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The 18 – Saint Louis Shows its Playoff Mettle

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 09/16/19, 12:31PM EDT

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Stifling defense played key role in Birmingham; Race for fourth in East and West offers intrigue

Friday night’s clash between Birmingham Legion FC and Saint Louis FC had all the look and feel of a playoff game and given the stakes for the ninth- and 10th-placed sides in the Eastern Conference it certainly deserved all the pregame buzz surrounding it.

But with Saint Louis emerging as a 2-0 victor after a hard-nosed road performance that saw Tyler Blackwood score twice and the side record a third consecutive shutout, STLFC is looking like a side that few teams will relish taking on should it reach the USL Championship Playoffs next month.

At the center of the display was the earnest defensive work that made life extremely difficult for Birmingham’s attack. The most telling number to come out of the game was that of Legion FC’s nine shots, only two came from inside Saint Louis’ penalty area.

According to Opta’s official touch map for the game, Legion FC combined for only nine touches in the opposing penalty area, the definition of a job well done by Saint Louis’ eight-man block that clogged passing lanes and made life difficult for the hosts.

“It was definitely hard to break them down,” said Birmingham captain Mikey Lopez. “They implemented their game plan to a “T”, and it was tough, but we still should’ve scored at least and it’s unfortunate we didn’t.”

With four consecutive victories under its belt, STLFC is looking much more like the side that at the start of this season earned seven points from three games against Indy Eleven, Nashville SC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. If this version of the side is in the Eastern Conference field – and according to fivethirtyeight.com there’s a 90 percent chance it will be – then it could be the team that causes the top seeds the biggest headaches in their pursuit of a place in the USL Championship Final.

Here’s this week’s 18.

1. Saint Louis’ next game could be a potential playoff preview with the New York Red Bulls II coming to West Community Stadium for Wednesday Night Soccer still on top of the Eastern Conference and having clinched its fifth consecutive trip to the postseason thanks to Friday night’s 2-0 win against the Charlotte Independence.

2. Clinching a place in the postseason aside, the night was also a special one for second-year Red Bulls II playmaker Jared Stroud, who with his goal and assist became the first player in the club’s history to reach 20 goals and 20 assists for his career. Making his 60th appearance for the Red Bulls II, the attackerhas become as integral to the club’s success as players like Vincent Bezecourt were to the club’s 2016 title. The former Colgate standout figures to be central to the club’s bid for a second successful postseason campaign in the coming weeks.

3. Stroud and the Red Bulls II attack gets most of the attention – it’s hard not to when it leads the Eastern Conference with 66 goals, 15 more than the second-place Tampa Bay Rowdies – but the contributions of goalkeeper Evan Louro shouldn’t get overlooked either. With the nature of the pressing style utilized by the Red Bulls II, the side has a tendency to offer up big chances to sides that can break the press. That’s part of the reason why he has only five shutouts and 64 saves this season and isn’t going to be a candidate for the USL Championship’s Golden Glove anytime soon, but some of the saves Louro makes look routine on a weekly basis are anything but and provide the safety net New York’s high-wire act needs at the back.

4. After this weekend’s results – including the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ surprising 1-1 draw at home to ATL UTD 2 – its looking more and more as though the battle for first place is going to come down to New York and Indy Eleven, with the latter also earning its second trip to the USL Championship Playoffs on Saturday night after a 2-1 win against Bethlehem Steel FC. With a game in hand on the Red Bulls II – and an undefeated home record still intact after a highly entertaining contest against a Steel FC side that put in a strong shift itself – Indy appears to have the inside track to top spot, and the mentality it needs to push through to the end.

5. “The character to come back was excellent,” said Indy Head Coach Martin Rennie after Saturday’s win, the club’s third in its last four outings. “Obviously, there are a bunch of really good players on this team. Most teams have that, but there is a connection between the players. They fight for each other and care about each other. They have a good culture in the locker room. It’s a unique group of players and that’s what I think makes the difference on a night when players are tired.”

6. Another fascinating battle that’s developing is the one for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, where fifth-place Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC finds itself in the same situation as Indy at the top of the standings, sitting level on points with current fourth-place side Nashville SC after its 1-0 victory against the Charleston Battery. With the two sides set to square off at NSC’s First Tennessee Park this Saturday night, the Hounds have a major opportunity to earn a home postseason contest if they can get a result on the road against their Eastern Conference rival.

