Birmingham Legion FC will look to repeat its 3-2 win over Saint Louis FC from April when the two sides meet in a massive playoff six-pointer on Friday at BBVA Field. | Mark Guthrel / Saint Louis FC
After Phoenix Rising FC extended its winning streak to 19 games – and dropped some L’s on me in the process – on Wednesday night, Week 28 of the 2019 USL Championship campaign continues Friday to kick off a weekend slate of 16 games with plenty of playoff implications.
Friday night will see the first-place New York Red Bulls II try to ensure it ends the weekend at the top of the Eastern Conference when they host the Charlotte Independence at MSU Soccer Park (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), before Birmingham Legion FC puts its nine-game unbeaten run on the line against a surging Saint Louis FC in a massive playoff six-pointer at BBVA Field (8 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Eleven more matches will take place on Saturday, with Western Conference playoff contenders Real Monarchs SLC and the Portland Timbers 2 starting things off in the afternoon at Zions Bank Stadium (3 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC looks to remain unbeaten at home this season when it hosts the Charleston Battery at Highmark Stadium (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Sunday’s slate offers two more important contests for Western Conference playoff positioning with Sacramento Republic FC looking to stay above the playoff line when it hosts Rio Grande Valley FC at Papa Murphy’s Park (5 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before the weekend wraps up at Bold Stadium where Reno 1868 FC will look to keep its momentum rolling from Tuesday’s 5-0 victory over Tacoma Defiance when it visits Austin Bold FC (7 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 28:
We’ve had this contest circled for about two weeks now because of its potential to determine the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but the stakes are even higher now after Saint Louis FC grinded out three wins over seven days to pull within a point of Legion FC in the standings. Birmingham enters the contest on a nine-game unbeaten run (7-0-2) and hasn’t lost at BBVA Field since June 1. Snapping those streaks and breaking down a defensively organized setup will certainly be a challenge for STLFC, but it might not seem so daunting for Anthony Pulis’ side after last week’s exploits. The Charleston Battery’s draw against the last-place Swope Park Rangers on Wednesday night gives both sides a slight margin for error heading into the final stretch, but three points here would be a massive boost for either side.
Charleston Battery forward Ataulla Guerra shushes the Pittsburgh crowd after scoring the goal to give his side a 1-0 win last July. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Charleston was inches away from passing both Saint Louis and Birmingham in the standings on Wednesday night as the woodwork left it with only a draw at Swope Park and now heads to Highmark Stadium to play Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in the middle game of its three-match road trip. The Battery have picked up 13 points from their travels this season (3-5-4) but will not be favored to do so on Saturday night as the Hounds are unbeaten on their home turf this season (8-0-6) and haven’t lost at Highmark since July 21, 2018. However, that loss did come at the hands of Mike Anhaeuser’s side courtesy of an 88th-minute goal from Ataulla Guerra. That result may give the Battery a much-needed confidence boost after Wednesday night’s draw likely put a damper on things.
With four wins in a row, Orange County SC finally looks like the side that claimed the top spot in the Western Conference a season ago. Darwin Jones and Michael Seaton are firing up front and the defense – led by former United States Men’s National Team center back Michael Orozco – has conceded just twice over the club’s last four outings. Despite the strong recent run of form, Orange County still sits precariously in the Western Conference playoff picture, just three points clear of the playoff line and Saturday night’s visitor 11th-place El Paso Locomotive FC. El Paso has a game or two in hand on most of the teams it’s chasing but needs to find some consistency in front of goal to push into the postseason in its inaugural campaign. The return of leading scorer and fellow former U.S. international Jerome Kiesewetter has helped and should give Orozco and co. plenty to think about.
Austin Bold FC surrendered fourth place in the Western Conference to Sacramento Republic FC after suffering just its third home loss of the season on Wednesday night, but the 2019 expansion side will have a chance to make amends for that result with victory on Sunday night against Reno 1868 FC. To get back on the right track and avoid slipping any further down the standings, though, Austin will have to corral 1868 FC forward Danny Musovski, who netted four goals in the first half of Reno’s 5-0 romp over Tacoma Defiance on Tuesday night to snap the side’s four-game losing streak. 1868 FC will certainly want to build on that performance as it gears up for the postseason down the stretch. This game should tell us a good deal about the playoff mettle of both.
