New Mexico United and Tulsa Roughnecks FC have been two of the more pleasant surprises in the Western Conference so far this season, but can they continue their strong starts?
Since the season kicked off on March 8, we’ve seen some things that were expected, and plenty that was unexpected in the 2019 USL Championship season. With the campaign now two months old, we’ve taken a look across each conference to pose one key question for each team as they move forward into the key mid-season months.
Question: Can Austin be bolder in its battles?
For a side that has the technical ability Bold FC possesses, it’s a surprise to see the side sitting at an average possession mark of only 44 percent so far this season. That would appear to be in part because the side is on average narrowly losing possession battles and is below average in recovering possession, especially on the road where it is still winless. Finding a bit more bite in midfield could pay dividends here.
Best Case: Bold FC starts being more assertive defensively, which results in more opportunities for the side to create scoring chances on the fly and takes some pressure off a durable defense.
Worst Case: The battles keep going the opposition’s way, resulting in the number of shots getting through to Diego Restrepo to trend up and make every game a tightrope-walk for the defense.
Question: Where are the goals going to come from?
It’s startling to think about, but almost half of the Switchbacks’ nine goals this season came in their season-opening 4-1 victory against the LA Galaxy II. It’s not that Colorado Springs isn’t creating chances – the side is tied for 10th in the league with 89 chances created – but the conversion rate of 9.68 percent is just not good enough.
Best Case: Shane Malcolm regains his confidence and Saeed Robinson gets back from injury to help turn around the Switchbacks season before it’s too late.
Worst Case: Colorado Springs’ shooting slump continues and leaves the side sitting even further out of the playoff positions than it is now.
Question: Will the Kiesewetter / Salgado connection fire up the Locomotive?
Goals – and to be brutally honest about it, scoring chances – have been hard to come by for El Paso in its inaugural season with the club sitting below league average in both categories. But there was reason for hope this past weekend as Omar Salgado and Jerome Kiesewetter seemed to get on the same wavelength in Colorado Springs. Is this the start of a beautiful friendship?
Best Case: Kiesewetter finishes with 15 goals and Salgado pushes for the league-lead in assists to lead Locomotive FC on a charge toward the playoff positions.
Worst Case: The attacking duo and others like Derek Gebhard can’t find the chemistry consistently, keeping the club’s shot conversion rate closer to its 8.9 percent rate than the league average of 14.7 percent.
Question: Is this the moment for Christian Chaney?
The adjustment to the professional ranks since he scored 13 goals in 12 games for the Fresno Fuego in the 2016 USL League Two season hasn’t been the smoothest for Christian Chaney, but now sitting tied for the team-high on the Foxes with three goals in six games this might be the moment the for the 24-year-old’s breakout season.
Best Case: Chaney doesn’t drop far off his current 121.7 minutes per goal rate for the rest of the season and leads the Foxes to their first USL Cup Playoffs appearance.
Worst Case: Chaney’s conversion rate of 30 percent proves unsustainable and he falls back to the pack, leaving Fresno to need plenty of secondary scoring to earn a strong finish.
Question: Will this side create a consistent identity?
Los Dos have had flashes of brilliance this season and other outings where they have seemed a shadow of themselves. While that can be the nature of the beast for a team of this kind, there’s all kinds of potential for the Galaxy II if they can find a consistent level of performance.
Best Case: The defensive solidity the side has shown in back-to-back shutouts the last two games continues, allowing Ethan Zubak and co. to take care of business up front.
Worst Case: The Galaxy II regress to the side that has averaged three goals against per game in the six games it has conceded this season and fails to make progress in the standings.
Question: Can Lights FC fix its home and road split personality?
There are other teams that have seen this issue, but not really to the extremes that Lights FC has in the contrasts between its fortunes at Cashman Field and away from home. Going 3-0-1 with a +8 goal differential in Las Vegas and 0-4-1 with a -7 goal differential on the road is the reason why Lights FC is about as stark as it gets when it comes to home/road splits.
Best Case: Las Vegas finds ways to manage its games on the road more effectively while sustaining its rampaging style in front of its home fans to fuel a trip to the postseason.
Worst Case: Lights FC’s road form persists and starts to affect its form at home, leaving it susceptible to another disappointing end to the season.
Question: Can NMU improve its game management?
