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THE MORNING TEA – North Carolina, Legion FC Ready For Playoff Rematch

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 08/01/20, 7:30AM EDT

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How Sebastian Velasquez helped the EP Fusion heal in El Paso; Preview all of this weekend's Championship action

Three consecutive nights of action kickoff on Saturday with plenty of rivalries, and one big postseason rematch that could have an impact on the playoff race for two ambitious outfits.

 

THE BIG STORY

Among all the twists and turns of the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs, one of the games that stood out came in the Eastern Conference Play-In Round when seed Birmingham Legion FC rallied from two deficits on the road against North Carolina FC and then produced a stoppage-time winner by J.J. Williams to claim victory in its first postseason contest in club history.

In some ways, the drama of that night set the tone for the playoffs overall, which saw three more games decided in extra time and another two in a penalty shootout in an enthralling postseason.

There might be some memories of that clash last October when North Carolina welcomes Legion FC back to Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday night. At the same time, the focus for both sides is on the present, where Birmingham has jumped out to a good start in Group G under the league’s reconstructed format and North Carolina is still looking for a win after picking up a draw in its first game back to action two weeks ago.

NCFC’s point came after an inspired second-half performance on the road against the Tampa Bay Rowdies on July 18, when the rust from more than four months without a competitive game had certainly come to bear. Goals by Dre Fortune and Robbie Kristo pulled NCFC back into the game, and left the side feeling happy enough to head home with something to show for their efforts.

“We went at halftime [and] felt like we weren’t really being ourselves,” Fortune told local media this week. “So, we went back out and tried to play more to our strengths, and I think we did that quite well and showed that we’re a resilient team that’s always gonna fight until the end.”

Finding a playing rhythm has been of noticeable importance for teams coming out of the break. In Birmingham, the duo of Bruno Lapa and Brian Wright have helped Legion FC hit the ground running, with Lapa notching three goals and two assists in his first three professional outings. That’s helped Legion FC to a pair of wins and a draw so far, and six-point advantage over NCFC in the early group standings. The confidence brought on by their success has been noticeable to North Carolina Head Coach Dave Sarachan.

“They’ve had a good restart to the season so they’re coming in with confidence,” he said. “I think their system and our system are somewhat similar. We try to keep the ball on the ground, and they try to keep the ball on the ground, and they are pretty good on the counterattack. They have some speed up top and wide, so we have to be aware of that.”

But while the styles may be similar for the two coaches who worked together at the Chicago Fire almost 20 years ago, after last year’s postseason thriller we certainly can hope for more entertainment on Saturday.

 

THIS WEEKEND'S ACTION

SATURDAY, AUGUST 1


North Carolina FC vs. Birmingham Legion FC

(0-1-1)
Group G

7:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: WakeMed Soccer Park

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: NC Wins 44% | Draw 26% | BHM Wins 30%
(2-0-1)
Group G
The Gist: North Carolina welcomes Birmingham to Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park for what serves as not only the first meeting between the teams since Legion FC’s thrilling 3-2 victory when the sides met in the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs, but also what is shaping up as a key game in Group G. Legion FC has started the season undefeated through three games after a 1-1 draw with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in its last outing, a run that has put the side on top of the group early on. NCFC also picked up a point from its visit to Tampa Bay two weeks ago, but will be hoping to close the six-point gap separating itself and Birmingham with a win on Saturday, which would also serve as a little revenge for the club’s playoff elimination last year.

