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USL Championship Weekend Guide – Week 24

By JOHN ARLIA -, 08/15/19, 1:00PM EDT


National Writer John Arlia has his say on which streaks will continue and which ones will end

Reno 1868 FC will look to put an end to Phoenix Rising FC's winning streak and perfect record on $1 Beer Night in a top-two clash at Casino Arizona Field on Friday night. | Photo courtesy David Calvert / Reno 1868 FC

After Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and the Charleston Battery took road victories on Wednesday night, Week 24 of the USL Championship continues Friday to kick off a busy weekend of 16 matches.

Friday’s four-game slate will feature a pair of top-four clashes in the Western Conference with $1 Beer Night returning to Casino Arizona Field when first-place Phoenix Rising FC puts its 13-game winning streak on the line against second-place Reno 1868 FC (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) while third-place Fresno FC hosts fourth-place Real Monarchs SLC at Chukchansi Park (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).

Eleven matches will follow on Saturday, with Nashville SC looking to extend its club-record shutout streak against the Charlotte Independence at Sportsplex at Matthews (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before Birmingham Legion FC looks to do the same in a heated rivalry contest with Memphis 901 FC (8 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).

The weekend will wrap up with a tasty contest on Sunday as Saint Louis FC looks to get back on track when it visits Indy Eleven at Lucas Oil Stadium (6 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 24:

Games to Watch

Phoenix Rising FC vs. Reno 1868 FC (AUGUST 16, 10:30 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

Rising FC may enter Friday night’s top-two clash with Reno 1868 FC with a six-point gap atop the Western Conference standings and two games in hand, but there’s plenty on the line for the hosts at Casino Arizona Field. Phoenix will look to extend its league-record winning streak to 14 games and improve its record on $1 Beer Night to a perfect 13-0-0 against an 1868 FC side that it defeated 3-0 at Greater Nevada Field on June 18. Rising FC hasn’t been as convincing of late as it has kept it winning streak going with three consecutive one-goal wins, while Reno will look to bounce back from last weekend’s 4-1 drubbing at the hands of San Antonio FC. Expect plenty of atmosphere and a playoff-like intensity in what could be a Western Conference Final preview.

Fresno FC vs. Real Monarchs SLC (AUGUST 16, 10:30 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

The two teams rounding out the top four in the Western Conference also meet on Friday night when the fourth-place Monarchs look to put a dent in the gap to the top three with a victory on the road in Fresno. That won’t come easily as the Foxes have won seven of their last eight games overall and five straight at Chukchansi Park. After a slow start to the season, the Monarchs have been on a similar run of form – boasting a 7-1-1 record over their last nine games – but have failed to take three points from either of their last two road games. The likely return of leading scorer Douglas Martinez from the Pan American Games should help Real offer more of a threat going forward in what should be another entertaining contest out West.

North Carolina FC vs. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (AUGUST 17, 7 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC started its five-game winning streak with a 1-0 home victory over North Carolina FC on July 20. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

The Hounds did something that most teams don’t on Wednesday night, going into MSU Soccer Park and taking a 2-1 victory over the New York Red Bulls II. The home loss was New York’s third of the season and first since May 24 when Head Coach John Wolyniec’s side was beaten 2-1 by none other than Saturday’s opponent North Carolina FC. While the two top-six teams share that common victory, they enter Saturday’s showdown at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park with differing form. Pittsburgh has won five straight games – a streak that started with a 1-0 home win over North Carolina on July 20 – while NCFC has alternated wins and losses over its past six games. With the two sides currently separated by just a point in the standings, this contest could be the difference between a top-four finish and a road start to the postseason come October.

Indy Eleven vs. Saint Louis FC (AUGUST 18, 6 PM ET, MATCH CENTERESPN+)

If the USL Championship Playoffs were to start today, Saint Louis FC would be on the outside looking in as its one win since April 27 has seen it slip into 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings. Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ squad is still favored to reach the postseason as it has a game in hand and a better goal difference than 10th-place Birmingham Legion FC, but STLFC will have to start turning things around sooner rather than later if it wants to make up for that. A road trip to a well-rested Indy side should be a great test as the fifth-place Eleven look to charge up the table toward a top-two finish. While Thomas Enevoldsen has moved on to Sacramento, Indy still should have enough firepower to concern the STLFC defense as it looks to remain unbeaten at Lucas Oil Stadium this season (6-0-4).