New Mexico United has only trailed for 71 minutes across its 10 games this season, and while that’s a very positive sign overall it also shines a light on the fact that it arguably should have more than the 17 points it has accumulated so far. In four games, NMU has let a potential win slip away to a draw, which could have opened up a strong cushion at the top of the Western Conference.
Best Case: New Mexico becomes more adept at managing leads, reducing its average of 4.6 shots on goal per game allowed to ensure more leads turn into victories.
Worst Case: NMU remains unbalanced tactically in going for the gusto in attack and is unable to break away from the pursuing pack in the top four of the Western Conference.
Question: Can Energy FC tighten up in the defensive third?
With only one shutout this season to its credit, the fact that Energy FC sits in fifth place in the West right now is a major credit to the club’s attack, but with the side having allowed 136 shots overall – sixth-most in the league – there needs to be improvement from the OKC back line if its going to maintain its current lofty position in the standings.
Best Case: Energy FC offers fewer looks on goal, allowing Cody Laurendi to boost his save percentage beyond a slightly-above-league-average 70.7 percent.
Worst Case: A imbalance in transition defending continues to allow opponents scoring chances, which keeps Energy FC in the middle of the pack in the standings.
A season-ending knee injury to center back Nicolas Taravel has proven to be costly for Energy FC's defense in recent weeks. | Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC
Question: Can Michael Seaton find another gear?
Make no mistake, there’s a good amount to like about Michael Seaton’s early returns this season, with his three goals having come at a rate of one every 160 minutes and at a conversion rate of 21 percent. But both of those numbers trail the full-season numbers that Seaton put in a year ago which helped propel Orange County to the top of the Western Conference. Was last year a peak, or can the 23-year-old pick up the pace?
Best Case: Seaton finds a higher level of form, which sees his scoring rate of a goal every 136 minutes return, resulting in another strong season and a comfortable playoff place for OCSC.
Worst Case: The chances don’t arrive consistently enough for Seaton to maintain his currently-solid pace and Orange County has to fight for a playoff place in the congested Western Conference.
Question: Will the chances start to fall for Rising FC’s attack?
According to Opta, no team has more Chances Created (118) in the Western Conference this season than Rising FC. It has also logged 20 Big Chances. But thanks to a shot conversion rate of only 11.54 percent and converting less than half its Big Chances this season, Phoenix finds itself sitting in 15th place in the Western Conference standings.
Best Case: Adam Jahn fulfill’s my colleague John Arlia’s prediction and becomes a genuine Golden Boot contender, fueling a strong push up the standings that sees Rising FC match its preseason expectations.
Worst Case: The long-term injury to Jason Johnson leaves a depth issue in Rising FC’s forward contingent, which sees players press too hard and continue to struggle to put chances away.
Question: What is Portland going to do with Eryk Williamson?
Currently tied for the Championship lead in assists with six, United States U-23 international Eryk Williamson has been a key figure to T2’s strong start to the 2019 campaign. But with that level of performance comes the potential for action with the Timbers, which could leave T2 with a creative gap to fill in the middle of their midfield.
Best Case: Williamson remains as a central starter for T2 and makes a run at challenging Emmanuel Ledesma’s assists record as Portland makes its second consecutive USL Cup Playoffs appearance.
Worst Case: In a best-case for Williamson, his performances see him earn regular minutes in Major League Soccer, which causes a dip in production from T2’s attack and a harder path to the postseason.
Question: Can the Monarchs’ playmakers find a higher level?
The Monarchs haven’t had the greatest start to 2019, and part of that feels like it can be placed at the feet of the creators in its squad. Douglas Martinez is the lone player with more than one assist, and while Maikel Chang leads the side with 17 key passes this season the side overall sits with only 63 chances created from open play, slightly below league average.
Best Case: Chang, Jack Blake and Andrew Brody start producing a higher volume of chances that afford the Monarchs more success in front of goal, and the side cruises into the postseason again.
Worst Case: The side continues to be stifled by opponents and has to rely on set pieces for goal-creation opportunities, which make for a battle to make the playoff field.
Question: Can Reno’s defense get things back to 2018 levels?
1868 FC is solidly positioned in the congested Western Conference standings, but its average of 1.6 goals conceded per game has been the difference so far between sitting in the playoff positions and contending for first place. That average is well above last season’s average of 1.1 goals conceded per game, meaning a return to that level of performance could do wonders for Reno’s prospects.
