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The 18 – USL Championship Week 4

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 04/01/19, 11:24AM EDT

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A series of firsts highlighted the final weekend of the regular season’s first month

Sometimes it can take a near-miss to provide the impetus to finally push over the line.

That certainly was the way it felt watching El Paso Locomotive FC close out its first victory in club history on Saturday night, a 2-0 win against Orange County SC that came in front of another raucous crowd of 7,094 fans at Southwest University Park.

Having gone so close the week before only to be pegged back late by Rio Grande Valley FC, the hosts ensured there wouldn’t be a repeat performance by simply stifling the Orange County attack. When Edson Partida’s second goal arrived with two minutes to go, everyone in the stands and on the field knew there was going to be no comeback this time as El Paso earned a just reward for a dominant display.

Locomotive FC’s victory was one of a handful of firsts this weekend as both Austin Bold FC and Birmingham Legion FC also broke through with their first victories in club history. There was also a first victory for Eric Wynalda at the helm of Las Vegas Lights FC, and a first home-opener victory for Indy Eleven in front of a club-record and 2019 season-high crowd of 20,251 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Where all those firsts take these respective clubs, we’ll find out soon enough. But after the first month of the season came to a close on Sunday, things are set up nicely for April and beyond.

Here’s this week’s 18.

1. Another notable first on Saturday night? How about the debut professional performance by 16-year-old goalkeeper Abraham Rodriguez for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC? Yes, the youngster conceded twice against the defending Western Conference champion, but his 11 saves – which included a penalty kick save on Solomon Asante late on – stole the show and allowed the visiting Switchbacks to grab a 2-2 draw thanks to Ish Jome’s arrowed late free kick.

2. Rodriguez’s display was the latest in a series of impressive performances we’ve seen already from teenage goalkeepers in the league this season. Like Real Monarchs SLC’s David Ochoa (18 years old) to Orange County SC’s Aaron Cervantes (17 years old), we’ve seen some special things from a trio who are in the current U.S. Youth National Team pool.

3. While the Switchbacks have been one of the better stories in the league over the first month of the year, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who expected Phoenix Rising FC without a win as the calendar turned to April. Now, Phoenix is still undefeated as well after three consecutive draws to start the season, and you get the feeling it’s due to break out any minute, but that’s going to make this Saturday’s game against an undefeated Fresno FC side one of the contests that should be closely watched.

4. Arguably as surprising as Phoenix’s lack of a win is the same predicament befalling both San Antonio FC and Orange County SC, both of which fell this past weekend to continue their slow starts to 2019. Orange County went quietly into the night against El Paso Locomotive FC as it recorded only two shots total on the night. The absence of both Aodhan Quinn and Christian Duke – who has been out after pectoral surgery – was noticeable, and Head Coach Braeden Cloutier has some work to do to get things sorted out and his side pointed in the right direction.

5. San Antonio, meanwhile, has now lost three games in a row after its setback against Copa Tejas rival Austin Bold FC as the balance within the side just seems to be off a fraction. After leading the league with 34 chances created in its opening two games, that number has dropped to 16 over the past two outings, with the side also creating only one Big Chance according to Opta over its two shutout defeats. All the pieces seem to be there for SAFC, but this Saturday’s home game against Las Vegas is starting to loom large as a game Head Coach Darren Powell’s side is going to need to win.

6. As for San Antonio’s hosts on Saturday night, what a tremendous occasion Bold FC’s inaugural home opener proved to be. A standing-room-only crowd of 5,803 packed into the new venue and got to witness history thanks to Kleber’s game-winner late on.

7. Nicknamed “The Gladiator” from his days with Palmeiras, the 35-year-old has now scored both the first goal in Bold FC’s history – away at Reno two weeks ago – and the first goal at Bold Stadium. That’s a nice start for a side that is growing well into its first season.

8. One of the biggest strengths the Charleston Battery possess is a clear knowledge of who they are as a side. They were unlucky not to come away with all three points from their Southern Derby clash with North Carolina FC – as good a plan as you might have you can’t account for a strike of the quality that Tommy McCabe produced to level in stoppage time – but that shouldn’t diminish what was another solid display for a side that will once again be in strong playoff contention at the end of the season.

9. You can say the same thing about knowledge of self about Saint Louis FC, which is a big reason why it has now matched the best start to a season in club history to sit on top of the Eastern Conference after its 1-0 win against the Charlotte Independence. In miserable rainy conditions on Saturday afternoon – major kudos to the fans who weathered that – the hosts grabbed an early lead and then held firm despite the best efforts of Enzo Martinez and co. late on.

