Oakland Roots SC makes its USL Championship debut this Saturday night with the tall order of taking on defending Western Conference Title holders Phoenix Rising FC. | Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC
After Rio Grande Valley FC’s victory on Thursday night, we’ve got more Western Conference action on Saturday and Sunday evening to round out Week 3. Here are five storylines going into the action.
Welcome to the USL Championship, Oakland Roots SC. Here’s your opening game assignment, against the defending Western Conference Title holders Phoenix Rising FC at the new home venue they opened with a 4-1 victory against San Diego Loyal SC last Friday night. Good luck.
It’s certainly a daunting task facing interim Head Coach Jordan Ferrell and his side as they head to Wild Horse Pass this Saturday night (10:30 p.m. ET | ESPN+ | Preview), with maybe the biggest question what they will have taken away from Phoenix’s impressive start to the season. There are potentially some intriguing individual matchups in here, though, most notably in central midfield where Oakland’s Wal Fall and Phoenix’s Kevon Lambert could end up vying for supremacy, or on the Phoenix’s left side where Roots SC’s Akeem Ward is likely to the primary player tasked with reducing the threat of Rising FC’s Santi Moar.
What are the odds that Roots SC makes a winning debut? Well, going by the past two seasons, not that great. In the past two seasons, teams making their first appearance in the Championship have gone 0-5-3. In fact, the last two teams to win their first game in the league were Atlanta United 2 and Las Vegas Lights at the start of the 2018 season. Oakland will be looking to buck the odds Saturday.
Maybe history should have warned us that opening games haven’t quite been New Mexico United’s thing. In the club’s short history, it’s now winless in all three (0-2-1) after last Saturday night’s 1-0 defeat to Rio Grande Valley FC, but it certainly hasn’t seemed to hinder the success that has followed in each of the first two campaigns.
And with a 2020 USL Championship Playoffs rematch against regional rival El Paso Locomotive FC on the docket for Saturday night (9:30 p.m. ET | ESPN+ | Preview), there’s a sense of determination to get things pointed in the right direction in United’s camp this week.
“We’re not desperate,” midfielder Sergio Rivas told the Albuquerque Journal’s Ken Sickenger, “but we want to win. That’s our focus this week and every week. We want to win.”
An Albuquerque native, Rivas was one of the newcomers that made his debut against the Toros after previously competing for two seasons at Reno 1868 FC. In what’s been a hard-fought series over the past two years – officially New Mexico holds a 2-1-4 edge including last year’s penalty shootout defeat in the Western Conference Semifinals – there should be plenty of heat as this rivalry renews.
New San Antonio FC arrivals Marcus Epps and Cam Lindley celebrate during the club's 3-0 victory against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC last Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
There were only four holdovers from the 18-man squad that suited up for San Antonio FC in the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs in last Saturday night’s roster with both goalkeeper Matt Cardone and midfielder PC in the starting lineup and substitutes Jose Carlos Merancio and midfielder Ethan Bryant on the substitutes bench. That the side claimed a 3-0 win despite the mass turnover in the squad since last October speaks somewhat to the talent that SAFC acquired to replace key figures, but also to the culture that Head Coach Alen Marcina has looked to instill since taking the reins late in 2019.
“We have our day-to-day processes, we have a number of things that we do that’s built into our team culture,” Marcina told local media this week. “The guys coming in, we have an incredible player leadership group, we’ve established this culture from Day 1 and then obviously that’s something these are day-to-day behaviors and attitudes that you have to live by each day, and the guys coming in they get assistance from their team mentor, they also have some player mentors, and then the players in general help each other out.”
It’s nothing particularly innovative – most clubs will have a player leadership group that will interface directly with coaches and assistants – but the smooth transition SAFC showed in its season debut last weekend was impressive. It will be looking for more of the same on Saturday night as it takes on Real Monarchs SLC at Toyota Field (8:30 p.m. ET | ESPN+ | Preview).
It’s likely Real Monarchs SLC will use some of the experience from Real Salt Lake’s roster during the upcoming Championship season, but the 2019 USL Championship Final winner is certainly making a pivot toward providing opportunities for young talent both from its own academy and overseas as it enters its new season at San Antonio.
The Monarchs made two of the youngest signings in club history this preseason, led by 15-year-old Julio Benitez, who signed professional terms out of the RSL Academy in March. After using experience as a means to balance the side with the likes of Jack Blake, Maikel Chang and Konrad Plewa playing notable roles in the club’s title two seasons ago, now only two members of the signed squad – veteran defender James Moberg and midfielder Sam Brown – are currently 25 years old or over.
Not that there isn’t some interesting talent for Head Coach Jamison Olave to work with. New Zealand winger Max Mata (21 years old) has already made his debut for the Senior National Team, while former Tampa Bay Rowdies winger Malik Johnson (23 years old) will be hoping to make the journey that Chang did before him to RSL’s Major League Soccer squad by impressing this year. How it all comes together after a season that saw the Monarchs win only three times in 16 outings remains to be seen.
After being stifled in their season-opener against Sacramento Republic FC, the LA Galaxy II exploded for five goals on Wednesday night against Las Vegas Lights FC, and had the underlying numbers to back up their performance at Dignity Health Sports Park. Los Dos’ 2.80 Expected Goals (+1 own goal) was the second-highest single-game total in the Championship’s young season according to American Soccer Analysis and evidence of the threat this side can pose when it’s firing on all cylinders.
The Galaxy II will get a chance to build on that in the weekend’s final game against Tacoma Defiance, who make their season debut under new Head Coach Wade Webber (8 p.m. ET | ESPN+). The Defiance have their own crop of talented young forwards at their disposal, including recently capped Puerto Rico international Alec Diaz. That should make it an interesting watch as the Galaxy II go for two wins in a row.