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ARLIA: Winners and Losers from Week 16

By JOHN ARLIA - john.arlia@uslsoccer.com, 06/24/19, 12:35PM EDT

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Phoenix’s Asante sees stock continue to rise; Oklahoma rivals suffer significant blows


Solomon Asante extended his scoring streak to six games with a pair of goals in Phoenix Rising FC's 4-1 victory at OKC Energy FC. | Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC

From Jemal Johnson scorching the back of the net with another firecracker for Fresno FC to Ottawa Fury FC extending its league-best unbeaten run to nine games, Week 16 of the 2019 USL Championship campaign had a little bit of everything. Here are my winners and losers from the last seven days:

Winner: Solomon Asante

It’d be easy to pick Phoenix Rising FC given its seven-game winning streak, but there’s no doubting the influence Asante has had on his side’s recent run. The Ghanaian has scored in six straight games and produced seven goals and four assists in total over that stretch, which dates to Phoenix’s 3-1 win over Rio Grande Valley FC on May 10. In this past week alone, Asante scored three times, added an assist and recorded six key passes to help Rising FC to a pair of road victories over Reno 1868 FC and OKC Energy FC. The 28-year-old forward now leads the Championship in assists (8) and is tied for second in goals (10), sitting one behind New Mexico United forward Kevaughn Frater. Given his and Rising FC’s recent form, Asante is at the forefront of the MVP conversation as the best player on the best team in the West.

Loser: Oklahoma

I mentioned that one of Phoenix’s two wins this past week came against OKC Energy FC, but that doesn’t quite tell the full story. Rising FC took a two-goal lead inside the opening 20 minutes of its visit to Taft Stadium on Saturday night as Atiba Harris directed Asante’s low cross into his own goal just three minutes before the Ghanaian volleyed home Amadou Dia’s cross at the back post. Despite its slow start, Energy FC was handed a lifeline on the half-hour mark as Rising FC center back Joey Farrell was shown his second yellow card for a handball in the box and Rafael Garcia converted the resulting penalty to cut the deficit in half. From there, OKC not only failed to make the most of its man advantage but went on to concede twice more in the second half, with Rising FC’s Jon Bakero beating Cody Laurendi from a free kick and Asante providing the exclamation point with 11 minutes remaining.

While Energy FC’s loss extended its winless streak to five games, it may have somehow had a better weekend than Black Gold Derby rival Tulsa Roughnecks FC. The Roughnecks had a rough go of it on Saturday night in Sacramento, getting outshot 20-9 in a 6-0 loss against Republic FC. Stefano Bonomo and Cameron Iwasa bagged a brace each for the home side, which sent Tulsa home with its fourth straight defeat. The loss matched the Roughnecks’ worst in club history – set previously in a 7-1 setback at Saint Louis FC on June 11, 2016 – but wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary given its 5-0 defeat to Phoenix Rising FC just two weeks ago. After a promising start to the season, especially on the attacking end, Tulsa is starting to look more like last year’s squad that only won three games after being outscored 13-0 over its last three contests.

Winner: Shutouts out West

Sacramento’s 6-0 win – which saw it climb into the top six – was one of five shutouts in the Western Conference over the past seven days. Phoenix Rising FC began the week with a 3-0 victory over Reno 1868 FC at Greater Nevada Field, but to avoid discussing those results any further I’m going to focus on the other three. Las Vegas Lights FC arguably earned the Championship’s best result of the weekend with its 1-0 road victory over El Paso Locomotive FC at Southwest University Park. Lights FC entered Saturday night’s contest without a win away from Cashman Field this season (0-6-1), while Locomotive FC was riding a league-best nine-game unbeaten run. Despite being outshot 10-6 and surrendering nearly 75 percent of possession to the home side, Las Vegas held on for a 1-0 victory as Preston Tabort Etaka’s header just before halftime proved to be the difference between the two sides. With the win, Head Coach Eric Wynalda’s side extended its unbeaten streak to three games and jumped above the playoff line out West.

On Sunday night, Austin Bold FC maintained its spot above the playoff line as it also recorded a 1-0 road victory, defeating Copa Tejas rival Rio Grande Valley FC at H-E-B Park. Bold FC benefitted from a bit of sloppy defending from RGVFC to take the lead moments after halftime as Andre Lima tapped home the rebound from Francis Atuahene’s low drive to give his side the lead. Unlike Las Vegas, Austin controlled much of the game after the opening goal and Lima had the best chance to add to the scoring in the second half, but Bold FC wouldn’t need any insurance as it extended its unbeaten run to four games and jumped up to eighth place in the West.

Perhaps fittingly last on this list are the Portland Timbers 2, who left it late once again but extended their unbeaten run to six games with a 2-0 victory at Orange County SC. Roy Miller scored the game-winner in the 87th minute and Brayan Hurtado added some insurance four minutes later to send T2 up to second place in the Western Conference. Portland has made a habit of scoring late in recent weeks as Saturday’s win marked the third straight game T2 found the back of the net in the 80th minute or later to earn at least a point.

Winner: Pittsburgh’s Blackout

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC donned their all-black kits against the New York Red Bulls II – and encouraged their fans to do the same – on Saturday at Highmark Stadium and you can’t argue with the results as Head Coach Bob Lilley’s side continued its recent turnaround with a 3-0 victory. With the jerseys producing an eye-catching clash on the field – as New York donned its all-red kits – the game itself was similarly well-contested. However, it was Pittsburgh that made the most of its chances as Neco Brett’s delightful chip gave his side the lead five minutes before the break and the hosts capitalized on a pair of second-half set pieces to put the game away before New York went down to 10 men with 25 minutes to play. After back-to-back wins, Pittsburgh has quickly built itself a three-point cushion above the playoff line and could be in line to make up ground to push into the top six with its multiple games in hand on teams like Louisville City FC.

Loser: Eastern Conference Parity

While Pittsburgh’s win continued the turnaround that we’ve been waiting for over the past month or so, it may have also put an end to the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. With the Hounds and ninth-place Saint Louis FC sitting three and four points respectively ahead of 11th place Bethlehem Steel FC with three games in hand, it seems pretty safe to say that the 10 teams sitting in the playoff places right now will be the 10 that reach the postseason come season’s end. Of course, there is always the potential for things to change but it seems like the main thing to watch in the East as we approach the second half of the season will be the jockeying for positions 1-10. As entertaining as that will likely be as teams try to earn home-field advantage and avoid the play-in round, it is a little bit disappointing to think we could already know the playoff field and it’s not even July.

Honorable Mention: Memphis 901 FC

901 FC had the weekend off from Championship play but earns a quick shoutout here for hosting the first exhibition match of the summer as 8,351 fans turned out to AutoZone Park for the club’s contest with Liga MX side Pachuca. Despite the final result, Memphis can take something from going into the break tied 1-1 and will certainly be proud of the Bluff City Mafia’s turnout to support the side and new Memphis Grizzly Ja Morant, who took part in the pre-game guitar smash.

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