Tampa Bay vs. Orange County: USL Championship Final odds, preview, and pick

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Jason Ence

November 25th, 2021

Sunday night will see a victor crowned, as the Tampa Bay Rowdies play host to Orange County SC in the 2021 USL Championship Final presented by TwinSpires.

Tampa BayTieOrange County

Tampa Bay riding high after stunning comeback

With under 10 minutes remaining in the Eastern Conference final, things looked all but over for the top seed in the conference. Louisville City was ahead 2-0, with the +150 underdogs grabbing an early lead after Brian Ownby tapped home a free kick that evaded everyone’s heads. Then they doubled their lead when Forrest Lasso, the reigning USL defender of the year, turned home a cross into his own net in the 23rd minute.

Then fortunes changed, as substitute Lucky Mkosana—who was traded to Tampa Bay in the 2019 season by Louisville City—came on in the 81st minute, and scored a shot from outside the box just two minutes later. Then, in a controversial finish, he found himself on the end of a Lasso header across the box, heading home from point blank range in the sixth minute of stoppage time, two minutes more than the referee added on. Suddenly Tampa had all the momentum, and Louisville City, having taken off their biggest weapons in an attempt to see out the lead, were headed to extra time wondering what went wrong.

Tampa Bay walked away with a 3-2 win after dominating much of the extra time, with Mkosana being denied a hat trick by a goal line clearance before Duba, another second-half substitute, headed home in the 102nd minute to win the match. Tampa outshot Louisville City 25 to 10, winning 10-4 in the shots on goal department, and were able to ride the energy of a sellout crowd of 7,210 fans to victory. Now, they look to finish the job left incomplete from 2020, when COVID-19 outbreaks caused the cancellation of the USL Cup final.

Orange County hoping defense really does win championships

The adage that "defense wins championships" seems to be the philosophy for Orange County SC. For the first time all postseason, Orange County conceded a goal in defense in their Western Conference final against San Antonio, just the second goal they have conceded at all in their last eight matches. The 67th minute goal came off a cross from the wing, which Marcus Epps was able to head home for the equalizer. The goal cancelled out a phenomenal goal from Ronaldo Damus, who flicked home a volley off a long throw-in into the box on 39 minutes.

After conceding, San Antonio became the aggressor, and Orange County demonstrated their defensive prowess by bunkering in for the rest of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time. Once in penalties, none were stopped or missed until San Antonio’s fourth kick, which Justin Dhillon blazed wide of the post. Sean Okoli converted Orange County’s fifth attempt, sending them to the victory and a place in the final.

Manager Richard Chaplow has Orange County playing outstanding defense since he took the club over in midseason, and how the former OCSC player will face off with a friend and former teammate, as he and Tampa manager Neill Collins played together at England’s Preston North End in the 2009-10 season. The two managers even joined the USL in the same year, coming over to play for their respective teams in 2016, so it's fitting they would square off for a chance at their first trophy.

Damus needs to deliver

Nearly everything Orange County does in the final third revolves around Damus. The team’s leading scorer on the season, he now has sixteen goals, which is four times more than the next best on the team. This is going to make it difficult for the visitors, going up against the best defender in the league in Lasso, not to mention the best defensive unit as well.

Additionally, whereas Louisville City had multiple weapons and created just one major scoring chance in regulation, the attack for Orange County has little threat if Damus isn’t able to get the ball into his feet. Against San Antonio, the forward had just 33 touches in 120 minutes of play, took only three shots, and did not attempt a single dribble. Those numbers could be generous against the Rowdies.

On the flip side, Orange County will likely look to do what they have done the entire postseason, which is to sit back and defend. They’re very good at it, and Tampa will be happy to bomb away from the wings. Against San Antonio, the visitors faced 24 crosses and prevented 20 of those from finding a way home—but one of the four that did led to the equalizing goal. Against Louisville, Tampa sent a staggering 48 crosses into the area, and two of them were headed home for the tying and winning goals.

At the end of the day, I see a very low-scoring match being the safest path to making money. Both of these teams are exceptionally good at defending, and I can see a draw after regulation as much as I can a slim Tampa victory. Take the Under 2.5 goals for the best bet in this match, and if you want to play a Same Game Combo, pair it with Tampa Bay to win the cup in regulation.

Score prediction: Tampa Bay 2, Orange County 0