IRVINE, Calif. — So long cardboard cutouts!

There will be real-life people in the seats at a soccer stadium in Orange County for the first time during a regular season game since the pandemic began.

It's a day Orange County Soccer Club super supporter, Michael Rodriguez has been waiting for more than 440 days. 

What You Need To Know

  • The game will take place at 7 p.m. Saturday

  • Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only 1,300 fans will be allowed in 

  • Fans will have to wear masks and social distance in the stadium

  • The Orange County Soccer Club takes on the Sacramento Republic

"I'm really excited to get back out," Rodriguez said.

For the first time since March of 2020, he will be going to watch the OCSC play in-person at Championship Stadium in Irvine to catch a regular-season game. The match is Saturday night. 

Earlier this week, Rodriguez was choosing which of his three jerseys he plans to wear to the game and chose one of his orange jerseys. 

"Since it was from last season, I didn't get to wear it as much so... so I'm excited to put it back on and get out there," he said.

When he gets out to the stadium Saturday, there will be some COVID-19 safety protocols, such as mandatory masks and social distancing. Also, food and merchandise orders can be done using an app. Rodriguez will be one of about 1,300 fans allowed at the stadium in Irvine, which can hold about 5,000 people. 

It's a stadium Rodriguez has gone to nearly every home game since 2017. 

"I'm excited to go back out to the stadium to see all the new things that the team in the front office will do," he said. "See all these new players."

Players like midfielder Chris Wehan, who returns home to Orange County to play for a team he grew up watching. And he said he's excited to be able to play in front of a hometown crowd. 

"I think a lot of us will have family and friends. I think there will be a unique atmosphere just because the fans have been away for so long," Wehan said. "So I think the anticipation is growing."

Wehan said having fans back in-person will make the games that much more fun and energetic.

"There's a sense of meaning behind it, and they're cheering you on," he said.

Rodriguez will be doing a whole lot of cheering as a member of the County Line Coalition, the fan-run supporter group. The group will be in the stands chanting and on their feet the entire game. Rodriguez said he expects to lose his voice following the game, but that doesn't hamper his excitement for the upcoming match. 

He's been preparing for it for at least the last week or so. He and a few other OSCS supporters have painted and created a 12-foot-by-16-foot canvas banner called a tifo. 

"A tifo is something different supporter groups do," Rodriguez explained. "Just think of a huge banner." 

The name "tifo" comes from the Italian word for people who support a team. What's on the tifo will be kept a secret until game day, a tradition for just after the National Anthem or at a point just before the game. The supporters will help roll it out by holding it above their heads to reveal the message. 

"I'm really excited to show it," Rodriguez said. 

For now, the tifo and a couple of rolled-up team flags head to his trunk ahead of game day.

"It's going to be a good moment walking back into that stadium to watch a game," he said. "And just have that atmosphere again."

The game will take place Saturday night. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. The OC Soccer Club takes on the Sacramento Republic.