The Rangers welcome the OC Blues to Swope Soccer Village on Sunday for the Western Conference Semifinals. I got with Alicia Rodriguez from Angels on Parade to discuss the big match and what we can expect from the visitors.
Here are your Three Questions But Really Six...
We ask them...
1) The Blue Testament: The OC Blues came to Swope Park in July and were shut out 3-0. What has changed since we last met? Injuries.. New signings.. team form?
Alicia Rodriguez: I think two big changes happened from that last meeting between the clubs. OC have signed six new players in the meantime, with all of them contributing in some way. Perhaps most notably, the final two signings were Orr Barouch and Max Rauhofer, strikers with considerable professional experience, both abroad and in the U.S., who could step up with a crucial goal in a playoff game. Of course, we'll see if that happens.
The other change was a reorganization of the Orange County staff, with technical director Barry Venison, who had been serving as head coach along the sidelines for most of the summer, actually publicly getting the head coach title, with previous head coach Oliver Wyss moving into more of a front office capacity. To tell you the truth, I'm not really sure if the dates all line up with the Blues finally hitting some traction, because after their raft of signings, they hit a bit of a good patch, before falling into their inconsistent ways and then barely qualifying for the playoffs on the final day of the season. But at least having the person serving as coach being officially called the coach shows some logic in what's been a pretty strange season for the Blues all around.
2) TBT: Trevin Caesar and Didier Crettenand are main source of goals for Orange County with ten and nine this year, respectively. What makes the two of them so dangerous? And who else should SPR fans be on the lookout for?
AR: Well, good news for Swope Park Rangers in that Trevin Caesar will miss Sunday's game because he got called up by Trinidad & Tobago. Truthfully, while he didn't score in last week's playoff game and had been substituted in regulation, not having him available for this game is a pretty big blow for Orange County, although I understand why he went on international duty.
Crettenand is important because he can score from set pieces -- most of his goals this season have been from either free kicks or penalties. So if a game is tense but a foul is drawn near the edge of the box, I feel really good with him taking it.
Beyond that, the questions come, and the truth is OC will have to rely on the rest of the group. I already mentioned Barouch and Rauhofer, one of whom could potentially slot in on Sunday in Caesar's place. Akwafei Ajeakwa has been a regular starter up top, too, but in the main he's a support striker and hasn't tallied a lot. And a sneaky scoring option is Brenton Griffiths, the likely starting center back who has a knack for grabbing a handful of goals every season. I wouldn't be surprised if he notches one when the Blues need it.
3) TBT: Like the Rangers, OC Blues won the club's first ever playoff match to reach this point. They took a 0-0 draw to penalties and eliminated the #1 seeded Sacramento Republic FC. What kind of tactics were used by the Blues to get that win and do you expect to see much of the same in KC?
AR: expect basically the same tactics, until or unless Swope Park Rangers score. The Blues did not exactly sit back against Sacramento; rather, they were stout defensively, with a team defensive posture, but they were comfortable moving up the field into attack and did so pretty frequently. They certainly prioritized defense, but it was less a "bunker and pray" mentality than you probably figure.
But what made the approach work was that Sacramento could not score. The longer the game went scoreless, the more worried Republic became and the more comfortable Orange County got. They had little to lose, and if they took it all the way to penalties, they were willing to see what would come from that. As it turned out, it was successful.
So expect the same approach until they concede on Sunday, and then we'll see what happens.
Angels on Parade Predictions
GK: Josh Cohen
D: Matt Sheldon, Brenton Griffiths, Maurice Pluntke, Andrae Campbell
M: Richard Chaplow, Didier Crettenand, Ivan Mirkovic, Christopher Santana
F: Akwafei Ajeakwa, Orr Barouch
The Blues nick a goal late in the second half or extra time, and win 1-0.
They ask us...
