ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Ronaldo Damus scored a pair of first-half goals after a key early penalty kick save by goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky as Orange County SC earned its first USL Championship title with a 3-1 victory against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the 2021 USL Championship Final on Sunday night before a sellout crowd of 7,521 fans at Al Lang Stadium.
The victory was the second consecutive win earned by a road team in the USL Championship Final after Real Monarchs SLC’s victory in 2019 against Louisville City FC. Rakovsky recorded the first penalty kick save in a title game to help turn the momentum in Orange County’s favor, earning one of the Championship’s inaugural clubs the victory in its first trip to the Championship Final after a postseason in which it never trailed in all four of its contests.
The Rowdies controlled the bulk of the early possession and put Orange County on its heels with switches of play looking to get Leo Fernandes and Sebastian Dalgaard into space on either flank. OCSC’s defense withstood the pressure confidently, though, as center back Rob Kiernan broke up play when the Rowdies tried to play through Steevan Dos Santos centrally while making clearances as Tampa Bay was unable to find a telling final pass.
The first penetrating pass for the hosts also brought about the first big opportunity in the 19th minute as Fernandes shifted play in from the left flank as he interplayed with Sebastian Guenzatti, and then delivered a precise pass into the center of the penalty area for Yann Ekra, who was upended from behind to give Tampa Bay a penalty kick. Guenzatti stepped up, but his shot to the left corner was turned wide of the net by Rakovsky and behind for a corner kick, continuing the German shot-stopper’s strong postseason form.
Having earned a reprieve, Orange County soon after took advantage of its first big chance of the game, handed to the visitors by their hosts. After receiving a pass on the right from goalkeeper Raiko Arozarena, Tampa Bay defender Jordan Scarlett played an errant pass laterally across the penalty area that Damus seized on and tucked home into the open net in the 25th minute.
Tampa Bay almost hit back immediately as off the ensuing kickoff a long ball upfield was flicked on to Guenzatti as he broke into the left side of the penalty area, only for OCSC defender Brent Richards to make a decisive last-ditch challenge to clear. Two minutes later, the Rowdies’ front duo linked up as Dos Santos headed down an angled cross into the penalty area for Guenzatti, but his low shot was smothered by Rakovsky.
Seven minutes before halftime, however, Damus struck again. After Eric Calvillo moved down the right flank, his low delivery into the penalty spot saw the Haitian international given enough time to control and shoot home on the half-volley into the left corner to give Orange County a cushion. The final minute of the first half brought more for the visitors as after being awarded a free kick to the left of center, Mikko Kuningas delivered a brilliant left-footed strike around the wall and just inside the left post to make it a three-goal game at the break.
The Rowdies had an early chance to cut into the deficit seven minutes into the second half when Lewis Hilton led a counterattack though the center and found Dos Santos in space to his right just inside the top-right edge of the penalty area, only for Rakovsky to get down well to parry and then cover the Cape Verde forward’s shot to the left corner. The burst began another positive spell for the hosts, but a header wide of the right post by Dos Santos off a corner kick after a shot by Fernandes had been deflected wide didn’t provide the breakthrough they needed.
Fernandes earned Tampa Bay’s breakthrough in the 57th minute, however, as after a cross from the right spun off a defender, Dos Santos tried to hit the ball on the volley as it came to ground, fanned, only for the ball to set up for the attacking midfielder to rifle home low first-time. The goal provided a boost of energy for the Rowdies, but despite further pressure they were unable to find the end of any deliveries into the penalty area and trouble Rakovsky.
Orange County, meanwhile, wasn’t content to sit back and with 18 minutes to go the visitors almost bagged another as an attack down the right switched across the top of the penalty area to find Seth Casiple, who was forced into a rushed shot as Arozarena came off his line quickly and skied his effort into the stands.
The Rowdies’ pressure persisted as they looked for chance to level late and in the 84th minute a chance arrived for Eastern Conference Final hero Lucky Mkosana, only for his header under pressure to be gathered by Rakovsky. Two minutes later, the Zimbabwean had clearer chance, but the German shot-stopper got across to keep out a powerful header from eight yards. Conner Antley also had a chance that was deflected wide as Tampa Bay continued to recycle possession in the Orange County half, while with a minute to go Mkosana was offside as he redirected a shot after a corner kick by Yann Ekra from the top of the penalty area.
Damus had a chance to complete his hat trick in second-half stoppage time, too, after outdueling his marker on a long ball upfield, only for Arozarena to come up with a pair of clutch saves to keep him out. After one final chance for the hosts found the outside of the side-netting, however, the final whistle arrived as the visitors capped a remarkable season with the USL Championship crown.
USL Championship Final Most Valuable Player
Ronaldo Damus, Orange County SC – Damus recorded a pair of goals in the first half and consistently challenged the Rowdies’ back line leading the attacking line to finish with four shots overall.