Team Pileup vs. OC Blues

On Oct. 9, 2016, the Swope Park Rangers advanced to the USL Western Conference Final against all odds. The Rangers entered the contest on the back of a statement 3-0 victory over LA Galaxy II in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, and, at No. 4, were the higher seed against eighth-ranked Orange County Blues FC (now Orange County SC).

With the 2017 USL schedule released yesterday, we look back at that extraordinary showdown through the eyes of Oumar Ballo, Christian Duke, Mark Anthony Gonzalez and Tyler Pasher.

DUKE: Once playoff time came around there was only so much you could do in training to be prepared so most guys took it as a way to fine tune but at the same time have fun.

PASHER: We felt as a team we had a very good chance to go into the game and be quite dominant, especially coming off of one of our biggest wins of the year against LA.

GONZALEZ: We were very confident, we were coming off of a 3-0 win against a very good LA team and we knew that we had beaten OC Blues 3-0 earlier on in the season.

DUKE: It almost felt like we were invincible at the time leading up to the game and we felt like no matter what happened we would come out on top.

BALLO: The week before the game a lot of our guys were a little nicked up, small injuries that we were trying to take care of before that game.

GONZALEZ: We also knew that every game is different and we couldn't get too confident going into that game. We had to forget about everything else and just focus on that game, not our previous encounter with them.

DUKE: We had faced Orange County once before so we knew what they were going to bring. We were clicking on all cylinders, the team chemistry was amazing, and everyone was performing at their best.

On the day before the Sunday showdown, the Rangers suffered a major blow as Brazilian midfielder Ualefi – who was the only player to start every game in 2016 – went down in training with a torn ACL.

DUKE: It was literally the last action of practice and Ualefi is giving his all, just like he did every day in training, and took one wrong step and went down screaming in pain.

BALLO: Honestly, we were all at a disbelief that it happened.

GONZALEZ: He had been our starting holding midfielder all season and we lost him the day before our biggest game yet.

PASHER: I was quite upset, Ualefi is the guy on the field we relied on a lot. He was our stamp in the midfield, defensively before coming up against our back four.

BALLO: Most of the guys were in tears. Everyone was down, everyone just seemed drained.

DUKE: Everyone knew right away that it wasn’t good.

PASHER: I think it harmed us at first… afterwards it almost kind of fuelled the fire wanting to win especially for him.

GONZALEZ: Although Ualefi was out, we were confident that whoever stepped into that role, whether it was Granitto or Appiah, would get the job done.

DUKE: We’ve faced adversity all year, now it’s someone else’s turn to step up and prove themselves.

The Rangers had won the only regular-season meeting between the sides 3-0 at Swope Soccer Village in July, but it was Orange County that started on the front foot, creating a number of openings in the early stages.

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PASHER: I thought they were very good; they came out flying which caught me off guard and kind of put our team on the back foot.

BALLO: In the beginning, for us there were a lot of emotions in place, when you’re hyped up you tend to forget the game plan a little and it was frustrating but once those emotions settled we started to play our game.

DUKE: We were all playing a little rushed, missing passes here and there that we normally didn’t do.

BALLO: When Mark scored, that definitely helped settle the team down.

PASHER: When Mark scored of course it calmed our nerves down and helped us all to settle.

DUKE: Once Mark scored I think we all started to settle down a bit and play more of our game.

GONZALEZ: I remember Appiah playing a nice ball through to Tyrpak down the right side of the field and Tyrpak taking on a player or two while I was trying to get into a good position for him to cross it. He ended up losing the ball, but continued to work hard to win the ball back and he did. He got a foot to it as the defender was trying to clear it and it came right to me. My back was facing the net but I knew all I had to do was turn and shoot in the far corner as fast as I could to surprise the goalie and it worked.

BALLO: It got us focused and tuned in on what we were doing. Definitely made us believe in ourselves again.

The Rangers entered the halftime break holding a slender 1-0 advantage following Gonzalez’s 20th-minute strike. Despite a shaky start, the team had controlled the majority of the play after taking the lead.

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DUKE: The message at halftime was clear. We keep a clean sheet the second half, we move onto the Western Conference Final. We weren’t going to change anything we were doing because we had let the game come to us and we were putting pressure on them.

GONZALEZ: There were definitely chances on both sides, but at that time we were mostly dominating the game.

