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The 18 – USL Championship Week 13

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 06/03/19, 12:00PM EDT

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With another defensive masterclass, Rowdies on course for historic season

When the Tampa Bay Rowdies were purchased last offseason by the ownership of the Tampa Bay Rays, it marked the start of a new era at the club and a big opportunity for Vice President Lee Cohen and Head Coach Neill Collins.

And all they wanted was the chance to put into place a plan that they believed would put the Rowdies back in contention for a USL Cup.

“We just wanted the opportunity to paint what we wanted on a canvas, and they gave us the blank sheet and said, ‘Go for it,’” Cohen told The Athletic’s Joe Smith in an in-depth feature released on Monday. “No objections were put in place. We picked their brains because their approach to baseball is a lot different to other major markets. Some things we already had in place — other things gave us an edge.”

So far, so good.

After Saturday night’s 2-0 victory against Birmingham Legion FC at BBVA Compass Field, the Rowdies are putting together one of the best starts to a season in the league’s history and are on course for a historic year defensively.

Through 13 games, only one team in Championship history has recorded more than Tampa Bay’s nine shutouts  – San Antonio FC registered 10 clean sheets in 2017 – while the Rowdies’ 0.31 goals-against average has put it on pace to surpass the Rochester Rhinos’ regular-season record of 0.54 set in 2015. With goalkeeper John McCarthy having seen only 39 shots on goal this season there’s plenty of credit to go around for the group overall, but McCarthy continues to make the big saves when they’re needed.

With both the 26-year-old already past halfway to the individual single-season shutout record of 15 set by Maxime Crepeau a season ago for Ottawa Fury FC and the club now past the halfway mark to Rochester’s 17 shutouts in 2015, Cohen and Collins’ plan has the Rowdies on course for something special.

Here’s this week’s 18.

1. As impressive as the Rowdies’ defensive record has been, their 13-game undefeated start has also put them among elite company when it comes to the best starts to a Championship season.

Most Points Through 13 Games in a Regular Season

2011 – Orlando City SC, 8-2-3, 27pts*+
2012 – Orlando City SC, 10-1-2, 32pts*
2013 – Orlando City SC, 10-1-2, 32pts+
2014 – Orlando City SC, 10-0-3, 33pts*
2015 – Rochester Rhinos, 8-0-5, 29pts*+
2016 – Louisville City FC, 8-1-4, 28pts
2017 – Real Monarchs SLC, 12-1-0, 36pts*
2018 – Real Monarchs SLC, 10-1-2, 32pts
2019 – Tampa Bay Rowdies, 8-0-5, 29pts
* - Won Regular Season Title
+ - Won USL Cup

Recent history hasn’t been quite as predictive of silverware as the early seasons of the Championship’s history, but with a six-point cushion at the top of the East and a four-game winning streak in hand the momentum the Rowdies are building is impressive.

2. The team closest to the Rowdies in the East is once again the New York Red Bulls II after their 4-0 victory against Bethlehem Steel FC that included an oddity that might start becoming a more common occurrence as time goes on in both the Championship and League One.

3. New York’s opening two goals were scored by defensive midfielder Kyle Zajec and served as his first two goals for the club in his 10th appearance for the Red Bulls II, four years after his debut. If that math between years and games played feels funky, that’s because Zajec spent the past four falls playing for Georgetown University after having made his debut for the Red Bulls II as an Academy signing in the club’s inaugural 2015 campaign. Given the way the Red Bulls II have stocked their squad with players that have come through their Academy, Zajec’s story of a long-awaited first goal certainly may not be the last.

4. When Ottawa Fury FC captain Carl Haworth told me prior to his side’s opening game this season, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re playing games in November this year,” there could have been reason for some skepticism. After all, Ottawa had failed to make the postseason each of its first two seasons in the Championship, so the goal of at least earning a place in the Eastern Conference Final seemed like it was very optimistic.

5. With Fury FC now sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference after Sunday’s 4-1 victory against the Charlotte Independence, those thoughts are far closer to reality than anyone outside Ottawa’s camp would have expected a few weeks ago. Mour Samb’s two goal, two assist game – which saw him earn the moniker the “Senegalese Sensation” from a local media outlet – added some numerical heft to the bright performances he’s produced to move to six goals this season.

6. Fury FC could have taken an even bigger victory, too, if not for the performance of Independence goalkeeper Curtis Anderson, who despite the club’s poor record is showing how high his ceiling may be. The 18-year-old can still make mistakes – even with the experience of being England’s U-17 National Team goalkeeper there was always going to be a learning curve in Curtis’ first professional season – but he pulled off another pair of saves at TD Place that will be in contention for Fans’ Choice Save of the Week on Tuesday.

