LIPAFC rivals Indy Eleven and Louisville City FC will meet for the first time since the 2018 postseason on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium. | Photo courtesy Matt Schlotzhauer / Indy Eleven
After Indy Eleven, Ottawa Fury FC and Reno 1868 FC earned victories on Wednesday night, USL Championship action returns on Friday to kick off a weekend slate of 16 games.
A pair of expansion sides will take to the field on Friday night when Hartford Athletic hosts Bethlehem Steel FC at Rentschler Field (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) and Loudoun United FC returns from its lengthy layoff to take on ATL UTD 2 at Audi Field (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Thirteen matches will follow on Saturday with four Eastern Conference contests kicking off the evening, including a pair of top-eight clashes with Indy Eleven putting its unbeaten home record on the line against Louisville City FC at Lucas Oil Stadium (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) and North Carolina FC hosting Nashville SC at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). The night will wrap up late on the West Coast with another four simultaneous matches, including a 2018 postseason rematch between current Western leader Phoenix Rising FC and the second-placed Portland Timbers 2 at Casino Arizona Field (10:30 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 17:
The Eleven enter the weekend atop the USL Championship standings after taking a comfortable 3-0 victory over Birmingham Legion FC on Wednesday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. The win, in which midfielder Tyler Pasher netted the game-winning goal for the fourth time this month, extended Indy’s winning streak to five games and opened up an eight-point gap between it and LIPAFC rival Louisville City FC heading into Saturday’s clash. The Eleven remain unbeaten at home (5-0-3) this season and claimed a 1-0 victory in their only meeting with Louisville at Lucas Oil Stadium last season. LouCity got the last laugh however, earning a win and a draw in the following two regular-season meetings at Slugger Field and then claiming their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup by a resounding 4-1 scoreline. Given the regionality, playoff bad blood and the fact that both teams should be vying for a top-four spot come season’s end, this should be quite the spectacle.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies opened the season on a 13-game unbeaten run, the longest such streak in the league this season, and could play the spoiler to a similar run on Saturday when they host Ottawa Fury FC on Saturday at Al Lang Stadium. Mour Samb’s 86th-minute goal on Wednesday night gave Ottawa a 3-2 home win over the Charleston Battery and extended the Canadian side’s unbeaten run to 10 games. Fury FC has been much improved in its second season under Head Coach Nikola Popovic, showing off more attacking prowess and resiliency than it did a season ago. With that said, the Rowdies will still be favored to take all three points on their home turf, but they know it won’t come easy.
Two of the best defensive sides in the Western Conference clash on Saturday night when El Paso visits Fresno FC at Chukchansi Park. Locomotive FC, which posted its eighth shutout of the season in Wednesday night’s 0-0 draw at San Antonio FC, has conceded a conference-fewest 0.81 goals per game, while Fresno sits tied for third out West with Austin Bold FC at an average of 1.13 goals against per game. While both top-six sides are sturdy at the back, they both have offensive dynamos that can find the back of the net with ease. Fresno’s Jemal Johnson is lethal from anywhere inside 40 yards, while Locomotive FC forward Jerome Kiesewetter has reinvented himself in El Paso with 10 goals in 12 appearances. This should be a tightly-contested match.
Donner Pass Derby rivals Reno 1868 FC and Sacramento Republic FC will square off for the third time this season on Saturday at Greater Nevada Field. Corey Hertzog scored twice to lead 1868 FC to a resounding 4-1 road victory in the two sides’ first league meeting on May 11, but Sam Werner’s 82nd-minute tally four days later proved to be the difference as Republic FC eliminated Reno in rematch at Papa Murphy’s Park in the Second Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Therefore, this third matchup will be the decider (unless of course we get a postseason matchup) between two sides searching for a top-six finish out West. With Republic FC having won three straight games and 1868 FC coming off three days rest after Wednesday’s comeback win in Portland, I’d say there’s a fair chance Sacramento gets its road revenge in league play.
The Timbers 2 will be disappointed after letting a first-half lead slip against 1868 FC on Wednesday night at Providence Park, but that should only add to their motivation heading into Casino Arizona Field this weekend. Portland’s visit to Phoenix is also its first since seeing its 2018 campaign come to an end in a 3-0 postseason defeat, just a week after springing an upset over Rising FC on the final weekend of the 2018 campaign. Head Coach Cameron Knowles will surely be reminding his side of that and if Eryk Williamson and others return to the T2 lineup, I think there is a good chance one of the most resilient sides in the league can eke out at least a point.