7. Facing a Battery side that is fighting for its playoff life might have served up a good prequel to the sort of battle the Hounds should expect in Nashville, with NSC sporting a tight defensive shape that has conceded only 10 goals on its home turf this season. Kenardo Forbes’ connection with Steevan Dos Santos for the Cape Verde forward’s ninth goal of the season provided the difference against Charleston and paid off the persistence with which Pittsburgh stuck to its task and got a necessary home win for its bigger goals.

8. “I do want to credit our guys tonight,” said Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley. “Like I said, we worked on things, I don't think we got all the way there but I definitely think we fixed some things from last week, and we're a lot closer now to know what we have to do going forward against Nashville.”

9. The battle for fourth place in the Western Conference is proving as intriguing as its Eastern counterpart, especially given the form of Sacramento Republic FC and Orange County SC, who sit even on points after recording their third and fifth consecutive victories respectively over the past weekend.

10. Orange County got to strike the first blow on Saturday night as it continued to look like the side that reached the Western Conference Final last season with a 2-0 win against El Paso Locomotive FC. The narrowness of the margins between now fifth-place Orange County and 12th-place El Paso were also on display, with the simple reality of the game being one in which OCSC finished its chances and Locomotive FC was unable to.

11. The biggest indicator of that difference? It arrived just before the hour-mark when Locomotive FC’s Omar Salgado got in behind the defense, rode a challenge well before rounding Orange County goalkeeper Frederick Due, only for his finish to go across the face of goal and out of play. Less than a minute later, Orange County’s Darwin Jones made the visitors pay, controlling a chipped ball over the top by Aodhan Quinn softly before finishing with his second touch. In less than 60 seconds what could have been a tied game was a two-goal lead for the hosts, and from there Orange County remained in control.

 12. Sacramento, meanwhile, had to rally back for its third consecutive victory, but while Darek Formella’s game-winner in the 2-1 win on Sunday against Rio Grande Valley FC at Papa Murphy’s Park didn’t arrive until 10 minutes to go, the display overall was one of a team that has found some real confidence in an up-and-down season.

13. While he didn’t score in Sunday’s contest, Thomas Enevoldsen’s chemistry with his new teammates continued to be on display. The Dane finished the game with three shots, two chances created and a beautiful assist to set up Sam Werner’s equalizer in the first half. Enevoldsen now has five goals and two assists in six appearances since arriving at Republic FC, numbers than match his totals across 20 appearances with Indy Eleven before his midseason move back to the west coast. That’s got to be good news for Republic FC’s chances of a playoff run.

14. There had only been eight instances of a player scoring at least four goals in a regular season contest in the Championship prior to this season, so I’ll leave it up to you to calculate the odds of two four-goal games happening in the same week and instead marvel at what Reno 1868 FC’s Daniel Musovski and Real Monarchs SLC’s Douglas Martinez pulled off.

15. Both performances could prove critical for their respective sides in the postseason race, though, with Musovski’s four-goal outing – while against lowly Tacoma Defiance – helping break the spell of a four-game losing streak that had seen 1868 FC seemingly concede second place to Fresno FC after their home defeat last week.

16. Now, after Fresno’s loss in Las Vegas on Saturday night, Reno is back at least temporarily in the No. 2 slot as Musovski went on to add a seventh goal in his last three games that proved the game-winner in 1868 FC’s Sunday night victory against Austin Bold FC. “This was a really good road win for us,” said Reno Head Coach Ian Russell, whose side now has an added dose of confidence ahead of Friday’s game on the road in New Mexico. “I thought we did really well in transition, from defense to attack especially, and created good chances on the break. I thought we defended our box really well too.”

17. For Martinez – who is now tied for third in the league with 15 goals this season – the display against the Portland Timbers 2 on Saturday afternoon was the continuation of a breakout year that could end with the Championships’ Young Player of the Year award. The win also made sure that the Monarchs kept themselves in touch with Sacramento and Orange County, three points back but with a game in hand they’ll make up on Tuesday night against Tacoma.

18. With 1868 FC set to host the Monarchs at Greater Nevada Field on September 28, the head-to-head storyline of the two players to catch the headlines this week should provide a big build-up to one of the must-see games in the final month of the season. 

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