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The 18 – USL Championship Week 2

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/18/19, 9:34AM EDT


One of this preseason’s players with something to prove is off to a perfect start

With three goals in his first two games, Deshorn Brown has OKC Energy FC off to its first two-win start in club history. | Photo courtesy Steve Christy / OKC Energy FC

A few weeks before the 2019 USL Championship season began, I put together a list of 10 players who entered the year with something to prove.

The cover player for that story? OKC Energy FC’s Deshorn Brown.

Safe to say with three goals in his first two games – both Energy FC victories – the Jamaican striker has had exactly the impact both he and the club were hoping for when he arrived late in the 2018 season.

From scoring the second-fastest goal in Championship history after just 12 seconds a week ago against El Paso Locomotive FC to another sparkling finish in OKC’s 2-1 victory against Las Vegas Lights FC in front of 5,544 fans at Taft Stadium, Brown has come out firing to sit tied for the league lead in goals after two weeks of the regular season.

Sitting alongside him at the top of the early Golden Boot race is his namesake and fellow Jamaican in Reno 1868 FC’s Brian Brown, who has picked up right where he left off a season ago when he led 1868 FC with 17 goals.

Brian Brown’s brace on Saturday earned 1868 FC its earliest home victory in the regular season in its short history as it rallied to defeat Austin Bold FC 2-1. For Brown personally, though, his 20 goals since the start of the 2018 regular season have come at a rate of a goal every 118.6 minutes, a number only bettered by Cameron Lancaster and Daniel Rios among those to have tallied 15 times over that span.

There’s a logjam of talent in the Jamaican National Team at the forward position right now – including Cory Burke, who two seasons ago found himself looking for a breakthrough in the Championship with Bethlehem Steel FC. If either Brian or Deshorn can maintain a strong pace over the first half of 2019, you could make a strong case for a place for either at the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup with the Reggae Boyz.

Here’s this week’s 18.

1. Energy FC’s flying start to the season is only going to build confidence in a side that’s seen new faces come in and contribute quickly to the first two-win start to the season in the club’s history. On Saturday night it was Omar Gordon’s first goal for the club that earned victory in a good battle with Lights FC.

“After they came back, we knew we had the quality to go forward and get goals,” said Gordon. “We’d been getting chances, so we know at the end of the day, we know it only takes one chance to actually get the job done. And came at the right time.”

Lights FC had a 15-8 advantage in shots, aided by its willingness to fire from long-range, but Gordon’s goal with 12 minutes to go seemed to take the wind out of Las Vegas’ sails as the visitors managed only one shot after falling behind a second time.

2. Energy FC sitting in first in the Western Conference this early in the season might not be that big a surprise. That their Sooner State rival Tulsa Roughnecks FC is in second certainly is.

3. Tulsa recorded its first road victory since September 2017 and its first five-goal game since August 2015 with its 5-3 victory against Orange County SC on Saturday night. What’s even more remarkable, though, is that the win came entirely out of the blue after Orange County took a two-goal lead in the first half.

Cristhian Altamirano’s penalty kick deep in first-half stoppage time threw the Roughnecks a lifeline, and Janu Silva’s goal nine minutes into the second half to level made it even more interesting, but the combination of two set pieces finishes by Luca Lobo and an opportunistic finish by Fabian Bastides in the span of seven minutes left last season’s first-place finishers shell-shocked. It’s too early to say if this edition of the Roughnecks is going to be the surprise package Juan Pablo Caffa and company were two years ago when they claimed the club’s first playoff berth, but they should have everyone’s attention now.

4. The next test of Tulsa’s credentials arrives on Wednesday night when it visits another side off to a bright start in New Mexico United, which has yet to pick up its first victory but showed an awful lot in its 3-3 draw against Phoenix Rising FC.

5. If the opening game for New Mexico was dominated by Devon Sandoval, against Phoenix it was Santi Moar’s turn to show The Curse and the rest of United’s fans what he is capable of. Moar’s opening strike was a superb piece of technique, but he topped it with a surging individual counterattack from inside his own half that was capped by a precise finish. The Spanish midfielder now has 14 goals and 15 assists in his two-plus seasons in the Championship and can be a serious difference-maker.

6. Jason Johnson’s second game-tying goal in as many weeks ensured Phoenix wouldn’t roll snake eyes in its first game at the newly-renamed Casino Arizona Field, but after six goals conceded in the first two games of the season there is definitely work needed in the Rising FC defense.

While credit certainly should go to Moar and former Rising FC forward Kevaughn Frater for the quality of their finishes, the lack of pressure on either first-half effort from the left channel gave both players time to line up their shots and strike freely. The good news for Phoenix is they’ve managed to still come away with two points from these opening two games despite giving up 13 shots on goal, but the upcoming bye week is going to be a good chance to get back to defensive basics.

7. By contrast, San Antonio FC hasn’t given up many shots on target so far this season. The problem, after matching Phoenix with six goals conceded in its opening two games, has been that the chances they have allowed presented their opponents with golden opportunities.

The way the Portland Timbers 2’s attack carved through the center of SAFC’s defense for its opening two goals on the way to a 3-1 victory at Toyota Field on Saturday night was at once impressive by the visitors, but also raised serious questions for the hosts. T2 midfielders Todd Wharton and Eryk Williamson broke forward without being picked up, which led to clear chances the visitors finished off. SAFC has given up only eight shots on goal in its first two games, but most of them have been Grade A chances that opponents have capitalized on.

8. One team without many defensive issues so far? That would be the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Two games, two clean sheets and just one shot on target faced for goalkeeper John McCarthy after Saturday’s 2-0 victory against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in front of a sellout crowd of 7,234 fans for the Rowdies’ home opener at Al Lang Stadium.

