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The 18 – USL Championship Week 5

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 04/08/19, 10:16AM EDT


Turnabout arrives for Energy FC; SRFC’s Villarreal, Rowdies’ Najem get feel-good moments

We’ve already seen some remarkable comebacks this season – especially Tulsa Roughnecks FC reeling off five consecutive goals against Orange County SC after going down two goals in Week 3 – but the turnaround in fortunes OKC Energy FC has undergone in the past two weekends is something else.

After recording a three-goal comeback that grabbed a point against Reno 1868 FC thanks to a pair of stoppage-time goals last week, this time Energy FC was the victim of a stellar three-goal rally by the Portland Timbers 2 that saw Ryan Sierakowski’s first professional goal in the 91st minute lift the visitors to a 3-2 victory at Taft Stadium.

The biggest question-mark that will come out of this game is OKC’s defense, which has now allowed 10 goals over its past three games and has yet to record a shutout this season. While Portland’s finishing was impressive – T2 found the net on all three of its shots on target to overcome Renzo Zambrano’s missed penalty kick in the second half – this isn’t what we should be seeing from a back line that has the experience at the domestic and international level that OKC brings.

Energy FC’s defense appears on paper to get a slight break next week as it visits a Rio Grande Valley FC side that has only scored three times this season. If it suffers another defensive breakdown at H-E-B Park, though, the alarm bells may start ringing that little bit more loudly.

Here’s this week’s 18.

1. On the flipside of the result at Taft Stadium, there was plenty to like in Portland’s comeback which moved it into a four-way tie at the top of the Western Conference standings. After suffering defeat in stoppage time against the LA Galaxy II last week, earning a bounce-back victory in similar style was a very good response from Head Coach Cameron Knowles’ side.

2. It’s the nature of the system, but with Eryk Williamson currently tied for the league-lead with five assists it will be interesting to see how the Timbers and Head Coach Gio Savarese handle him the next few games. It certainly feels as though the U.S. U-23 international has earned a chance in the top flight, but that could also change the chemistry of T2’s lineup for next week’s game against fellow table-topper Sacramento Republic FC, which should be a must-see at Merlo Field.

3. Just like everyone else this season, the LA Galaxy II weren’t able to contain Tulsa Roughnecks FC’s Luca Lobo on set pieces, but the Brazilian’s brace didn’t matter as much thanks to two goals apiece from Ethan Zubak and Kai Koreniuk that saw Los Dos join its opponent on 10 points with a 4-2 win at the StubHub Center.

4. It’s been a lean couple of years for the Galaxy II since their last trip to the USL Cup Playoffs in 2016, but there might be signs here that Los Dos has learned from those experiences and is ready to get back into contention for a postseason berth with Zubak leading the way. There’s been some Jeckyll and Hyde this season – Head Coach Mike Munoz probably burned the tape from the 5-0 loss to Real Monarchs SLC – but when this side is on its game it looks as dangerous as it did when players like Jack McBean and Ariel Lassiter were leading it to a Western Conference championship four years ago.

5. There’s nothing better for a side than getting a timely break, and this week it was Sacramento Republic FC’s turn to see the Soccer Gods smile on them after it had looked for a while like Austin Bold FC’s strong rearguard action was going to do the job and earn a point at Papa Murphy’s Park. Instead, Jaime Villarreal’s finish with five minutes to go was headed into his own net by Bold FC defender Jermaine Taylor when goalkeeper Diego Restrepo seemed well-placed to save. 

6. Officially, it won’t go down as Villarreal’s second league goal for Republic FC, but after seeing his 2018 campaign end early because of injury it was a great moment for the central midfielder as he made his second start of the season. In his sixth season in the league at 23 years old, Villarreal’s reliability as a holding midfielder can sometimes mean he’s overlooked, but his presence in the lineup always seems a positive sign for a good Republic FC display.

7. Speaking of players coming back from season-ending injuries, unless you’re a Hartford Athletic fan, it would have been difficult not to smile when less than a minute after coming on for his first appearance since suffering a torn ACL last season, the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ David Najem found the net with the goal that broke open a 4-0 win for the hosts at Al Lang Stadium.