DUKE: Honestly, I didn’t see them being dangerous at all. We had been so solid in the back and defensively, something that we took a lot of pride in, that I didn’t OC breaking us down. 

PASHER: I don’t remember much about what was said at halftime. Most of the chaos happened in the second half.

In the 57th minute, the Rangers spurned a golden chance to double their lead when Pasher played Gonzalez through one-on-one with OC Blues goalkeeper Josh Cohen, but the forward’s chipped finish was clawed away for a corner.

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PASHER: I remember just picking my head up and sliding a ball into his path.

GONZALEZ: Pasher had played a nice ball through to me on the right side.

PASHER: He was in a good spot made a fantastic run to create himself a good goal-scoring opportunity.

GONAZLEZ: I remember looking up and seeing no space for me to shoot. The goalie had done a good job in coming out fast and blocking the far post shot, so I decided to take my chances and try to chip him, but he made a great save with his fingertips to just keep it from going in.

Unable to add to their narrow lead, the Rangers saw the game turn on its head in the 69th minute when Honduran left back Ever Alvarado was shown a straight red card by referee Nima Saghafi after a tackle from behind on Orange County’s AJ Gray, and a team-wide confrontation ensued.

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DUKE: My initial reaction to the tackle was that it wasn’t a red.

PASHER: At first I was just in shock, I didn’t understand what had happened and why he got sent off. It didn’t make any sense.

DUKE: After going back after the game and looking at it, I think the ref made the right decision. 

BALLO: When Alvarado got sent off, what hit me was “what to do next to get the team going? What was our next step to block a hole that was created? How do we fix what just happened?”

DUKE: I remember him reaching for his front pocket, which means he was getting ready to pull out the yellow card. After some time with Ever down on the ground and the scuffle that took place, I think he had more time to think about what decision he was about to make. Then he pulls out his red card. I asked him if he was sure about his decision. He said yes. I asked him why he was reaching for his front pocket and he told me to back away.

A defensive reshuffle was required, which saw Pasher slide in at left back in place of the departed Alvarado. Without an opportunity for the new backline to find their feet, the Blues equalized immediately from the restart.

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PASHER: As soon as the red card was shown, I went right to left back – didn’t even think twice about it to be completely honest.

GONZALEZ: When Alvarado was sent off, I was still confident in the possibility of winning the game. We were up 1-0, we didn't need any more goals, just keep them from scoring. I thought we should just sit back and play defensive the rest of the game.

DUKE: The only way they were going to score was off a set piece or if we went down a man. Of course both happened.

PASHER: Within a split second of us losing concentration they capitalized on our mistake.

BALLO: You could see the energy get sucked out of everyone’s body and it was a mix of questions. What can we do to stop the bleeding? How do we stay in form? Once they scored we just had to regroup and get things going again.

DUKE: To be honest, I lost a little belief for a second but couldn’t let anyone else know that. I looked around to everyone on the field and told them “Let’s go! We’re good!”

PASHER: It was quite heartbreaking. Up to that point we were starting to hit our stride, which we had really started to do in the second half of our matches. It had been a long time since we had conceded, so that really made us realize that we were in for a game.

DUKE: Once we went down a man, I said to the guys, “we’ve been here before, we’ve dealt with this situation before.” We defended 8-vs.-11 one to two times a week in training. Marc (Dos Santos) had always told us, if we do a fantastic job with eight defending behind the ball, it’s that much easier with three more guys.

The SPR defense was able to repel Orange County’s attacks for the remainder of the half, but with the clock ticking down toward the 90th minute, the Rangers’ other outside back – Tommy Meyer – was sent off for an off-the-ball incident with Akwafei Ajeakwa.

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PASHER: I couldn’t believe it. I have never witnessed a playoff game where one team had two players sent off, let alone playing in one.

BALLO: I was confused. I didn’t know what just took place. It was so unexpected. I still don't know what happened.

DUKE: I don’t think there was much intent in that play. It just was an unfortunate play that could’ve cost us big time.

PASHER: I personally felt screwed because I knew what that meant: overloads in wide areas which meant a shift of hard work for the team to help us pull this back.

GONZALEZ: I said to myself "our only chance now is penalty shots." It was very nerve-racking to watch from the bench while OC Blues were playing around our box for the remainder of the game.

