There are more big games this weekend in the Championship than you could fit on an average theater marquee as the playoff race enters a crucial stage. But maybe the most intriguing is an intergroup matchup between two group leaders that could serve as a postseason preview two months from now.
RENO, Nev. – While there are still two undefeated teams in the league going into this weekend’s USL Championship action thanks to the Tampa Bay Rowdies and San Antonio FC, for Reno 1868 FC Head Coach Ian Russell, there’s still one team that sits above the rest in the big picture.
“Phoenix, for me, right now they’re the top team in the league, for sure,” Russell said this week as his side prepared to face Rising FC at Greater Nevada Field on Saturday night. “Lot of dangerous players, [Solomon] Asante, Junior Flemmings, they have a very good team, they’re solid all the way through.”
It’s a fair argument. While San Antonio and Tampa Bay can both boast more points and fewer losses right now than Rising FC in the overall standings, the firepower that Phoenix brings with Asante, Flemmings and Rufat Dadashov – all in the top five in goals in the Championship currently – has given Head Coach Rick Schantz’s side the best goal differential in the Championship at plus-18.
For Reno, facing Phoenix in one of its intergroup contests in the buildup to what appears likely another trip to the USL Championship Playoffs provides the chance to test itself against a side that brings more challenges than most on its schedule.
“I think when you look at how they play, you can’t just say ‘hey they’re just another team’, because they’re the best,” said Russell. “We want to play against a top team to see where we are and to see what we need to do to get better, or to say we’re better than them. The guys have no fear, I know that much.”
Reno hasn’t been far behind Phoenix when it comes to goals over the past three seasons. In fact, while Phoenix now ranks first in the Championship’s regular season with 230 goals since the start of the 2017 season, 1868 FC remains in second place with 221 tallies over the same span.
The side has three players tied for its individual lead with Corey Hertzog, Christiano Francois and Foster Langsdorf all on three goals this season, but Russell has also seen other players find their way on the scoresheet during 1868 FC’s run of four wins in its last five games. Most recent was Tucker Bone, whose contribution proved decisive in a 3-1 victory last Saturday against San Diego Loyal SC.
“I was frustrated [earlier this season] because I know how good Tucker is, and I was starting to wonder ‘did I get it wrong,’ is he not at the level I thought,” said Russell. “He started training really well … I told my assistant coach Chris [Malenab] he’s going to start scoring goals, because he’s been doing it in training. He’s been dangerous.”
All of those options will need to be at the top of their game to topple Rising FC, but in a contest that could be repeated when the playoffs come around there’s plenty for 1868 FC to grab hold of from its meeting with the current title favorites.
- Memphis 901 FC players announced on Friday they will not play their scheduled match against North Carolina FC and will walk from AutoZone Park to the National Civil Rights Museum on Saturday morning. The Memphis Commercial-Appeal’s Corinne Kennedy has more on the decision, and the players plans for Saturday that include visiting “I Am a Man” Plaza before touring the National Civil Rights Museum together.
- Speaking with Sports Charlotte, Charlotte Independence defender Hugh Roberts spoke more about the social activism he and his teammates have been engaged in away from the field, and the club’s midweek victory against North Carolina FC.
- From a competitive race for the Championship Golden Boot, to teams that might make a second-half surge, The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter has a mid-season look across the league and predictions on which teams will be part of the 2020 Championship Playoffs in October.
- Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC made an emphatic statement on the road in a 3-0 victory against Hartford Athletic on Friday night that moved the side three points clear at the top of Group F. Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s John Krysinsky has details and postgame reaction from the Hounds.
- San Antonio FC continued its undefeated start to the season, although it was made to work for a 3-1 victory against South Texas Derby rival Rio Grande Valley FC on Friday night at H-E-B Park. The San Antonio News-Express’ Greg Luca has the details as SAFC moved its unbeaten run to 10 games.
- The Charleston Battery side the Tampa Bay Rowdies faced last month is now looking a much tougher proposition, with Wednesday’s win against Miami FC its third in a row. The Tampa Bay Times’ Darek Sharp looks at what’s in story for the Rowdies as they visit Patriots Point Soccer Complex on Saturday.
- Saint Louis FC ends its week with one of its biggest games of the season as Kings' Cup rival Louisville City FC visits West Community Stadium with the postseason on the minds of both clubs. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Joe Lyons look back at the week for the club, and ahead to what will be one of Saturday's must-see games.
- San Diego Loyal SC is hoping to sharpen its attack down the home stretch with the addition of former University of San Diego standout Miguel Berry on loan from Columbus Crew SC. The San Diego News-Tribune’s Tom Krasovic has the details ahead of SD Loyal’s key game with Orange County SC on Saturday night.
- For Championship teams, maybe the biggest challenge this season has posed has been that of players remaining safe at home and on the road. Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s Mark Asher Goodman spoke with Riverhounds SC players Robbie Mertz and Skylar Thomas for an in-depth look at what life has been like for players since the season resumed in July.
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