8. Given how well-liked Najem is within the Rowdies locker room, it was no surprise that his teammates looked just as thrilled as they ran away to celebrate his finish. Najem himself was grateful to the people that helped him throughout his long rehab. “I’m just thankful to my teammates, the staff and the fans,” he said. “They had my back since day one since I went down on the field and they got me back to where I am today. That goal was just a reward for them, honestly.”

9. Saturday’s loss in the Rob Stone Derby was the fifth in a row for Hartford, whose players and coaches must surely be struggling for confidence at this point. We knew going into the season that the Athletic’s eight-game road trip to start the season was going to be difficult considering the caliber of opponent it would face, but with a trip to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC coming next, it’s been a far longer road than anyone might have foreseen.

10. The Hounds will enter that clash next Saturday – their home opener at Highmark Stadium – after taking victory on the road against Louisville City FC for a second consecutive season on Neco Brett’s penalty kick with 16 minutes to go. While there were questions about the penalty from Louisville’s side as Alexis Souahy appeared to make contact with the ball in the middle of the collision between him and two Hounds players in the penalty area, the Hounds looked more dangerous throughout. It might have taken a good break going its way, but Pittsburgh earned its first win of 2019.

11. Birmingham Legion FC must be wondering what it did to have three of its first four games in club history adversely affected by weather, but the postponement of Saturday’s game against the New York Red Bulls II after less than 20 minutes provided a silver lining for the hosts.

12. This season, instead of the game resuming where it left off as a few games did last campaign, a rule change enacted this offseason means the game will be played in its entirety from the opening kickoff. That mean’s Tom Barlow’s goal for New York is wiped off and Legion FC gets to start again on level terms.

13. This is the first time the new rule has come into effect this season, and while the Red Bulls II might feel they got the short end of the stick as they lost an early advantage they certainly had earned, overall it does feel like it makes sense. The situation last season where ATL UTD 2 and Ottawa Fury FC played an anemic second half that resulted in only one shot on goal between the teams was poor, and it was a good move by the league’s competition committee to ensure it wouldn’t be repeated.

14. There was a certain ruthless efficiency to Nashville SC’s 3-0 victory on the road against Ottawa Fury FC on Saturday afternoon that was much more indicative of the side we’d thought we’d see over the first month of the season. NSC is a prime example of a side that doesn’t need a lot of possession to be effective, especially in attack where it knifed through Fury FC’s defense regularly to deliver 13 of its 16 overall shots from inside the penalty area.

15. For Fury FC, this was a lesson in how far the side is going to have to go in order to be up there with the Eastern Conference’s best at the end of the season. The biggest question after Saturday certainly seems to be who’s going to be the consistent source of goals this season? With two goals in three games overall to start the year, someone is going to need to step forward quickly.

16. You want a decent bet? Next time Real Monarchs SLC concedes a penalty, bank on David Ochoa or whoever’s in goal for the Monarchs to keep it out. The United States U-20 international’s save early against Reno 1868 FC’s Corey Hertzog was the 11th save a Monarchs goalkeeper has made in 18 penalty kicks faced since the start of the 2017 season according to Opta. After outshining his U.S. YNT counterpart J.T. Marcinkowski in Real’s 3-1 victory, Ochoa must be giving U.S. U-20 Head Coach Tab Ramos food for thought ahead of the squad selection for next month’s FIFA U-20 World Cup.

17. It might have arrived after the first time the side had been held scoreless this season, but New Mexico United has now made the longest undefeated start to an expansion season in the Championship’s nine seasons at six games. There wasn’t much to write home about in the 0-0 draw at H-E-B Park, but it’s still a nice feather in the cap for Head Coach Troy Lesesne and his side as they surpassed Louisville City FC’s five-game run to start the 2015 campaign.

18. Another season-opening record? Phoenix Rising FC’s four consecutive draws to kick off their Western Conference title defense after Saturday’s 0-0 result against Fresno FC. You get the sense that Phoenix is going to break out soon, Jason Johnson’s shot off the crossbar almost gave the hosts victory against the resolute 10-man Foxes, but things might still be a little nervous until that breakthrough game arrives. Next week’s visit to El Paso Locomotive FC is going to be a very interesting one. 

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