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USL Championship Weekend Guide – Week 20

By JOHN ARLIA -, 07/18/19, 12:55PM EDT


National Writer John Arlia previews a busy Saturday slate and peers into his crystal ball

Phoenix Rising FC will try to equal the Championship record for consecutive victories (10) on Friday night when it hosts Austin Bold FC at Casino Arizona Field. | Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC

After five teams claimed victories on a high-scoring Wednesday night, USL Championship action returns on Friday for a jam-packed weekend slate of 15 games.

Phoenix Rising FC will take center stage on Friday night as it looks to match a Championship record with its 10th straight victory when it hosts Austin Bold FC on the latest edition of $1 Beer Night at Casino Arizona Field (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).

Fourteen matches will follow on Saturday, with Hartford Athletic hoping to maintain its perfect record at the newly renovated Dillon Stadium when it takes on the Charleston Battery (5 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). The night will wrap up late on the West Coast with Fresno FC searching for its fifth straight win when it hosts the Portland Timbers 2 at Chukchansi Park (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 20:

Games to Watch

Phoenix Rising FC vs. Austin Bold FC (JULY 19, 10:30 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

After nine straight wins, Rising FC will have a chance to write itself into the USL Championship Record Book on Friday night as victory over Bold FC would match the league record for consecutive wins, set by FC Cincinnati last season. The hosts will know that won’t be assured against an Austin side that earned a 1-0 victory over Phoenix in their first meeting of the season back on April 17, but Rising FC will be confident of getting the job done after outscoring its opponents 31-6 over the duration of its winning streak. Add in the fact that Friday night will be the latest installment of $1 Beer Night at Casino Arizona Field, during which the club has an 11-0-0 record all-time, and there’s no doubt Phoenix fans will be up for this one. Oh, and the Bud Light Knight is scheduled to make an appearance, so that’s something.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC vs. North Carolina FC (JULY 20, 7 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

After a surprise defeat last Saturday in Birmingham, North Carolina FC earned a nice bounce-back victory on Wednesday night at home against Loudoun United FC. Danny Kristo’s stunning free kick and a brace from Yamikani Chester provided the offense, outproducing NCFC’s output from its previous three games combined. Goals won’t come easy on Saturday as the club makes the trip to Pittsburgh to face a Hounds defense that hasn’t conceded multiple goals in any of its past six outings. Head Coach Bob Lilley’s side is unbeaten at Highmark Stadium this season (4-0-5) and will look to narrow the gap between itself and NCFC in the Eastern Conference standings with a win.

Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Saint Louis FC (JULY 20, 7:30 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

The Rowdies enter the weekend with three wins out of four and will look to extend their lead atop the Eastern Conference standings when they host Saint Louis at Al Lang Stadium. Head Coach Neill Collins’ squad will be without Panamanian attacker Juan Tejada, who marked his international debut with a goal on Wednesday night in Olympic qualifying, but should still have plenty firepower to try to break down a typically well-organized Saint Louis defense. STLFC hasn’t won in league play since April 27 but should be buoyed after a week that saw it add Masta Kacher from Real Monarchs SLC and Collin Fernandez from Phoenix Rising FC as it looks to get back into the playoff positions. Historically, the Rowdies have never beaten Saint Louis in Championship play and will likely face a tough test again on Saturday.

El Paso Locomotive FC vs. Real Monarchs SLC (JULY 20, 9:30 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

Two teams heading in opposite directions of late meet at Southwest University Park on Saturday when Locomotive FC hosts Real Monarchs SLC. El Paso slumped to its third defeat in its last five games on Wednesday night with a disappointing showing against Copa Tejas rival San Antonio FC, allowing the visitors to claim their first road win of the season by a 3-1 scoreline. Meanwhile, the Monarchs enter the weekend on a five-game winning streak that has seen the side charge into the playoff places and just a point behind Locomotive FC for a top-six spot. The Monarchs will be without standout forward Douglas Martinez for the contest, however, as he is away on international duty with Honduras in Olympic Qualifying. While El Paso’s newest acquisition, Sebastian Velasquez, could be in line to make his club debut against his former club, adding another wrinkle in what should already be a fiery contest.