Indy Eleven vs. Sporting Kansas City II

(5-1-0)
Group E

7:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: Lucas Oil Stadium

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: IND Wins 76% | Draw 16% | SKC Wins 7%
(1-3-0)
Group E
The Gist: The Eleven can tie a Championship record with victory on Saturday night against Sporting, which would give them 13 consecutive home wins in the regular season dating back to the 2019 campaign. Indy moved to 12 wins in a row on Wednesday night in a 4-1 win against Hartford Athletic that saw Tyler Pasher score his sixth goal of the season to widen his advantage in the race for the Championship’s Golden Boot. The hosts will be aware of the threat SKC II poses, however, after Sporting put up a strong fight in their 2-1 defeat at Lucas Oil Stadium following the season resumption. The visitors are also coming off a big road win of their own on Wednesday when Wilson Harris struck late in a 2-1 victory against Louisville City FC to pick up their first three points of the campaign.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC vs. Philadelphia Union II

(2-2-0)
Group F

7:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: Highmark Stadium

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: PIT Wins 80% | Draw 14% | PHI Wins 6%
(0-3-1)
Group F
The Gist: The Hounds will be looking to put a tough week behind it as it squares off with a Union II side it romped past in the first meeting between the clubs this season. Pittsburgh suffered its first back-to-back league defeats since July 2018 in Week 5, with the decisive goals both coming in stoppage time to put a damper on a previously good start to the season. The Union II, meanwhile, are looking for their first points since the season resumption after a 3-2 defeat against Hartford Athletic that saw the side let a two-goal first-half lead slip at Dillon Stadium. After suffering a 6-0 loss at Subaru Park to the Hounds, a better performance will be expected for the underdogs as they visit Highmark Stadium.

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC vs. Real Monarchs SLC

(1-1-1)
Group C

8:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: Weidner Field

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: COS Wins 31% | Draw 25% | SLC Wins 44%
(0-2-1)
Group C
The Gist: The Switchbacks will try to build on a remarkable comeback when these sides last met at Rio Tinto Stadium when the Monarchs head to Weidner Field in search of their first victory of the season. The defending USL Championship title-holders looked set to take all three points when these sides met on July 18 holding a two-goal lead with five minutes to go, but despite being down to 10 men, Colorado Springs surged back to level with a stoppage-time goal by Abdul Rwatubyaye. With the Monarchs now four points back of second-place El Paso Locomotive FC, finding a way to win on the road would be an important boost to their playoff chances.

OKC Energy FC vs. New Mexico United

(1-1-2)
Group D

8:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: Taft Stadium

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: OKC Wins 40% | Draw 26% | NM Wins 34%
(2-1-1)
Group C
The Gist: New Mexico United will try to continue its impressive road form as it heads to face Energy FC with a chance to build its lead in Group C. United took a 2-1 victory last time out against group rival El Paso Locomotive FC as Chris Wehan scored for a third consecutive game and Devon Sandoval bagged the game-winner before the visitors held on late at Southwest University Park. Still undefeated this season, United now heads to face OKC, which is undefeated since the resumption of the season to move into second place in Group D. Energy FC played to a 1-1 draw in its last outing on July 22 as Frank Lopez scored a late equalizer, and will be looking for all three points to continue its bid to return to the playoffs.

Memphis 901 FC vs. Saint Louis FC

(0-2-2)
Group G

8:30 p.m. ET |
Venue: AutoZone Park

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: MEM Wins 25% | Draw 26% | STL Wins 48%
(3-1-0)
Group E
The Gist: Saint Louis will try to add to its two-game winning streak and build a cushion in the race for the playoffs in Group E when it visits 901 FC, which is still looking for its first win of the season. Memphis twice held the lead in its last outing, but saw the Charlotte Independence hit back to earn a 2-2 draw last Saturday night to keep 901 FC two points behind the second-place Independence in the Group G standings. STLFC, meanwhile, has recorded back-to-back victories against Louisville City FC and Indy Eleven, with Tyler Blackwood scoring the game-winner in both contests. After LouCity’s midweek defeat to Sporting Kansas City II, Saint Louis would build a six-point lead on its Kings’ Cup rival in Group E with a third consecutive victory.

