Though just a draw, plenty of positives to build on for the Energy

OKLAHOMA CITY- Energy FC were mere inches from shaking their home voodoo.

Just a minute into stoppage time, Jose Hernandez whipped in a cross to a dangerous area at the back post. Teammate Omar Gordon rose to the challenge, but was unable to head the ball on frame, missing just over the crossbar. 

With Gordon unable to bury the last great chance of the game, Oklahoma City had to settle for a goalless draw against the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros.

Even in a draw, the Energy took plenty of positives.

Though they are still searching for their first win, the Oklahoma City defense notched their first clean sheet of the season with a platoon of defenders contributing to the effort.

Three takeaways from the second meeting with Rio Grande Valley:

It took a village, but the Energy finally hold opponents scoreless:

Despite Oklahoma City lining up in their four defender system, seven different guys logged time at the back.

Zach Ellis-Hayden, Joe Amico and Nico Taravel all had to be replaced to nurse an injury, said coach John Pascarella.

Ellis-Hayden got the hook at halftime, while Amico was a precautionary replacement to not risk injury in his first start. Taravel looked to fall hard on his hip late in the game, forcing Pascarella to bring on Tucker Stephenson to close the contest.

Pascarella said he was proud of the defensive effort after the game.

“It was seven of them that had been under stress and strain by the fans, by the coaches, by their own teammates and by the media,” he said. “They battled, they fought, they played in the way we wanted to play.”
“I can’t ask for more from them so extremely proud of them,” Pascarella said. 

The group effort will help raise morale across the entire back line, Amico said.

“Everyone’s good and we’re all fighting to be on the field so I think just seeing how we performed with so many people in different positions is just fantastic,” he said.

CJ Cochran, best player on the pitch?

Though he was only credited with four saves, Cochran came up huge when it counted for Oklahoma City.

Whether clearing a packed box, or stopping a speculative 30 yard effort from Kyle Adams, Cochran ensured the clean sheet would be the only result on the night.

Pascarella said he was most pleased with how Cochran marshalled the back playing with a higher defensive line. Pushing higher up the pitch to collect errant passes was a calming force to the defense, knowing Cochran would be there to clear the lines as well as his normal shot stopping prowess, Pascarella said.

“He was very good and crucial and all of that tonight,” Pascarella said.

Cochran has probably been the most consistent player for the Energy this season, but he credited the entire back line with his performance.

“It was a very good defensive team performance,” he said. “And that’s what you need if you want to get a shutout.”


Road Warriors

Oklahoma City now shifts focus as seven of their last nine games will be played on the road. Though most teams are the underdogs on the road, the Energy are revelling in the chance to pick up some points outside of Taft Stadium.

“We’re pumped,” Amico said. “We’re going in to win every single game and that’s the only mentality to have.”

Some players feel playing on the road will better suit Oklahoma City’s style of play.

“We get to go away now and play on some very nice surfaces and I think that kind of lends itself to the way we want to play,” Cochran said. “We’re a team that wants to keep the ball and we want to knock it around.”
“We do that at Taft but I think it might suit us a little bit more on a little bit bigger of a field.”

The Energy’s first road test in a month comes Wednesday as Oklahoma City travels to face Group D leaders San Antonio FC.

San Antonio blanked Oklahoma City 3-0 in their last outing just a week ago.

Energy backing themselves to break losing skid

OKLAHOMA CITY- Trust the process.

A rallying cry across sports made popular by a once tanking Philadelphia 76ers franchise has made its way to Oklahoma City.

On the back of two straight 3-0 defeats, the Oklahoma City Energy are hard at work, just trying to trust the process.

Energy coach John Pascarella feels like his team isn’t far off, just needing to get the balance right to help turn results around.

“It’s just repetition. It’s training it,” he said.
“Getting the balance right so that if you’re going out the left side in possession you make sure that your team is balanced so that if you lose it you can recover and defend.”

Midfielder Brad Dunwell said working as a unit was one of the bigger focuses in training this past week.

“We’ve really been stressing being compact through the midfield and the back line,” Dunwell said.

“Letting [the opponent] play around us and so that’s obviously less dangerous than letting them play through us.”

Goalkeeper CJ Cochran is less worried about the balance in the team, postulating the past two results have been more a result of conceding the lead early more than anything else.

“After we get down two goals, it doesn’t matter if you lose 3-2 or 2-1. We’re not getting a win,” Cochran said. “We’re throwing numbers forward trying to get the goals and that’s just part of the game.”
Cochran also acknowledged the Energy midfield has a lot on their platter during each game.
“We ask our midfielders to do quite a bit here and they’re very good midfielders to be fair,” Cochran said.

“We’ve got a lot of new players and coming together is going to take time.”
Unfortunately for Oklahoma City, time is not on their side this season. 

With the USL Championship’s delay due to the Coronavirus, the standard 34 games was cut to just 16. 

In a normal season, a team with so many new faces could take 10 games to gel. But with this shortened schedule, every game matters just a bit more.

Pascarella said despite the two losses, there isn’t an extra sense of pressure building.
“We feel like there’s a ton of time. There’s 30 points still left on the board,” he said.

“We’ve only played for 18 [points] so far so that piece is not really a concern.”

“But I do sense the players are a little edgy because of having lost two in a row.”
For Cochran, he thinks there’s no added pressure from the past results, just the normal drive to win.
“I mean there’s always pressure to play well, especially with back to back home losses,” Cochran said.

Oklahoma City has a chance to turn the losing streak around and notch their first home win on Saturday.

