Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC will look to build off last weekend's 5-0 victory over ATL UTD 2 when it hosts the New York Red Bulls II at Highmark Stadium. | Photo courtesy Matt Hawley / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
After Phoenix Rising FC earned its club-record sixth straight win on Tuesday and New Mexico United and Saint Louis FC advanced to the Quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday, USL Championship action returns on Friday to kick off a weekend slate of 16 games.
A Western Conference clash between Fresno FC and San Antonio will take center stage on Friday night at Chukchansi Park (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), before 14 matches follow it on Saturday. The busy night of fixtures will kick off in the early evening when the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Rowdies try to snap a two-game winless run against Bethlehem Steel FC at Goodman Stadium (5 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). The night will wrap up late on the West Coast with Sacramento Republic FC looking to extend its winning streak to three games when it hosts Tulsa Roughnecks FC at Papa Murphy’s Park (11 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
With plenty of storylines to keep track of across the Championship this weekend, here are a few games and players that I’ll be paying close attention to as well as some bold predictions I expect to play out over the course of Week 16:
After I doubted the Hounds’ ability to do anything other than draw, Pittsburgh produced by far its best performance of the season last weekend in its 5-0 romp at ATL UTD 2, scoring three times in the opening 13 minutes to push on for its first league victory since April 13. Head Coach Bob Lilley’s side still enters this weekend’s matchup with the New York Red Bulls II just outside of the playoff places but now has a 90 percent chance to return to the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. On the other hand, New York has looked like a playoff team from the outset and could move top of the Eastern Conference standings this weekend with another win. The Red Bulls II have won three straight overall but know how difficult it is to get three points at Highmark Stadium, having failed to do so since their 2016 USL Cup-winning campaign. With the Hounds riding as high as they have all season, this will tell us a little more about how far they can climb in the East.
Saint Louis FC’s longest run in its Open Cup history continued in dramatic style on Wednesday night as captain Sam Fink headed home Lewis Hilton’s corner kick in the 93rd minute to give the hosts a 1-0 victory over Major League Soccer’s FC Cincinnati and a spot in the Quarterfinals. While the confidence from beating a second MLS in as many weeks is certainly a bonus, the fatigue from playing all these extra games in midweek will be something for Head Coach Anthony Pulis to navigate. STLFC struggled last weekend at Bethlehem Steel FC and will have to recover quickly for a tough home challenge against North Carolina FC. Head Coach Dave Sarachan’s squad has already picked up wins on the road against the Tampa Bay Rowdies and New York Red Bulls II this season, so a trip to Missouri shouldn’t be too worrying. NCFC is unbeaten in its last five league games and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t get at least a point given the energy and emotion spent by STLFC just days ahead of this contest.
Phoenix Rising FC forward Adam Jahn will return to Taft Stadium for the first time since playing 10 games on loan at OKC Energy FC at the end of the 2018 season. | Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC
Phoenix Rising FC set a club record with its sixth straight victory on Tuesday night against Reno 1868 FC and will look to add to that when it visits OKC Energy FC at Taft Stadium on Saturday night. As my colleague Nicholas Murray points out, Energy FC may be the biggest hurdle to Rising FC’s quest of matching or surpassing FC Cincinnati’s Championship record of 10 consecutive wins set a season ago. OKC has had a knack for draws lately – tying its last four games – which would do the trick, but Head Coach Steve Cooke will surely be aiming for more as his side tries to close the gap in the Western Conference standings. This could be a good test for Phoenix, especially as tries to handle midweek fatigue, travel and the continued absence of key pieces Kevon Lambert and Junior Flemmings to the Gold Cup.
The last game of the weekend brings us a Copa Tejas clash between two teams sitting just above each other in the standings and just above the playoff line. Rio Grande Valley FC and Austin Bold FC, which will meet for the first time in their history, enter the match on similar form but the difference in this one could be their home/road splits. RGVFC is 4-1-2 this season at H-E-B Park, while Bold FC is 1-4-2 on its travels so far. It’ll be interesting to see how much that holds up with Austin only having to venture about 300 miles south, but there’s no doubt that this will be a big one with both teams currently unbeaten against their other in-state rivals this season (1-0-1).