PASHER: No one wants to go to penalties where anything can happen. How the hell are we going to score with 9-vs.-11?

After a short break, the Rangers took the field knowing their playoff hopes hung by a thread – needing to see out 30 minutes of action with a two-man disadvantage.

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PASHER: When we got to the huddle for the first period of extra time I was extremely fired up and angry in a positive way. I said to myself, “these refs put all the odds in their favor – we’re going to defy the odds and shove it in everyone’s faces.”

BALLO: Once we went down another, my mind just went into overdrive. The only thoughts that were in my head were "they will not score, no matter what has to happen."

PASHER: Everybody was mad. The talk Marc gave us honestly gave us hope. I have never been a part of a team of guys that came so close together in those finally 30 minutes of football.

The Rangers kept Orange County at bay throughout the first half of extra time, and in the 105th minute Dane Kelly – who had replaced Gonzalez up front – found himself dribbling against the two Blues center backs and hit a low strike into the bottom corner from 25 yards out.

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GONZALEZ: I couldn't believe it when Kelly scored, everyone on the bench and in the stands went crazy.

BALLO: The feeling cannot be described.

DUKE: We just won this game.

PASHER: I closed my eyes and sprinted 60 yards and slid about 20 yards I think. I couldn’t believe it.

GONZALEZ: I remember everyone on the bench bolting up, running on the field and jumping on one another.

BALLO: I just became full of energy again. My body got really warm and I was ready to put everything on the line.

PASHER: I’m pretty sure I kissed him.

GONZALEZ: After Dane scored I knew that this game was for us. Something like that doesn't just happen for us to end up losing.

PASHER: It’s a moment that you really can’t put into words.

GONZALEZ: I thought that we had the potential to not concede another goal and take it to penalties, but I never thought that we would be able to win it in extra time with two men down.

With the game far from over, the Rangers still needed to endure a second 15-minute extra time period to advance to the Western Conference Final.

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BALLO: We just had to communicate as much as we could with each other. Have our midfielders stay right in front of us and clear everything they could get to. Everything and anything.

PASHER: I think about five minutes into the second half of extra time I blanked out and couldn’t really process much thought. I told myself “just run.” Throw your body in front of everything. Just don’t stop.

GONZALEZ: That was one of the best defensive performances I have ever seen.

DUKE: OC played to our strengths, our two big center backs. Ballo was a monster and Didic controlled the box very well. It was somewhat easy dealing with the service. 

PASHER: The crowd put us back to 11 men especially at that point when we scored and made it 2-1. They gave us that extra bit of breath that really helped us push through the final minutes of the match. All season they have shown their dedication to us, we owed it to them to win that game.

DUKE: The atmosphere was phenomenal for that game.

GONZALEZ: I think it was one of the best turnouts I had seen all season. The Zoo was amazing, as usual, and so were the rest of the fans. They really gave us the extra energy to finish out the game.

DUKE: I think the crowd saw how hard everyone on the field was working they gave a little more which allowed us to give a little more. It was amazing.

The final whistle blew and a slew of exhausted bodies collapsed on the field. The Rangers became the first team to win a USL Cup Playoff game while playing two men down, and advanced to the Western Conference Final.

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PASHER: When that final whistle blew I fell to the ground put my hands on my head and just tried to catch my breath and come back to my senses. I knew within a few seconds the entire team is about to come jump on everyone so I tried to get my breath while I could.

DUKE: I have never been part of a game like that nor had I ever seen anything like it. Definitely one of the most memorable games of my career.

PASHER: I was just astonished at what we had accomplished. Never in my life have I gone through a situation like that, that defied all odds of success. I just couldn’t believe what we had achieved as a team and I was so proud of everyone and knew that we were one step closer to winning our first ever trophy for the club.

BALLO: I stayed as positive and optimistic as I could. Never give up no matter what happens, even when times are hard. That’s when you have to work even harder because you never know what could happen.

PASHER: The brotherhood we showed that day is so inspirational to others in the future that want to succeed.

Six days after the draining victory, the Rangers returned to Swope Soccer Village to face Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 in the Western Conference Final. Two goals from Kris Tyrpak and a late strike from Dane Kelly earned SPR a 3-0 win on Oct. 15, 2016, allowing the side to lift the Western Conference Championship Trophy and advance to the USL Cup Final.

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