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Know Your Opponent: Orange County SC

What to know, who to watch, and what to expect from the Riverhounds home-opener opponent

In just a few short days, the Riverhounds will take to the field at Highmark Stadium for the first time in the 2024 USL Championship season. Their opposition will come in the form of 2023 Western Conference semifinalists Orange County SC, making an eastbound trip after the Hounds season-opening westbound trip and loss to New Mexico last weekend. Ahead of what’s sure to be a tough-fought contest, we sat down with Ray Samora – producer and host of the Orange and Black SoccerCast which covers all things Orange County SC – to discuss players, tactics, expectations, and more for the Hounds’ opponents in 2024.

Be sure to check out the Orange and Black SoccerCast on Twitter, YouTube, or your preferred podcast location! The most recent episode includes an Orange County-centric preview of the upcoming game against the Hounds.

Head Coach and Tactics

Leading Orange County SC in his second season after joining midway through 2023, Morten Karlsen remains head coach after signing a multi-year deal following a tremendously successful second-half of the season. Prior to his takeover as interim head coach on May 1st, Orange County sat at 1-6-3 on the year – near the bottom of the Western Conference. After he took charge, the club went 16-7-3 the rest of the way to secure a second-place finish in the Western Conference and a run to the Conference Semifinals before falling in extra time to eventual champions Phoenix Rising FC.

Prior to joining OC, Karlsen was a member of Denmark’s technical staff during the 2022 FIFA World Cup and obtained his UEFA Pro Coaching License, in addition to head coach and assistant coach jobs in the Danish Superliga. Here’s what Ray had to say about OC’s managerial man:

“Having Karlsen on the sideline for the team has been a breath of fresh air,” said Samora. “Nothing against Richard Chaplow, who was our previous coach, but it almost felt like things were getting a little bit stale during the final few games of his tenure. Karlsen came in and brought some legitimacy to the club. He brought in really good experience, and with Orange County’s focus on developing and transitioning players to a European model, having someone like Karlsen has really helped out with that.”

“As far as the tactics, he brought a little bit more excitement than we were seeing under Chaplow. Chaplow’s style was a bit more of sit back, endure the punches, and counter-attack, which worked well with someone like Ronaldo Damus who outpaced everyone on the pitch. But once we lost that it didn’t quite work out so well,” he continued. “What Karlsen came in and brought was some stability to the team, he found a set of players that worked well with his system and we saw that in the finish to last season where the team did extremely well – coming up from near-bottom in the West to second leading into the playoffs. That consistency really helped and that little change in tactics led to more exciting football out of the team, the fans were enjoying the game a lot more and you could tell the players were having more fun on the pitch. There’s a lot of high hopes around the team this year based on how the season ended last year.”

Players to Watch in 2024

Looking at the team’s roster, Samora highlighted three key players that he thought had a great chance of not only stepping into key roles for Orange County this year, but players who could potentially move to Europe in the relatively near future.

Bryce Jamison – FW – 18 years old

A product of youth soccer with Smyrna Impact United, Atlanta United’s academy, and the Barca Residency Academy in Arizona, Jamison joined OC in 2022 on a multi-year professional deal. The now 18-year-old is seen as one of the club’s top talents and a potential European target.

“For key players, the top of the list has to be Bryce Jamison for the fact that he’s already on the U.S. Youth National radar – participating with the U-17 team,” said Samora. “He had a breakout season in 2023, and the consensus among Orange County fans is that it’s a matter of when, not if, he makes a transition to Europe or a bigger situation. We saw that last year with Korede Osundina and Bryce Jamison is sort of in that same mold in that he’ll move on to that next level sometime very soon.”

Ashton Miles – DEF – 19 years old

Another highly-touted prospect, Ashton Miles is the first player to move from the Orange County’s fully funded development academy to a fully pro deal for Orange County’s first team. Miles appeared in several matches last season for his home club and got an early start this year, featuring in the centerback pairing OC used in their opener against Sacramento Republic last weekend.

“Another name is Ashton Miles, who started in our most recent match at centerback against Sacramento,” said Samora” .The club is really excited about him because he started out with our youth team and he’s the first player from that youth academy to get a professional contract. It was a bit of a shock since he was getting some offers from big-name colleges in the U.S. so there was wonder if that’s how he’d go, but he ended up sticking with Orange County and the choice paid off.”

