More than just the Silver State Cup is up for grabs on Saturday night when regional rivals Reno 1868 FC and Las Vegas Lights FC clash at Cashman Field. | Photo courtesy David Calvert / Reno 1868 FC
After Real Monarchs SLC secured its spot in the postseason on Wednesday night, the penultimate week of the 2019 USL Championship regular season continues Thursday to kick off another action-packed weekend slate with 16 games full of postseason implications.
On Thursday night, Copa Tejas rivals Austin Bold FC and El Paso Locomotive FC will look to clinch a playoff berth when the expansion playoff hopefuls collide at Southwest University Park (9 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). Another important Western Conference clash will take place on Friday night, as the Portland Timbers 2 look to keep their postseason hopes alive when they host an equally-desperate San Antonio FC side at Providence Park (10 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Twelve matches will follow on Saturday, with playoff-bound Ottawa Fury FC kicking us off early in the afternoon as it looks to solidify hosting rights in the play-in round when it hosts Bethlehem Steel FC at TD Place (2 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before the Eastern Conference race for the top four heats up in the evening when the fifth-place Tampa Bay Rowdies host third-place Indy Eleven at Al Lang Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). The night will wrap up out West as Phoenix Rising FC looks to set new league records for wins and points in a single season with a victory against Real Monarchs SLC at Casino Arizona Field (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
The weekend concludes on Sunday as the Charleston Battery try to boost their playoff hopes against Loudoun United FC at MUSC Health Stadium (2 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before OKC Energy FC clashes with regional rival Rio Grande Valley FC at Taft Stadium (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 32:
Got any plans for Friday night? No? Good. You won’t want to miss this one as 11th-place San Antonio FC visits the 13th-place Portland Timbers 2 at Providence Park in what is essentially the first elimination game of the year. Sure, the USL Championship Playoffs are still a couple of weeks out, but both sides have no margin for error at this point of the season and need three points to stay in the postseason race. Given those circumstances, this match sets up nicely for some free-flowing soccer straight from the opening kickoff. With Portland (60) and San Antonio (56) ranking among the league’s top 10 teams in goals scored this season, we could be in for some fireworks in the Pacific Northwest.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Indy Eleven battled to a scoreless draw in their first meeting of the season at Lucas Oil Stadium on May 1. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven
I would expect Saturday night’s Eastern Conference showdown between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Indy Eleven to be lower scoring than Friday night’s matchup, but it carries just as much intrigue. While both teams have already clinched their spots in the postseason field, neither is secure about its chances of hosting a home playoff game in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Rowdies enter the weekend in fifth place, just two points behind the third-place Eleven, and still control their destiny for a top-four finish. A win over an Indy side that has lost its last four road games would put Tampa Bay in pole position to host a postseason game heading into its trip to Hartford on the final weekend, but anything less would give the Eleven a great chance at a top-four finish as they finish their season with a home date against the Swope Park Rangers. This could be a potential playoff preview and should be a fascinating watch.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC still controls its destiny for a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference but maintaining its one-point lead over second-placed Nashville SC just got a lot more difficult. Nashville cleared the biggest obstacle remaining on its schedule Tuesday night with a dramatic 2-1 victory over Louisville City FC. And while North Carolina FC and ATL UTD 2 will certainly bring a challenge to First Tennessee Park, just ask Pittsburgh about the latter after its 1-1 home draw with Atlanta last weekend, the Hounds certainly have the harder run-in. Head Coach Bob Lilley’s side starts its season-ending two-game road trip in Saint Louis, which suffered a last-gasp 4-3 defeat to Loudoun United FC on Wednesday to push it back into the thick of the playoff race. A subsequent defeat for Birmingham Legion FC, Pittsburgh’s final opponent of the season, certainly helped Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ side, but it now holds just a two-point gap over the playoff line with two games to go. A trip to North Carolina on the final weekend awaits STLFC, which will be desperate to get a result in its final home contest of the campaign.
Back-to-back wins have brought Las Vegas Lights FC within a point of the playoff places with two games remaining on its schedule as the club looks to chase down its first postseason berth in its history. Standing in the way of that this weekend is Silver State Cup rival Reno 1868 FC, which handed Las Vegas a 4-0 drubbing at Greater Nevada Field back on June 1 to give itself a great chance of lifting the regional rivalry trophy for a second straight year. And while Lights FC would like to avoid seeing that happen on its home turf this weekend, a win by any scoreline is the priority as that’s what would give Las Vegas a chance at creeping into the postseason field. Head Coach Eric Wynalda’s side is 9-3-4 at Cashman Field this season, but that record will be tested by a Reno side that has collected 26 points on the road this campaign and is still fighting for a second-place finish in addition to bragging rights. This one should be fun.
