It was just over a month ago that my colleague John Arlia restated his view that despite a slow start to the 2019 USL Championship season that had it sitting in 14th place in the standings, Phoenix Rising FC was still the favorite to represent the Western Conference at the USL Cup in November.
Well, just look at those standings today.
After earning their first-back-to-back wins of the campaign thanks to a 4-0 victory against Las Vegas Lights FC on Saturday night at Casino Arizona Field, Phoenix is up to third place in the West and almost within touching distance of conference-leader New Mexico United.
As congested as the Western Conference is, that maybe shouldn’t be a surprise. This weekend brought another series of results that featured five draws between Western Conference squads. In terms of form, Phoenix is one of only three teams that has taken victory in three of its last five outings.
More than that, though, it’s the manner in which the side is starting to click into gear offensively. Only Reno 1868 FC has created more chances from open play than Phoenix’s 114, and no-one has taken more shots than Rising FC’s 189. It’s now tied for third in the league with 22 goals, an average of two per game.
With Solomon Asante back in the fold after his return from bereaving the death of his father, it only seems certain that this side is going to have a chance to find a higher gear more consistently moving forward.
And that should have everyone else’s attention.
Here’s this week’s 18.
1. As big a threat as Asante can be for Phoenix, the side believes it has another pure creator in its squad in Jon Bakero, who joined the club on loan from Toronto FC again this season. Bakero has notched 21 key passes in five games, which has earned a high level of confidence within the locker room.
2. “We know he's really good with the ball at his feet,” said midfielder Kevon Lambert after Saturday’s game. “We're just trying to play off him as much as possible so when he gets the ball, we know he's going to do something positive.”
3. As good as Phoenix looked, it was a return to Las Vegas Lights FC’s Jekyll and Hyde ways on the road. Nothing seemed to go particularly well for the visitors, the early second-half spark provided by the introduction of Sammy Ochoa and Cristhian Hernandez as substitutes failing to produce enough of note in the attacking third.
4. “We were really careless in the middle of the park and they were able to break with speed, it wasn't necessarily brilliant football that beat us tonight,” said Lights FC Head Coach Eric Wynalda. “We've lived this before, we started chasing the game, started to climb our way back into the game and then one bad pass results in a goal and the game turns on its head. We have to pick ourselves up, we have a full week to prepare for our home game. This is where we have to really have to come together.”
5. You might have thought missing one of their two leadings scorers might have caused New Mexico United at least some issue as it headed to Colorado Springs Switchback FC, but after another hat trick by Kevaughn Frater led to a 3-1 victory at Weidner Field, Santi Moar’s absence proved little more than a minor bump in the road. Backed by an impressive contingent of travelling support, NMU’s week couldn’t have gone much better as it ran its undefeated streak to five games in all competitions after its penalty shootout victory against Phoenix in midweek.
6. The other thing that strikes you about New Mexico is for an expansion side, this seems to be a group of players that have very quickly bonded off the field and enjoy playing alongside one another. Just look at this from after Saturday night’s win.
7. New Mexico is top of the Western Conference, but everyone in the Championship is looking up at the Tampa Bay Rowdies after their comprehensive 2-0 victory against the New York Red Bulls II at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night on the back of another tremendous defensive display. The Rowdies’ limited the Red Bulls II’s starting attacking quartet of Marcus Epps, Mathias Jørgensen, Jared Stroud and Ben Mines to only four key passes combined – three of which came via Stroud – to keep John McCarthy on pace to make a serious run at the league’s shutouts record.
8. McCarthy has now recorded seven shutouts in 11 games, almost halfway to the record of 15 set by former Ottawa Fury FC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau a season ago with one-third of the season gone. With as well as Pape Diakite, Caleb Richards, Tarek Morad and the rest of the Rowdies’ collective is playing in front of him, the team record of 17 shutouts set by the Rochester Rhinos in their USL Cup-winning 2015 season could also be within reach.
