The final game of the 2019 regular season between Birmingham Legion FC and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC at BBVA Field could provide a dramatic climax to the campaign. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
After Austin Bold FC became the second expansion side to secure its spot in the postseason on Wednesday night, the final week of the 2019 USL Championship regular season continues Friday to kick off a 17-game slate that could bring plenty of drama as the final postseason places are decided.
On Friday night, the spotlight will be on Regular Season Title-Winners Phoenix Rising FC as the club tries to establish new Championship records for wins and points in a single season and maintain its perfect record on Dollar Beer Night when it hosts OKC Energy FC at Casino Arizona Field (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Fourteen matches will follow on Saturday, with a key Eastern Conference contest opening the action when the Charleston Battery look to extend their record of reaching the postseason in every year of the Championship’s history with a win over Bethlehem Steel FC at MUSC Health Stadium (2 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) after kickoff was moved to the afternoon due to the potential arrival of Tropical Storm Nestor. The afternoon’s action also sees playoff-bound Real Monarchs SLC looking to solidify hosting rights in the Conference Quarterfinals when it takes on Sacramento Republic FC in a special edition of the USL Game of the Week at Zions Bank Stadium. (3 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN3). The race for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference continues in the evening when 11th place Saint Louis visits North Carolina FC needing a victory to keep its playoff hopes alive at Sahlen’s Stadium (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before the night wraps up out West with the ninth-place LA Galaxy II and 10th-place San Antonio FC looking to hold onto their spots with victories, while 11th-place New Mexico United looks to overtake either with a win over 12th-place Las Vegas Lights FC at Isotopes Park (9:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
The weekend concludes on Sunday with what could be a vital game at both ends of the Eastern Conference as Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC looks to wrap up homefield until the Championship Final when it visits playoff hopeful Birmingham Legion FC at BBVA Field (5:30 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 33:
Saint Louis FC enters the weekend below the playoff line in the Eastern Conference and needs at least a draw at North Carolina FC to have a hope of reaching the USL Championship Playoffs. | Photo courtesy Saint Louis FC
North Carolina FC’s spot in the postseason is secure, as is its role as a host of one of the two Play-In Round contests in the Eastern Conference. However, its final seed is still up in the air as the side enters the weekend in seventh place, just a point ahead of an Ottawa Fury FC side that plays its regular season finale at the Charlotte Independence. While NCFC may want to avoid a potential Quarterfinal matchup against the East’s top seed, Saint Louis won’t care one bit about its seeding should it qualify for the postseason. That’s the only goal for Saturday’s visitors at this point as the side sits one point below the playoff line heading into the final weekend. A road point would be enough to overtake Charleston should the Battery lose at home to Bethlehem Steel FC on Saturday, but given the unlikelihood of that result, Saint Louis will likely need to take all three points to return to the postseason for the second straight year.
New Mexico United’s playoff hopes took a massive blow on Wednesday night as the side settled for a 1-1 home draw with 17th-place Tacoma Defiance despite recording a Championship season-high 36 shots, 15 of which hit the target. The result saw the expansion side remain in 11th place heading into the final weekend, leaving it needing a win against Las Vegas and one of San Antonio FC or the LA Galaxy II to drop points in order to qualify for the postseason field. While it’s natural to start scoreboard-watching, New Mexico needs to bounce back quickly from the disappointment of Wednesday night and break the five-game winless run (0-2-3) that put it in this position. That won’t necessarily be easy against a Lights FC that is still mathematically alive in the playoff race – although it would need to defeat New Mexico on the road and see San Antonio fall to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC while making up the 13-goal differential between itself and SAFC. That’s certainly a longshot, but it gives both sides something to play for in what should be an electric but nervy atmosphere at Isotopes Park.
New Mexico fans will be closely monitoring this contest, which kicks off half-an-hour after NMU’s match with Las Vegas and likely offers the best chance for the expansion side to slide into the postseason. The Galaxy II enter the weekend with a two-point edge over New Mexico and can seal a playoff berth with a home win over El Paso, but anything less opens the door for NMU. Given that New Mexico has the edge in goal differential (0 to -5), LA Interim Head Coach Junior Gonzalez will want to leave no doubt and see his side take all three points in front of its home fans to qualify for the postseason. That won’t be easy against a Locomotive FC side that is unbeaten in its last six games (4-0-2) and needs a result to avoid dropping into the Play-In Round, which sets the stage for plenty of drama between two very entertaining teams.
The final game of the regular season could have plenty of consequences or mean very little depending on how things play out on Saturday but for the sake of entertainment, let’s imagine the most dramatic ending possible. Saint Louis FC defeats North Carolina FC on Saturday and the Charleston Battery takes victory against Bethlehem Steel FC, leaving Birmingham Legion FC needing to match its playoff rivals with a win over Pittsburgh to clinch a spot in the postseason field. Then on the other side, Nashville SC defeats ATL UTD 2, leaving the Hounds needing a win to clinch homefield advantage in the East. If there’s that much at stake on the final day between two defensive-minded teams that will battle to the final whistle, you better be tuning in.
