An Eastern Conference top-four clash between Indy Eleven and North Carolina FC highlights another busy weekend of action across the USL Championship. | Photo courtesy Matt Schlotzhauer / Indy Eleven
After New Mexico United got back to its best with a 3-0 victory over El Paso Locomotive FC on Wednesday Night Soccer, Week 22 of the USL Championship continues Thursday to kick off a three-day stretch of 17 matches.
Bethlehem Steel FC and Hartford Athletic will take center stage on Thursday night with the hosts looking to bounce back from last weekend’s loss to Saint Louis FC and give their playoff chances a shot in the arm against the expansion side at Talen Energy Stadium (5 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Four matches will follow on Friday night, including a pair of tantalizing matches in the Eastern Conference with the New York Red Bulls II hosting playoff hopeful Saint Louis FC at MSU Soccer Park (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) and Birmingham Legion FC taking its three-game winning streak north of the border to face Ottawa Fury FC at TD Place (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
The weekend will wrap up with a 12-game slate on Saturday that features a top-four clash between North Carolina FC and Indy Eleven at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) to kick off the evening. The night will come to a close late on the West Coast when Fresno FC looks to get back into the win column and continue its pursuit of a top-two finish when it hosts Irvin Parra and Las Vegas Lights FC 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 22:
Two teams coming off important wins will clash on Friday night at MSU Soccer Park. Saint Louis FC moved back into the playoff places by defeating Bethlehem Steel FC 3-0 last weekend for its first victory in USL Championship play since April 27. Forward Kyle Greig continued his second-half resurgence, scoring the game-winning goal four minutes before halftime for this third tally in four games. Those two factors should give STLFC some confidence heading the club’s matchup with a Red Bulls II side that knocked off the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Rowdies last Friday to move within two points of the top spot. New York is unbeaten in its last six games and will like its chances of improving that streak – and its 9-2-2 home record – against a STLFC squad that has struggled away from home (2-5-3
While there seems to be a top-four clash in the Eastern Conference every weekend, there’s no denying the importance of these matches when it comes to playoff seeding in October. North Carolina has a huge opportunity to help its chances of a top-four finish this weekend when it hosts Indy Eleven at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park. The two sides enter level on 37 points in the East standings, but Indy has played two fewer games and still holds the tiebreaker with an additional win. However, if Steven Miller can continue to pull the strings in midfield, then NCFC will have a good shot to build off its 4-2 win over ATL UTD 2 from last weekend and push past the Eleven in the table for the time being.
Two goals in six minutes spurred Sacramento Republic FC to a 2-1 victory over San Antonio FC in their first meeting of the season at Papa Murphy's Park on June 1. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
Republic FC may be one of the most confusing teams in the Championship currently as Head Coach Simon Elliott’s squad certainly has the talent to compete at the top of the Western Conference but can’t seem to put together quality performances on a consistent basis. That has seen the side lose three of its past five games and fall back below the playoff line. San Antonio enters Saturday’s contest level with Sacramento on 27 points and narrowly behind on the total wins tiebreaker but has plenty of momentum heading into this matchup. Frank Lopez has scored three goals in his three appearances since joining the club on loan from the LA Galaxy II and SAFC is unbeaten in five games overall, the longest streak of any team in the West outside of Phoenix. Throw in the fact that San Antonio has lost just once in 11 games at Toyota Field this season – and that was all the way back on March 16 – and Head Coach Darren Powell will be confident his team can find its way into the playoff places by the night’s end.
After knocking off one Texas expansion team in the form of El Paso Locomotive FC on Wednesday night, New Mexico United will look to complete a clean sweep for the week against Austin Bold FC. United’s attack, which had faltered in league play since its 3-1 road win over Bold FC on May 25, scored three times in a game for the first time since with Chris Wehan’s brace following Kevaughn Frater’s first-half penalty in a comfortable 3-0 victory. Watching that performance will be worrisome for Austin as it heads to Isotopes Park, where New Mexico has lost just once all season (4-1-3). Bold FC will take some confidence after ending Fresno FC’s five-game winning streak with a 1-0 victory last weekend, but Head Coach Marcelo Serrano knows his squad must be at its best if it wants to maintain its spot above United in the standings.
It’s hard to argue against the thought that Daniel Rios has been Nashville SC’s most consistent performer this season. He’s featured in all 20 of the club’s matches to this point and scored a team-high 13 goals that has him sitting second in the Championship’s Golden Boot race. The 24-year-old’s goals have kept Nashville in touch of a top-four spot and can further help that cause with another strong performance on Saturday at the defensively deficient Swope Park Rangers. After scoring once in each of his past three games, I expect Rios to go for at least two goals to reach 15 on the year and push NSC to another victory.
