roots started winless through two, three, or four matches? Does it make more sense to bring in a new face immediately to build around ahead of the Malibu Lot move in 2025?
Sports will always be a “what have you done for me lately” type of business. But does an organization–which prides itself on thinking differently–allow people like Delgado and Jordan Ferrell to continue growing into their jobs? It’s difficult to recollect now that Delgado is just finishing the first full year of his managerial career. He’s now the most active head coach in team history, has the most wins, and had them tied for points with San Antonio in second-place at one time. He’ll get a good portion of the blame for the two-month streak.
For the front office, Ferrell and executive Nana Attakora are both in the first personnel jobs of their careers. There’s been some clear misses in the roster building process, like Kevin Wright, Trayvone Reid, and Anuar Pelaez failing to secure starting roles, Hackshaw emerging as a better midfield option than center back, Napo Matsoso and Irakoze Donasiyano struggled as starters, and losing a primary goal scorer in Formella in favor of a Njie.
But there was also some hits. Danny Barbir emerged as a versatile playmaker, Johnny Rodriguez is a top-15 goal-scorer, Paul Blanchette is the league’s best shot-stopper, Memo Diaz had a career year to revitalize himself, Bryan Tamacas is an international star, while Oakland is successfully building a pipeline from the academy to first-team minutes with players like Danny Gomez, Luis Saldaña, Ryan Her, and Etsgar Cruz. Like the move or not, acquiring Jeciel Cedeño for Edgardo Rito exchanged a primary outside back who is four years the elder of a primary forward who has the technical ability to play midfield.
Perhaps Njie can also become a hit in 2024 after recovering from an injury.
“Unfortunately [Njie] came in here with an injury that we had to slowly ease him in,” said Delgado. “I think this is the most he’s played or pretty close to the most minutes he’s played. He’s going to be a very dangerous player next year, you can see what he brings. He’s not even close to what he’s capable of. We’ve seen what he’s capable of and it’s extremely dangerous.”
In the end, Roots’ board made the decision to give three individuals the highest positions of their professional careers in Delgado, Ferrell, and Attakora. Although a nine-game crash was a disaster and provides enough reason to enact change, it’s difficult to hold their feet to the fire. People like Ferrell and Attakora–who aren’t even 40-years-old–are going to face learning experiences and make mistakes as they build their careers. They face one of the most expensive and challenging housing situations of all 24 teams while having a middle-of-the-pack payroll in comparison to all clubs. It’s a circumstance any prospective executive or coach would have to cope with.
The same with Delgado; first-year coaches require time, like the organization was prepared to give Juan Guerra when bringing him in for 2022. His ability to coach young players into vital minutes didn’t go unnoticed and had all the look of Roots’ long-term answer prior to September–does all of that go out the window? There’s going to be short-comings when you hire inexperienced candidates, especially when unforeseen circumstances come around. It will be interesting to see if the organization allows Delgado or the front office to reflect on the year and use it to grow.
If winds of change are, in fact, on the horizon–it says the organization admits defeat on its project under Delgado after one year and are determined to bring in more experienced minds. It’s already shaping up to be a very interesting offseason.