7. If the Independence had the equivalent of Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day in Ottawa on Sunday after suffering not only their seventh loss of the season but also having two players sent off in the process, then for Las Vegas Lights FC it was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week. After suffering its first home loss of the season in midweek in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup while conceding five goals at Cashman Field, Saturday night brought a 4-0 loss to Reno 1868 FC at Greater Nevada Field that had its Silver State Cup rivals ebullient over the victory.

8. “We haven't scored in over 280 minutes [in the league] now, that's my biggest concern and why we went from a good stretch to a bad stretch,” said Lights FC Head Coach Eric Wynalda. “We need to man up about it and we need to take a good look in the mirror and move forward. We are better than this, we've played poorly in the last few games and we have to make some moves to ensure this trend doesn't continue.”

9. If there’s good news for Wynalda and its squad, it gets to play five of its next seven games at Cashman Field starting with the visit of Orange County SC next Saturday night. On top of that, Lights FC is still firmly in the playoff picture only three points back of the 10th-place LA Galaxy II. Still, it could take a lot to wash away some of the memories of the past seven days and get the side back to where it was about a month ago when it was running past Sacramento Republic FC.

10. Republic FC, meanwhile, still hasn’t quite broken above the playoff line, but its 2-1 victory against San Antonio FC on Saturday night was about as good as the side has looked in a game this season despite giving up a late goal to a superb strike by Michael Lahoud for the visitors. And at the middle of almost all the good things that Sacramento put together offensively was Sam Werner, who is becoming one of the most fun players to watch in the Championship right now.

11. What sets Werner apart from his teammates most notably is his desire to take on opponents. The 23-year-old Montana native leads Republic FC with 42 dribbles attempted this season, 15 more than second-place Cameron Iwasa, and creates a sense of anticipation in the crowd when he gets on the ball. And when he produces the sort of goal that capped off Republic FC’s victory against San Antonio, it gives a payoff that gives the feeling that better days are still to come this season for Sacramento overall.

12. There’s no such feeling for San Antonio FC, however, as it lost its sixth consecutive road game in the league to remain well off the pace of those above them in the standings. SAFC finished the contest with just six shots, with two of its three shots on target coming after Republic FC had claimed a two-goal edge. While everyone keeps saying the right things – SAFC goalkeeper Matt Cardone said on Saturday night “We had some good moments tonight and played hard, and we have to continue that because we have time to turn things around.” – the side needs some kind of spark before the teams above it are too far in the distance.

13. As tight as the race remains around the playoff line in the Western Conference with eight teams separated by four points between seventh and 14th place in the standings, the separation is starting to show in the Eastern Conference where there’s a four-point gap between the ninth-place Charleston Battery and 10th-place ATL UTD 2 going into this week. Before this weekend, it seemed as though Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC was in prime position to bridge that gap given the club’s games in hand, but a 2-1 setback to Indy Eleven put another damper on those ideas.

14. That’s not to say Pittsburgh shouldn’t still be favorite to emerge from the chasing pack to make its second consecutive USL Cup Playoffs appearance, but given Head Coach Bob Lilley’s history the fact that the Hounds have now conceded two goals on six occasions might be the biggest surprise of the season so far. Sitting on 12 points at 2-2-6, the Hounds are about to enter a key stretch where they play four of their next five games at home and take on their three main rivals for the final playoff place in Atlanta (13pts) away, and both Birmingham (12pts) and Bethlehem (13pts) at Highmark Stadium.

15. The Eleven, meanwhile, ended their five-game homestand with a flourish thanks to Tyler Pasher’s  game-winner on Saturday night. After letting good defensive displays go to waste in May, the Eleven might be the side best poised alongside Fury FC to try and make a run at catching the Rowdies, but getting a pair of goals under their belts before they hit the road again was a big boost confidence-wide for Indy’s players.

16. “It feels like the past three or four games we are dominating the game, then we just can’t find that final product,” said Indy’s Kenney Walker, who tied the game before Pasher’s winner. “To score two goals in 20, 25 minutes, it’s a relief, and hopefully we build off that and keep it going on the road and when we come back in a couple of weeks.” With visits to Memphis 901 FC, Loudoun United FC and ATL UTD 2 up next, there’s a chance for Indy to make its move.

17. Speaking of relief, there must have been plenty running around the locker room for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on Saturday night as its 1-0 win against Fresno FC broke a nine-game winless streak and picked the side up off the bottom of the Western Conference. After Head Coach Steve Trittschuh detailed how challenging the season so far has been for his side last week to my colleague John Arlia, the club’s captain Jordan Burt – who scored the decisive goal – was more succinct about what this meant for the side.

18. “I'm relieved, to be honest,” said Burt. “I think this is the start of something good. Everyone played well, and that's what it takes in this league to get results.” There’s a long way to go for the Switchbacks to get back into the playoff picture, but every journey starts with a single step, and it will hopefully be onward and upward from here.

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