Rio Grande Valley FC's Elvis Amoh (9) and Wan Kuzain (21) were in the middle of the Toros' 2-1 victory on Sunday against San Antonio FC that saw the side move to 3-0-0 this season. | Photo courtesy Rio Grande Valley FC
There’s an interesting look to the top of the USL Championship’s Pacific Division four weeks into the season, and two unblemished records left as well. Here are five talking points coming out of this weekend’s action.
In the 10 prior meetings to Sunday night’s South Texas Derby between Rio Grande Valley FC and San Antonio FC, the Toros had claimed victory only once while suffering five defeats at the hands of its Copa Tejas rivals. After coming away with a 2-1 victory at H-E-B Park behind goals from Wan Kuzain and Christian Sorto, though, the direction of the rivalry might have started to take a different turn with the Toros continuing to prove themselves early postseason contenders in the club’s new era.
Now sitting at the top of the Mountain Division with three wins out of three, RGVFC is already exceeding the expectations the return of Wilmer Cabrera as Head Coach and an influx of new talent could bring the side. While the veterans shone in its first two outings, it was the 22-year-old Kuzain and 21-year-old Sorto that stole the spotlight against San Antonio with impressive finishes and all-around performances for the hosts.
“It felt incredible getting your first goal with a new club, especially in a derby,” said Sorto, who had spent his first two professional seasons at Loudoun United FC. “It’s one of the most important games in the season. so, to get a goal and three points feels good. Especially three back-to-back-to-back games at home, when you win them all, feels good. Really good.”
There’s another big test on the horizon for RGVFC next Saturday night as it visits El Paso Locomotive FC at Southwest University Park. With the start the Toros have made, that should be appointment viewing for neutral fans as well as those of both clubs.
“They were very focused, concentrated and we knew that every game now, on and on, is going to be more difficult for us,” said Cabrera. “We need to step up and we need to improve individually and collectively. So far, we did it, we did it and I think we dominated the game, no doubt about it and we kept the ball possession, we moved the ball. We could have scored more goals but at the end we scored one more than our opponent and we took the victory.”
It had been a long time coming for New Mexico United’s fans, players, and staff, but Saturday night’s 3-1 victory before 8,647 fans at Isotopes Park in the club’s first game back on home turf since the end of the 2019 regular season proved every bit the night everyone was expecting.
“I challenged these guys in the pre-game: We got a lot of praise last year for going on the road,” said United Head Coach Troy Lesesne. “Everybody said ‘Man, what an unbelievable job you guys did as road warriors,’ but I think what gets lost there is the commitment our fans made in 2020. Because there is understandable circumstance for them to pull away if they made that choice. That would be reasonable. But they didn’t. They leaned in more and committed more – our fanbase did – in 2020 with no home matches. So, I told them it’s our responsibility. We have a duty to go out tonight and put everything we have into securing three points, and they did that.”
The night also brought back the potential United showed during preseason as its attack fired impressively to put away a Bold FC side that showed flashes on Saturday and should be expected to improve as it progresses this season. For hometown boy Sergio Rivas, though, the buzz of recording the club’s first goal back in his first home game in the club’s colors was a memory that will last a lifetime.
“There’s no words to describe,” said Rivas. “It’s been a long time coming, being able to perform for my people and my city. You know, it’s truly a blessing. It was one of those moments – when I scored – when you just don’t feel anything. You’re floating and it was an amazing moment. I’m serious. You’re just floating, and the fans are yelling. I’m just happy to be able to do this for my city and my hometown.”
With the opening of Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC’s new 8,000-seat downtown home coming up this weekend, you maybe couldn’t have asked for a better outing than the one Head Coach Brendan Burke’s side put on in a 4-0 victory against Sporting Kansas City II on Friday night that saw Michee Ngalina show why there were such high expectations for what he could bring the side this season.
The Congolese forward – who had played previously for Burke at the Philadelphia Union II – was a menace throughout as he recorded one goal and two assists while constantly putting pressure on the host’s back line. According to American Soccer Analysis, Ngalina’s combined Expected Goals and Expected Assists total on the night of 2.64 were the highest by an individual player so far this season, illustrating the threat he posed, and will pose other defenses moving forward.
“I just put myself into good positions and tried to make [Sporting Kansas City] run all the time," said Ngalina after the game. “I got the opportunity to get two assists and score one goal. I feel so good about the game and we need to keep going.”
Ngalina’s likely matchup against veteran New Mexico United left back Josh Suggs and the help he’s provided by the rest of United’s defense could end up being one of the key matchups this Friday, with the game overall one of the must-see games in Week 5.
Tacoma Defiance's Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez has been part of the side's strong start to the season, scoring the game-winner on Sunday against Orange County SC. | Photo courtesy Charis Wilson / Tacoma Defiance
Hands up if you had the LA Galaxy II and Tacoma Defiance sitting 1-2 in the Pacific Division standings at any point of this season? While that’s likely to change before long with Phoenix Rising FC and Sacramento Republic FC lurking a point behind both sides, it’s hard not to be impressed with how both club’s have started the new campaign.
Of course, finding success wouldn’t be new for Los Dos. They’ve reached the USL Championship Playoffs each of the past two seasons and have looked sharp – especially Jorge Hernandez – in their early games, including Friday night’s 2-0 win against Real Monarchs SLC on the road. Going three games undefeated after Sunday’s 1-0 home win against Orange County SC is something new for Tacoma, though, and could be a sign of the growing maturation the side has undergone through its growing pains the past two seasons.
“It’s hard to pin one thing down, but I’d have to say the mentality of the team has been strong,” said Defiance Head Coach Wade Webber on Sunday. “It was a difficult start, we knew it would be hard to play three games in eight days, we certainly didn’t expect to be two wins and a draw, but we did expect to fight. The expectation that’s existed frankly since I came in this program with [John Hutchinson], it’s been around I just think there’s a little more maturity about the team and that can help in difficult situations that can take you through those moments where you might feel that we are physically out matched it’s not the size of dog in the fight it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
Orange County should be expected to improve from its opening outing of the season, but with San Diego Loyal SC and Las Vegas Lights FC both faltering early on, there could be a window of opportunity for Tacoma this season to taste its first playoff action since its inaugural season in 2015.
While Sunday night left Rio Grande Valley FC flying, for the defeated San Antonio FC the disappointment wasn’t necessarily with the fact the side came out on the short end of a 2-1 result, but that the side didn’t put out the performance it needed to against arguably its biggest rival.
"It’s upsetting because we didn’t play our best,” said SAFC defender Sam Gleadle. “It was a war, and we knew it was going to be a battle coming in here, but it’s going to happen. We’re going to lose some games and sometimes you don’t play well, but now we have to analyze because we have another test on Saturday. We’ll move on and reflect on it and be better next time.”
There were positives for SAFC to take from the game, including the first appearance this season for 2020 Championship Young Player of the Year finalist Jose Gallegos, who came on as a halftime substitute after missing the opening two games with an injury. As hard as the battle was, though, San Antonio is going to have to dust itself off for another challenging contest next Saturday when Birmingham Legion FC and its now fully-formed attack arrives at Toyota Stadium.