Familiar foes Rio Grande Valley FC Toros return to Taft Stadium for their second matchup this season. 

In their first matchup, late heroics from striker Frank Lopez delivered Oklahoma City a 1-1 draw.

Rio Grande Valley will be the first team from Group D the Energy has seen a second time.

“I think we’ll be better prepared in the game because we have an idea of how they play,” Pascarella said. “I can’t imagine they’re going to change all that much for one game.”
Having already played the Toros can also allow for more direct film study, affording the coaching staff the ability to show the players specific areas they can improve specifically against this opponent, Pascarella said. 

“I think going into this our game plan is going to be pretty similar,” Cochran said.

The team feels they were perhaps a bit unlucky not to win the first matchup, Cochran said.

“I think their goalkeeper had three or four really good saves. If he doesn’t have one of those, we win the game,” he said.

For Dunwell this game means a bit extra, as he played for Rio Grande Valley last season/
“Going up against your former club you always want to get involved and have a good game,” Dunwell said. “Very much looking forward to it.”
The Energy and the Toros kickoff at 7 p.m. Saturday from Taft Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.

“There’s still plenty of games left,” Dunwell said.

“We can still control our own destiny.”

Getting to Know the Groupies: Rio Grande Valley FC

Getting to know the Groupies is a four part series exploring the other members of Group D. The Energy will play each of these teams three times in addition to three teams outside the group to finish the 2021 USL Championship season.

Oklahoma City- The Rio Grande Valley FC Toros appeared poised for a playoff run with some key additions in the offseason. Building off a strong finish to the 2019 campaign, the Toros carried some momentum into this season. 

But the combination of the forced season suspension due to the Coronavirus and a 5-1 battering at the hands of LA Galaxy II in week one will have fans asking questions of manager Gerson Echeverry.

Last Season:

Echeverry was named the full time manager after serving as the interim to close 2018, but his first full season in charge left Toros fans wanting. 

Finishing five points off the playoff line, away form ultimately did Rio Grande Valley in. Winning just 11 points from 17 matches away from home, Echeverry’s side faced an uphill battle for playoff qualification.

Rio Grande Valley did close the gap toward the end of the season however, finishing on a five game unbeaten run which included a 2-0 victory at Taft Stadium.

Omar Gordon touching the ball on past a defender in last year’s 2-0 defeat to Rio Grande Valley FC. Photo courtesy of Energy FC.

The Squad:

The Toros’ partnership with the Houston Dynamo ensures the pipeline of talented youngsters is never barren. As a result, Echeverry has some better attacking options to employ this season.

Leading the line could be a familiar face for Energy FC fans. Garret McLaughlin, former Energy U23, will be the key man for the Toros. 

Selected eighth by the Dynamo in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft, the Oklahoma native and former SMU Mustang brings his physical tools and goal scoring prowess to Rio Grande Valley. 

The Dynamo also provided their other SuperDraft starlet Luke Prpa to the Toros. 

Prpa is an attacking midfielder tasked with unlocking the defense and linking up to provide McLaughlin plenty of service.

Midfielder Christian Lucatero was brought back into the club, joining returning midfielders Kevin Rodriguez and Isidro Martinez. 

The final key addition to the midfield is also a former Energy U23 product. Timo Mehlich was brought in to shore up the middle of the park and help distribute the ball to start the Toros’ attack. Mehlich could be the most technically gifted of the bunch, a credit to his days coming up in the Borussia Monchengladbach youth system.

Rio Grande Valley’s entire back line returns as well, giving the Toros the opportunity to build continuity at the back. 

Philosophy:

Echeverry’s side employs a similar high tempo press that is all the rage in world football at the moment.

His team looks to dominate possession, and attempts to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible.

In their first outing this season, Rio Grande Valley employed what most resembled a 4-1-4-1, allowing Mehlich to sit behind the talented midfield and pull the strings. 

Attempting to build up from the back, the defense looked to distribute to Mehlich, who would then find the Toro wingers hoping to move the team forward.


When not bombing forward on the counter, Rio Grande Valley looked for a steady build up. Utilizing well-drilled triangle patterns of play, the Toros try to get everyone involved and move the entire team incrementally up the pitch. 

The result allows Rio Grande Valley to assert themselves on the game and potentially dominate possession with long build ups to keep their opponent chasing the ball. 

However, one misplaced pass leaves the Toros exposed on the counter. 

The fullbacks play an incredibly high line leaving acres of space between the midfield and the center backs. This space in behind is there for the taking, as Los Dos abused Rio Grande Valley often after quickly picking up possession in the midfield. 

This Season so far:

In their only outing of the season, the Toros were handed a 5-1 drubbing in their season opener.

Of the five goals, LA Galaxy II scored four directly off a counter attack (with the other coming directly off a free kick won in transition). 

Despite the huge scoreline, Rio Grande Valley could have easily turned the game on its head. 

The Toros dominated the opening 15 minutes, unlucky not to score on two or three different chances. 

Rio Grande Valley’s defensive lines were actually cohesive and tight to start the game, slowly getting sloppier as they continued to get undone on the counter time and time again. 

Though Los Dos absolutely deserved all three points on the day, Rio Grande Valley looked close to putting together a pleasing product. 

Assuming no season suspension, Rio Grande Valley fans would have likely taken many positives from the first outing of the season. Had the Toros been able to build off the performance, it would have been expected that the space between the midfield and defense would have improved given the team would have had more matches to gel.

Instead, Rio Grande Valley is left with the same questions the rest of the USL Championship faces. How will the team have handled the four months without football? And will they be able to pick up right where they left off after game one?