When Oakland Roots take the field at Laney College this Saturday against Birmingham Legion, they will be playing for more than just the city they so proudly represent. As the 2022 United Soccer League Championship regular season draws to a close, the Team from The Town is right in the thick of a seven-team playoff race, meaning each and every point could be the difference between the postseason or an early vacation. Following the tilt against Legion, Roots will travel east for the last two matches of the season, squaring off against Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Hartford Athletic.
After upsetting the Western Conference’s top seed El Paso Locomotive, and narrowly falling in penalty kicks to eventual champions Orange County SC in last year’s postseason, Roots have proven their playoff mettle with aplomb. However, if the club is to embark on another postseason journey, the players must first complete the task at hand: making it into the dance.
The road to the crux of the season has been circuitous and chock full of adversity. Entering the 2022 season, Roots welcomed a new coaching staff into the fold, as well as a fresh crop of talent eager to make a name for themselves in The Town. The arrivals included two loanees from Italian second division side Venezia FC, lethal Icelandic poacher Óttar Magnús Karlsson and the savvy Mikael Tørset Johnsen, as well as swashbuckling wingbacks Edgardo Rito and Juan Carlos Azocar. Defenders Alejandro Fuenmayor, Tarek Morad, and Danny Barbir added a wealth of experience to the backline, sporting over 250 Major League Soccer and USL appearances between them, linking up with captain Emrah Klimenta and the evergreen Paul Blanchette in net to provide a stable foundation for an exciting brand of possession football.
The 2022 season also saw the return of José Hernández, Lindo Mfeka, and Matías Fissore in the center of the park, as well as the additions of USL League One standout Charlie Dennis, and the experienced Dariusz Formella to complete a formidable attacking strikeforce that already boasted Roots veterans Jesus “Chuy” Enríquez and Johnny Rodriguez. The local roots of past years remained intact, with Bay Area natives Klimenta, Max Ornstil, Enríquez, and 17 year-old phenom Javi Mariona putting on for Oakland, East Palo Alto, and Santa Clara.
A new season in The Town brought both promise and the weight of expectation. Oakland sports teams have a deeply rooted championship history, and following an exhilarating postseason run, Roots fans packed into the Laney stands to see their team take the field for the first time on March 26th. Despite two composed finishes from Magnús Karlsson, Roots would eventually fall 3-2 to league newcomers Monterey Bay FC, but a rowdy sell-out crowd of 5,508 Oaklanders sang on into the night, supporting their team until well after the final whistle.
The first weeks of April brought two hard-earned draws against perennial powerhouse Tampa Bay Rowdies and conference foe San Diego Loyal, before the goalscoring floodgates finally opened on April 16th, as Roots put Loudoun United to the sword with a comfortable 4-1 home victory and a Man of the Match performance for the Venezuelan Rito. Following the first win of the year, the theme for April and early May would be deadlock. Roots drew 5 out of their 8 matches, despite the goal-scoring prowess of Magnús Karlsson, who poured in 6 goals, including a brilliant last-minute free kick equalizer against Orange County on May 7th.
May also saw the professional debut of 18-year-old goalkeeper and San Jose native Tim Syrel. Signed just one day before Roots welcomed LA Galaxy II to Laney, a red card dished out to starting goalkeeper Benny Diaz in the 68th minute of the match meant Syrel was tasked with maintaining a shutout and securing a crucial conference win. Syrel stood strong in his 22- minute cameo, and brought home three points at a critical juncture in the season, a testament to the local talent pipeline stemming from Project 51O.
As spring became summer, the Roots family was rocked by the sudden loss of Alejandro Diaz, the father of fan-favorite Memo Diaz. As the team took to the field for the first time after the tragedy, against Orange County FC on June 1st, banners expressing support for the Diaz family covered the stands, and a palpable feeling of love, community, and inspiration radiated throughout Laney, as players and fans united together with one goal: win for Memo.
Despite carrying a 2-1 deficit into the 93rd minute of the match, a trademark curling strike from Juan Carlos Azócar evened the score, and with the last kick of the game, Magnús Karlsson whipped a dipping free-kick over the Orange County wall, and into the back of the net, sending Laney into raptures. “Tonight is about Memo,” Magnús Karlsson said after the match. “Our minds are with Memo’s family, and that’s all I’m thinking about right now. That was for him.” The emotional match winner brought the Icelandic marksman to 10 goals on the season, topping the USL’s scoring chart, and granting him a place in Roots history as the club’s all-time leading goalscorer.
June was a successful month for Roots, as the club went unbeaten in 5 of 6 fixtures, including a convincing road win against local rivals Monterey Bay FC, and a hard-fought away point against runaway Western Conference leaders San Antonio FC. Goalkeeper Paul Blanchette delivered an exceptional performance to preserve the draw against the best in the West, denying San Antonio’s lethal attacking unit over and over with saves that had to be seen to be believed.
After the previous month’s positive run of form, The Team from the Town began to slide down the table, dropping points in 4 of 5 July matches. The month’s sole win was of great importance, however, as Roots dispatched playoff rival El Paso Locomotive in style, behind a brace from Magnús Karlsson and a rocket from midfield talisman José Hernández, pushing Roots back into the playoff picture. Both Magnús Karlsson and Edgardo Rito were honored in the USL Championship’s Team of the Week after their performances against El Paso. The victory over El Paso also saw the season debut of Roots Academy Contract signee Javi Mariona, a monumental moment for the young Salvadoran winger and his family.
Early August brought two more stalemates against Phoenix Rising FC and Detroit City FC, keeping a playoff spot in reach, but adverse circumstances would soon return to the club, this time in the locker room. On August 22nd, Coach Juan Guerra reached an agreement to return to his previous club, Phoenix Rising FC, to fill the club’s head coaching vacancy, in a shocking turn of events. Roots assistant coach and Fremont native Noah Delgado took the helm in the wake of Guerra’s departure, with a vital away match against second-place San Diego Loyal just two days away.
Galvanized by Delgado’s energy and spirit, Roots rode three goals from Azocar, Klimenta, and Rito to victory by a final score of 3-1, stunning their Southern California hosts. Blanchette stymied the league’s leading offense at every turn, making nine saves in a virtuoso performance that earned him the USL Championship Player of the Week honor for Week 25 of the season.
After the momentum stemming from the win over Loyal waned with two losses against Northern California rival Sacramento Republic and San Antonio FC, Roots found themselves in a prime position to bounce back, in the form of an away clash against playoff rivals Phoenix Rising FC. Although Guerra would not be on the sideline to witness it, Roots easily dispatched his team by a score of two dazzling Lindo Mfeka goals to none, setting off jubilant celebrations in the away locker room, and extinguishing any hope Rising might have had for an unlikely playoff appearance.
A home win against Red Bulls II and an away draw to Colorado Switchbacks ensued, and Roots now find themselves in the 8th position in the Western Conference table, on 40 points from 31 games. Although the club is currently on the outside looking in, just three points separate Roots from 5th place New Mexico United with three matches left to play, meaning a playoff berth is well within reach.
However the chips fall in the last few matches of the USL Championship regular season, the Class of ‘22 has left an indelible mark on The Town. “This team isn’t a team. It’s a family,” explained Steve Murakami, day one fan and member of supporter group Homegrown Hooligans. “From the front office to the players and coaching staff on the field, we are a family. The way these players and staff have overcome adversity with another head coach leaving us just shows how strong the family ties are with this team. They have captured the heart and soul of Oakland.”