Austin Bold FC vs. San Antonio FC

(1-1-0)
Group D

9:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: Bold Stadium

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: ATX Wins 36% | Draw 26% | SA Wins 38%
(2-0-1)
Group D
The Gist: San Antonio will try to add to its lead at the top of Group D as it visits Bold FC for the first meeting between the teams this season. SAFC earned a 1-0 victory against Rio Grande Valley FC in its last outing at Toyota Field as Gonzalo Di Renzo scored the only goal of the game to keep the hosts undefeated through three games of the season. Bold FC, meanwhile, is returning to action for the first time since suffering a 3-1 defeat to OKC Energy FC in its first game back in action on July 17 and will be hoping to close the gap on the group leader. Sonny Guadarrama scored the lone goal against Energy FC, and the hometown standout could be key to Austin finding a way through a solid SAFC defense.

Rio Grande Valley FC vs. FC Tulsa

(0-3-2)
Group D

9:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: H-E-B Park

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: RGV Wins 32% | Draw 28% | TUL Wins 40%
(0-0-2)
Group D
The Gist: Both the Toros and Tulsa will take aim at their first wins of the season and gain ground on the teams at the top of Group D when they meet at H-E-B Park. RGVFC is looking to rebound from a 1-0 defeat against San Antonio FC last Saturday night, a result that saw the side’s winless start to the season reach five games. Tulsa, on the other hand, is still looking for its first win, but has also yet to suffer its first loss of the campaign after two draws to start the season. Rodrigo Da Costa scored in both contests for FCT and will be aiming to lead the visitors to victory on the road.
Discipline: Tulsa - Suspended: Fabian Bastidas

San Diego Loyal SC vs. Sacramento Republic FC

(3-1-1)
Group B

10:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: Torero Stadium

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: SD Wins 35% | Draw 28% | SAC Wins 37%
(1-1-2)
Group A
The Gist: After both seeing midweek contests postponed, SD Loyal and Republic FC will get back into action in one of the weekend’s high-profile interdivision contests. San Diego has made a strong start to its inaugural season and sits on top of Group B with 10 points from five games after earning its first home victory against Las Vegas Lights FC. Republic FC, meanwhile, is looking to regain first place in Group B after being overtaken by rival Reno 1868 FC on Wednesday night, and is looking to rebound from its first defeat of the season against the LA Galaxy II last Saturday night as it visits San Diego for the first time.

Las Vegas Lights FC vs. Reno 1868 FC

(0-1-1)
Group B

10:30 p.m. ET |
Venue: Cashman Field

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: LV Wins 31% | Draw 23% | RNO Wins 45%
(2-1-0)
Group A
The Gist: The first of two meetings between the Silver State Cup rivals brings together a Reno side looking to build off a solid road victory on Wednesday night and a Lights FC side looking for its first win of the season. 1868 FC looked back on track in a 4-1 victory against the Portland Timbers 2 on Wednesday at Providence Park that saw Christiano Francois score twice to lift Reno back into first place in Group A. Las Vegas, meanwhile, suffered a 2-1 loss to San Diego Loyal SC last Saturday, and will be trying to find victory against its in-state rival for the first time in the series. With the contest serving as Lights FC’s home opener – albeit without fans at Cashman Field – there would be no better time for Head Coach Frank Yallop’s side to find a way past Reno and pull itself back into the playoff picture in Group B.

Phoenix Rising FC vs. El Paso Locomotive FC

(2-1-1)
Group B

10:30 p.m. ET |
Venue: Casino Arizona Field

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: PHX Wins 63% | Draw 23% | ELP Wins 15%
(1-1-2)
Group C
The Gist: Both Rising FC and Locomotive FC enter looking to rebound from their first defeats of the season when they meet in an intriguing interdivision matchup at Casino Arizona Field. Phoenix suffered a 1-0 defeat to Orange County on the road last time out, and recorded only one shot on goal for the first time in a game since the 2017 season in the process, which could result in a major response back on home turf. El Paso, meanwhile, was upended 2-1 by New Mexico United as a late goal by Josue Aaron Gomez from the penalty spot proved only a consolation. After suffering defeats both home and away to Phoenix last season, Locomotive FC will be aiming for a big road performance to try and remain in second place in Group C.
Discipline: Phoenix - Suspended: Santi Moar

