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USL Championship Weekend Guide – Week 21

By JOHN ARLIA -, 07/25/19, 12:45PM EDT


National Writer John Arlia surveys a slate filled with playoff implications and makes some predictions

Fresno FC held Austin Bold FC scoreless to claim a 1-0 victory at Chukchansi Park on May 22 in the first ever meeting between the two clubs. | Photo courtesy Kiel Maddox / Fresno FC

After the LA Galaxy II, New Mexico United, Orange County SC and Tacoma Defiance picked up much-needed victories on Wednesday, USL Championship action returns Friday for a busy weekend of 17 matches.

The top two teams in the Eastern Conference will take center stage on Friday night when the second-place New York Red Bulls II host the Championship-leading Tampa Bay Rowdies in a crunch clash at MSU Soccer Park (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).

Fourteen matches will follow on Saturday, with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC looking to continue its climb up the table in the East when it makes its inaugural trip to Dillon Stadium to face Hartford Athletic (5 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). The night will wrap up late on the West Coast with a pair of matchups when Las Vegas Lights FC tries to continue its home dominance against Rio Grande Valley FC at Cashman Field (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), while Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC will look for its third consecutive win under Interim Head Coach Wolde Harris when it visits Reno 1868 FC at Greater Nevada Field (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).

The weekend will conclude with a pair of matches on Sunday with Loudoun United FC looking to get revenge for its 2-1 defeat to Louisville City FC in a rematch at Audi Field (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), while the Portland Timbers 2 search for their first victory in more than a month against the LA Galaxy II at Providence Park (9 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 21:

Games To Watch

New York Red Bulls II vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies (JULY 26, 7 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

The top two teams in the Eastern Conference clash on Friday when the Tampa Bay Rowdies visit the New York Red Bulls II at MSU Soccer Park. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

The Red Bulls II will have a chance to narrow the gap to the Championship-leading Rowdies to just two points on Friday night when the top two sides in the Eastern Conference clash at MSU Soccer Park. Tampa Bay claimed a 2-0 victory over New York when the teams first met at Al Lang Stadium on May 18, with rookie forward Juan Tejada providing the scoring for the home side on either side of halftime. After surrendering a two-goal lead last time out in a draw with Memphis 901 FC, the Red Bulls II will look to bounce back against a Rowdies side that is unbeaten in its last six games and has yet to lose away from home all season (6-0-3). This one should be fun.

Birmingham Legion FC vs. Charlotte Independence (JULY 27, 8 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

Two teams on opposite sides of the playoff line in the East collide on Saturday when Legion FC hosts the Independence at BBVA Field. Charlotte, which enters the weekend in the 10th and final playoff position, missed out on a chance to improve its standing on Wednesday after settling for a 2-2 road draw against ATL UTD 2 despite taking an early lead through Jorge Herrera. That result keeps the door open for Legion FC and others to gain ground this weekend as this is shaping up as a six-pointer for the hosts. Birmingham, which sits five points behind Charlotte in 13th, has won two straight games and could truly announce its playoff candidacy with a win in what should be a raucous atmosphere.

Austin Bold FC vs. Fresno FC (JULY 27, 8:30 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

After getting thrashed 6-0 last Friday night by Phoenix Rising FC, Austin Bold FC faces another tough test this weekend when it plays host to Fresno FC. The Foxes have won five consecutive games – including four straight against teams currently sitting in the Western Conference playoff positions – to create an eight-point gap between itself and fourth-place Bold FC despite having played one fewer game. Austin will want to cut into that gap and should like its chances to bounce back after last week’s nightmare as it returns to Bold Stadium, where it boasts a 6-1-3 record thus far in its inaugural campaign. This will be another tough test in a run of them for Fresno, and if it passes once again there will be no doubting its credential as a contender from here on out.

San Antonio FC vs. Real Monarchs SLC (JULY 27, 8:30 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

The loan addition of forward Frank Lopez, who scored twice in his debut after joining from the LA Galaxy II, looks to have brought a breath of fresh air to a San Antonio side that has been sitting outside of the playoff positions in the Western Conference for most of the season. SAFC’s current four-game unbeaten run has it up to 12th place entering the weekend, just two points behind 10th-place Orange County SC and four points behind Saturday’s opponent Real Monarchs SLC. The Monarchs will welcome the return of their top goalscorer Douglas Martinez, who was suspended for last weekend’s scoreless draw with El Paso Locomotive FC that halted the side’s five-game winning streak. San Antonio has picked up 19 of its 24 points at Toyota Field this season, which will give Head Coach Darren Powell confidence that his side can get a much-needed victory against strong opposition on Saturday.

