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The 18 – Saint Louis Lands a Crucial Blow

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 07/29/19, 11:30AM EDT

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Also, how two games turned in the blink of an eye, and a remarkably tight playoff race

FENTON, Mo. – It was the league performance Saint Louis FC’s fans had been waiting a while to celebrate.

And judging by their post-game comments, the club’s 3-0 win against Bethlehem Steel FC at World Wide Technology Soccer Park was one the players were going to relish well into the night as well.

“It’s a good feeling to get back to winning ways,” said STLFC midfielder Lewis Hilton. “It’s been a tough stretch the last couple of months, but this is a fantastic feeling, getting another three points.”

Saint Louis’ three-month slump in league play came to an end at precisely the right time. After looking like a serious contender for the first seven weeks of the season – a run that included victories against Indy Eleven and Nashville SC and a draw with the Tampa Bay Rowdies – there was now a question as to whether STLFC would do enough to build on reaching the postseason a year ago.

Those concerns were erased well enough against fellow playoff contender Bethlehem as Hilton scored a brilliant first goal of the season and Kyle Greig’s resurgence in form continued with a third goal in the past four games.

Thanks to Birmingham Legion FC’s victory against the Charlotte Independence, Saint Louis is now clearly in the box seat again, both above the playoff line and with games in hand on those below it. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but Saturday’s win will have lifted a lot of pressure from the side and even allowed some of STLFC’s fans to bring a wry smile to the proceedings.

Here’s this week’s 18.

1. One of the most notable things about this past weekend was it gave another pair of examples of how quickly a game can change. The first arrived on Friday night in the top-two Eastern Conference clash between the second-place New York Red Bulls II and the conference-leading Tampa Bay Rowdies.

That’s 46 seconds between Tampa Bay’s Sebastian Guenzatti’s excellent effort being denied by Red Bulls II goalkeeper Evan Louro at one end and New York’s Mathias Jørgensen putting the hosts up 2-0, a score they would hold until the final whistle.

2. The Garden State has not been a happy hunting ground for the Rowdies since they joined the Championship in 2017, and even with a man-advantage for the final half-hour this time around they couldn’t find a way back against Louro and a solid defensive effort that saw the likes of Red Bulls II leading scorer Tom Barlow doing diligent work in his own half.

3. The Rowdies are now 0-3-0 when visiting the Red Bulls II all-time with a -9 goal differential. Something to bear in mind should New York figure out a way to overtake Tampa Bay by the end of the regular season.

4. On the Red Bulls II side, defender John Tolkin continued to impress even as he was called into a holding midfield role thanks to the suspension of Jean-Kristoph Koffi. That’s his through-ball setting up Jorgensen in the clip above. Tolkin is going to be in United States U-17 National Team camp this week having notched four assists in four games and is definitely one to watch for at this fall’s FIFA U-17 World Cup.

5. The other instance of a crucial turnaround in fortunes came on Saturday evening as Hartford Athletic took on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.

That was 64 seconds between Wojchiek Wojcik’s chance to open the scoring for the Athletic at one end of the field and Steevan Dos Santos’ header going in at the near post to send the Hounds on their way to a 4-2 victory at Dillon Stadium.

6. There’s a bigger-picture argument to be made about these moments marking the differences between teams that reach the postseason and those that don’t – you could say the same about being on the right end of good fortune, just look at Hartford defender Kyle Curinga’s unfortunate own goal when trying to cut out Dos Santos’ pass to an open teammate across the penalty area on a breakaway. I can buy that idea, but the simple reality is the Hounds are a good side that are now in the top six in the conference with games in hand.

7. And while his side found an impressive attacking rhythm throughout the game, Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley still saw areas of needed improvement to make a move higher up the standings. “We gave up a lot of chances," said Lilley. “It was a good result. We scored some nice goals, but it was disappointing that we allowed as many chances as we did. It was an important win, but I don't think we executed well enough in the second half.”

8. The Red Bulls II’s victory against Tampa Bay on Friday night left the door wide open for Indy Eleven to gain ground while still holding games in hand on the top-two sides the following night. Instead, Nashville SC slammed the door back in Indy’s face with a 2-0 win at Nissan Stadium and made its own claim to be the leading challenger to the Rowdies and Red Bulls II for a top-two finish. 