Bold Predictions

 Both shutout streaks end

Birmingham Legion FC goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel and his defense have kept a clean sheet in five consecutive games. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

I mentioned it in the open, but Birmingham Legion FC and Nashville SC enter this weekend with club-record shutout streaks that have surpassed 450 minutes on the back of five straight clean sheets. While I’ve certainly been impressed with the play of both teams of late, there comes a point in time where all good things must come to an end. I think that will come on Saturday as Nashville heads to Sportsplex at Matthews, where the Charlotte Independence have scored in nine of their 11 home games this season, and Birmingham hosts a Memphis 901 FC side that has struggled to score this season but has been better of late and will have its chances in a hotly contested rivalry game at BBVA Field.

 Phoenix’s winning streak doesn’t

Remember when I said above that there comes a point in time where all good things must come to an end? Well, that doesn’t apply on $1 Beer Nights at Casino Arizona Field. Phoenix Rising FC has scored 14 goals over its three home Friday night fixtures so far this season – including a club-record six in a 6-0 victory over Austin Bold FC on July 19 – which is nearly two goals per game more than it averages on any regular-priced beer night (2.8 goals per game). The stats sound ridiculous because they are, but all you need to know is when it’s $1 Beer Night, there’s only one winner.

 Enevoldsen gets on the scoresheet

Thomas Enevoldsen made the move from Indy Eleven to Sacramento Republic earlier this week after netting five goals in 20 league appearances in his first season with the Eastern Conference side. Now, he’ll have another go at Western Conference defenses, which will not be happy to see the 32-year-old Dane after he netted 20 goals and provided 10 assists for Orange County SC in his first Championship campaign last year. It may be a little too soon to see the forward in the starting lineup, but I still like Enevoldsen’s odds to score when Republic FC hosts Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC at Papa Murphy’s Park on Saturday night.

 Rangers climb out of the basement

While many of my games to watch this week focused prominently on the top part of the table, I’m also keeping my eye on what I think could be a very entertaining and high-scoring clash at the bottom of the East between ATL UTD 2 and the Swope Park Rangers. Both sides have struggled defensively this season, combining to concede 102 goals while keeping just four clean sheets, but have shown flashes of talent on the attacking end with the likes of Atlanta’s Jackson Conway and Swope Park’s Felipe Hernandez making their presences felt week-in and week-out. While the Rangers have yet to win on the road this season (0-8-2), I’m backing them to take three points off ATL UTD 2 on Friday night and vault two places up the table.

Players to Watch

 Santi Moar – New Mexico United

Moar found the back of the net for the first time since May 25 last Sunday in Portland to reach double-digit goals on the season but it wasn’t enough as New Mexico fell to a 3-2 defeat at Providence Park. The Spaniard was a key contributor over the opening three months of the season as United climbed to the top of the Western Conference and will be hoping to build on last week’s performance as the expansion side looks to improve its postseason chances with a win against the LA Galaxy II on Saturday at Isotopes Park.

 Dane Kelly – Indy Eleven

Indy Eleven forward Dane Kelly will have to pick up the scoring slack after Thomas Enevoldsen moved to Sacramento Republic FC earlier this week. | Photo courtesy Loudoun United FC

Kelly has struggled in front of goal in his first season with the Eleven, netting just four times so far this season at a rate of 358 minutes per goal. That isn’t the level of performance we’ve come to expect from the Jamaican, who sits tied atop the Championship’s all-time regular-season scoring chart with 71 goals with the Charlotte Independence’s Jorge Herrera. With fellow forward Thomas Enevoldsen heading to Sacramento this week, Kelly will likely get the chance to lead the line for Head Coach Martin Rennie when the Eleven take on Saint Louis on Sunday and over the final two months of the season if he can find his form.

 Michael Seaton – Orange County SC

After a big 4-1 win over Reno 1868 FC on July 24, it looked as though Orange County’s offense was finally going to hit its stride. Instead, it seems as though that was a one-off performance as OCSC has managed to find the back of the net just once in two games since, with Seaton scoring the opening goal in last Friday’s 2-1 road defeat to Tacoma Defiance. With a Las Vegas Lights FC squad that boasts the same 27-point total as OCSC coming to visit Championship Soccer Stadium at OC Great Park on Saturday, Seaton will need to be at his best if the hosts want to pick up a massive three points.

 Christiano François – Ottawa Fury FC

After making tremendous strides to its offensive production early this season, Ottawa Fury FC has hit a bit of a road bump of late. Head Coach Nikola Popovic’s side has been shut out in its last four games, including a pair of defeats to MLS side Toronto FC in the Semifinals of the Canadian Championship. While an injury to leading scorer Mour Samb hasn’t helped matters, somebody has to step up in order to boost Ottawa’s chances at a top-six finish. François (six goals, four assists) seems like the most likely candidate as the team from Canada’s capital visits the team just outside the United States’ capital in Loudoun United FC.

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