The matchup of Phoenix Rising FC forward Adam Jahn (left) and Real Monarchs SLC center back Erik Holt is one that could prove key in this weekend's Conference Semifinals of the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orrellana / Phoenix Ri
This weekend’s Conference Semifinals of the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs bring together eight clubs with their own distinct identities and characteristics. The old boxing saying goes that styles make fights, and that can certainly be the case in soccer as well when it comes to the opening strategies and in-game adjustments teams make over the course of 90 – or potentially 120 – minutes.
But the game inside the game is the individual matchups that a game can hinge around. If a playmaker’s space is stifled, or a center back keeps an opposing forward under wraps, it can have a big impact on the outcome of the contest.
Ahead of this weekend’s games here are four individual matchups that should be worth keeping an eye on, as they could prove key to the chances of advancement to the Eastern and Western Conference Final.
There’s little question that Solomon Asante has been the player that makes Phoenix Rising FC tick this year, but the club’s center forward Adam Jahn has been almost as influential. With 17 goals and five assists this campaign, Jahn has a strong case for All-League selection alongside his teammate, and that’s why Real Monarchs SLC is going to need to do its best to contain the 6-foot-3 striker. Monarchs defender Erik Holt may be giving up a couple of inches in height to Jahn, but the rookie center back has put up solid defensive numbers in his first year, winning 20 of 23 tackles while making 68 clearances and 25 interceptions. Jahn had a positive outing when these sides met earlier this month, winning 4 of 5 aerial duels and recording one assist on three chances created, but the Monarchs were able to keep him without a shot on goal in four shots overall for the game. If Holt and likely center back partner Kalen Ryden can keep Jahn from finding his rhythm, it would be a major plus for Real’s chances of springing a road upset.
The esteem in which Kenardo Forbes’ teammates hold him and his abilities has been reflected in the way they talk about the Jamaican midfielder, who has arguably been the most important piece of the Hounds’ ascent up the Eastern Conference the past two seasons. Forbes doesn’t register highly in the category of Chances Created from Open Play – he’s notched 30 this season, fewer than players including teammates Ryan James and Neco Brett – but that’s because most of the time he’s making the pass before the pass that gets his teammates into good positions. Sitting fourth in the league with 1,601 passes completed this campaign, Forbes finds ways to always make himself available, and positions himself to gain possession when play breaks down – his 301 recoveries are the most of any outfield player. That means his Jamaican compatriot Speedy Williams – who himself has recorded 234 recoveries this season, seventh among midfielders – is going to have his hands full in trying to keep Forbes’ influence at a minimum during Saturday’s game. It’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder what the Reggae Boyz would have looked like with these two side-by-side in midfield in the last three years, given the guile, passing efficiency and smart positioning they bring, but the player that comes out on top in the middle of the park has a chance to make an indelible mark on this contest.
If Indy Eleven is going to earn victory on the road against Nashville SC this Saturday night at First Tennessee Park, it’s likely going to have to do something it hasn’t done so far this campaign; score against NSC’s stellar defense. And if there’s one player with the potential to make that happen, it’s Tyler Pasher, whose ability to get in behind defenses has been one of the most important factors in the Eleven’s attacking success this season. With the Canadian doing much of his best work on the left half of the field, it could be incumbent on Nashville right back Darnell King to keep tabs on Pasher and limit his chances to break in should NSC elect to play a higher defensive line. Certainly, the Eleven have the players that can make the most of Pasher’s pace– and Dane Kelly’s for that matter – with Ayoze and Kenney Walker’s ability to deliver a long pass over the top among the best in the league. In a game that seems set up for the Eleven to try and hit successfully on the counterattack, being able to keep pace in the manner King can is going to be essential to Nashville posting another clean sheet.
Going simply by the game-by-game numbers, when you look at El Paso Locomotive FC’s form since the arrival of Sebastian Velasquez on July 9, when the playmaker has been on his game, it’s meant success for the Crazy Train. Locomotive FC is 3-0-1 when Velasquez scores, 4-0-1 when he records at least three chances created in a game and has won both contests in which he’s registered at least two Big Chances Created for his side. That’s not to say El Paso can’t succeed without him, thanks to players like James Kiffe – who has five assists over the same span – Locomotive FC has found other ways to win, but if Velasquez can find time and space then good things tend to happen for El Paso. That means Republic FC holding midfielder Jaime Villarreal could have a very important role to play in keeping Velasquez bottled up on Saturday night at Southwest University Park. It’s certainly within his range – Villarreal has won 35 tackles and recorded 34 interceptions this season, both second on the team behind defender Jordan McCrary – but keeping a lid on Velasquez early and keeping him from finding an attacking rhythm is going to be important if Sacramento is to quiet the 8th Notch and the rest of El Paso’s passionate support while continuing its own underdog run.