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USL Championship Weekend Guide – Week 8

By JOHN ARLIA - john.arlia@uslsoccer.com, 04/26/19, 5:25AM EDT

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What are the matches and players to watch over this weekend’s 15-game slate?


New Mexico United will look to continue its impressive start to the season against Western Conference leader the Portland Timbers 2 on Friday night at Isotopes Park. | Photo courtesy New Mexico United

After Tulsa Roughnecks FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies picked up victories on Wednesday night, USL Championship action returns on Friday to kick off a jam-packed weekend of 15 games.

Four contests will take place on Friday night with Austin Bold FC getting things underway when it hosts Real Monarchs SLC at Bold Stadium (8:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), while Texas rival San Antonio FC hosts the Tacoma Defiance at Toyota Stadium (8:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). Saturday’s nine-game slate will kick off at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park where North Carolina FC will host Hartford Athletic (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), before the weekend wraps up on Sunday with a top-four Eastern Conference showdown between the New York Red Bulls II and Indy Eleven at MSU Soccer Park (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 8:

Games to Watch

New Mexico United vs. Portland Timbers 2

It may not have looked like a crunch clash at the beginning of the season, but New Mexico United’s inaugural meeting with the Portland Timbers 2 on Friday night at Isotopes Park represents a battle between the two of the top three teams in the Western Conference. New Mexico (3-1-4, 13pts) finally saw its seven-game unbeaten start come to a halt last weekend in a 2-1 setback against Reno 1868 FC, while Portland (4-1-2, 14pts) enters the contest coming off a 2-2 draw with Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. With NMU (16) and T2 (15) also ranking second and third respectively on the Championship’s goalscoring chart thus far, expect some fireworks in front of what I expect to be another awesome crowd in the Southwest.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC vs. Nashville SC


Nashville SC emerged with a 1-0 road victory over Riverhounds SC on its last visit to Pittsburgh in May 2018. | Photo courtesy Nashville SC

In last week’s edition of the Weekend Guide, I said that Pittsburgh’s matchup against Saint Louis FC would be a beautiful sight for lovers of defense. The result? A 0-0 draw. This weekend shouldn’t be too different when the Hounds host a typically resolute Nashville side in what should be another tightly-fought affair. After back-to-back shutout wins over Ottawa Fury FC and Memphis 901 FC, it looked like Nashville had overcome its early-season struggles and started to figure things out. Then Head Coach Gary Smith’s side was on the receiving end of a 3-1 defeat in Charleston last weekend, which has us asking questions again. Which version of NSC shows up this weekend?

Sacramento Republic FC vs. Phoenix Rising FC

Fans across social media yelled at me last week after I said then-14th placed Phoenix Rising FC was still the favorite in the Western Conference and then mocked me after Rising FC went out and dropped a 1-0 decision to Austin Bold FC in the Championship Game of the Week on ESPN. A 4-0 win over the Tacoma Defiance at the weekend quieted some of my critics and should have calmed some of the concerns around the club ahead of its biggest test of the season. Despite losing two of its last three games, Republic FC is still one of the frontrunners in the West and will be looking to make a statement with three points at Papa Murphy’s Park on Saturday night. Forward Cameron Iwasa, who netted five goals in the club’s first four games, will hope to get back on target after failing to find the back of the net in Sacramento’s last two contests. With the two sides currently level on 10 points, this match is a big one given we’re still in April.

New York Red Bulls II vs. Indy Eleven

The Championship’s schedule makers seem to have done a lot of saving the best for last, as once again the final game on Sunday afternoon makes the cut. This weekend’s finale features a red-hot Indy Eleven side that has won four straight games and currently sits atop the league’s Power Rankings and a New York Red Bulls II side that was previously the hottest team in the league before its surprising 3-1 home defeat to Loudoun United FC last weekend. Both teams are plenty capable of finding the back of the net, especially New York on its home field, so expect there to be some excitement to close things out.

Players to Watch

 
Rodrigo da Costa – Tulsa Roughnecks FC

The Brazilian midfielder bagged a brace on Wednesday night to lead Tulsa to a 2-0 home victory over Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, a result that saw the Roughnecks surpass their 2018 win total (3) in April. da Costa has made an impressive start to his debut, playing a role in a goal per game (three goals, five assists) over the club’s opening eight matches. Head Coach Michael Nsien will be hoping to see more of the same on Saturday night when his side hosts OKC Energy FC in the first Black Gold Derby of the season.


 Jemal Johnson – Fresno FC

Johnson also bagged a brace in his last appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over da Costa’s Roughnecks to open his account for the season. The 33-year-old was Fresno’s joint-top scorer last season with nine goals in 28 appearances, sitting alongside Juan Pablo Caffa (31 appearances). To the surprise of some, Fresno is the last unbeaten team in the Western Conference and just one of two teams with unblemished records in the Championship alongside Eastern Conference leader the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Can Johnson help his side keep that run going on Friday in front of its home fans at Chukchansi Park when Fresno hosts Orange County SC?


 Chandler Hoffman – Birmingham Legion FC

Hoffman’s homecoming tour with Legion FC hasn’t quite lived up to its expectation over the opening five games of the season, but it hasn’t necessarily been bad either. The 28-year-old forward has attempted just three shots (two on target) in 397 minutes of action but managed to turn one of those efforts into a memorable goal against his former club Louisville City FC in Birmingham’s first win in club history. However, Legion FC still hasn’t found the back of the net in front of its home crowd at BBVA Compass Field and after three scoreless home games to start the season, it seems like it’s time to change that. I’m backing Hoffman to get back on the scoresheet when Loudoun United FC visits in a battle of expansion sides.


 Kyle Greig – Saint Louis FC

Like Hoffman, Greig has had a slow start to the season in comparison to his high standards, but that hasn’t stopped Saint Louis from charging up the Eastern Conference standings. The 29-year-old forward, who led STLFC with 13 goals in 31 appearances last season, has just a goal and an assist to his credit over the team’s first six matches. A meeting with the Swope Park Rangers, who have conceded 12 goals in five games, could come at a good time for Greig. He also has some familiarity against the Rangers, who like STLFC switched conferences this offseason, and scored the game-winning goal in the 82nd minute of a 4-3 victory the last time these two sides met on Sept. 15. That could be another good omen.

Notes and Quotes

- Fresno FC enters the weekend as the last unbeaten team in the Western Conference but will have to do something it failed to do in 2018 if it wants to extend that streak beyond Saturday: Beat Orange County SC. The California side claimed a 3-0 victory on its home turf last May before picking up a 1-0 win in this fixture at Chukchansi Park in September.

- San Antonio is unbeaten (3-0-2) all-time on Fridays, with this week’s match against the Tacoma Defiance marking the club’s first Friday match of the season.

- The Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Leo Fernandes has been a handful for opposing defenses so far this season with seven Big Chances Created to lead the league. After notching a goal and two assists against ATL UTD 2 on Wednesday night, he’ll be one to watch against the Charlotte Independence on Saturday.

- Wednesday night’s 4-4 draw between the LA Galaxy II and Rio Grande Valley FC was the sixth in the Championship’s history, with four of those results having come since the start of the 2017 season. The Charleston Battery are the only team to have featured in two such results, against Louisville City FC (6/3/17) and the New York Red Bulls II (8/25/18).

- "Right now, there’s a really strong confidence in our group. We showed a lot of fight last week against San Antonio and we’re hoping to carry that into the weekend. Austin is a fiery side that plays well at home. It will be a challenge but a challenge that we’re up to.” – Real Monarchs SLC defender James Moberg

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