Best Case: Reno’s defense tightens up as its attack continues to tick along nicely and puts the club in position for a top-four finish at the end of the regular season.
Worst Case: The side continues to leak goals – it has only one shutout in nine games so far in 2019 – which leaves 1868 FC facing a long path to USL Cup as one of the bottom four seeds in the West.
Reno 1868 FC center back Zach Carroll (left) will try to help his back line regain its fine form of 2018. | Photo courtesy David Calvert / Reno 1868 FC
Question: Which version of Carlos Small will we get for the remainder of 2019?
A Panamanian international, Small had a March to forget as he went goalless and registered only one key pass in the first month of the season. Since then, Small has notched three goals at a conversion rate of 50 percent as the Toros have gone undefeated since April 1, with the uptick in production overall from the club’s attack a significant part of that improvement.
Best Case: Small continues to fire consistently and surpasses his 2018 total of goals (5) by the end of May, putting the Toros in a solid position and helping his case for a Gold Cup call-up.
Worst Case: Small’s conversion rate proves too high to sustain and drops off significantly, leaving others to pull the weight in the club’s attack as the Toros fight for their first postseason trip since 2016.
Question: Will Republic FC’s attack click into gear anytime soon?
For what looks on paper to be a talented attacking group, Sacramento has been underwhelming offensively this season with only 11 goals in nine games so far. Cameron Iwasa has done his fair share of lifting with five of those tallies, but Sacramento’s main issue has been hitting the target. The side has only 34 shots on goal this season, an average of fewer than four shots on target per game.
Best Case: Iwasa continues to produce and the duo of Stefano Bonomo and Tyler Blackwood provide the secondary scoring Republic FC needs to push for a top-four finish.
Worst Case: Sacramento continues to struggle for accuracy in front of net and has to rely on its defense to carry it to a sixth successive postseason berth.
Question: Can San Antonio figure out its road form?
Winning away from home is never easy in the Championship – as of writing there are still nine teams who have yet to do so this season – but San Antonio’s road struggles have been perplexing given the ability the side has to fire on the counterattack. Four consecutive defeats to start the season – including three in which the side has been held scoreless – are a serious reason for concern.
Best Case: SAFC greatly boosts its shot conversion rate on the road from its current 5.88 percent rate and earns five wins and 19 points out of its final 13 road games of the season to reach the playoffs.
Worst Case: The SAFC attack continues to misfire as it is forced to consistently play from behind on the road, resulting in a second consecutive absence from the postseason.
Question: The youngsters have had Academy success. Can they carry that into the Championship?
The feat accomplished by the Seattle Sounders Academy U-17s in becoming the first MLS Academy side to win the Generation adidas Champions Division by defeating Spanish side Valencia CF 1-0 in April was a significant moment, not least because the side included players that are currently suiting up for the Defiance. But Tacoma so far this season sits bottom of the West, so can those standout youngsters find a way to make an impact at this higher level?
Best Case: Danny Leyva, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez and the rest of the Defiance’s young players find a way to accelerate their progression and become a thorn in the side of teams looking to reach the postseason.
Worst Case: Consistent losses prove demoralizing and Tacoma ends the season well adrift at the bottom of the Western Conference.
Question: Is Tulsa’s scoring rate sustainable?
The Roughnecks have been this season’s surprise package among non-expansion sides with 21 goals in their opening 10 games of the campaign. In comparison with the other high-scoring sides in the league this season, though, the Roughnecks are doing more with less when it comes to chance creation and relying on a league-best shot conversion rate of 25.3 percent to make their attacking impact felt, having registered only 41 shots on goal.
Best Case: The Roughnecks’ marksmen continue to thrive under Rodrigo da Costa’s guidance and keep the team in with a chance at a top-four finish.
Worst Case: Tulsa’s conversion rate starts to slow, and with it comes a drop in form that sends the side closer to the middle of the pack in the Western Conference standings.
Tag(s): San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks LA Galaxy II OKC Energy FC Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Portland Timbers 2 Real Monarchs SLC Reno 1868 FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Christian Chaney Fresno FC Las Vegas Lights FC Austin Bold FC El Paso Locomotive FC Michael Seaton Eryk Williamson New Mexico United Omar Salgado Carlos Small Editorial Tacoma Defiance Jerome Kiesewetter