9. “I have to say from the very outset, the players showed the mentality that was necessary to win the game,” said NSC Head Coach Gary Smith. “We were never going to outplay this team for 90 minutes. I felt there were some great portions of play, I saw wonderful creation, some terrific individual displays, and when we needed to, we showed the type of unity, determination and overall structure that’s necessary to do well at the top of any division.”

10. As good as the victory was, maybe the most significant development in the contest was the return from injury of Ken Tribbett, who took up a midfield role in helping see out the contest after being introduced in the 67th minute. With Forrest Lasso now on board on loan from FC Cincinnati, and the potential Jimmy Ockford is going to stick around in the Music City longer than his initial short-term loan from the San Jose Earthquakes, it’s going to offer Smith some flexibility in how he deploys what is a talented trio.

11. That flexibility was on display as Tribbett slotted in as a holding midfielder after coming on for Lebo Moloto, a role the 26-year-old isn’t unfamiliar with. “It’s a little bit of a different role for me on this team, but it’s something I’ve done before,” said Tribbett. “All through my college career and youth career, I played the 6 and 4. Even professionally, I’ve played a number of games at that position. Coach knew that, and he just slotted me in to kind of help protect the backline, and we were able to get the shutout.”

12. After the pelting they took the previous weekend, Austin Bold FC’s players knew they needed to respond in a crucial home game against third-place Fresno FC on Saturday night. Thanks to Isaac Promise’s goal late in the first half and a superb display by goalkeeper Diego Restrepo with a five-save shutout, the hosts did just that to give their chances of a top-four finish a welcome boost. 

13. Restrepo hasn’t had a spectacular season in Austin, although his numbers of seven shutouts and 59 saves on a 70.24 save percentage are perfectly solid, but on Saturday he came through when his side needed him most. The highlight moment came in the 40th minute as he clawed away a header by Fresno’s Qudus Lawal to keep the game scoreless. Three minutes later, the only goal of the game arrived and Bold FC was able to see out a morale-boosting win.

14. For everything that’s going right off the field for Louisville City FC right now, the team’s midseason funk on the field continued on Sunday night in a 3-0 loss to Loudoun United FC, which left Audi Field on a high note ahead of its grand opening of Segra Field in two weeks’ time. Louisville has now conceded the opening goal in seven consecutive games and hasn’t posted a shutout since a 0-0 draw with Saint Louis FC on May 18, a major red flag against its title defense.

15. The numbers over that seven-game stretch don’t paint a great picture, either. For the season, Louisville is still averaging only 12.3 shots faced per game, with 4.3 of those on target and a save percentage of 70.65. Over the past seven games, those numbers rise to 13.5 shot faced per game and an average of six shots on goal per contest. The club’s save percentage has risen to 78.57 percent to somewhat make up for the increase in activity in the club’s defensive third, but it’s clear Louisville needs to get on the front foot early in contests instead of waiting to be dealt the first blow.

16. Want to take a guess at the only side beyond record-breaking Phoenix Rising FC in the Western Conference that can say it’s going undefeated in its last five games? If you said San Antonio FC, you may claim your price from the customer service desk. Saturday’s 3-1 victory against Real Monarchs SLC at Toyota Field gave SAFC 11 points from its past five games, which has propelled it back into the playoff conversation despite the major struggles of the first half of the regular season.

17. He might have only been with the club for the past three games of that run, but Frank Lopez has also quickly provided San Antonio the attacking punch it had been missing. Three goals in three games continued the form he was showing with the LA Galaxy II before SAFC added him on loan and given the side something it can coalesce around in the final third. San Antonio now has three games of its next four at home, starting next Saturday against Sacramento Republic FC, with the door fully open to making a run at a top-six finish.

18. Why is that possibility still open for SAFC? Just look at the Western Conference standings. Going into the Wednesday Night Soccer clash between fifth-place New Mexico United and sixth-place El Paso Locomotive FC, there are nine teams separated by two points between fifth and 13th place in the standings, with Las Vegas Lights FC – a 2-1 winner on Saturday night against Rio Grande Valley FC – a further point back. As evenly matched as everyone seems, this playoff race is going down to the final weekend of the regular season.

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