Orange County SC and Phoenix Rising FC square off for the first time since their duel in the Western Conference Final of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
There have already been plenty of talking points to draw from the opening five games in Week 9 of the 2019 USL Championship regular season, but this weekend’s 15-game slate of games figures to provide plenty more with some intriguing contests set for the next three days.
The weekend kicks off on Friday night as Loudoun United FC hosts its inaugural home opener at Audi Field with Bethlehem Steel FC set to visit (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), and that’s followed by a 13-game slate of action throughout Saturday that includes matinees featuring Real Monarchs SLC’s showdown with still-undefeated Fresno FC (3 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) and Birmingham Legion FC’s trip to face Memphis 901 FC at AutoZone Park (4 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) for the first meeting between the two expansion sides.
With plenty of storylines to keep track of across the Championship this weekend, here are a few games and players we’ll be paying close attention to over the course of Week 9:
The road was decidedly unkind to Hartford Athletic (0-8-0, 0pts) as it moved towards Saturday’s home opener against the Charlotte Independence. It wasn’t just the fact the side played eight consecutive road games to start the season, but more that six of those teams now sit in the top seven positions in the Eastern Conference standings as we go into the third month of the season. The good news is May offers at least a little respite, with the first visitor to Rentschler Field being the Charlotte Independence (1-5-2, 5pts), who have looked good at times and the opposite at others. The Athletic should be buoyed by strong support, the question will be whether that will carry the side to its first points in club history.
After earning a point against Tampa Bay Rowdies on Wednesday night despite being down a man for 70 minutes, Indy Eleven’s gauntlet through May continues Saturday with a visit from North Carolina FC (4-1-2, 14pts), which has achieved the bounce up the standings my colleague John Arlia predicted earlier this year under Head Coach Dave Sarachan. The Eleven (4-2-1, 13pts) won both their meetings with NCFC a season ago, including a thrilling 3-2 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium that saw Juan Guerra score a 90th-minute winner. Guerra won’t repeat those heroics this time around – he’s now an assistant on Head Coach Martin Rennie’s staff – but hopefully this meeting will provide just as much entertainment as that contest did as these two Eastern Conference playoff contenders square off.
You wouldn’t have been surprised to see Reno 1868 FC (3-2-3, 12pts) sitting in the top five of the Western Conference at the start of May given the club’s success over the past two seasons. Seeing Tulsa Roughnecks FC (4-3-2, 16pts) sitting above them in the standings as they head to Greater Nevada Field, though? That’s provided one of the biggest surprises of the season so far, and Head Coach Michael Nsien’s side will have the chance to move top on Saturday night after the Portland Timbers 2’s midweek loss to Rio Grande Valley FC. But while Tulsa has gone undefeated on home turf this season, it has only won once on the road and has lost its last three away games, which makes this a great litmus test of the Roughnecks’ playoff pedigree. Reno will have to keep an eye on Rodrigo da Costa, who with three goals and six assists has so far proven one of the most influential of the league’s newcomers this season, but 1868 FC has plenty of firepower itself led by Jamaican forward Brian Brown that should test a Tulsa back line that has conceded 15 goals in nine outings this season.
Once again, the schedule has thrown us a Sunday evening treat as New Mexico United hosts San Antonio FC at Isotopes Park with its own sights set on jumping ahead of Portland in the Western Conference standings. NMU (3-1-5, 14pts) played to a thrilling 3-3 draw last Friday night in front of almost 13,000 fans at Isotopes Park as Kevaughn Frater notched the club’s second hat trick of the season to maintain the club’s undefeated home record. New Mexico will be optimistic of at least maintaining that record – and potentially taking all three points – while SAFC (3-4-1, 10pts) has taken victory in three of its last four outings it has struggled mightily on the road so far this season. San Antonio has lost all three of its contests away from Toyota Field, scoring only twice in the process, and while it took a confidence-boosting 3-0 win against Tacoma Defiance in front of its home crowd in its last outing this will be a big step up in class for Head Coach Darren Powell’s side.
