Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has had multiple players step up at key moments this season to help propel it to first place in the Eastern Conference.
On Saturday night it was the turn of Steevan Dos Santos, who seemed to act as the avatar for the will the Hounds showed in taking a 1-0 victory on the road against Saint Louis FC.
While nominally a forward, Dos Santos seemed to be everywhere the Hounds needed him to be on Saturday. He won 16 of 25 duels and 14 of 19 aerials – ranking not only as the most in both categories by one player in the contest, but the most in both categories of any player in the weekend’s action.
Defensively, he made three clearances and two recoveries, part of another monstrous defensive effort by the Hounds that kept STLFC without an official shot on target.
And most importantly, he led the Hounds’ attack with three shots on target, including the 88th-minute game-winner that ensured Pittsburgh will go into its final game of the regular season knowing victory will clinch the No. 1 seed in the East.
On a team that has as much hard-working talent as the Hounds do, it takes something special for a player to produce a performance that stands out so vividly. As he reached double-digit goals for the fourth time in five Championship seasons, the Cape Verde forward accomplished just that.
Here’s this week’s 18.
1. Dos Santos may have stood out prominently on Saturday night, but he’s been making key contributions to the Hounds’ current 10-game undefeated streak since it began on August 23. Dos Santos had the game-winner in Pittsburgh’s 1-0 win that night against Loudoun United FC, and his goal against Saint Louis was his fourth game-winner over the course of the Hounds’ streak. Neco Brett still sits on top of the Hounds’ scoring chart, but Dos Santos is coming up with the goals at key moments while making opposing defenses account for two dangerous forwards at all times.
2. Saint Louis’ defeat added to the struggles all three teams surrounding the playoff line have undergone in recent weeks, and while STLFC is still in ninth place for now, it is no longer in control of its playoff destiny with 10th-place Birmingham Legion FC and the 11th-place Charleston Battery both playing twice during the final week of the season.
3. Of course, the Battery did their part to leave the playoff picture around the Eastern Conference line a complete blur on Sunday as they squandered an early lead against Loudoun United FC to lose 2-1 at MUSC Health Stadium. I still think the Battery are going to find a way to do enough to get past either Memphis 901 FC on Wednesday night or Bethlehem Steel FC on Saturday and make Saint Louis get a result on Saturday when it visits North Carolina FC, but the playoff road doesn’t feel like it’s going to be a long one for the two teams that eventually fill those final spots.
4. Over in the Western Conference, it’s starting to feel like that’s also going to be the case for New Mexico United, and that’s if it reaches the playoffs at all, since its 2-1 defeat on the road against Tulsa Roughnecks FC on Saturday night didn’t inspire the sort of confidence we’ve seen from the side previously this season.
5. The reality is that New Mexico still has its playoff fate in its hands; if it wins out this week at home against Tacoma Defiance and Las Vegas Lights FC – games in which it’s a 70-percent chance (vs. Tacoma) and a 59-percent chance (vs. Las Vegas) to take victory in according to fivethirtyeight.com – then New Mexico is guaranteed a place in the postseason. With United now on a four-game winless streak, though, the pressure is rising fast and anything but a win on Wednesday night could have the effect of spoiling what had been a dream first year until the past couple of outings.
6. By contrast to New Mexico, there was little to no pressure or expectation on Real Monarchs SLC on Saturday night, and that might have played a role in the side going into Casino Arizona Field and stealing all three points to hand Phoenix Rising FC its first home loss since the last game of the 2018 regular season. Kyle Coffee capitalized on a surprise handling error by Phoenix goalkeeper Zac Lubin to give the Monarchs their second consecutive victory on the road against Rising FC, and just the sort of confidence boost they could use ahead of potentially returning for a Western Conference Semifinal in a few weeks.
7. The Monarchs now have a two-for-one chance at sealing fourth place in the West. A win against either Austin Bold FC on Wednesday night or Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday night will ensure a home playoff game to start the postseason. After suffering defeat on home turf in each of the past two postseasons – on penalties to Sacramento Republic FC in 2017 and then in stoppage time to Reno 1868 FC last year – Real will have a chance to make it third time lucky at Zions Bank Stadium if it takes care of business this week.
8. What might have been the most surprising number from Phoenix’s perspective on Saturday night was the proportion of shots the side took from outside the penalty area to those it took inside the box. After Saturday night’s game, Phoenix has taken 62 percent of its shots from inside the penalty area this season (343 of 552), but against the Monarchs that ratio was inverted as Rising FC took 62.5 percent of its shots (15 of 24) from outside the box. Freak occurrence? Maybe, but with Real’s defense packing in tightly to try and limit attacking penetration from the league’s leading scorer, it was still surprising.