SUNDAY, August 2


Hartford Athletic vs. Loudoun United FC

(3-1-0)
Group F

7:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: Dillon Stadium

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: HFD Wins 44% | Draw 24% | LDN Wins 32%
(0-1-1)
Group F
The Gist: The Athletic will hope to rebound on home turf after suffering defeat on the road last time out when it hosts Loudoun United. Hartford put up a solid display against Indy Eleven on Wednesday night as Alex Dixon leveled the score early in the second half, but the hosts ended up pulling away with two goals late to take a 4-1 victory and end the Athletic’s perfect start to the season. The hosts will have a chance to replicate one of their prior successes this season back in front of their home fans, however, having taken a 3-1 win against Loudoun when United first visited Dillon Stadium two weeks ago.

MONDAY, AUGUST 3


Portland Timbers 2 vs. Tacoma Defiance

(0-3-0)
Group A

9:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: Providence Park

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: POR Wins 47% | Draw 22% | TAC Wins 30%
(1-2-1)
Group A
The Gist: Tacoma Defiance will try to keep its postseason bid rolling when it visits Cascadia rival T2 for the second meeting between the teams this season. The Defiance claimed the first matchup with a 3-0 victory at Cheney Stadium on July 18, which also served as the club’s last outing. Entering the weekend a point back of Sacramento Republic FC in Group A, Tacoma could be in position to jump back into the playoff places with victory in Portland depending on how both Sacramento and group leader Reno 1868 FC fare on Saturday night. T2, on the other hand, is just looking for its first points of the season after suffering a 4-1 defeat on Wednesday night against 1868 FC, a result that meant Portland has conceded 13 goals over its first three games of the 2020 season.
 

THE SOCIAL CIRCLE

 

THE USL LOWDOWN

- Fourteen days after the most horrifying moment of their lives, the players of El Paso Fusion stood on a professional soccer pitch. They had gathered in their uniforms – more than a dozen girls, ages 9 to 11 – at Southwest University Park to be honored by El Paso Locomotive FC. ESPN’s Chris Connelly has more on how soccer and friendship helped the team heal, and the role former Locomotive FC player Sebastian Velasquez played in that process.

- There's been no-one hotter in the USL Championship in front of goal that Indy Eleven's Tyler Pasher, whose six goals in six games have helped his side to the most points in the league this season. WISH-TV's Charlie Clifford caught up with the Canadian striker to go in-depth about the 26-year-old's path to finding his place in Indianapolis.

- The Tampa Bay Rowdies' Sebastian Guenzatti celebrated the third anniversary of signing with the club with his third goal of the season, while Malik Johnson also found the net late to lift the hosts to a 2-0 victory against the Charleston Battery at Al Lang Stadium. The Tampa Bay Times' Kyle Wood has more from Friday night's lone game in the Championship.

- Saint Louis FC goalkeeper Kyle Morton was a finalist for the Championship's Goalkeeper of the Year in 2019. He's now leading the league with 20 saves, and with back-to-back shutouts against Louisville City FC and Indy Eleven has put his new club into a strong position for a postseason berth early in the current season.

- Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC is back at home looking to rebound from back-to-back defeats for only the second time under Head Coach Bob Lilley. Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s John Krysinsky has everything you need to know ahead of the match against the Philadelphia Union II at Highmark Stadium.

- San Antonio FC’s undefeated start has put it on top of Group D as it heads to face in-state rival Austin Bold FC on Saturday night. KSAT’s Andrew Cely has more on the first of three meetings between the clubs this season.

- Reno 1868 FC President Eric Edelstein was among the people that helped develop the Championship’s return to play strategy. He spoke with KOLO’s Kurt Schroeder about what 1868 FC and the league are doing to ensure the safety of players and staff as they compete this season.

- New Mexico United fans are making sure their team is well taken care of. Because of the current statewide public health order, United has been forced to play games on the road, including Saturday’s clash with OKC Energy FC. United fans, known as The Curse, have rallied behind the squad, and are organizing individualized care packages to show their support.

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