English midfielder Jack Blake has come into his own in his first full season with the Monarchs as the central hub for Real’s distribution through the center of the field. Ranked fifth in the Championship with 464 passes, Blake has also notched four goals to tie for the team lead with Maikel Chang and has recorded 12 key passes. As Real returns home to face undefeated Fresno FC at Zions Bank Stadium, his influence will be important if the Monarchs are to hand the Foxes their first defeat, but he’s also going to have to be on his best behavior; another yellow card would earn a caution accumulation suspension.
The Hounds are on a five-game undefeated streak as they head to face the Charleston Battery on Saturday night at MUSC Health Stadium, but still sit below the playoff line and last week’s dramatic notwithstanding the club’s attack hasn’t fully clicked into gear. That has in part been due to chance creation – Pittsburgh sits 31st in the league with 53 chances created this season while sitting with a reasonably healthy 17.3 percent shot conversion rate – but getting more overall out of Steevan Dos Santos in the final third might hold the key to increased success. Dos Santos has started every game this season but has one goal on a team-high 14 shots this season and only one key pass. Against a typically stingy Battery defense, how Dos Santos fares could determine whether the Hounds return to Pittsburgh with points.
Since his arrival across the Atlantic, Liam Trotter has slid into Orange County’s back line on a consistent basis but he and likely center back partner Walker Hume will need to be at their best as they take on Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night in a rematch of the Western Conference Final of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs at Championship Stadium. With OCSC having let a two-goal lead slip against Fresno FC in its last outing – a result that kept the side below the playoff line in the Western Conference – the challenge that Rising FC’s forward line brings is going to be a serious test for a defense that has posted two shutouts in eight games. Trotter’s individual numbers have been good so far, but he’ll need to be at his best if Orange County is to get revenge on its visitors.
Las Vegas Lights FC is undefeated at Cashman Field through three games this season, but it’s going to need to find another gear as Sacramento Republic FC visits this Saturday night sporting one of the best defenses in the Championship. That’s going to make Irvin Parra the key man for the hosts as they try to shake off Monday night’s scoreless draw against the LA Galaxy II and push back into the middle of the pack in the Western Conference. Parra leads Lights FC with four goals this season, which includes a hat trick in Las Vegas’ last home outing against Tacoma Defiance. Republic FC is tied for the second-fewest goals conceded in the league with five, and has conceded multiple goals only once, making it the biggest challenge Las Vegas will have faced since its scoreless draw with Austin Bold FC to open the season.
Saint Louis FC forward Kyle Greig is one goal away from his 50th regular-season tally in the USL Championship for his career. | Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel / Saint Louis FC
- With his shutout on Wednesday night against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Indy Eleven goalkeeper Evan Newton has moved into a tie for the Championship’s regular-season record of 40 clean sheets all time alongside former Charleston Battery goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper. Newton will get his first shot at becoming the new record-holder against North Carolina FC on Saturday.
- Kyle Greig’s late goal against the Swope Park Rangers last Saturday night gave him 49 regular-season goals for his Championship career. Should Greig find the net against Ottawa Fury FC on Saturday night, he’d become the sixth player to reach the 50-goal mark in the league’s history.
- The New York Red Bulls II’s five-goal performance against Birmingham Legion FC on Wednesday night was the 11th time since the start of the 2017 season the side has scored at least four goals at home in a contest.
- “I don’t really have any question about whether we have a good team or good players, but today I got the answer about how much character and fight we have. To do that for the whole rest of the game, it was three minutes stoppage time and another four at the end of the game, it was great. The guys worked hard. Everybody did their job. Nobody slacked off.” – Indy Eleven Head Coach Martin Rennie after his side went 70 minutes with 10 men and earned a 0-0 draw with the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Wednesday.
- “Something that this team needs to improve upon is the overall mentality, but I think today was a good wake up call for all of us. Hopefully it’s the last piece of adversity that we’ll have to challenge in terms of conceding a goal and bouncing back strong.” – Birmingham Legion FC’s Marcos Ugarte after his side’s loss to the New York Red Bulls II on Wednesday.
Tag(s): News Weekend Previews San Antonio FC Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Real Monarchs SLC Reno 1868 FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Charleston Battery Charlotte Independence Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saint Louis FC Irvin Parra Steevan Dos Santos Las Vegas Lights FC Birmingham Legion FC North Carolina FC Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC Jack Blake New Mexico United Loudoun United FC Hartford Athletic Liam Trotter