9. Alongside the Rowdies, the only other side to have recorded victories in each of its last two outings is now Ottawa Fury FC, which continued to impress on Sunday evening in its 3-0 win against Bethlehem Steel FC at Talen Energy Stadium. That’s 10 points out of the past four games for Fury FC, which against Bethlehem showed it can beat you in multiple ways. From the sharp passing movement that set up the opener for Christiano Francois to using Francois’ pace to get in behind the defense and set up a trailing Wal Fall for a precise first-time finish, the plan put in place by GM Julian de Guzman and Head Coach Nikola Popovic is clearly working.
10. “I think we are able to show that we are capable in every moment of the game,” said Popovic after the game. “Transition is one of them of course, but we possessed the ball around 60 percent of the time, so we totally controlled the game. In some moments we still have to get better, and we have only played nine games, so we ambition to do more and get much better. However, our performance today was the reflection of a complete team.”
11. Earlier on Sunday afternoon, there was double reason for celebration for Hartford Athletic. Not only did the side finally claim its first victory in the USL Championship – a 2-1 win against Loudoun United FC at Audi Field – but forward Jose Angulo hit a milestone with his 49th and 50th regular-season goals in the Championship to lead the result.
12. One of the longest-serving figures in the Championship’s history – Angulo was an All-League selection in 2011 and featured in the 2011 USL Cup as Penn FC fell in a penalty shootout to Orlando City SC – the Colombian has seen his fair share of ups and downs in the professional ranks. Hopefully for both he and Hartford, this is the start of an upswing that can try to salvage the club’s inaugural season as they enter the middle third of their schedule.
13. Angulo was the sixth player to reach 50 regular-season goals in the Championship’s history and should soon be joined in that group by the seventh and eighth. Saint Louis FC’s Kyle Greig is currently on 49 goals, while Reno 1868 FC’s Corey Hertzog is on 48 after his recent run of form.
14. There are still about 20 games to go in May, but it certainly feels like we might be able to start carving Jerome Kiesewetter’s name into the Player of the Month award after his third consecutive brace led El Paso Locomotive FC to a 3-1 victory against Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday night. The former United States international is on an absolute tear since the calendar turned, aiding a five-game undefeated streak that has pushed El Paso firmly into the playoff positions.
15. “There aren’t really forwards at any level that can go on that type of run,” said Locomotive FC Head Coach Mark Lowry. “Credit to Jerome coming here with the right mentality. If you have a happy No. 9, that is a start.” Kiesewetter has clearly got the fresh start he needed, is getting the service he thrives on, and should be turning heads at higher levels.
16. There’s so much to like about how Tacoma Defiance simply bull-rushed Reno 1868 FC on Saturday night to set up the fastest goal in USL Championship history, maybe most of all the incisive pass by Jesse Daley that cuts out three Reno midfielders and completely turns the visitors on their heels.
Justin Dhillon’s goal clocked in officially at nine seconds, one tick faster than his former LA Galaxy II teammate Ethan Zubak’s goal that previously held the record from a contest in September 2017 against Sacramento Republic FC.
17. It didn’t produce any goals this time around, but the late-game tension that surrounded the renewal of the Kings’ Cup rivalry showed off why this has the potential to be the most compelling season of competition between Louisville City FC and Saint Louis FC yet. The hosts at Slugger Field came so close to bagging all three points through Luke Spencer, only for Matt Bahner’s goal-line clearance to deny him. For now, we can look forward to the rematch on Oct. 5, but who wouldn’t enjoy seeing this again in the postseason?
18. Officially, this weekend saw us pass the one-third marker for the Championship’s regular season, and in the Eastern Conference at least the separation we occasionally see at this time is starting to take shape. With a four-point gap between the Charleston Battery in ninth place and Bethlehem Steel FC in 10th – and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC looking a solid bet to be above the playoff line sooner rather than later with its games in hand – it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise if the majority of the playoff field had already fallen into line in one of the conferences.