The biggest winner in the Eastern Conference outside of the Charleston Battery on Wednesday night was Memphis 901 FC as the expansion side remained in the hunt for a playoff spot thanks to defeats for Birmingham Legion FC and Saint Louis FC. Memphis is still a longshot to find its way into the postseason – fivethirtyeight.com give the side a two-percent chance entering Thursday – but that could change if 901 FC defeats the Charlotte Independence and STLFC drops points against Pittsburgh. I think that’s certainly within the realm of possibility, so I expect Memphis to be mathematically alive come Monday morning.
The two teams fighting for second place in the Western Conference, Fresno FC and Reno 1868 FC, have been acting like they don’t want homefield advantage through the Western Conference Semifinals lately as the Foxes have lost three straight and 1868 FC has failed to take advantage with just one point from its last two games. Entering this weekend, Fresno maintains a two-point edge over Reno and can clinch second place with a home victory over the LA Galaxy II if Reno drops points in Las Vegas. I think the Foxes are due for a bounce-back performance, even against a playoff hopeful, and am already on the record backing Lights FC to conjure up some of its Cashman Field juju and claim victory over 1868 FC, so Fresno secures second place with a week to play.
When the Battery have needed him most this season, Ian Svantesson has delivered. Charleston could certainly use another strong performance from the forward on Sunday against Loudoun United FC as leading scorer Zeiko Lewis will be away with Bermuda on international duty and Ataulla Guerra is suspended after getting sent off in last weekend’s draw with Birmingham Legion FC. With the Battery’s streak of reaching the USL Championship Playoffs in every season still in jeopardy, someone needs to start finding the back of the net for a side that has managed just four goals in its past five games. I’m backing Svantesson to score against a Loudoun side that just conceded three on Wednesday night, albeit in a victory.
Remember when Kevaughn Frater was lighting up the USL Championship and carrying New Mexico United through to the late stages of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup? Yeah, me too. The “FrateTrain” has slowed a bit in recent months, having found the back of the net just twice since the start of August and only once from open play. If New Mexico is going to make the playoffs and make a run in them, it’s going to need Frater to get back to his brilliant best. An opportunity to run at a Tulsa defense that has conceded 65 goals this season – sixth-most in the league – should help get things going again.
Blake was arguably the best player on the field Wednesday night in the Monarchs’ 2-0 victory over Orange County SC, setting up Maikel Chang’s goal with a lovely cross-field pass and creating four other chances as part of a strong two-way performance. The midfielder will certainly need to be at his best again on Saturday’s trip to Phoenix as Real continues its chase for a fourth-place finish. With Douglas Martinez on international duty with Honduras, the attacking responsibility will likely fall on the shoulders of Blake and Chang once again against a defense that has kept 14 clean sheets this season.
There are plenty of storylines heading into Saturday night’s crunch clash between Sacramento and Orange County as the California rivals continue to fight for fourth place in the Western Conference, but the biggest is Thomas Enevoldsen’s first game against his former club. The Danish forward, who netted 20 times for Orange County in 2018, has scored eight goals and set up three more since joining Republic FC from Indy Eleven in August. That form has Sacramento looking dangerous in attack, setting up a compelling matchup against an Orange County defense that has stabilized since the arrival of former U.S. international Michael Orozco.
Speaking of forwards playing against their former clubs this weekend, Nashville SC’s Daniel Rios will likely get a run out against a North Carolina side that he spent the 2018 season on loan with from Liga MX giant Chivas de Guadalajara. Rios racked up 20 goals and a First Team All-League selection during his stint with NCFC and has a chance to hit that 20-goal plateau against Dave Sarachan’s side this weekend if he nets a brace. I’m not willing to go quite that far, but the 24-year-old has shown he’s no one-season wonder and is certainly someone to keep an eye on as NSC heads into postseason play.
DelPiccolo has battled injuries this season, which have seen him come in and out of the lineup, but he’s picked the right time of year to get healthy as Louisville looks to complete its three-peat. The side’s 10-game unbeaten run may have come to an end on Tuesday night in Nashville, but I’m expecting a response from Louisville in what could be its final home game at Slugger Field. It certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see DelPiccolo put in a captain’s performance in the LouCity midfield and maybe even bag a goal in a rematch of the 2017 USL Championship Final against the Swope Park Rangers when he was named the game’s MVP.
Tag(s): Game Previews Nashville SC Weekend Previews San Antonio FC Portland Timbers 2 Real Monarchs SLC Reno 1868 FC Sacramento Republic FC Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saint Louis FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Kevaughn Frater Paolo Del Piccolo Ian Svantesson Fresno FC Las Vegas Lights FC Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC Thomas Enevoldsen Daniel Ríos Jack Blake New Mexico United