Bold Predictions

 Indy Piles Misery on Loudoun

For all of the offensive weapons that Indy Eleven boasts, the side somehow sits in the bottom half of the goalscoring chart with just 26 goals from its first 17 games of the season. I expect Indy to finally find its shooting boots on Saturday when it hosts a Loudoun side that just conceded three goals to North Carolina FC on Wednesday night and will be worse for wear after travelling twice on a short week. A season-high four-goal performance from the Eleven seems like a legitimate possibility.

 Rowdies Remain Winless against STLFC

After playing out a hard-fought 1-1 draw in Missouri in March, the Tampa Bay Rowdies will go for their first ever win against Saint Louis FC on Saturday. | Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel / Saint Louis FC

As I mentioned above, Tampa Bay is winless all-time against Saint Louis in league play (0-1-2) and I believe that streak is set to continue. The two sides played out a 1-1 draw when they last met at Al Lang Stadium, with current Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins heading home an equalizer in the 87th minute, and I expect a similarly close low-scoring affair. A 1-1 draw would probably be the most expected result, but I actually think Saint Louis might be due for three points after some solid performances in the league recently haven’t turned into wins.

 Ownby Nabs Another Winner Over Steel FC at Slugger

Brian Ownby netted a brace in Louisville City FC’s 2-0 victory over Bethlehem Steel FC in the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals at Slugger Field as his side continued their dominance at home in postseason play. The two sides will meet at that venue for the first time since on Saturday, having played out a 2-2 draw at Talen Energy Stadium on May 26 in a fiery affair that saw three players (two from Steel FC) sent off. While Ownby has yet to find the net in an injury-hit campaign, I think this is the week he starts to turn things around.

 Republic FC Ends Weekend in Top Six

Sacramento Republic FC heads into its trip to Rio Grande Valley FC this weekend sitting in eighth place in the Western Conference standings as the side has been unable to climb up the table due to its inconsistent form. However, after snapping a two-game losing streak with a big 1-0 victory over the Portland Timbers 2 last weekend, I think Republic FC can continue its climb up the table with a fourth road win of the season and get some help from the clubs above it dropping points.

Players to Watch

 Brian Wright – Birmingham Legion FC

Wright came on as a first half substitute for an injured Chandler Hoffman last Saturday against North Carolina and scored the game-winning goal in the 79th minute to give Legion FC its first win since April 27. We found out on Monday that the win came at a cost though, as Hoffman was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a ruptured PCL. After finding the back of the net for a goal-starved offense, it seems likely that Wright would be in line for a start on Saturday in a must-win game against ATL UTD 2. What can he do for an encore?

 Christian Ibeagha– OKC Energy FC

I probably could have picked any Energy FC defender or goalkeeper Cody Laurendi after the side threw away a two-goal lead late in the second half of its eventual 3-2 home loss to Reno 1868 FC, but I went with Ibeagha because the center back seemed the most visibly frustrated of the bunch. The 29-year-old was dribbled around by Lindo Mfeka on Reno’s first goal and probably should have been tighter to Aidan Apodaca on the 1868 FC’s second. A bounce-back performance on Saturday on Energy FC’s trip to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC will be necessary for OKC to keep pace in the playoff race.

 Frank López – San Antonio FC

San Antonio moved just three points behind OKC on with its first road victory of the season on Wednesday night as López dazzled in his club debut with a pair of goals after joining the club on loan from the LA Galaxy II on Monday. The 24-year-old forward has now scored five goals in his last three games and will look to help lead SAFC’s second-half charge when it visits a team in a similar position in Orange County SC.

 Brandon Allen – Memphis 901 FC

Allen’s move to Memphis has yet to yield any goals for the talented forward – although 901 FC fans would argue that his early strike in Wednesday night’s 2-0 loss to Nashville SC should not have been ruled out for offside – but since his arrival he ranks second on the team in shots (5). As a poacher of his pedigree, that means goals are likely soon to follow and this weekend presents a perfect opportunity to open his account against his former club, the New York Red Bulls II.

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