While Phoenix Rising FC has already clinched a postseason berth in the Western Conference, no team in the East has yet to officially secure its spot in the playoffs. That could change by the end of the weekend, though, as the New York Red Bulls II and Indy Eleven can book their place in the USL Championship Playoffs with home wins against the Charlotte Independence and Bethlehem Steel FC respectively and a loss from either Saint Louis FC or the Charleston Battery. The home wins should be the easy part, and then either STLFC runs out of steam or, more likely in my opinion, the Battery fall in Pittsburgh
Hartford Athletic held an early lead over Louisville City FC in their first meeting of the season but suffered a 2-1 defeat at Slugger Field. | Photo courtesy EM Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
The postseason is well out of reach for Hartford Athletic at this point, but the side can still play spoiler over the final weeks of the season. I think this is a good spot for Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen’s side, which has won each of its past two games at Dillon Stadium and scored eight goals in the process. Yes, Loudoun and Atlanta don’t bring the quality that Louisville City FC does, but I’m still not sold on LouCity’s ability away from Slugger Field (4-4-5).
San Antonio FC has had one of the better home-field advantages in the Championship over the past two seasons, going 17-5-9 at Toyota Field in league play since the start of the 2018 campaign. However, one team that has constantly avoided defeat on its travels to San Antonio is regional rival OKC Energy FC. The Oklahoma side has never lost in league play in the Alamo City, earning a win and three draws during the regular season and a penalty shootout victory over SAFC in the 2017 postseason. It won’t be easy, but I think that changes this weekend as Cristian Parano leads a young side to victory.
It’s a pretty simple prediction, but I like the matchups for these two fantastic finishers this weekend. Kevaughn Frater needs just one goal at home against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC to reach 15 on the season, while Cameron Iwasa needs two goals to hit the mark at home against Rio Grande Valley FC. Frater scored a hat trick in NMU’s first visit to the Switchbacks this season and then added an extra-time penalty less than two weeks later when the two teams met in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Iwasa was held off the scoresheet earlier this season against RGVFC, but I’m in on the partnership of him and Thomas Enevoldsen and think they can keep producing the
Asante isn’t someone I should even need to put here because you should be watching him every week no matter what, but the August Player of the Month gets the distinction this weekend against an LA Galaxy II side that caused Phoenix problems in its last meeting on August 3. Asante’s goal that evening kickstarted Rising FC’s fightback from a two-goal deficit and I expect the MVP-in-waiting to play a big part on Saturday night after starting Wednesday’s win on the bench
Two 2019 expansion sides square off on Friday night – and while there isn’t a whole lot of play for in terms of playoff potential for Loudoun or Memphis – both teams aspire to finish as high up the table as possible to set the table for Year Two. United got blitzed in its 5-1 loss to Hartford last weekend, but has been better at home of late, earning a 4-0 win over North Carolina FC and holding Birmingham Legion to a point. Murphy found the back of the net in each of those contests to bring his total to seven goals on the season and could be in line for more against 901 FC.
Tejada scored twice last week in the Rowdies’ 3-1 victory in Charlotte to move up to double-digit goals on the season, an impressive achievement in his first professional season. The Panamanian has already scored against Saturday’s opponent ATL UTD 2 this season and could be in line for another big day as Tampa Bay looks to improve on its 4-1 road result at Al Lang Stadium.
Monarchs leading scorer Douglas Martinez started for the club’s MLS affiliate Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night, casting a shade of doubt on whether he’ll be available for Saturday’s contest with the Portland Timbers 2. With travel not a factor there is still a chance that Martinez suits up, but either way the Monarchs could use another strong performance from Chang. The tricky winger has scored nine goals and provided four assists over 26 games this campaign and will need to continue to play a role in the attack down the stretch if the side wants to hold onto its playoff spot.
Tag(s): Game Previews Weekend Previews San Antonio FC OKC Energy FC Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Real Monarchs SLC Reno 1868 FC Sacramento Republic FC Charleston Battery Louisville City FC New York Red Bulls II Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saint Louis FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Kevaughn Frater Maikel Chang Kyle Murphy Cameron Iwasa Birmingham Legion FC Austin Bold FC Indy Eleven El Paso Locomotive FC Solomon Asante New Mexico United Loudoun United FC Hartford Athletic Juan Tejada