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The 18 – The Crazy Train Keeps Rolling

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 06/17/19, 11:19AM EDT

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Locomotive FC continues ascent, while Phoenix is halfway to history

For much of the season, it’s been hard to take your eyes off what New Mexico United has done as an expansion club.

And while the eye-popping attendance and attacking numbers, not to mention the club’s remarkable run in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, are clearly worthy of attention, another expansion club 275 miles south of Albuquerque should also have your attention.

After Saturday night’s victory, El Paso Locomotive FC is now on a nine-game undefeated streak – the longest in the Western Conference this season – and is level on points at the top of the conference standings with Phoenix Rising FC. The Crazy Train’s 2-0 win against Tulsa Roughnecks FC at ONEOK Field highlighted much of what has made El Paso successful this campaign, with the visitors holding the majority of possession and putting together an 82-percent passing accuracy rate which helped it dictate the tempo of the game.

That ability has helped at both ends of the field, where El Paso is tied for the Western Conference lead with seven shutouts and conference-fewest 12 goals conceded in 14 games. Locomotive FC has faced only 33 shots on target – an average of 2.4 per game – while at the other end the explosiveness of Omar Salgado and Jerome Kiesewetter was on display again as Salgado gave Tulsa’s defense a hard time down the right side and Kiesewetter notched his 10th goal in as many games since joining the club early in the season.

Locomotive FC has a busy week coming up to wrap up the month of June as it hosts Las Vegas Lights FC this Saturday before visits to San Antonio FC on June 26 and Fresno FC on June 29, but it’s showing all the characteristics of a side that is going to be a USL Cup contender at the end of the season.

Here’s this week’s 18.

1. If you’re looking for a direct comparison to Locomotive FC and its title chances, the best one might be the Swope Park Rangers from two seasons ago. Both clubs sought to control the possession game through patient, accurate passing, and both have comparable numbers through El Paso’s first 14 games this year.

Club

Possession

Passing Accuracy

Chances Created per Game

Conversion Rate

Swope Park Rangers (2017)

58.6

82.99

9.1

17.7

El Paso Locomotive FC (2019)

58.6

84.89

9.1

14.2

Swope Park went on to claim the Western Conference that postseason before falling narrowly to Louisville City FC in the 2017 USL Cup. It will be interesting to see if Locomotive FC can come close to matching that.

2. The last team to defeat Locomotive FC back on April 13 is also the one that sits one place above it on top of the Western Conference, with Phoenix Rising FC continuing to look like the team to beat in the Westwith a five-game winning streak that has ballooned its goal differential to a league-best +20. A 3-0 victory against Orange County SC continued the defending Western Conference title-holder’s run of form even though the night had a slightly more subdued feel to it offensively for the hosts, even as it moved to the halfway point of matching FC Cincinnati's league record 10 consecutive wins of a season ago.

3. When you’ve got the defensive midfield pairing of James Musa and Jose Aguinaga, though, it can more than make up for a quiet night overall by the attacking part of your squad. Orange County was limited to only one shot on goal as Head Coach Rick Schantz’s central duo helped keep OCSC’s Aodhan Quinn to only one key pass for the contest. “James Musa, Jose Aguinaga, those guys just control the game for us,” said Schantz after the contest. “They played against a very good midfield and I thought we were the better of the two teams.”

4. Offensively this season, the spotlight for Rising FC has generally been claimed by co-leading scorers Adam Jahn and Junior Flemmings. On Saturday night, though, Solomon Asante reminded everyone why he was a very popular pick to be the Championship’s Most Valuable Player at the start of the season. 

It might have flown under the radar a little, but Asante now has seven goals and seven assists this campaign and is well on the way to the double-double season he narrowly missed out on last year.

5. Before Sunday afternoon, Phoenix held this season’s single-game high with 32 total shots in its contest against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. That total was matched by Nashville SC in its visit to Hartford Athletic as it piled on the pressure to emerge with a 3-2 victory that kept it in the middle of the race for first place in the Eastern Conference.

6. That Hartford was able to stay within touching distance of a draw was in part thanks to goalkeeper Frederick Due, who ended the contest with eight saves, and a side that is showing some serious resolve after a tough start to its inaugural campaign. But there was nothing Due – or likely any goalkeeper – could have done to keep out Cameron Lancaster’s incredible game-winning strike.

7. Nashville’s shots total tied the season-high for 2019, but it didn’t quite reach the heights of the league’s all-time record, which still stands as the 37 shots taken by Sacramento Republic FC in its contest on June 16, 2018 against San Antonio FC. NSC’s 11 shots on goal, meanwhile, ranked tied for fifth in a single game this season.

