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Ruiz, Orange County make key moment tell in Semifinal victory

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 12/09/23, 4:05PM EST


Early second-half finish by sends side to 2-0 victory against AC Connecticut, into Sunday’s Final

Orange County SC's Nico Ruiz (32) celebrates with his teammates after putting the side ahead in its Semifinal at the 2023 USL Academy League Playoffs on Saturday. | Photo courtesy Emily Sullivan / United Soccer League

TAMPA, Fla. – Orange County SC was expecting a hard-fought battle with an AC Connecticut side that had surprised opponents with their resilience through the opening two days of the 2023 USL Academy League Playoffs.

After a hard-fought first-half that saw few clear chances for either side, however, Nico Ruiz delivered in emphatic style.

Making a sharp run into the left channel near the top of the penalty area, the 17-year-old striker received a clever slipped pass by Ben Norris, took a clean first-touch onto his left foot and rifled home a low strike that kissed the inside of the left post and caromed home.

The finish paved the way to a 2-0 victory for OCSC that was capped by a late finish by Amir Dawkins to send the side into Sunday’s Final against the Charlotte Independence.

“I mean, it was great to be able to finish the game early,” said Ruiz. “We got to give our all and finish the chances we get, because we’re not going to get too many. So, we capitalize on those chances and that’s how you win the game.”

Orange County had the majority of the possession early in the game but were unable to break down a resilient AC Connecticut back line that charged down chances for both Bryce Jamison and Ruiz in the opening 20 minutes. After absorbing pressure, Connecticut then had a chance of its own after being awarded a free kick just outside the top of the penalty area, only for Max Weiss’ free kick to carom low off the defensive wall and behind for a corner.

The game remained scoreless at the halftime break, but Ruiz’s finish two minutes into the second half provided the moment Orange County needed to take control of the game.

“I asked them at halftime to challenge the ‘keeper, because in the first half we had good position but we didn’t put the backline and goalkeeper under enough pressure,” said OCSC Head Coach Didier Crettenand. “That’s what we ask our players, to be in this pocket, to be to maybe absorb a little bit before the backline, be more creative behind, to play quick, that’s what we’ve done. It was a good pass from Ben to Nico, good shift and shoot, so it was well done.”

Orange County could have added to its lead soon after. Ben Barjolo headed wide of the left post with on a back-post cross a few minutes later, while Adrian Diaz fired a half-volley just over the crossbar following a corner kick that was half-cleared to the top of the penalty area. ACC went close to leveling Weiss midway through the second half on an effort that went high as well, but Orange County’s defense dealt well with Connecticut’s forays into the attacking third before Dawkins closed out the result with a minute to play.

For Ruiz, the focus now is on ending a year that has seen ups and downs for him and his teammates on a high.

“We’ve come so far from the beginning of the season, and then up to the USL Academy Finals,” said Ruiz. “It’s great to be here. It’s an honor, you know, and we got to capitalize on it and lift up that trophy at the end of the tourney.”

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