When the Tampa Bay Rowdies hosted the Charleston Battery on June 15, goalkeeper John McCarthy two minutes and some stoppage time away from his 10th clean sheet of the season when Ian Svantesson popped up to end the shutout and rescue a point from the visitors to Al Lang Stadium. After trending on a historic pace into June, things have regressed for to the mean for the Rowdies’ defense and McCarthy of late, as his and the team’s last clean sheet came two months ago in a 1-0 victory over Birmingham Legion FC on June 1. Given the Battery’s lack of game action in recent weeks, I think there’s a good chance they start slow and McCarthy can hold on late for his 10th shutout on Saturday in Charleston.
Speaking of shutouts, it’s been a while since Phoenix Rising FC conceded a goal. In fact, the Championship leader hasn’t been scored on since its 4-2 victory over the Portland Timbers 2 on June 29. With three straight shutouts since, Phoenix hasn’t conceded in 311 minutes of league play and has only allowed six goals over the span of its record 11-game winning streak. Rising FC gets plenty of credit for its league-high 53 goals, but its defense has flown under the radar a little bit with a league-best 11 clean sheets – seven of which have come over the streak. While the numbers are impressive, I’m backing the Galaxy II to snap the shutout streak on Saturday at Dignity Health Sports Park as the hosts have scored 19 goals in 11 home games this season and rank in the top 10 in goals scored with 35 for the season.
One team to score on Rising FC during its win streak is OKC Energy FC, which saw Rafael Garcia convert from the penalty spot in his side’s 4-1 loss on June 22. Why do I mention that in a section about Deshorn Brown? Well, it was the forward that won that penalty, having his close-range shot blocked by the outstretched arm of Phoenix defender Joey Farrell. It’s been a little while since Brown has found the back of the net – last scoring an 89th-minute winner against Las Vegas Lights FC on June 29 – but I think he’s got a good chance to deliver a pair of goals for this side on Saturday against a struggling Tulsa Roughnecks FC.
It’s been a tough stretch for Louisville City FC as the side has suffered back-to-back shutout losses and won just one of its last five games, falling to eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings in the process. While the team’s overall form isn’t great, the more worrying factor is the lack of offense over the course of the season and especially the last two games. Louisville attempted 51 shots (17 on target) over the past two losses and has failed to score multiple goals in any of its last seven games. That falls on the shoulders of the forwards, especially Spencer, to turn around starting this weekend in Charlotte.
After six months in Israel, Barry is back in the Championship after signing with Ottawa earlier this week. He may not jump right into the starting lineup for Fury FC but will be one to watch in any capacity if he’s included in the gameday squad for Friday’s key clash against Birmingham Legion FC. Barry, who recorded 19 goals in 36 games across the 2018 regular season and playoffs for the Swope Park Rangers, is another welcome boost to a much-improved Fury FC offense that has seen forward Mour Samb struggle with nagging injuries of late. If Barry can find the form that propelled the Rangers to the playoffs last year, Ottawa will be a threat for a top-four finish and more come October.
Speaking of attacking absences, Locomotive FC were without leading scorer Jerome Kiesewetter (10 goals in 14 appearances) once again in Wednesday night’s 3-0 loss to New Mexico United and really need someone else to step up in his absence. Salgado seems the most obvious choice as the El Paso native has played up front in 20 of the team’s 21 matches to this point. The returns just haven’t been good enough – even with Kiesewetter in the lineup – as the 25-year-old has two goals on the season with a shot conversion rate of 5.4 percent. A team-high four assists is nice, but Salgado needs to start finding the back of the net starting with Saturday’s home date against another struggling side in the Portland Timbers 2.
With Brian Brown having moved on to FK Partizani at the beginning of July, there was always going to be pressure on Corey Hertzog to fill the boots of a player that scored a club-record 28 goals since the expansion side’s inaugural season in 2017. So far, Hertzog has delivered with four goals in five games since July 1 as 1868 FC has kept itself within touching distance of Western Conference leader Phoenix Rising FC. Another strong performance from the forward against Rio Grande Valley FC at H-E-B Park could be on the cards on Saturday.
Tag(s): Game Previews Nashville SC Weekend Previews San Antonio FC LA Galaxy II OKC Energy FC Phoenix Rising FC Reno 1868 FC Sacramento Republic FC Swope Park Rangers FC Tulsa Charleston Battery Louisville City FC New York Red Bulls II Ottawa Fury FC Saint Louis FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Corey Hertzog Luke Spencer Deshorn Brown Hadji Barry John McCarthy Austin Bold FC North Carolina FC Indy Eleven El Paso Locomotive FC Daniel Ríos New Mexico United Omar Salgado