8. The team at the top of that list? Well, of course it’s the New York Red Bulls II, who recorded 15 shots on goal when they faced the Swope Park Rangers in their opening game of the campaign. And after Sunday’s game against Louisville City FC, the Red Bulls II now account for four of the top 13 games this season in shots on goal as they put up 10 efforts on target against the defending USL Cup champion. 

9. Thanks to a stellar display by Louisville goalkeeper Chris Hubbard – who was making his first start in the USL Championship after previously getting opportunities in the U.S. Open Cup – the visitors at MSU Soccer Park put themselves in with a chance of taking a point from the contest. But then, with seven minutes to go, the Red Bulls II did what they do best, turning over possession thanks to Ben Mines at the halfway line and quickly turning on the jets to get into attack. Mathias Jørgensen put away the finish and picked up all three points in typical Red Bulls II fashion.

10. The wins by Nashville and New York on Sunday afternoon pulled both closer to the Tampa Bay Rowdies at the top of the Eastern Conference after Tampa Bay was held to a 1-1 draw by the Charleston Battery at Al Lang Stadium thanks to a late goal by Ian Svantesson. Those results, plus victories by both Indy Eleven and North Carolina FC, have put five teams within four points of each other in the first five places in the standings – and those positions could become even tighter thanks to the Red Bulls II, the Eleven and NCFC all having at least one game in hand on the Rowdies.

11. It’s a similar situation in the Western Conference as we near the midway point of the season, only in this case it’s seven teams within four points of first place. Those margins could have been even closer, too, if not for a pair of stoppage-time goals that denied sixth-place Fresno FC and seventh-place OKC Energy FC victories over the past weekend.

12. For the Foxes, an end to their three-game winless streak looked to be on the cards as Jemal Johnson played beautifully to set up a pair of second-half goals by Elijah Martin and Qudus Lawal on the road against the Portland Timbers 2 on Sunday afternoon. T2 has shown off its resiliency regularly in the last few weeks, though, in coming back to defeat Real Monarchs SLC two weeks ago and to earn a draw against Austin Bold FC on the road last weekend, and that shone through again when Nathan Smith’s goal earned the side its second consecutive draw and ran T2’s undefeated streak to five games.

13. After reaching the postseason for the first time a season ago, Portland has continued to make progress this year and has been just as tough on the road as it has at home. T2 now boasts identical 3-1-3 records home and away this season, with its three away wins tied for the most in the Western Conference alongside four other clubs. That’s a sign of a solid playoff contender, and one that could be a tough out once it gets there.

14. For Energy FC, there was probably some kind of feeling of déjà vu when San Antonio FC’s Jack Barmby powered home a free kick into the bottom-left corner of the net in stoppage time at Taft Stadium on Saturday night. The 1-1 draw was the fourth in a row for OKC in its current run, and the seventh in nine regular-season meetings all-time between Energy FC and San Antonio. 

15. The last time Energy FC claimed victory against San Antonio in a regular-season contest? You need to go back to May 21, 2016 at Toyota Stadium, the second all-time meeting between the clubs. Barmby’s goal ensured that Energy FC’s fans have still never seen their side defeat SAFC on home turf.

16. If you’re a New Mexico United fan, you might be slightly concerned about the back-to-back league defeats your side has suffered over the past two weeks. And, yes, Saturday’s 5-1 defeat to Las Vegas Lights FC certainly wasn’t one to dwell over. But, the reality of the situation is that NMU has run into a bit of a wall when it comes to fixture congestion in the past few weeks and should fine in the long run.

17. Considering since May 12, New Mexico has taken to the field nine times – six in the league and three more in the Open Cup, and has gone to extra time in all three of those Open Cup contests, the equivalent of another full match – that’s an average of a game every four days for more than a month. With FC Dallas waiting in the Round of 16 in the Open Cup on Wednesday night and a visit to the LA Galaxy II on Saturday, that’s going to run to 11 games in 42 days, which would be a challenge for any team, even one as good as NMU has shown itself to be. Once the schedule slows down in July, expect more consistent form week-in and week-out.

18. For Lights FC, meanwhile, Saturday night’s win was exactly what the doctor – or, given the arrival of $2 Tequila Night, the bartender – ordered. “I think we've figured things out as the heat starts to have its effect on games that we know how to rest now, and we know how to go,” said Lights FC Head Coach Eric Wynalda. “And when teams try to chase it, which is usually the mode that we've been in, we know how to kill them. This is our best win of the year and we're going to celebrate this win tonight, tomorrow and maybe even all the way to Tuesday.” 

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