Two teams hovering around the Western Conference playoff line will clash this weekend when Real Monarchs SLC hosts San Antonio FC at Zions Bank Stadium. | Photo courtesy Real Monarchs SLC
After Austin Bold FC, Indy Eleven, the Charlotte Independence and New York Red Bulls II picked up victories earlier this week, USL Championship action returns this weekend with an exciting group of 14 games.
Thirteen of those contests will take place on Saturday with Loudoun United FC getting things underway early in the afternoon when it visits the New York Red Bulls II at MSU Soccer Park (1 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). The day will wrap up late on the West Coast when Phoenix Rising FC entertains the Tacoma Defiance at Casino Arizona Field (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), before Austin Bold FC and El Paso Locomotive take center stage on Sunday in a Copa Tejas clash at Bold Stadium (5 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
With plenty of storylines to keep track of across the Championship this weekend, here are a few games and players that I’ll be paying close attention to over the course of Week 7:
Like defense? This game should have plenty of it. After uncharacteristically allowing two goals in each of their first three games, Bob Lilley’s Hounds look like they’ve found the formula that saw the side keep a league-best 17 clean sheets in 2018 while conceding just 28 goals in 34 games. Pittsburgh has allowed just one goal over its last two games – a pair of wins over Louisville City FC and Hartford Athletic – and there’s no way anyone can blame Hounds goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard for failing to keep out Jose Angulo’s spectacular long-range volley. Meanwhile, Saint Louis heads to Highmark Stadium after suffering its first defeat of the season to Birmingham Legion FC and in the process conceding more goals (3) than it had to its first five opponents (2). Given STLFC’s strong start to the season, I expect that to be a one-off performance and therefore, this game should resemble a tense playoff affair between two top-six contenders.
It took first-year Independence Head Coach Jim McGuinness six tries, but he’s officially won a match in the Championship after his side took a 2-1 victory over Bethlehem Steel FC on Tuesday night. That result, which ended a three-game losing streak, is just the shot in the arm that Charlotte needed ahead of hosting in-state rival North Carolina FC in both clubs’ second Southern Derby contest of the season. The Independence dropped a 2-0 decision at the Charleston Battery on April 7, while NCFC needed a stoppage-time screamer from Tommy McCabe to earn a 1-1 home draw with the Battery the weekend prior. That goal continued Head Coach Dave Sarachan’s unbeaten start at NCFC, which ended abruptly this past Saturday in a 2-1 defeat at ATL UTD 2. With both sides looking to make up ground on Charleston in the Southern Derby standings and North Carolina bragging rights on the line for both first-year coaches, expect this to be a traditionally feisty derby affair.
Charlotte Independence forward Jorge Herrera (left) will look to continue to chase Indy Eleven's Dane Kelly for the Championship's all-time scoring record when his side takes on in-state rival North Carolina FC. | Photo courtesy Charlotte Independence
After getting run off the pitch by New Mexico United last weekend in a 5-1 road defeat, the Monarchs return to the friendly confines of Zions Bank Stadium to host an upward trending San Antonio side. Head Coach Martin Vasquez’s side has struggled mightily outside of Utah this season but is unbeaten in three home games and picked up convincing wins over Reno 1868 FC (3-1) and the LA Galaxy II (5-0) in the process. Meanwhile, SAFC failed to win any of its first four matches of the season but has seemingly turned a corner after back-to-back home wins over Las Vegas Lights FC and the Galaxy II. Both Bradford Jamieson IV and Ever Guzman found the back of the net in each of those victories and will look to continue their and SAFC’s improving form in what should be an evenly-matched contest out West.
The only game on Sunday deserves our undivided attention as expansion sides Austin Bold FC and El Paso Locomotive FC square off for the first time in a Copa Tejas showdown. Despite being in-state rivals, Locomotive FC will have to travel over 600 miles east for its visit to Bold Stadium, which hosted Austin’s 1-0 victory over Phoenix Rising FC in Wednesday night’s Championship Game of the Week on ESPN. El Paso’s most recent outing also came against Rising FC, but Head Coach Mark Lowry’s side didn’t have nearly as much success as it was held to one shot on target in a 2-0 home defeat last Saturday. Can Locomotive FC resurrect a better performance on Easter Sunday?
There’s certainly an argument for Santi Moar to headline this list every week as the Spaniard has been instrumental in New Mexico’s impressive attack early in its inaugural season. Moar currently holds a share of the league lead with seven goals on the season, having already exceeded his career-high total of six that he achieved in each of his two seasons with Bethlehem Steel FC. Last weekend, the 25-year-old notched a first-half hat trick – the first in NMU history – against Real Monarchs SLC to add Week 6 Player of the Week honors to his March Player of the Month win. Are you not entertained?
After being held scoreless (including a penalty miss) in his first three appearances for the Eleven, Kelly finally found his shooting boots on Monday night in a 3-1 victory over the Swope Park Rangers. The Championship’s all-time leading scorer capitalized on a poor backpass inside the game’s opening 70 seconds to open his Indy account and sealed all three points for Martin Rennie’s side in the 53rd minute with a trademark left-footed curling finish. Kelly, who also added an assist on Thomas Enevoldsen’s first-half strike, now sits on 69 regular-season goals for his Championship career. After finally getting his 2019 campaign off and running in a big way, something tells me that goal No. 70 could come this weekend at Bethlehem Steel FC.
There is arguably no one better at delivering from a dead-ball situation than Jimenez, who recorded a team-best 13 assists last season while helping Louisville win its second straight USL Cup. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, the fullback doesn’t have a single helper to his name over Lou City’s opening six games despite playing every minute of the season so far. That hasn’t been for a lack of trying though, as Jimenez leads the league in crosses attempted with 64 and is 23 attempts clear of Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder Leo Fernandes in second. The 29-year-old attempted 14 of those crosses last weekend in a 1-1 draw with the Rowdies and registered five key passes as he tried to ignite a Louisville attack that hasn’t had the best start to the season.
After failing to win any of its first four matches this season, Orange County has turned things around with back-to-back home victories over Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and the Tacoma Defiance, and Jones has been a big reason why. The 27-year-old forward has scored three times over the past two games, bringing his total up to four goals on the season. Jones will hope to bring that form on the road this weekend when Orange County visits OKC Energy FC in search of a third straight victory.
- The New York Red Bulls II (4-0-1, 13pts) will look to expand on a franchise-best start against Loudoun United FC after passing the club’s 2016 opening record of 3-0-2 in Wednesday night’s 4-0 victory over Hartford Athletic.
- Real Monarchs SLC’s Maikel Chang is in line to make his 150th regular-season appearance in the Championship should he feature in the Monarchs’ game with San Antonio FC. The Cuban playmaker has recorded 22 goals and 32 assists in the regular season during his career.
- "We are expecting a strong team in Louisville. We respect them but they have to respect us as well. They know we are a good, like them. It will be a good game, hard competition. We are ready to go and looking to score a lot of goals." - Ottawa Fury FC midfielder Wal Fall
Tag(s): Game Previews Weekend Previews San Antonio FC Orange County SC Real Monarchs SLC Charlotte Independence Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saint Louis FC Darwin Jones Oscar Jimenez Santi Moar Dane Kelly Austin Bold FC North Carolina FC Indy Eleven El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United