Up a pair of goals and up a man at halftime, you could have been forgiven for thinking there might have been some déjà vu running around the San Antonio FC locker room on Saturday night.
After all, it was the exact situation that the side had faced seven days prior when it allowed Rio Grande Valley FC to rally back and earn a point on the road at Toyota Field.
There was no such reprieve for New Mexico United.
“We learned our lessons from last week when we were in a similar situation, where we were up by two and had the game under control,” said SAFC midfielder Walter Restrepo after his side’s 5-0 victory. “The same situation played out tonight and we had talked about it and discussed it prior, and we knew that we had to stay alert and hang on to the result.”
The victory was San Antonio FC’s 50th victory in the Championship, a nice landmark in the club’s fourth season, but much more importantly gave SAFC a platform to kick on in a Western Conference that remains in a state of flux from fourth to 15th place. SAFC sits in eighth place for now but is only two points back of fourth-place Austin Bold FC and two points ahead of 13th-place El Paso Locomotive FC in a race that gets harder to predict each week.
As my colleague John Arlia wrote recently, though, if this is the version of San Antonio we’re going to get for the rest of the season, the playoffs – and potentially a chance to play at home to open them – are beckoning.
“This week we learned a lesson from last weekend, which I thought was very important,” said Head Coach Darren Powell. “The players were adamant at halftime that we didn’t let any standards drop in the second half, and we saw that and managed to go on and see the benefits of that.”
Here’s this week’s 18.
1. We’re a pretty long way from San Antonio being the defensive juggernaut that powered into the playoffs two years ago at this point but given the firepower that’s now on offer to Powell the entertainment value at Toyota Field has gone up rapidly as well. SAFC is now only one goal off matching its regular-season goal total from 2017 with 20-year-old Argentine Cristian Parano increasingly taking a leading role.
2. Over the past three games – which also included a 4-1 win on the road against third-place Reno 1868 FC – Parano has notched five goals, two assists and has been credited with 10 chances created overall, a remarkable output that should have him as a leading contender for the Championship’s Player of the Month award. It might have taken a little while for him to settle at his new club, but the dynamism Parano is displaying should be turning heads.
3. “As a collective we’re very happy because we earned the win, and that was our objective, but I’m also very happy personally and thankful to God for the things that are happening to me,” said Parano after the side’s win against NMU. “These are incredible moments and they wouldn’t happen without my teammates who are always helping me and guiding me. Overall, I’m just happy with the win.”
4. For New Mexico, this was a bad day at the office, and one that puts even more pressure on the upcoming run of home games that include visits from Orange County SC – now just one point behind NMU in 10th place – this weekend and September contests with Reno 1868 FC and Phoenix Rising FC in back-to-back weekends. I don’t think there’s reason to panic yet for Head Coach Troy Lesense and his side, but they are going to need to start being a little more buttoned down defensively and discipline-wise if the full potential of the season is going to be realized.
5. If we can all agree that the broad middle of the Western Conference is a puzzle that’s going to take some untangling over the final quarter of the season, we can probably also agree that the Eastern Conference is looking like a Battle Royale that is going to be highly compelling when October arrives. Eight of the teams that now sit in the top nine in the standings took victories this weekend, with Louisville City FC ensuring North Carolina FC was the lone side to drop points thanks to its 1-0 win at Slugger Field.
6. LouCity’s fourth consecutive victory was far from pretty – the hosts managed the only two shots on goal as the teams combined for 14 total efforts – but it opened the door that little bit wider to Head Coach John Hackworth’s side having the opportunity to claim a top-four finish when the season comes to an end. Louisville has games against Indy Eleven (home), Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (away), the New York Red Bulls II (home) and Tampa Bay Rowdies (home) in its next five outings, providing it a big chance to jump up from its current seventh-place position.
7. Indy has its own designs on a big finish, too, and right now has the highest ceiling when it comes to total points with four games in hand on Eastern Conference leader the New York Red Bulls II and three games in hand on the Tampa Bay Rowdies. After Sunday evening’s victory against the Charlotte Independence at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Eleven could have their sights set on something else, too, with the Eleven now undefeated in 20 consecutive home games, sitting at 8-0-4 this season.