9. “We were not very good in the final third,” said Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz. “The front three were pressing a little too high, they weren’t playing simple, some touches were a little off. We still created plenty. Ironically this is a good team, the Monarchs, but for them to come back and play like this, it’s a sign of respect.” As respectful as it might be to Phoenix’s firepower, Rising FC is going to have to expect every opponent it faces in the postseason to come in with a similar approach defensively, and it may have to be patient as it looks to manufacture chances closer to goal. Phoenix’s conversion rate inside the penalty area this season is 21.6 percent (74 goals on 343 shots), while its rate outside the penalty area is 5.7 percent (12 goals on 209 shots),
10. The team that sits second to Phoenix in goals scored inside the penalty area this season? That’s Reno 1868 FC, which has recorded 59 of its 69 goals this season from inside the 18-yard area after a 2-0 victory against Las Vegas Lights FC that clinched the Silver State Cup for a second consecutive year and also put 1868 FC into the driver’s seat for second place in the Western Conference, which would be its best end-of-regular season finish its short history.
11. As it had all season, Reno’s ability to find a way in behind opposing defenses saw it register nine shots on goal overall and 12 of 18 attempts from inside the penalty area, excluding the own goal by Las Vegas’ Javan Torre that opened the scoring as he tried to clear with Corey Hertzog lurking inside Lights FC’s six-yard box. Reno’s balance in having the ability to send players in down the flanks, or have players like Raul Mendiola and Seth Casiple take advantage of midfield space if an opposing defense sits too deep, has given it two contrasting ways to hurt opposing defenses, which is a big reason why it’s in the position it holds going to Tulsa Roughnecks FC next Saturday.
12. As for Vegas, Saturday was probably the end of its playoff dream for now, especially given the LA Galaxy II’s late equalizer against Fresno FC that moved Los Dos out of range of Head Coach Eric Wynalda’s side. For a second consecutive year, it’s rarely been boring at Cashman Field and hopefully the 10,000-plus fans that were on hand for the club’s regular-season finale this year will see more progress in 2020.
13. “The hardest part is that we didn't deliver a win, but please continue to support. Keep believing in this club, keep believing in these players,” said Wynalda. “We are getting better and better every day and we'll look back at this and say, 'remember when we suffered?'. Those are things that make us stronger, and in the future, we'll remember these life lessons. We'll be a better team for this great city because they deserve better than what we are right now.”
14. Speaking of teams that aren’t going to make the playoffs this season but could have brighter futures ahead, what about the late-season run that Loudoun United FC is on? It’s one of three teams in the Eastern Conference right now currently on a three-game winning streak after beating playoff contenders Saint Louis FC and the Charleston Battery in the past seven days and is looking like a squad that is going to make a good step forward a season from now at Segra Field.
15. Then there’s the Charlotte Independence, who have had arguably the biggest ups and downs of any side in terms of form this season. Saturday’s win against Memphis was the third win in a row for the Independence since they were officially eliminated from playoff contention and follows 1. a run of one win in 14 games to start the season, which was followed by 2. an eight-game undefeated streak that got the side back into playoff contention, which was followed by 3. a nine-game streak that saw Charlotte lose seven of nine games before 4. the club’s current late-season run.
16. With the Independence set for their final season at the Sportsplex at Matthews next year before moving into the currently-under-renovation Memorial Stadium in 2021, the club is going to have to figure out how to find more consistency next season, but it’s shown that there’s enough talent to be in the playoff mix as the club moves toward an exciting new era.
17. There have been some wild games in the USL Championship before, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like Louisville City FC’s 8-3 victory against the Swope Park Rangers. The more-than 12,000 fans that packed into Slugger Field for its regular-season farewell – and as it currently stands the last game sixth-place LouCity will play there after five seasons – certainly got their money’s worth as the Rangers went up three goals in the first half before Louisville rallied to even things up before halftime and then added another five goals in the second half for good measure.
18. This was the third time in the Championship’s regular season that a game has ended with 11 combined goals between the teams – and it happened once more at the 2013 USL Championship Final between Orlando City SC and the Charlotte Eagles – but this achieved USL Scorigami as the first instance in which a game has ended with an 8-3 final score (for more on the concept of Scorigami, please see this video on the history of every NFL result ever). It was certainly a heck of a way to send out Slugger Field, which saw the side rack up the most home victories since the start of the 2015 USL Championship season between the regular season and playoffs with a record of 52-13-22 at the venue.