The Charlotte Independence have taken four points from a possible six since General Manager Mike Jeffries returned to the sidelines following the departure of former Head Coach Jim McGuinness and I expect their run up the Eastern Conference standings to continue Saturday against Memphis 901 FC. Charlotte has scored five goals over the past two games – the same output it produced in the final seven games of McGuinness’ tenure – and did well to earn a draw last weekend at Louisville City FC. 901 FC has been better on the road than at home this season, but I think the honeymoon stage under Jeffries continues as Enzo Martinez rounds into form.
If you’re going to write a section of bold predictions, you might as well really go for it, right? In my first ever two-for-one special, I’m backing 15th place Loudoun United FC and 17th place Hartford Athletic to earn home wins on Friday night against ATL UTD 2 and Bethlehem Steel FC respectively. My reasoning? Well, I think it’s easy to see that the Athletic have been a much-improved side in recent weeks and should have an edge in experience against a youthful Steel FC side. Meanwhile, I think Loudoun’s lengthy layoff may see them be a little rusty in the opening 15 minutes, but that time off could play a role in the second half against an Atlanta side that played on Saturday and has had to travel a decent distance north over the past seven days.
There’s little doubt that the coolest nickname in the Championship belongs to Kleber “the Gladiator”, and the Brazilian has certainly shown his combatant side this season by ranking sixth among Austin Bold FC players in duels won (60). He has also been devastatingly precise in the final third this season, finding the back of the net four times with just eight shots on target. With the struggling Switchbacks visiting Bold Stadium this weekend, I think Kleber adds another tally to his haul and helps Austin continue its push towards the postseason.
Brett and the Hounds started the season slow, but there’s no doubt they’re both rounding into gear as we reach the midpoint of the campaign. The 27-year-old Jamaican forward has found the back of the net in each of his past three games, and all three of those goals have come from open play after he netted a pair of penalties early on this season. Despite the offseason arrivals of forwards Steevan Dos Santos and Christian Volesky, Brett looks likely to remain Pittsburgh’s leading scorer again this season and will like his chances to add to his tally against Birmingham Legion FC on Saturday at Highmark Stadium.
After featuring in all three of Bermuda’s matches at the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup, Lewis made an instant impact in his return to the Battery’s squad on Wednesday night by scoring an 84th-minute equalizer against Ottawa Fury FC. Unfortunately for him and Charleston, Mour Samb scored the game-winning goal two minutes later to hand Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser’s side its second defeat of the month. With their leading scorer now back in the fold, expect Charleston to start looking more like itself starting with this weekend’s playoff rematch against the New York Red Bulls II.
The Roughnecks have fallen on tough times of late, losing their last three matches by a combined 15-0 scoreline. While things certainly need to improve on both sides of the ball, Tulsa will need to find some of its early-season goalscoring soon if it wants to get back in the playoff race. Silva, who ranks second on the team with five goals in 16 appearances this season, could certainly help in that regard as Head Coach Michael Nsien’s squad looks to turn things around at home against Real Monarchs SLC on Saturday night.
In last weekend’s trip to El Paso, Olsen recorded a four-save shutout to help Las Vegas hold on for a 1-0 victory and its first away win of the season. On the season to date, the former U.S. U-20 National Team goalkeeper is only one of two Championship netminders to have at least 40 saves and five shutouts alongside the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ John McCarthy. Olsen will face another tough test on Saturday when OKC Energy FC visits Cashman Field but should have plenty of confidence coming off his Team of the Week performance.
Tag(s): Game Previews Weekend Previews Phoenix Rising FC Portland Timbers 2 Reno 1868 FC Sacramento Republic FC Tulsa Roughnecks FC Bethlehem Steel FC Charleston Battery Charlotte Independence Louisville City FC Ottawa Fury FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Neco Brett Zeiko Lewis Fresno FC Las Vegas Lights FC Austin Bold FC Atlanta United 2 Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC Thomas Olsen Loudoun United FC Hartford Athletic Kleber Giacomazzi Janú Silva