8. There’s still a little way for the Eleven to go to challenge the Championship’s all-time leader in that category, though. In fact, Indy would need to complete a perfect home slate this year – including home playoff games – and go into the 2020 season to surpass the Charleston Battery’s record of 29 games undefeated at home set between the 2014-16 seasons, a sequence that included the club’s postseason win against the Richmond Kickers in 2015.
9. Indy is one of three teams currently undefeated on their home turf this season, and you’ll not be at all surprised to learn one of the others is Western Conference leader and $1 Beer Night champion Phoenix Rising FC, which is now undefeated in its last 15 home contests dating back to last year’s postseason, going 12-0-3 in that span. Phoenix could clinch a playoff place with its two road games this week against Tacoma Defiance and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC putting it within range of the five points it needs. If it pulls that off, it would do so one game sooner than FC Cincinnati did a season ago, when FCC booked its playoff place with seven games to go.
10. The streaks currently of bigger concern to Rising FC, though, were both maintained on Friday night thanks to a 2-1 victory against Sacramento Republic FC that saw the side run its winning streak to 15 games and its $1 Beer Night streak to 14 consecutive victories. Phoenix’s run is now the longest winning streak in a calendar year in North American outdoor soccer history – the LA Galaxy had a 15-game winning streak that bridged the 1997-98 Major League Soccer seasons – and the side continues to look irresistible in the attacking end even as opponents come up with new ways to make life difficult.
11. “When you look at it, everyone wants to be that team to say, ‘yeah, we’re the one that ended the streak,’ so they’re going to come out firing,” said Phoenix midfielder Junior Flemmings. “We knew that, so we knew we had to keep a good team spirit and we just have to be in the game, because we know … any given day we can score a ton of goals. Our mindset when they scored, we weren’t worried at all to be honest, because we knew we were going to score some goals.”
12. The team with the longest home undefeated streak in the Championship right now, though? That’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which going back to last season has yet to suffer defeat at Highmark Stadium in 22 contests, going 8-0-5 so far this season after Friday night’s 1-0 win against Loudoun United FC.
13. The Hounds welcomed their second-biggest crowd of the season for the game, another sign that Pittsburgh continues to warm up to Head Coach Bob Lilley’s side, but after Steevan Dos Santos’ early goal gave the hosts the lead there was plenty for the veteran coach to pick apart as his side almost fell into the same problems that had caused it trouble earlier this season against a talented young squad.
14. “I don't think we respected the moment,” said Lilley. “We allowed the game to get stretched. That's on us. That wasn't by design. We tied a game against Swope Park early in the year where the game just became a track meet. We tied the game against Bethlehem Steel early in the year when we had the lead at one point, but the game became a track meet. We could've lost points tonight, we were fortunate that we just defended well enough.”
15. By contrast, the Tampa Bay Rowdies were imperious in their response to a heavy midweek defeat against North Carolina with a 5-0 victory against Memphis 901 FC that saw Kwadwo Poku and Malik Johnson each put together spectacular performances.
16. Poku sprayed the ball around the park beautifully, completing 8 of 8 long passes and 37 of 40 overall on top of his two fine finishes, while Johnson gave Memphis all kinds of problems down the right side. The combination of the two set up Andrew Tinari’s goal just before halftime, with Johnson’s lung-busting run down the right from 10 yards outside his own penalty area being found perfectly by Poku’s leading pass, allowing the Canadian to pick out Tinari as he arrived late for a first-time finish.
17. “I’m so pleased for Poku,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “I think he’s been excellent in the last three or four months. I think he’s been really, really good and I’ll be honest and say the only thing to take away from his performances is that he’s not notched a couple of goals. He did tonight and I hope he does between now and the end of the season because that’s what really brings the praise to his all-around performances. As a midfielder — any midfielder, I don’t care if you’re a six, an eight or a 10 — you’ve got to score goals. Tonight, our midfielders did that.”
18. With third-place Nashville SC coming to visit Al Lang Stadium and the second-place Rowdies this Saturday night after NSC’s dramatic late victory against the Charleston Battery over the past weekend, the anticipation of what might come to pass when the postseason arrives is simply getting stronger.