El Paso Locomotive FC supporters group 8th Notch displays its pregame tifo on Saturday night as the club paid tribute to those lost in the tragedy suffered by the city in early August. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC
EL PASO, Texas – Saturday night’s return of El Paso Locomotive FC to Southwest University Park was never going to be a regular game.
The tragedy of August 3, when the side was meant to play in front of its home fans, meant the contest against Tacoma Defiance was going to be as much about commemorating those lost, and continuing a healing process that the club and its players have featured prominently in over the prior two weeks.
From the EP Fusion girls soccer team being on the field pregame – and warmly embraced by both sets of players following the national anthem – to the silence in the 22nd minute as fans waved El Paso Strong flags in the stands, the night was one that would stay with the 6,222 in attendance for a long time.
And then, Edson Partida and Omar Salgado produced moments that ensured the night on the field wouldn’t be forgotten for a while either.
Partida’s arrived first, a spectacular bicycle kick in the 32nd minute that earned the No. 1 spot on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 on Saturday night and served as the game-winner in the host’s 2-0 victory.
Then El Paso native Salgado, easily the most prominent player at the club, scored with 20 minutes to go to put away the game, his wild celebrations being mirrored in the stands.
“It was amazing,” Salgado told the El Paso Times’ Bret Bloomquist. “Three weeks we haven't played here, since what happened on the third of August, and to be able to score in front of my hometown, celebrate in front of friends and family was unbelievable.”
Locomotive FC will hope it never has to host such a night again, but the feeling around Southwest University Park as the final whistle blew was one that offered a footstep toward normalcy in the community.
“It means a lot," Locomotive FC Head Coach Mark Lowry told Bloomquist. “The emotion of the last two weeks, with the city, with the community, with the team at times has been difficult. But it's also allowed us to come together and unite a bit more than we probably were two weeks ago.
“To go out there and put on a performance that really exemplified El Paso as a city. It wasn't our best performance by any means, but it was probably our best performance in terms of heart, in terms of passion, in terms of togetherness in the face of adversity.”
Here's this week’s 18.
1. Locomotive FC’s place in the playoff picture was rightfully the farthest thing from anyone’s mind on Saturday night, but as a new week begins the victory against Tacoma sets up the potential for a season-changing run for Lowry’s side. Now in 11th place in the Western Conference, El Paso’s next five games come against sides that all sit below it in the standings, starting with Saturday’s road trip to face Copa Tejas rival Rio Grande Valley FC. A run of positive results, especially at home against 17th-place Tulsa Roughnecks FC (Sept. 4) and 16th-place Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC (Sept. 21) before a road contest against Sacramento Republic FC on September 28 would position Locomotive FC strongly in the playoff positions.
2. The run Locomotive FC would certainly love to emulate right now is that of fellow first-year side Birmingham Legion FC, which ran its shutout streak to 555 minutes and scored a late game-winner through Daniel Johnson to earn victory against Memphis 901 FC to further its case for a place in the postseason on Saturday night. Remember that stat we mentioned last week where Legion FC’s playoff odds according to fivethirtyeight.com were at just two percent at the end of June? Right now, they’re at 47 percent and have the potential to rise even further with the club’s next three contests coming away against Bethlehem Steel FC, Loudoun United FC and ATL UTD 2, all of which are below the playoff line.
3. Legion FC’s shutout streak is also now the sixth-longest in the Championship’s history, a little over 200 minutes back of Rio Grande Valley FC’s all-time record of 759 minutes set in the Toros’ inaugural season in 2016. While those next three contests are all on the road, it might not be too far-fetched to see Legion FC rise even further up these ranks as they pursue more donuts for goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel.
1. Rio Grande Valley FC (2016) – 759 minutes
2. San Antonio FC (2017) – 672 minutes
3. Ottawa Fury FC (2018) – 636 minutes
4. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (2018) – 575 minutes
5. Rochester Rhinos (2012) – 568 minutes
6. Birmingham Legion FC (2019) – 555 minutes*
* - active streak
4. While Birmingham’s shutout streak continued Saturday night, that of Nashville SC came to an end at 489 minutes. The goal by the Charlotte Independence’s Enzo Martinez couldn’t slow Nashville’s overall momentum, however, as the visitors to the Sportsplex at Matthews walked away with a 3-1 victory that gave NSC a six-game undefeated streak during which it has earned victory five times.
5. “We came out with a mentality today that we wanted to create a lot of chances, and we wanted to continue the fun that we’ve been [having] scoring goals and keeping other teams from getting opportunities,” said NSC’s Kharlton Belmar, whose long-range strike added to Daniel Rios’ pair of finishes. “We really wanted to set out and put the pressure on them early and it paid off. It’s tough to defend that long when a team’s applying pressure, so we did what we wanted to do.”
6. Nashville’s victory sets up a tremendous contest on Wednesday night when NSC’s pressure will go head-to-head with the high-pressing style of the New York Red Bulls II at First Tennessee Park in a rescheduled contest from earlier this season after lightning and heavy rain caused the postponement of the original showdown. The teams exchanged three goals with Nashville a goal to the good before the game was called at halftime on that occasion, and while Wednesday night will see the game reset from the opening kickoff, the hosts are rightly in a confident mood.