9. You’re never going to get there without some near-misses, of course. Jordan Dover’s header off the top of the crossbar for the Hounds would have had McCarthy struggling to keep it out, but the Rowdies overall are taking on the characteristics that made Head Coach Neill Collins such a solid player throughout his career. That’s going to make the Rowdies a far tougher proposition than when they conceded more than four shots on target per game last season.

10. Tampa Bay’s next opponent this Saturday had those types of characteristics a season ago when it booked its first trip to the USL Cup Playoffs, but Saint Louis FC now appears to have taken the next step and placed itself firmly among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference. Adding Saturday’s 1-0 road victory against Nashville SC to its opening win against Indy Eleven and you won’t find two more impressive results to start the season anywhere in the Championship.

11. Did Saint Louis get a little bit lucky that Bradley Kamdem Fewo’s handball in the 73rd minute was incorrectly awarded outside the penalty area? Absolutely. That said, those are the sort of breaks that fall the way of teams that earn them, and up until that point STLFC had played an almost-perfect game to keep Nashville’s potent attack in check. Kamdem Fewo and fellow fullback Paris Gee were both solid in the face of Kharlton Belmar’s pressure and the duo of Sam Fink and Phanuel Kavita helped limit Daniel Rios and Cameron Lancaster to two combined shots off target.

When Caleb Calvert’s goal arrived with six minutes to go, it might have felt like a bit of a smash-and-grab job on the road, but there was serious method behind this STLFC display. Saturday’s game at Worldwide Technology Soccer Park between two of the teams at the top of the East is going to be a must-see.

12. For its part, Indy Eleven picked up its first three points of the season to spoil the debut of Charlotte Independence Head Coach Jim McGuinness with a 3-2 victory on Friday night at the Sportsplex at Matthews as it held on after building a three-goal lead early in the second half.

On the Independence’s side, though, there was another person with a big spotlight on him aside from McGuinness in 2018 MAC Hermann Trophy winner Andrew Gutman. It didn’t start out great for the Celtic FC loanee, who was certainly caught out on Indy’s first goal and might have done better on the second, but there was also plenty to be pleased about given his clear role as an attacking piece in McGuinness’ plan.

Gutman finished the night with four crosses, three shots and one goal as he snuck in at the back post to head home a deep cross from the right by Alex Martinez to pull the Independence within a goal with seven minutes to go. There may be some rough to go with the smooth for the Independence with their newcomer, but his clear ability means he’s going to make up for it and then some in Charlotte’s push to return to the postseason.

13. Is there any feeling better for a striker than the goal that redeems them after having previously missed a penalty kick?

After seeing a brilliant double-save by Bethlehem Steel FC’s Carlos Coronel deny him from the penalty spot in first-half stoppage time, North Carolina FC’s Marios Lomis didn’t take long to make amends in the second half.

NCFC is two-for-two to start the season and after next week’s bye returns home for two more outings that could see Head Coach Dave Sarachan’s side run out to a very good start indeed.

14. It might come as a surprise but by the numbers one of the most creative sides last season was Fresno FC, which finished fourth in the regular season with 378 chances created in 2018. After offseason recruitment that aimed to sharpen the club’s finishing in front of goal, the Foxes now have four points from two games after Arun Basuljevic’s brace in a 1-0 victory against Rio Grande Valley FC on Saturday.

With three goals in its first two games, Fresno hasn’t started off on fire like some, but its shot conversion rate excluding blocked shots is up three percent from a season ago. That may not seem like much, but over the course of a season it’s enough to pull you from the bottom three in the league to the middle of the pack. With as many chances as the Foxes create, that would be enough to make this side a solid playoff contender.

15. Speaking of slim margins, how narrow was the sliver of goal-line chalk that Ottawa Fury FC’s Thomas Meilleur-Giguere cleared the ball off after Birmingham Legion FC’s Brian Wright appeared to have done enough to find the net at BBVA Compass Field? 

The young Canadian’s intervention was one of the best moments of the weekend, and a valuable one for Ottawa as it preserved a 1-0 win for the visitors.

16. As big as that clearance was for Fury FC, it was tough for Birmingham, which again welcomed a good crowd but was once again unable to find the breakthrough for the first goal in club history. Both Wright’s chance and Joe Holland’s deep in stoppage time would have brought a massive celebration on the field and in the stands, but it simply didn’t fall for the hosts.

If there’s a silver lining for Birmingham and its fans, it will get better from here. It may not be quite enough for a playoff place in Year 1, but the talent Legion FC is adding with loan arrivals like Wright and Zach Herivaux is going to be entertaining on the field while this side gets up to speed. And who wouldn’t bet against Chandler Hoffman scoring in his return to Slugger Field in two weeks against Louisville City FC in Legion FC’s next outing?

17. Birmingham at least has company in searching for its first victory. Two weeks gone, 14 games played and the seven expansion teams are 0-8-6. That’s despite Memphis 901 FC and Loudoun United FC having played to a 1-1 draw in the first all-expansion meeting of the season in front of another highly energized crowd of 7,250 fans at AutoZone Park.

18. Memphis’ first goal in club history, scored by Elliott Collier with 12 minutes to go, proved a bittersweet moment. A native of New Zealand, Collier found out prior to the match that one of his friends had passed away as a result of Friday’s tragic shooting in Christchurch.

“It was very tough,” Collier said after the game, during which he wore a black armband. “I actually had a friend that I played with, I found out this morning, that didn’t make it through his surgery. It’s been a rough past couple of days.”

Collier’s name will go down in 901 FC’s record book as its first official goalscorer, but all of us here at USL wish him well in the coming days and weeks after his loss.

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