10. The last time STLFC opened a season 3-0-1 two seasons ago, things quickly slid into a freefall as the side subsequently won only one of its next 11 games. And while that was on the minds of some who’ve lived and died with this club since its formation – especially given an early defeat during that slide came against the Independence – there seems little chance of a repeat performance this year. Head Coach Anthony Pulis has got a well-drilled group here that has still got room to grow.

11. There are absolutely no problems at all with the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ defense, which picked up its league-leading third shutout of the season on Saturday night. The other end of the field is proving a trickier problem to solve, though, as was shown in the club’s 0-0 draw with Loudoun United FC on Saturday night. Tampa Bay has scored only two goals from open play so far this season – both against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in its home opener in Week 2 – but given the pedigree the club’s offseason arrivals brought it feels like the side should have created more than 25 chances over four games, a total that sits below league average.

12. I mentioned two weeks ago after its narrow loss to Ottawa Fury FC that Birmingham Legion FC seemed to be getting close to a breakthrough, but as you might have guessed from all of our Pick ‘Em selections last week, we definitely didn’t see it coming against defending USL Cup champion Louisville City FC. Here we are, though, with Brian Wright’s goal and assist leading his side to a thrilling 3-2 Sunday-morning victory that was a big reason for celebration in the Magic City.

13. Given the circumstances, Birmingham’s display might have been the most impressive of the weekend. On the road and ready to go on Saturday night when Mother Nature intervened, Legion FC managed things perfectly. “The guys were all wound up last night and we weren’t able to play, but they kept that emotion and the energy, the fight and the belief,” said Head Coach Tom Soehn. That was evident in the responses Legion FC produced to each of Louisville’s goals, especially finding a winner after Mathieu Laurent’s own goal with nine minutes to go. The energy at BBVA Compass Field this Saturday should feel a lot different now that the weight of finding the club’s first goal and first win has been lifted.

14. The New York Red Bulls II will be the visitors in Birmingham for that contest as they hit the road for the first time this season. How New York fares on the road this season could determine how far up the Eastern Conference they could land at the end of the campaign, but already we’re seeing again how good Head Coach John Wolyniec’s side is when it’s on its home turf. A 3-2 win against Memphis 901 FC provided plenty of entertainment on Friday night, but also saw the side claim its 31st home victory since the start of the 2016 regular season. That’s tied for the most home regular-season wins in that span with Real Monarchs SLC and the Swope Park Rangers.

15. How have the Red Bulls II accomplished that? It’s not simply quantity, but more the quality of chances they create on a consistent basis. Last year they led the Eastern Conference with 81 Big Chances Created according to Opta, and this season they currently lead the league with 14 such opportunities. When you’re creating that many good looks on goal, you’re going to have a fair share go in, making life very difficult for opposing defenses.

16. We’ve already seen stoppage-time drama this season, but OKC Energy FC’s comeback to earn a 3-3 draw against Reno 1868 FC was right up there in terms of unlikely endings and will probably stay at or near the top of the list for the rest of this season. The stoppage-time goals two minutes apart by Christian Eissele and Omar Gordon that followed Alexy Bosetti’s tally with 18 minutes to go should give Energy FC a massive boost of confidence as it returns to training this week. After its heavy loss to Sacramento Republic FC the prior week, there was always a danger OKC could slip into the sort of slump it suffered early last season. This result showed the new arrivals Head Coach Steve Cooke has brought in are here to change that narrative.

17. The narrative we took away from that game instead was 1868 FC’s inability for a second time this season to close out a game. After letting a two-goal lead slip against Orange County SC on the opening weekend of the season, Reno again let two points slip away against Energy FC in a game it looked to have wrapped up. The silver lining is that the side is still undefeated, but it could easily be sitting pretty alongside Tulsa Roughnecks FC at the top of the Western standings right now.

18. Was Fox Sports host Rob Stone’s presence a good luck charm for Las Vegas Lights FC on Saturday night?
 

In town for the network’s coverage of the PBA Tour’s USBC Master’s over the weekend, Stone decided to check in on his former colleague Eric Wynalda, led a “Waldo” chant by the fans, and saw his friend claim his first victory as a Head Coach. His upcoming schedule might be crowded, especially with the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer, but hopefully there’ll be a chance for Stone to get back to Cashman Field again soon. 

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