There have been frequent dramatic endings over the course of the 2019 season, but there aren’t going to be as many that have the impact in the bigger picture than Fresno FC’s against Reno 1868 FC at Greater Nevada Field on Saturday night.
The Foxes looked to be cruising to victory with five minutes to go, a two-goal lead in hand, but then they let the hosts back into the game on almost identical headers by Danny Musovski off crosses from the left by Duke Lacroix that brought 1868 FC level two minutes into stoppage time.
If the game ends there, the battle for second place in the Western Conference would continue, Fresno holding an edge thanks to its lead and game in hand, but still in need of producing results down the final eight games of the season to ensure the No. 2 seed to Phoenix Rising FC in the playoffs. The Foxes could have taken that, and while being disappointed in letting their lead slip still be satisfied enough that they kept their only real rival for second place at arm’s length.
But this is a different Foxes team than its inaugural season, one that doesn’t seem ready to compromise. After Musovski’s equalizer went in, it took only 66 seconds for the Foxes to earn a penalty kick at the other end of the field as Qudus Lawal was brought down in the area. Emir Alihodzic did the rest before he and his teammates went to celebrate with the traveling Fresno Fire Squad.
That swing, which leaves Fresno with a six-point lead and a game in hand on 1868 FC in the standings, makes it hard to envision anyone but the Foxes sitting in second place at the end of the season. And, as such, the biggest threat to ending Phoenix’s dream season before the USL Championship Final.
Here’s this week’s 18.
1. The contrast between the whiteboard in the Fresno FC locker room before and after Saturday night’s game summed up the club’s attitude. Simply getting to the playoffs isn’t enough anymore, the Foxes look ready to make a run.
2. For Reno, its fourth consecutive defeat might have been the most difficult of them all. The only silver lining for the side is that it returns to action quickly, with Tacoma Defiance the visitor to Greater Nevada Field on Tuesday night after its 3-0 defeat to Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday. “It’s good to have a quick turnaround, the guys are eager to play again,” said Reno Head Coach Ian Russell.
3. If Reno can’t stop its current run of form, the side that looks most equipped to grab the No. 3 seed at the death is Orange County SC, with its 2-1 victory against the Portland Timbers 2 on Sunday afternoon the fourth in a row for Head Coach Braeden Cloutier’s side. In the middle of the display were, once again, Darwin Jones and Michael Seaton, with Seaton notching his 35th career goal across the Championship’s regular season and playoffs.
4. Casting aside the peculiar 2-1 defeat to Tacoma Defiance on August 9, Orange County finally seems to have found the form that earned it first place in the Western Conference a season ago. Jones and Seaton have been leading the charge, combining for nine goals and eight assists over the past seven games. Each assisted the other’s goal against T2, and in only one game of the seven – a 0-0 draw against Sacramento Republic FC on July 27 – have both players been kept off the scoresheet overall.
5. OCSC has some good tests to end the regular season – its final three games are away to Real Monarchs SLC (Oct. 9), away to Sacramento Republic FC (Oct. 12) and home to Fresno FC (Oct. 19) – so we may find out how playoff-ready the side is right before the postseason arrives, but Reno may be looking over its shoulder sooner rather than later with the way Orange County is playing right now.
6. If there’s one team that should be looking over its shoulder right now, it’s Ottawa Fury FC. Saturday’s 3-2 defeat to ATL UTD 2 was the club’s third in a row, and while the numbers say Fury FC is still in a good position to reach the playoffs for the first time – fivethirtyeight.com still has it as a 93 percent chance – there’s something slightly unnerving about this dip in form.
7. It might be a weird quirk, but Fury FC has now conceded two goals this season inside the opening 20 seconds of a game, becoming the first team in the Championship to achieve that dubious distinction. Atlanta’s Andrew Carleton struck after just 17 seconds on Saturday night, taking three seconds longer than Loudoun United FC’s Gordon Wild when he scored against Ottawa after 14 seconds on August 17.
8. Against Loudoun, Ottawa was able to earn itself a reprieve from its slack start as it went on to take a 3-1 victory at Segra Field. There would be no repeat in Atlanta, though, even though Fury FC was able to rally back from a two-goal deficit to equalize with 20 minutes remaining through Hadji Barry. Instead of kicking on and taking all three points, Ottawa gifted Atlanta the lead back on a poor positional misjudgment by goalkeeper Callum Irving that ended up allowing Carleton his second goal of the game, which proved to be the winner.
