San Antonio FC's Cristian Parano and FC Tulsa's Lebo Moloto both could have big roles to play as their undefeated squads meet at ONEOK Field on Wednesday night.
Through schedule and circumstance, there are four undefeated teams left in the USL Championship as Week 8 kicks off on Wednesday night. All four of them are set to feature in the night’s action, but the game that should draw the most eyeballs is the one that features FC Tulsa (2-0-2, 8pts) and San Antonio FC (4-0-1, 13pts) at ONEOK Field.
In terms of entertainment value, this one is bursting at the seams. On one side you have the hosts, who have got better each time they’ve played this season. A 2-0 victory against Saint Louis FC on Saturday night pushed Tulsa above the playoff line in Group D as its newly-minted squad continues to come together in the club’s new era under the ownership of the Craft Family.
On the other side there’s San Antonio, which has set itself up as potentially the biggest threat to Phoenix Rising FC for a place in the USL Championship Final from the Western Conference. The big names that arrived this offseason like Luis Solignac have already started to pay dividends and added to the young talent retained from a season ago including 2019 Young Player of the Year Cristian Parano and now-professional signing Jose Gallegos.
Ahead of the action on ESPN+, here are three keys to watch as the game unfolds.
San Antonio’s offseason additions have made an impact, but the second year of Cristian Parano at the club has been at the center of much of its attacking success. The 20-year-old Argentine had had a hand in half the team’s 10 goals with three goals and two assists, and he’s standing up to the physicality teams are trying to throw at him to try and knock him off his game – Parano has been fouled 12 times in four games so far. What he’s proven adept at doing – as with most top No. 10s – is finding the pockets of space that give him the chance to turn and go at opponents; he ranks third in the Championship this season with 15 dribbles completed out of 24 in four appearances, behind only two other stars in Tyler Pasher (Indy Eleven) and Junior Flemmings (Phoenix Rising FC). That’s going to mean Tulsa’s Eric Bird – who plays primarily as the anchor for the side in the center of midfield – and the potential back line of Matthew Sheldon, Bradley Bourgeois, Kevin Garcia and Solomon Kwabe are going to need to be in constant communication making sure someone’s staying close to Parano at all times. If they don’t, he certainly could make them pay.
Ask most coaches and they’ll tell you the thing that usually arrives latest of all for a team with new faces in the squad is attacking chemistry. FC Tulsa certainly appears to be that way for now, as its solid defense and 12 saves over four games for goalkeeper Sean Lewis have been key to its undefeated status. Saturday night’s victory against Saint Louis, however, showed some signs that things might be headed in the right direction. Tulsa posted not only a second consecutive two-goal outing, but also season-highs for total shots (13), shots on target (5) and chances created (10). There’s unquestionable talent in FC Tulsa’s new arrivals, and Dario Suarez getting off the mark in Saint Louis was a good sign. If the hosts can get Lebo Moloto his first goal in Tulsa’s colors, things could not only go well on Wednesday night in the club’s home opener but set up even more to come as the season progresses.
The improvement FC Tulsa has made so far from the 2019 season has been everything you would have hoped for when the club’s new ownership took over and the new branding was announced. Wednesday night marks another important step forward as the club hosts its first game at ONEOK Field this year. The team’s struggles to find consistent success on home turf have haunted its first four seasons, with the one year it reached the USL Championship Playoffs in 2017 accounting for 10 victories, almost half of the 22 the side has recorded overall in the regular season at home. The past 10 months have allowed the slate to be wiped clean for the franchise in many ways – although I love the slick throwback logo apparel they’re making available starting this month. Getting a win in front of a limited crowd at ONEOK Field in your first game as FC Tulsa won’t be a decisive moment, but it would mean so much for a passionate, hardcore fanbase that has stuck with the team since it launched and deserves the success that appears to be on the horizon.