New Mexico United fans didn't have a whole lot to cheer about on Wednesday night as their side settled for a 1-1 draw with Tacoma Defiance, but their tune could change by the end of Saturday night if results go their way. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New
Wednesday night’s draw will certainly be a tough pill to swallow, but New Mexico showed plenty of attacking creativity against Tacoma Defiance and just couldn’t catch a break. I just have a feeling that this roller coaster of a season that has seen plenty of ups and downs has one more twist to the tale. United fires a few past a Lights FC side that struggles away from home and then celebrates at Isotopes Park 35 minutes after the final whistle when expansion rival El Paso Locomotive FC comes through with a road result against the LA Galaxy II.
Saint Louis’ playoff odds dropped to 26 percent after Birmingham and Charleston both won on Wednesday night according to fivethirtyeight.com, but Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ side seems to respond best when its back is up against the proverbial wall. That was certainly the case early in September as the side pulled back ahead in the playoff race with five straight victories after collecting just one win in league play over the previous four months. With NCFC already guaranteed to host a game in the Play-In Round, the hosts don’t have nearly as much to play for and could already be looking ahead to a quick turnaround on Wednesday. I think STLFC finds a way to win and leaves Birmingham Legion FC the odd team out.
If I have Birmingham being the odd team out in the East, it would make sense that I have its opponent on Sunday, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, getting a result at BBVA Field. With second-place Nashville SC hosting ATL UTD 2 on Saturday night, I think the Hounds will take the field knowing that they need three points to finish atop the conference standings and secure homefield advantage until the USL Championship Final. Head Coach Bob Lilley’s side should be up to the task as it enters the match on a 10-game unbeaten run (7-0-3) and will be better rested than a Birmingham side coming off an emotional victory on Wednesday night against the New York Red Bulls II.
The battle for second place in the Western Conference has been a two-horse race for the majority of the second half of the season, with Fresno FC and Reno 1868 FC battling for position behind Regular Season Title-Winners Phoenix Rising FC. The two sides enter the weekend level on 57 points, but Reno currently sits in pole position as it holds the advantage in wins (17 to 16) and goal differential (+18 to +16). That won’t mean much if the two teams pick up differing results on Saturday, which I think is a possibility as 1868 FC heads to take on a Tulsa side that has played well of late and could surprise a Reno side coming off an emotional win over in-state rival Las Vegas last weekend. Meanwhile, the Foxes should be eager to get back on the right track at home against Orange County and build some positive momentum before the postseason begins.
Rios appears on this list for the second straight week because he has a chance to do something this weekend that no player in the Championship’s history has done before. If the Nashville forward can bag a brace against ATL UTD 2 on Saturday night, he would become the league’s first player to record back-to-back 20-goal seasons. Rios failed to score in his side’s 2-0 victory over ATL UTD 2 back in May, and will face an Atlanta defense that is growing in confidence as of late, but his teammates will surely be looking to set him up as NSC looks to leap back into first place in front of the home crowd at First Tennessee Park.
Asante scored twice to lead Phoenix Rising FC to a 4-1 victory against OKC Energy FC at Taft Stadium back on June 22. | Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC
While we’re on the topic of doing something the Championship has never seen before, Asante is still within reach of the league’s single-season record for goals and assists heading into the final weekend of the season. The Ghanaian forward currently sits on 22 goals – three shy of Cameron Lancaster’s record haul from 2018 – and 16 assists, which puts him level with Emmanuel Ledesma’s mark for FC Cincinnati a season ago. If the Ghanaian forward has another big game in him, there is a chance that both records could fall. It’s a longshot, but Rising FC is going to be ramped up after a loss, while visiting OKC Energy FC is on a seven-game winless slide and has nothing left to play for. Given the magic of Dollar Beer Night, there’s always a chance…
The San Antonio FC forward earned Player of the Week honors for his efforts in Week 32 as he netted the first hat trick in club history to lead the side to a massive 4-3 road victory over the Portland Timbers 2. That result, coupled with New Mexico’s draw on Wednesday, has SAFC in control of its playoff destiny heading into its regular-season finale against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC at Toyota Field. Another win would see SAFC return to the postseason after narrowly missing out in 2018 and I can easily see Guzman helping his side over the line against a Switchbacks team that has taken just five points away from home this season.
The Bermudan playmaker returned from international duty at a crucial time for the Battery, which suffered a shock home defeat to Loudoun United FC last weekend without their leading scorer in the lineup. Lewis returned to the lineup and the scoresheet in Charleston’s 2-0 win over Memphis on Wednesday night, assisting on Taylor Mueller’s opener before putting the game away himself just after the hour-mark. We’ve seen all season that the Battery are at their best when Lewis is pulling the strings and they will need him to be at his best again on Saturday when Charleston looks to extend its record of reaching the playoffs every season in the Championship with a home win over Bethlehem Steel FC.
Tag(s): Game Previews Nashville SC Weekend Previews San Antonio FC LA Galaxy II Phoenix Rising FC Charleston Battery Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saint Louis FC Zeiko Lewis Fresno FC Las Vegas Lights FC Birmingham Legion FC Éver Guzmán North Carolina FC El Paso Locomotive FC Solomon Asante New Mexico United Daniel Rios