9. Ottawa’s end-of-season run-in sees it play current non-playoff teams the Swope Park Rangers, Bethlehem Steel FC and the Charlotte Independence in its final three games. But with its next two games against Indy Eleven and the Tampa Bay Rowdies – and a second meeting with Indy slated for October 2 – Fury FC might hear the footsteps of Birmingham, Saint Louis and Charleston if it can’t pull something out of the hat soon.
10. Indy plays host to Ottawa on Wednesday night after suffering a 1-0 defeat to the Battery in a game that was pushed back 24 hours to Sunday evening due to Hurricane Dorian and kept Charleston right in the thick of the playoff race. With two games in hand on both the first-place New York Red Bulls II and second-place Rowdies – and three games in hand on third-place Nashville SC – the Eleven have still got the inside track to a first-place finish, but Head Coach Martin Rennie is going to be looking for more individual creativity after a frustrating evening in South Carolina.
11. “There needs to be more going at people one-on-one, more one-two’s around the box, and more layoffs and shots around the box,” said Rennie, whose side had a 17-8 advantage in shots and 6-1 advantage in shots on goal as the Battery played down a man for the final half-hour after Kyle Nelson was sent off for a second yellow card. “A vast majority of possession that we played tonight was good and our effort was good, but it was one of those things that could happen in soccer. We have to bounce back from it in the next game, which is another big one.”
12. The win certainly wasn’t too pretty for the Battery, but given the undefeated streak that Birmingham Legion FC has put together since the start of July and Saint Louis FC’s run of nine points in seven days – both of which pushed Charleston below the playoff line as its schedule continued to be played around with by weather – being only a point out of the playoffs places with a game in hand on Wednesday against the Swope Park Rangers isn’t a bad spot at all.
13. “These games are the most important games of the season. Winning these three games coming up are going to put us up in the table,” said Romario Piggott, whose run the length of the field and finish ended up providing the Battery a winner before games against Swope Park, Pittsburgh and Atlanta in the next 10 days. “We need to work hard and hopefully some of the guys who are injured come back to help us make a late push.”
14. This has been a year of attacking football in the Championship – through Sunday the league is averaging 3.07 goals per game – but even more remarkable has been the single-half explosions of goals that teams have produced. Hartford Athletic was the latest side to produce a remarkable 45-minute stanza on Saturday afternoon as it racked up five goals – including three in the opening 10 minutes – on its way to victory against Loudoun United FC to the delight of the crowd at Dillon Stadium.
15. In the process, the Athletic became the seventh club to score at least four goals in the first half of a game this season, and the fifth since the start of July. The previous high had been four games, which happened in both the 2013 and 2017 seasons.
Sacramento Republic FC (SACvOKC, 3/24/19)
New Mexico United (NMvSLC, 4/13/19)
New York Red Bulls II (NYvATL, 7/13/19)
North Carolina FC (NCvATL, 7/27/19)
Austin Bold FC (AUSvTUL, 8/17/19)
OKC Energy FC (OKCvAUS, 8/24/19)
Hartford Athletic (HFDvLDN, 9/7/19)
16. One of the remarkable things about this list is the teams that have been on the right and wrong end of this stat, with OKC Energy FC and Austin Bold FC having both scored four times in a half and been on the receiving end as well. The fact that it happened to Austin a week apart, too, shows how wildly variable performances have been, which might in part explain why the middle of the Western Conference standings look the way they do.
17. For Hartford’s part, the Athletic’s five goals against Loudoun fell one goal short of the record for first-half goals in the Championship, but it should hopefully give a sense of optimism that better things are around the corner for the club’s second season. We’ll see what happens when Louisville City FC visits this Saturday.
18. Finally, a shout-out to the Charleston Battery’s Zeiko Lewis, who a few hours after his club side took a big win in the Championship helped Bermuda take a 2-0 victory on the road in Panama in League A of the Concacaf Nations League. Lewis notched one of the assists on Nahki Wells’ two goals that allowed the Gombey Warriors to take revenge for the 4-1 loss they suffered on home turf to the same side last Thursday. Beating Nicaragua at the Gold Cup this summer was nice, but this is a win that signals something good is being built in the Caribbean.