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The 18 – USL Championship Week 12

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 05/27/19, 9:30AM EDT

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Exits and entrances can’t slow New Mexico’s historically strong start to 2019

A week ago, there might have been concern in New Mexico United’s ranks as to how the side would cope with the absence of Santi Moar as he served a one-game suspension after his red card against El Paso Locomotive FC.

Partly in his stead, all Kevaughn Frater did was record a hat trick to lead the side to victory against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.

But as part of that display, Frater picked up his fifth yellow card of the season, resulting in his suspension for this past Saturday’s game against an Austin Bold FC side that was undefeated on home turf this season.

So, all Moar did was return the favor in his return to the lineup, scoring twice and causing an own goal as NMU became the first visitor to win at Bold Stadium this season.

With Devon Sandoval providing the glue as the central striker in both performances and Chris Wehan linking things together with three key passes in Austin, New Mexico simply kept rolling along to open a four-point lead at the top of the Western Conference.

Although we’ve seen things like this in the Championship in the past, it’s still pretty remarkable what Head Coach Troy Lesesne’s side is accomplishing week-in and week-out. And with almost half the club’s road schedule complete – NMU has played eight road games compared to five at Isotopes Park this season so far – this might be only the beginning of something historic.

Here’s this week’s 18.

1. New Mexico United’s start to the season is among the best by an expansion side in the USL Championship’s history but doesn’t quite top the list. That mark is still led by FC Cincinnati’s expansion side that registered eight victories under then-Head Coach John Harkes three seasons ago.

Best 13-Game Start to USL Championship Expansion Season

- FC Cincinnati (2016) 8-2-3, 27pts
- Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC (2015) 8-5-0, 24pts
- New Mexico United (2019), 6-1-6, 24pts
- Sacramento Republic FC (2014) 7-4-2, 23pts
- Nashville SC (2018) 6-2-5, 23pts
- Rio Grande Valley FC (2016) 6-3-4, 22pts
- Reno 1868 FC (2017) 6-4-3, 21pts
- Louisville City FC (2015) 5-3-5, 20pts

If there’s a positive to take from this list for NMU fans, it’s that of its seven predecessors above, only two of them – Reno 1868 FC in 2017 and Nashville SC in 2018 – finished outside the top three in the standings, which bodes well for a strong finish at the end of this campaign.

2. Meanwhile, how quickly is New Mexico going to be able to come up with a design and print run to put Santi Moar’s new “El Matador” nickname onto a t-shirt? 

Knowing VP of Sales and Partnerships Ron Patel, it certainly could be in time for the club’s primetime game on ESPNews on June 5 when it welcomes OKC Energy FC to Isotopes Park.

3. As New Mexico opened a four-point lead at the top of the Western Conference, the Tampa Bay Rowdies were doing the same in the Eastern Conference as their undefeated run reached 13 games in all competitions with a 1-0 win against the Swope Park Rangers. That’s the club’s eighth shutout of the season – and the second occasion in which a visitor to Al Lang Stadium hasn’t registered a shot on goal – which puts the Rowdies and goalkeeper John McCarthy on a record-setting pace.

4. With eight shutouts through 12 games, McCarthy is now more than halfway to surpassing the individual record for shutouts in a single season set a year ago by Maxime Crepeau for Ottawa Fury FC (15) with only one-third of the season played. For the Rowdies overall, the magic number is 18 to surpass the 17 shutouts totaled by the Rochester Rhinos when they won USL Cup in 2015. That season, McCarthy recorded 13 of those shutouts on his way to winning the Championship’s Goalkeeper and Rookie of the Year awards, so he’ll certainly know what to expect as both records come into view.

5. The other big question for the Rowdies right now is how far can they carry their 12-game undefeated streak in the league? They currently sit halfway to surpassing FC Cincinnati’s record 23-game undefeated run that closed out the 2018 Championship regular season, while the record undefeated streak to start a season is the 22-game run by the Richmond Kickers in 2013. Both of those are a long way off, for sure, especially with some potentially tough games coming up in June against North Carolina FC, the Charleston Battery and Ottawa Fury FC, but with as tough as Tampa Bay is to break down defensively it’s not too far-fetched to think they’re in play. 

6. Here’s a question for you: How good is Nashville SC? On the face of it, they’re definitely a good side, sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference with a +10-goal differential, four points behind the Tampa Bay Rowdies for first place. As they were a season ago, they’re difficult to break down, moving to six shutouts this season after back-to-back clean sheets in their two road games against Birmingham Legion FC and Indy Eleven in the past week with Ken Tribbett making as big an impact at the back as Daniel Rios has in the club’s attack.