7. “Bolu [Akinyode] said it best. We walked in and we were celebrating the win and he’s like, ‘As soon as we’re done celebrating, we focus on the game Wednesday,’” said NSC defender Taylor Washington. “Red Bulls II is a team that’s always tough to beat and tough to play, but we’re in great form. We’ve just got to keep improving and do what we need to do in training and implementing it in the games, and Wednesday should go our way.”
8. Rios’ two goals on Saturday night allowed him to keep pace with Phoenix Rising FC’s Solomon Asante, who tucked away another pair of penalty kicks on Friday night as the $1 Beer Night phenomenon continued apace in a 4-2 victory against Reno 1868 FC at Casino Arizona Field for the Western Conference leader. Asante’s eight conversions on nine attempts from the penalty spot are twice as many as any other player in the league this season, with Rising FC having earned the second-most spot kicks in the 2019 campaign (10) behind the Portland Timbers 2 (13).
9. For me, that’s an impressive display of keeping your nerve in the face of pressure on a consistent basis – something that Rios has also displayed in going 3 for 3 from the spot after Saturday’s conversion against the Independence. Asante has now equaled the most goals from the penalty spot in a single regular season in the Championship’s history, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC’s Luke Vercollone also scored eight times from the spot in the 2015 season, making it extremely likely he’ll sit on top of another single-season category in the record book sooner rather than later.
10. After second-place 1868 FC was unable to bring either Phoenix’s 14-game winning streak or 13-game victory streak on $1 Beer Night to an end, the next candidate to take a crack at both is Sacramento Republic FC, which ran its undefeated streak to four games on Saturday with a 4-0 win against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC that saw Thomas Enevoldsen make himself at home quickly with a pair of second-half goals that put the game to bed midway through the second half.
11. That fast start is only going to add to the confidence that Enevoldsen’s arrival at the club should have fired the rest of his teammates with – excuse me while I call John Arlia over here so we can pat each other on the back – and made a top-four finish that much more realistic with 11 games to go. With Republic FC one of the few teams to earn victory last season at Casino Arizona Field – and Enevoldsen having done so with Orange County SC as well – there figures to be a heck of a showdown next Friday night in Phoenix.
12. The heavy rain at MUSC Health Stadium was always going to make the clash between the Charleston Battery and Louisville City FC a slog, and the combined four shots on target between the two sides was very much an indicator of how the conditions – and two sides battling for a crucial three points – played a role. With the last of those four shots by LouCity’s George Davis IV finding the back of the net, however, it opened a fascinating pathway for the club as it sits on 39 points in seventh position going into the new week.
13. Louisville’s next three contests are at home to fifth-place North Carolina FC (43pts), fourth-place Indy Eleven (43pts) and away at sixth-place Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (41pts). With a three-game winning streak under its belt, LouCity is coming into the sort of form that saw it run through the end of the 2018 regular season with six consecutive victories, providing a catapult into the postseason success it then found. It’s going to be a big ask to find nine points over the next three weekends, but it’s certainly not out of the question for Head Coach John Hackworth’s side.
14. Having a full week to prepare for each of those contests is the biggest reason why LouCity will have a chance against each of the three teams sitting directly above it in the standings, with Example A of what can happen when a team has to play two top-quality opponents in quick succession reflected in the end of Riverhounds SC’s five-game winning streak on Saturday night. After earning a hard-fought 2-1 win on the road on Wednesday night against the New York Red Bulls II, the club’s contest with North Carolina FC simply proved a game too far as Thomas Vancaeyezeele’s red card late in the first half led to a lopsided 5-0 victory for the hosts at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park.
15. To their credit, the Hounds did well to limit North Carolina’s clear looks on goal until Vancaeyezeele’s dismissal and the penalty kick that came from it which put the hosts up at the break. “I think we slowed them down pretty well in the first half and had a few chances. Been nice to get to halftime zero-zero, but obviously the late goal we gave up really changed the game,” said Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley. “I think they looked the more likely [to score] the last 15 minutes of the first half and as the coach I knew we needed to get to half. I even changed formation in the 33rd minute or something just to try to get us to half. We didn’t quite make it.”
16. North Carolina, meanwhile, should be buoyed ahead of a busy week of its own that first sees the Tampa Bay Rowdies visit for Wednesday Night Soccer on ESPNews before the aforementioned visit to Louisville City FC. “It’s going to be a dogfight right to the end,” said NCFC Head Coach Dave Sarachan. “We’re not in the clear for anything. We just take it one game at a time; we know we have a big week this week with teams in and around us. Now Pittsburgh’s behind us, we got Tampa [Bay on] Wednesday and then Louisville on the road. These are all teams we’re battling, and I was proud of our guys for taking this one game at a time. Tampa will be another test for us.”
17. As congested as the middle of the Western Conference has been, the 4-2 comeback victory by OKC Energy FC on Friday against the Portland Timbers 2 effectively made a five-position difference in the standings for the visitors to Providence Park, who would have been sitting in 13th place had the rally led by Christian Eissele’s two-goal performance not materialized with all other results being equal.
18. That tension within the standings – where there’s now nine points between 11 teams from fourth to 14th place – is going to make for another significant matchup on Saturday night in in Oklahoma City as Energy FC hosts Austin Bold FC, a big winner on Saturday night against Tulsa Roughnecks FC. The lack of a consistent flow to Bold FC’s season has been a strange one to follow – the club has only won back-to-back games once – but when Austin is on its game as it was against the Roughnecks, it’s a serious test for anyone, something Energy FC should be wary of after falling 2-1 when the sides met at Bold Stadium in May.