Matchweek 14 was the best week of the season for Energy FC and it’s not even close. Six points out of a possible six. Five goals. Things look to have finally turned in OKC’s favor.
After playing their best football of the season in week 13 against Seattle Sounders FC 2 and coming away with no points, the Greens responded in a big way. A gritty, 2-1 win on Wednesday away to Portland Timbers 2, was followed by another valiant, 3-1 victory Saturday at home against Rio Grande Valley FC.
At Providence Park, Head Coach Steve Cooke reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 formation and heavily rotated the squad by making six changes to the starting XI that faced S2: Matt VanOekel, Richard Dixon, Christian Ibeagha, Drew Beckie, Shawn McLaws; Callum Ross, Philip Rasmussen; Francis Atuahene (Miguel Gonzalez, 89’), Kalif Alhassan (Jose Barril, 67’), Jonathan Brown; Jaime Siaj (Alex Dixon, 73’).
The changes worked, as the Greens came out flying with a high press that completely caught T2 off guard. Siaj opened the scoring in the sixth minute after Alhassan won the ball at midfield and played a perfectly-weighted through ball into Siaj’s path. The striker reacted quicker to the turnover than the T2 defense, made a clever run between the center backs, took the ball in stride and placed it past goalkeeper Austin Pack.
Portland hit back four minutes after the halftime restart, when Beckie was called for a foul in the box on Foster Langsdorf. Langsdorf stepped up and sent VanOekel the wrong way to level the score. Other than giving up the penalty, Beckie had an outstanding night in his second consecutive 90-minute outing.
The Greens kept battling and won a corner kick in the 62nd minute. Rasmussen delivered a fantastic in-swinger that was met by the forehead of an unmarked Ibeagha. Ibeagha thumped the ball downward, like players are taught, and Pack couldn’t react quick enough to keep it out.
Energy FC more or less sat back for the remainder of the match, as wave after wave of Portland attacks came. The Timbers nearly found an equalizer in stoppage time through Langsdorf. The forward’s header was challenged by Beckie, and he wasn’t able to get enough power to get the ball past VanOekel. Despite the lack of pace on the ball, VanOekel had to do very well to get down and prevent a goal that would have mirrored Ibeagha’s at the other end.
A couple of things stood out about this performance: the OKC press that set the tone of the match early and the effort by all of the players on the pitch. Portland was able to get back in the game after not being ready for the high level of intensity and ended up outshooting OKC 21-8, however, the Greens formed a cohesive defensive unit that sacrificed and grafted to get the result.
Energy FC returned home Saturday night to welcome the struggling RGV Toros to Taft Stadium. Cooke kept the same formation but made several personnel changes: VanOekel; McLaws, Justin Chavez, Beckie, Kyle Hyland; Rasmussen, Ross; A. Dixon (Atuahene, 76’), Barril (Alhassan, 90’), Brown; Siaj (Gonzalez, 81’)
RGV jumped out to an early lead in the 15th minute through Omar Ontiveros, but Siaj quickly cancelled out the goal in the 21st minute after some sloppy play in the back left goalkeeper Nicolas Corti stranded.
After a back and forth first half, Callum Ross broke the deadlock from another Rasmussen in-swinger that Ross was able to glance into the side netting, not dissimilar to his winning goal against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on May 19.
RGV searched for an equalizer and had several chances, ending the night with 17 shots and 12 corners. VanOekel finished with six saves and made a crucial intervention to deny Pablo Aguilar in the 75th minute.
As the match approached full time, the fatigue of playing three matches in six days really started to set in. However, like in Portland, the OKC defense dug deep to secure the points. In the sixth minute of five minutes of added time, RGV had another corner and Corti sprinted up the pitch to throw another body in the box – one last chance to salvage a point. McLaws, in his second consecutive start, rose highest to head away the danger. Gonzalez took off from inside the OKC box, was first to the ball and never looked back. Aguilar tried to keep up and attempted a tackle, but the fresh legs of Gonzalez proved too much. Miggy took the ball the distance, rolled it into the back of the empty net and embraced the exuberant 46.
It’s no coincidence that the turn in form has come with the signing of Beckie. The experienced center back has played all 270 minutes since his arrival and looks to have all the tools to be one of the top defenders in the league. Beckie received high praise from his manager following the win with Cooke saying, “He’s steady, he was running on fumes tonight… I think he got stronger and stronger and stronger as the game wore on… He’s a hard-working, top professional who is an immense addition to this team – not only on the field but in the dressing room as well.”
On Sunday, the club announced that they had agreed to mutually part ways with Jose Angulo. Despite being in OKC less than a year, the striker will be remembered fondly for igniting the Energy FC attack on the way to last year’s Western Conference Final.
A week ago, the loss of Angulo would have been met with much more criticism. Now, the OKC attack looks to be hitting its stride. The return of Atuahene coupled with the addition of Alhassan has changed the entire look of the OKC attack. There’s a certain swagger that these two carry with their direct, confident style of play. They are more talented than the average USL player and the prospect of them being able to play a full match together once they regain full fitness is something OKC supporters should be excited about.
The form of Siaj has been a catalyst for the improved results as well. After returning to OKC from his debut for the Jordan national team, he is looking like a much more confident player after some crucial misses earlier in the season. The quality and talent has clearly always been there, but now that he’s bagged a few goals, opposing defenses will need to worry.
There are many players that deserve praise for the two wins, and Shawn McLaws is certainly one of them. The fullback filled in on the left side against T2 in place of Kyle Hyland and then on the right against RGV for Richard Dixon. McLaws hasn’t featured much this season, but he hardly put a foot wrong throughout the 180 minutes and must be a strong candidate for selection on Saturday night.
Two wins on the trot make the Western Conference table look much better than this time last week. Matchweek 15 features several fixtures that could help close the gap on the playoff spots even more, assuming the Greens can pick up another three points.
Energy FC are now on 13 points, just 7 off the 8th place Switchbacks. Colorado Springs and 11th place Fresno FC meet on Saturday night, while 9th place San Antonio FC hosts 7th place Reno 1868 FC. Saint Louis FC (10th) and Las Vegas Lights FC (12th) also face tough tests this week, as they are away to Sacramento Republic FC (3rd) and the Swope Park Rangers (5th), respectively.
Watch this space for a preview of Matchweek 15, as Energy FC host LA Galaxy II on Saturday night at Taft Stadium.