Benjamin Barjolo – FW – 17 years old

Finally, Benjamin Barjolo is another young forward talent who joined Orange County in mid-2023 from Atlanta United’s academy. After spending 2023 with Orange County II in the US; Academy League, he’s primed for first-team minutes in 2024.

“Another player who hasn’t shown much yet on the first team, but had a really exciting preseason and run in the playoffs with the youth team, is Benjamin Barjolo,” said Samora” .He’s an exciting attacker for this team and he falls right in with those other exciting talents we’ve seen come through the ranks, joining the team as a youngster looking for those opportunities. I think with our history, a lot of young talents look at Orange County as a spot where they can go to prove themselves and get that opportunity.”

Oliver Wyss and USL

An important name originating from Orange County’s system – now at the USL league office as the league’s Head of Global Football Development and Sporting Director – Oliver Wyss is a name Riverhounds fans should familiarize themselves with. A Swiss native, Wyss played in Europe before moving to the U.S. and playing in the USISL Pro Division for the L.A. Salsa. Post-playing career, he joined Orange County SC in 2014 as Head Coach, transforming the club while ultimately taking charge of all soccer operations. In his tenure, he led the club to the 2021 USL Championship title and helped develop numerous young talents ahead of European moves.

Among those moves include the transfers of Kobi Henry to Stade de Reims in France, Korede Osunida to Feyenoord Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and Milan Iloski to FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark. With USL’s growing focus on player development and participating in the international transfer market, USL brought Wyss in to help other clubs league-wide in this process. With the Riverhounds recently signing their first academy product in Nate Dragisich, it’s a path the Hounds should be closely monitoring and aiming towards with the help of Wyss and his OC-built knowledge.

“I think what Oliver Wyss brings to USL as a whole in terms of developing players into European destinations and models is that he has that European pedigree,” said Samora. “He’s from Europe and he was very involved in soccer there, transitioned to the U.S. and joined Orange County back in the Blues days. Part of his involvement was bringing in someone like Richard Chaplow, who was a little later in his career but still a high-quality player in the English system. Convincing someone like that to come here helps legitimize the league. I think what Oliver is going to bring to the league is that black book of connections all across Europe and different clubs in Europe. The partnerships he built here at Orange County with Rangers and Feyenoord Rotterdam come from his knowledge and connections with the community there. I think there are more opportunities, I think other clubs see what Orange County did with Kobi Henry and other moves from USL, and Oliver has those connections to utilize to take advantage of that.”

Fan Expectations in 2024

After a stunning turnaround in the second half of 2023, expectations are high among the OC faithful – a belief not universally held among pundits and league experts. But that doesn’t deter the fans, who are aiming for a deep playoff run in 2024 in addition to a strong showing in the U.S. Open Cup.

“There’s been a strong emphasis for the team on the U.S. Open Cup – they showed a mock of what the kit will look like, but just the fact that they have a USOC-specific kit really solidified the belief that the club wants to do well there and that they value it,” Samora said of the Cup. “I know there’s a lot of weird stuff with the Cup this year, but speaking with people here it’s a very high priority for people here this season. The beauty of the Open Cup is you win or lose one match and you’re advancing or out and anything can happen.”

“I’ve seen a lot of different opinions on Orange County this season from pundits and fan surveys and such,” he added regarding league play. “I think a lot of the fans are disappointed where people are placing Orange County this season given the finish to last season and how much of the roster has been kept together. The only major loss was Milan Iloski, and it’s a lot of production to replace, but what the club did was take the approach of not replacing him with one person, but multiple producers. Adding people like Ethan Zubak and Cameron Dunbar who have MLS experience – with Dunbar on loan with Orange County last season but injured and not really getting a great shot. I think fans this year are looking at it as Western Conference Championship or Final or bust. Because of how we did in 2023, plus the players coming back from 2023 which nobody expected. I know the experts aren’t looking at Orange County as a lock, but the fans are expecting big things.”

While the pundits and fans clash over OC’s expectations, it’s clear there’s a talented roster coming to Highmark on Saturday evening. While the loss of Milan Iloski will mean a lot of offensive production to replace – a situation Hounds fans should be familiar with given the departure of Albert Dikwa this offseason – a strong core of retained players plus some key talented additions and young prospects stepping up means the Hounds will need to be on their game to take three points in the home-opener.

Glory on the Grass

Riverhounds MF Kenardo Forbes

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