Bold Predictions

 Nissan Stadium Sees Another Scoreless Draw

Nashville SC will make the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans its own once again on Saturday when it hosts Indy Eleven at Nissan Stadium. The venue, which will house NSC temporarily as it transitions to Major League Soccer in 2020, hosted two matches last year during the club’s inaugural season in the Championship. Both of those games – first against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (3/24/18) and then against FC Cincinnati (7/7/18) – ended in scoreless ties. With Indy and Nashville having already played 90 minutes without a goal at Lucas Oil Stadium on May 25, I figure there’s a good chance we could see the shutout streak continue on Saturday.

 Rising FC Rises to Occasion Early

Phoenix Rising FC cruised to a 5-0 victory over Tulsa Roughnecks FC in their first meeting of the season back on June 6 at Casino Arizona Field. | Photo courtesy Phoenix Rising FC

A spot in the USL Championship Record Book is on the line Saturday for Phoenix Rising FC when it visits Tulsa Roughnecks FC in search of a record 11th consecutive victory. While there’s little doubt in my mind that the club reaches that mark, I expect Rising FC to put the game away after using five second-half goals to push past Austin Bold FC last Friday. I’ve got Phoenix getting off to a strong start with three first-half goals in another comfortable victory.

 Fury FC falters in Memphis

Ottawa Fury FC advanced to the Semifinals of the Canadian Championship on Wednesday night with a 2-2 home draw against HFX Wanderers FC that saw the hosts edge through on aggregate 5-4. Ottawa had to work for the result, though, as Head Coach Nikola Popovic’s side trailed 2-0 late in the first half and would have been knocked out of the competition if the scoreline remained that way. That exerted energy could come back to play a factor this weekend when Fury FC travels to Memphis to take on a 901 FC side that pulled off a similar second-half rally last weekend against the New York Red Bulls II. I expect 901 FC can pick up a point – if not more – against its opposition from the North.

 Saint Louis Ends Weekend Inside Top 10

I feel like I’ve saved the boldest prediction for last as Saint Louis FC can only finish the weekend in the Eastern Conference playoff places if it beats Bethlehem Steel FC on Saturday AND Birmingham Legion FC knocks off the Charlotte Independence in a weekend with major postseason implications for the four teams. Although STLFC hasn’t won in league play since April 27, I believe this is the week Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ side starts to turn things around. Steel FC, which recorded a 3-1 victory over STLFC when the two sides met last month, has lost three of its five games since but did pick up an impressive win over Louisville City FC last weekend. Meanwhile, Legion FC is on a two-game winning streak and will get the benefit of the Independence’s short week and travel as well as a stellar home crowd at BBVA Field.

Players to Watch

 Darwin Jones – Orange County SC

Jones had a bit of a coming out party against Reno 1868 FC on the matinee edition of Wednesday Night Soccer with a pair of goals and an assist to help Orange County snap the visitors’ five-game winning streak and climb into 10th place in the West standings. With California rival Sacramento Republic FC – which sits level on 26 points with OCSC – visiting Championship Soccer Stadium on Saturday night, a repeat performance would go a long way to seeing the side back into the postseason for a second straight year.

 DJ Taylor – North Carolina FC

Taylor has been a constant under Head Coach Dave Sarachan, starting 19 of 20 games so far this season in either a right back or right wing-back role for North Carolina. The 21-year-old ranks second on the team in blocks (9) and tackles won (20) but has also been influential in attack with 20 key passes – third-most – and two assists. One of those came in a 2-1 defeat to ATL UTD 2 earlier this season, a result that Taylor and NCFC will look to rectify on Saturday.

 Ataulla Guerra – Charleston Battery

After leading the Battery with 15 goals in 30 games last season, Guerra made his first start of the year last weekend against Hartford Athletic and found the back of the net late in the second half as Charleston rallied for a 3-2 victory. His presence will certainly be a welcome boost to leading scorer Zeiko Lewis, who does most of his work from the wings, and could boost the Battery’s top-six chances moving forward. Another strong performance against Swope Park this weekend would do nicely.

 Augustine Williams – LA Galaxy II

After spending most of the season in a front two with Frank Lopez, Williams is now featuring as the Galaxy II’s central striker after Lopez was loaned out to San Antonio FC. The 21-year-old has responded well to the change, scoring a goal in Los Dos’ 3-1 victory at Tulsa Roughnecks FC on Wednesday night. LA faces another important game in the race for the playoffs on Sunday when it visits the Portland Timbers 2 and Williams will be looking to continue to make an impact while leading the line.

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