Orange County Soccer Club’s Kevin Coleman, left, is congratulated by Darwin Jones after Coleman scored a goal in the 74th minute against the Phoenix Rising on Thursday. The teams tied 1-1.(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
IRVINE — Live professional sports returned to Orange County on Thursday night for the first time since March.
The Orange County Soccer Club hosted the Phoenix Rising Football Club at Orange County Great Park, and it was part of a big night for the franchise.
A television, not a ticket, was fans’ entryway to the United Soccer League match, which ended in a 1-1 draw after Orange County’s Kevin Coleman finished off a long ball from Rob Kiernan and scored the equalizer in the 74th minute.
Before the match, which aired on ESPN2, fans could see the first episode of a documentary, “Pathway to Glory,” which showcased the road of some of the franchise’s younger players.
“I think everyone’s grateful for this opportunity,” Orange County coach Braeden Cloutier said. “Two months ago, we didn’t think we were going to have a league, and then about a month ago, there was talk about having a league. There’s anticipation, but with that it brings a certain level of frustration, because obviously we have to follow all of the protocols with the social distancing. We’ve only been in contact training for two weeks, and we haven’t played a game yet, 11 vs. 11.”
Fans will likely not get to see the players in person in 2020. They were not allowed at the match due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, though about 10 of them gathered outside the gate in Championship Soccer Stadium’s southeast corner to root on their side. Instead, cardboard cutouts of people like Will Ferrell, Tiger Woods and Mike Trout filled some of the stands.
“We’re just excited to be back on the field,” OCSC President of Business Relations Jeff Garner said before the match. “I would love to see fans back in this building, but we would only do that if we felt 100% confident that we could do it safely, and that’s a pretty tall task right now.”
The pandemic has continued, and numbers are rising in Orange County. Just blocks away in the Great Park, the city of Irvine became the first county city to open a drive-up COVID-19 testing site on Monday.
Those who watched Thursday’s match on television saw an exciting one between Orange County (0-0-2) and Phoenix (2-0-1). The teams were scoreless after a physical first half that saw 20 fouls called and three total yellow cards produced. Orange County goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes helped keep it that way in stoppage time, batting a shot off the crossbar.
Phoenix, which boasts 2019 USL Championship MVP Solomon Asante, took the lead in the 64th minute. Asante tallied his fourth assist of the season after Junior Flemmings took Asante’s corner kick from the right and headed into the net.
About five minutes later, Cloutier substituted in Coleman and Jones. And about five minutes after that, Coleman scored the equalizer.
“It felt great,” Coleman said. “We were all buzzing to get back on the field … I just recognized the spacing behind. Rob played a great ball over the top, and I just ran onto it and finished it.”
Orange County got another chance in stoppage time when Jones was fouled from behind just outside the box, as Phoenix’s Owusu-Ansah Kontoh was sent off with a red card. The subsequent free kick by Sean Okoli was low and handled easily by the Phoenix goalkeeper.
Phoenix now sits atop USL Championship Group B with nine points, while Orange County is in fourth place with two points. Another chance to get a result against the Rising comes when the teams rematch in Irvine on July 25 at 7 p.m.
“To be honest, [this match] felt like a scrimmage, but it means something,” said Orange County defender and team captain Michael Orozco, an Orange native. “You’ve got to make the best of it. You’ve got to be focused, give 110% more than ever. You’re at home and you’ve got some people supporting you, so you do it for them, do it for your family and everyone watching the game on TV. There’s a lot of room for improvement. We have next week to turn things around and get three points out of it.”
Laguna Beach native Francis Jacobs, who is just 15 years old, made Orange County’s game roster for the first time on Thursday.