San Antonio FC's success in bringing local talent through now sees 40 percent of the club's squad have ties to the city. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
Week 2 of the USL Championship’s regular season kicks off tonight and includes a high-profile clash between Phoenix Rising FC and San Diego Loyal SC on ESPN2. Here are five things to watch for over the course of this weekend in the Western Conference.
If you want an indicator of the success being generated currently in San Antonio’s soccer scene, the fact that 40 percent of San Antonio FC’s roster has some tie to the city is a very good place to start. From Academy product jewel Jose Gallegos to San Antonio native Matt Cardone – who this season could pass Greg Cochrane for the most appearances in club history – the club is a strong reflection of the city.
As it enters Saturday night’s home opener with Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, though, what maybe matters most to the squad is building off last season’s success that saw SAFC reach the postseason before an agonizing defeat in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Cardone believes the competition the side has seen this preseason has the side well set to do that.
“I’m proud how all of the guys have worked so hard,” Cardone told the club’s website. “It’s about the team goals and everyone’s individual responsibility to the team. I think we have made a lot of progress. We had a lot of goals and things we want to work on and build on and we’ve made progress on it every step of the way.”
If there’s a clear opportunity for San Diego Loyal SC this season to find another level, it’s the club’s performance in front of goal. With newcomers like Corey Hertzog – who enters the season sitting No. 3 in the Championship’s all-time leading scorers – and Niki Jackson up front plus the arrival of Jack Blake and Alejandro Guido to provide the ammunition, there’s a good chance that’s going to happen.
The first test for the new-look attack comes on Friday night against Phoenix Rising FC, which itself has had defensive issues in each of its final two preseason outings. By contrast, SD Loyal put up a 5-0 victory against the University of San Diego to wrap up its preseason last Saturday as Blake and Jackson both scored twice. Phoenix will be a step up in competition, but SD Loyal Head Coach Landon Donovan is happy with where his squad’s at.
“In my opinion it’s been almost a perfect preseason,” Donovan said following the scrimmage. “We played a variety of different teams, some very good teams. We finished the preseason with almost three full 90-minute performances from our guys, so, they are fit and ready to start the season. Most importantly, no injuries. We are very happy with how it’s gone and we’re ready for Phoenix now.”
New Mexico United's Josh Suggs believes this year's squad is the club's best yet as it looks to build on back-to-back postseason appearances. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
New Mexico United opens its third season on Saturday night once again on the road against Rio Grande Valley FC. But in contrast to a season ago, when the club was forced to remain on the road for the duration of the season resumption due to local health and safety protocols, the prospect of home games at Isotopes Park are closing in rapidly.
“Last year it felt like we were representing the whole state,” United defender and Las Cruces native Josh Suggs told media this week. “The state was struggling, and we were the outlet. Now, with things getting better, we can have games in front of our fans and kind of share that experience. It’ll be awesome.”
United certainly appears to have a lot to look forward to, going off its preseason. Last weekend’s 4-0 victory against Phoenix Rising FC provided another impressive attacking display, with new arrival Brian Brown scoring twice. Suggs believes this year has the potential to be the club’s best yet.
“This is the best team we’ve ever had,” he said. “We’re more competitive in every single spot. There’s no reason we won’t have a successful season.”
Facing a potential Championship Final-contender in New Mexico United in your home opener isn’t necessarily the game you’d choose, but for Rio Grande Valley FC Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera and his revamped side it certainly could offer an important measuring stick as to where the Toros stand going into the club’s sixth season.
With a much more veteran-laden squad than in the past after the additions of players like midfielders Rodrigo Lopez and Juan David Cabezas, defender Erik Pimentel, and goalkeeper Tyler Deric, it’s a very different story from when Cabrera led the Toros into their inaugural season in 2016. The Colombian Head Coach knows, however, that it’s going to be important to set a winning tone as quickly as possible.
“Right now, it is totally different from five years ago,” said Cabrera. “Five years ago, it was a totally new team, and we weren’t even in that [H-E-B Park] stadium and today we have that beautiful stadium, but we have a lot of pressure and responsibility to do well. We feel good about it, but it is something that we are feeling that we owe to the people here in the Valley. That we want to do well. We know how important it is to do well.”
It’s not often that a club has a better head-to-head record at a rival’s home than at its own, but that’s been the case for Sacramento Republic FC in its longstanding series against the LA Galaxy II. After first meeting in the 2014 Championship season, Sacramento has taken victory in six out of nine visits to Dignity Health Sports Park all-time, while claiming victory only four times in 10 games at Papa Murphy’s Park.
Friday night’s meeting – which will mark the 20th game in the series – will see a new captain for the Boys in Old Glory Red, with Finnish veteran Petteri Pennanen announced on Thursday as taking the armband for the new season. The 30-year-old will lead a side that once again enters with high expectations, and a squad that should be a title contender. Taking another three points from Los Dos’ talented young lineup would be a good start to that end.