7. But here’s the rub; most of Nashville’s success this season has come against sides sitting outside the playoff positions. Against the current Top 10 in the Eastern Conference, NSC is 1-3-2, scoring just five goals in those contests, three of which came in the lone victory of that group, a 3-0 win against an Ottawa Fury FC side that is much improved since the meeting between the teams on April 6. The club’s 1.69 points-per-game average would currently place the side in seventh in the Eastern Conference, behind the likes of North Carolina FC (1.73). NSC is in a strong position, for sure, but maybe not quite as strong as you might think.

8. The most telling statistic in North Carolina FC’s first victory against the New York Red Bulls II? The 12 blocked shots the visitors produced as they fought hard to stem the tide after taking a two-goal lead in the first half at MSU Soccer Park. Five players recorded two blocks apiece, a varied group that included both center back Sam Brotherton and forward Marios Lomis, that showed the all-hands-to-the-pump effort that the visitors put in to claim all three points. After being stymied a week earlier by Birmingham Legion FC, North Carolina earned its third road win of the season with a resolute display.

10. One of the things that has helped the Red Bulls II remain a title contender throughout its Championship history has been the nature of its system. While the attacking focal point may change, from Brandon Allen to Stefano Bonomo to White and Barlow, the players stepping into the side are always well-drilled in what they need to do on both sides of the ball. That results in the consistent level of success the side has achieved, especially at home where it is 34-13-8 in the regular season since the start of the 2016 season, the most home wins of any side in the league in that timeframe.

11. White and Barlow, it has to be said, have continued their success since their promotion to the Red Bulls, each scoring in the club’s current three-game undefeated streak. But someone is going to need to fill the shoes of the duo that’s combined for 29 goals since the start of 2018 in the Championship to make sure the Red Bulls II’s two-game losing streak doesn’t run any further.

12. Let’s go back to that list up at the top of the best starts to an expansion season in Championship history quickly, because it also puts the current fate of Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC in serious perspective. After Saturday’s 1-0 loss to OKC Energy FC, Colorado Springs has lost five in a row as its precipitous fall since those heady days of the club’s inaugural season now feel a long time ago. 

13. Jordan Burt’s missed penalty kick early in the second half that gave the Switchbacks a chance to level after Energy FC had taken a first-half lead seemed to sum up the current state of things for the club. Having scored only one goal during the losing streak, the club seems understandably low on confidence. All is not lost yet – there are still a lot of games left to be played – but after finishing ninth and 11th the past two seasons, the trend here isn’t good for a club that is filled with people you want to root for and a great fanbase that has been incredibly loyal in its support over the club’s first five seasons.

14. Another side that is feeling the hurt right now is San Antonio FC, which suffered its fifth consecutive road defeat on Saturday night in the first South Texas Derby of the season as Rio Grande Valley FC took a 3-1 victory at H-E-B Park. Only Tacoma Defiance has a worse away record than SAFC this season, with Head Coach Darren Powell’s side sitting at a -8 goal differential on its travels.

15. By contrast, things seem to be on the upswing for the Toros, who now sit in the playoff places after evening their record at 4-4-4 after going winless during the first five games of the season. Leading the charge has been offseason acquisition and Belize international Michael Salazar, who has already notched seven goals to surpass the Toros’ team-high from a season ago when Jesus Enriquez finished with six.

16. The uptick in form – as RGVFC Head Coach Gerson Echeverry correctly points out – is simply a matter of the Toros putting away the chances they’re creating. RGVFC is ninth in the Championship in Chances Created from Open Play and 10th in Chances Created overall, but now their shot conversion rate is up to 18 percent, which has powered the club’s upward ascent.

17. “I think that if you look at the stats from the first five games, the stats were there, we had plenty of opportunities, created plenty of chances,” said Echeverry on Saturday night. “It was just that we were not finding the back of the net. For me the start, maybe with the exception of the Fresno FC game, there are a lot of positives and a lot of good things that these guys are doing. It was maybe that final touch, that final finish for us to come ahead and score some goals. Fortunately, right now some guys are hot and are scoring some goals.”

18. Of course, Chances Created aren’t the be-all and end-all if a team isn’t firing in front of goal. Just look at the Charlotte Independence, which failed to fire again despite having a man-advantage against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC for 54 minutes after 2018 All-League First Team defender Joe Greenspan was sent off for the hosts at Highmark Stadium. Charlotte has now claimed road draws against Tampa Bay, Nashville and Pittsburgh this season – all impressive results when viewed without additional context – but until those results start turning into victories, the chances of the Independence making a return to the playoffs will continue to lengthen.

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