Orange County FC has made quite a run in the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and this week they find themselves up against yet another professional side. This time it is Las Vegas Lights FC, a club led by former U.S. Men’s National Team star Eric Wynalda.
OCFC defeated USL Championship side Orange County SC on PKs on May 15th, just one week after beating USL League Two’s Golden State Force 2-0 on May 7th. Las Vegas have made it to the Third Round by defeating Cal FC 2-0 on May 14th.
Both teams have been strong in league play. Orange County sits second in the NPSL’s Southwest Conference with a 9-2-2 record and a +23 goal differential. Las Vegas are currently in 11th place in the USL’s Western Conference with a 4-5-3 record.
OCFC forward Cody Shelton leads the team in every offensive category, including points (23), goals (9), and game-winning goals (3). Shelton is also tied with Michael Bryant for the team lead in assists with 5.
“It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime feeling, a magical experience, to be honest,” Shelton said.
“Going from playing amateur sides, getting the opportunity to play against a bunch of professionals and then obviously coming out with a win. It’s been one of the coolest, most memorable experiences ever from an amateur’s perspective.”
Everyone in the Orange County FC organization, including Shelton, has high expectations for Wednesday’s matchup.
“As far as playing Las Vegas Lights this week, expectations are to go out and win,” Shelton added. “And honestly, with the guys that we brought in, the talent we have, we expect to go in there and knock them off as well and get a chance to go out and play an MLS team and knock them off too.”
Fellow forward Dakota Collins, a key cog in the OCFC attack with eight goals and one assist, has learned a lot from the Open Cup experience.
“Playing in the Open Cup is always great,” Collins said. “For some of our younger players it’s a great opportunity to showcase themselves at a higher level than we normally compete. For me I just enjoy the moments that each game brings. I’ve had some very cool experiences in this competition in the past and each win in the Open Cup is a big win for our group and it means a lot to each player and the club as a whole.”
All of the enthusiasm and optimism for this match comes from the top, which happens to be Orange County FC head coach Paul Caligiuri. He just happens to be a former teammate of Wynalda’s and a USMNT legend in his own right.
“The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has proved to be a great opportunity for lower level leagues with amateur players to showcase their talents,” Caligiuri said. “OCFC has built a culture that is something special and transcends beyond the playing field, This is a tribute to our competitors in our conference and the everyday players that make huge sacrifices to live out their dreams and passion to play high level soccer. We are all so proud to have made it to the third round and we will carry those ambitions and spirits of the game from all those other players that would love to be in our place, so we can give a full representation of who we are and where we come from. Without a doubt, OCFC will make everyone proud by leaving it all in the field Wednesday night versus a pro team the LV Lights.”
Caligiuri brings a wealth of experience to the pitch as a player and coach. But he’s not the only one from OCFC that has seen the sport at a high level overseas. Forward Peter Gregory has played professionally in England and Portugal and has seen competitions like the Carling Cup and FA Cup firsthand while at Portsmouth FC.
“Having watched some of the opening rounds of the U.S. Open Cup the similarities are the team unity and spirit to win on game day,” Gregory said. “These knockout competitions are so different to league games and are very exciting and can produce performances of a lifetime and create heroes within the team. The feeling of playing for OCFC in this round is very exciting because the team is solid and we have a great manager, Paul Caligiuri, motivating us to believe we can win.”
Gregory summed up this matchup in a very effective manner, drawing the comparison of David versus Goliath.
“I expect them and their fans and most of the sporting community to believe they are going to win which takes all the pressure off of us,” Gregory continued. “We know what we need to do and if we can execute the game plan on the day I’m sure there will be another big upset.
This is a David vs. Goliath match and you know what happened the last time they met.”
Photo Credit: Glenn Feingerts and Nicolai Dejbakhsh