Speaking of those in-state rivals, San Antonio FC dropped its first matchup of the season against both Bold FC and RGVFC but did manage to finally get a road point last weekend at OKC Energy FC – as I accurately predicted. Last season, SAFC proved a tough out for this upcoming weekend’s opponent Fresno FC, having beaten the Foxes 2-1 at Toyota Field while earning a 0-0 draw at this weekend’s venue Chukchansi Park. While predicting Fresno to take all three points isn’t necessarily bold given SAFC’s road woes and spot in the standings, Fresno enters the game winless in its last four matches with two of those coming against the West’s bottom-two clubs. That run finally comes to a halt this weekend.
Hartford Athletic celebrates after scoring in its 2-1 road victory over Loudoun United FC at Audi Field on May 19. | Photo courtesy Loudoun United FC
After watching Hartford Athletic fail to pick up a point over its opening eight games – all of which were played away from home – it was hard to envision a scenario where the side might find some joy on the road or climb up from the foot of the table. Well, here we are. Hartford is still a long way from a playoff place but has taken points from four of its last five games and has a 57 percent chance to do the same this weekend against Birmingham Legion FC, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. I’m backing Hartford’s 32 percent chance of victory against a Birmingham side that has lost four straight games and scored just twice over that span.
Welcome back to the regularly scheduled programming where I remind you that El Paso Locomotive FC forward Jerome Kiesewetter scored again last weekend – just as I said he would – and that I’m backing the streak to carry on this weekend. (I mean, I’ve been right every time, so I might as well keep this going.) But the more impressive part is that the former U.S. international is now up to 10 goals in 10 games this season, tying him for the Golden Boot lead with New Mexico United’s Kevaughn Frater. That tie gets broken this weekend as Kiesewetter goes for two goals at home against Las Vegas Lights FC.
Tampa Bay Rowdies goalkeeper John McCarthy has unquestionably been the best goalkeeper in the Championship so far this season, but his air of invincibility has worn off a little bit over the past two weeks. McCarthy has conceded four goals in Tampa Bay’s past two games – the same number he allowed in the team’s first 13 contests – and is no longer as assured to surpass Maxime Crepeau’s league record for shutouts as we once expected. However, I believe the Rowdies turn things around this weekend at Bethlehem Steel FC and McCarthy – who suited up for regularly while serving as a back-up to Andre Blake with the Philadelphia Union – picks up his 10th clean sheet of the year to give him some breathing room ahead of Phoenix Rising FC’s Zac Lubin (8).
With Bermuda’s Zeiko Lewis at the Gold Cup, the Battery needed to find consistent offense from other sources and Svantesson has been producing the goods of late. The Charleston forward has now scored in back-to-back games across all competitions, netting the opener in the Battery’s 3-1 Open Cup defeat to Atlanta United FC last Thursday and providing an equalizer late on as a super-sub in his side’s 1-1 draw against the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium. Look for Head Coach Mike Anhauser to rely on his No. 9 again this weekend when Charleston hosts the struggling Swope Park Rangers at MUSC Health Stadium.
When Nashville SC splashed the cash to make Lancaster an MLS signing this past offseason, it likely expected the forward to find the back of the net with the kind of aplomb that he did last weekend in Hartford. Lancaster’s stunning curling strike in the 85th minute of NSC’s 3-2 win was his fourth goal in nine appearances for the side in what has been an injury-hit campaign.
If the 2018 Golden Boot-winner keeps firing like this, Nashville Head Coach Gary Smith will have some tough selection choices to make soon.
The Monarchs currently sit in 16th place in the Western Conference standings but the side won’t be there for long if Martinez continues his impressive form. Martinez netted two goals and added an assist last time out in the Monarchs’ 5-3 win over RGVFC to bring him to five goals and four assists on the season. Expect another big performance from the forward in this weekend’s must-win matchup at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.
There’s probably no better way to complement a player than to say that his team is better with him in the lineup and that’s certainly true of Republic FC and Iwasa. The forward found the back of the net twice in Sacramento’s convincing 3-0 win at New Mexico United last time out and is now up to seven goals in 11 games this season. If he can keep his conversion rate up near 30 percent where it currently sits, Iwasa could make his way to the top of the Golden Boot rankings in short order.
Tag(s): Game Previews Nashville SC Weekend Previews San Antonio FC OKC Energy FC Phoenix Rising FC Real Monarchs SLC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC Charleston Battery New York Red Bulls II Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saint Louis FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Cameron Lancaster Ian Svantesson John McCarthy Cameron Iwasa Douglas Martinez Fresno FC Birmingham Legion FC Austin Bold FC North Carolina FC El Paso Locomotive FC Hartford Athletic Jerome Kiesewetter