1) Angels on Parade: Swope Park Rangers are in the playoffs in their first season of existence, which is already a pretty good accomplishment. I wonder how the Sporting Kansas City organization overall is approaching this run -- are they happy to just see how the reserve team does, or are they really gunning for some silverware on the USL level this year?
Cody Bradley: Going into the season I'm sure deep down there was not much expectation. The club would have been happy to see mild success the first year and to just use the Rangers for loans and an 'expanded roster'.
But with the way the season has gone for SKC, I know they would love to see some silverware. Once SPR worked through the kinks at the beginning of the season they have done nothing but climb the ranks. Now that they are at this point, everyone is all in. The ownership group has done a great job of bringing in some exciting talent and everything is there to make a real run at this. Also, they were very excited about getting Marc Dos Santos, so I know they will want to get every bit of his genius that they can get before he leaves us after the season. Tear. But he has done an amazing job with the team this year and has them in top form at the right time (They've won 7 of the last 8). If I was any other team in this league, The Rangers of Swope would probably be the last team I'd want to see.
2) AoP: Rangers seem to have a pretty balanced lineup on the whole, and feature a number of consistent contributors in addition to the regular drop-ins from Sporting KC first team and academy players. Can you discuss one or two key players for SPR, and why they have been so important to the team's success this season?
CB: Several players come to mind! So if I may, I will choose one from each area of the field. On defense, Amer Didic has been HUGE for this squad. Some players with solid pedigrees in USL were brought in to build a solid back line. Players like Jacob VanCompernolle and Tommy Meyer. But Didic surprised everyone and became the best defender on the team as other players disappointed. He is a big reason why this team has been able to turn the season around.
Ayrton, former Corinthians' Academy player, was signed in May. Immediately after hearing about the signing I looked him up and saw highlights. I have been VERY high on this kid since. Kevin Oliveira was coming into his own for the Rangers and was perhaps the most important player on the team before he suffered a season ending injury. It is a shame the two haven't gotten much time together in the SPR midfield, but Ayrton stepped up and became the facilitator of the squad. I don't know that I can necessarily call him the MVP this season, but for me, Ayrton is the most talented player on the team and is destined to be with SKC before long.
And I have to mention Mark Anthony Gonzalez up top. He was also a very pleasant surprise this season. The club brought in Dane Kelly, all time leading scorer in the USL, to be THE guy. But Gonzalez proved to be very lethal with time and was a leading scorer off the bench. Then Kelly also got injured and was out for a long time. Without Gonzalez and the team leading goal tally, the Rangers never make the run to get into the playoffs.
3) AoP: Of course, the OC Blues will be looking to expose Swope Park Rangers' weaknesses in Sunday's game. How can they be beaten?
CB: Well to be blunt, Tommy Meyer is the hole in the back line. He's been playing at right back and his side should be the focus of the attack for the Blues. He doesn't look comfortable and can be seen multiple times a game waving his arm for the keeper to play it long as opposed to swinging it over to him. He just doesn't want to be on the ball.
One small thing I'd say if I was coaching a team taking on the Rangers, is to frustrate them. This team has had plenty of chippy matches with all sorts of yellow cards and red cards. Tempers can definitely flair, specifically Ayrton.
The big thing I would say is to beat them on the counter. Much like with SKC, it is a high flying 4-3-3. The wingers live in the attacking half and the fullbacks love to get forward and can get caught out. Meyer has the heart of a CB, but on the other side Ever Alvarado will leave plenty of space behind him as he gets up the field.
The chances to score on them should be there, but the key will be trying to contain the SPR attack somehow. They have scored at least twice each of the last five matches and they are really firing on all cylinders.
The Blue Testament Predictions
(4-3-3) Adrian Zendejas; Tommy Meyer, Amer Didic, Oumar Ballo, Ever Alvarado; Ualefi, Christian Duke, Ayrton; Kris Tyrpak, Dane Kelly, Tyler Pasher
Swope Park Rangers 2 - 1 OC Blues