The Tampa Bay Rowdies could have a league record in its sights when it visits the Charlotte Independence on June 5 for the first game at the Independence's Memorial Stadium in downtown Charlotte. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
The 2021 USL Championship regular season kicks off its second full month on Wednesday night with a five-game slate of action highlighted by the first meeting between potential Northern California rivals Sacramento Republic FC and Oakland Roots SC.
In what’s a busy month – there are scheduled to be more than 80 games in the next 30 days – here are 10 contests that you should have circled on the calendar.
Two Copa Tejas rivals take to the national stage at Bold Stadium for the next USL on ESPN broadcast with El Paso Locomotive FC still undefeated but looking to make a move up the Mountain Division standings. These two sides didn’t square off last season, and played to a pair of draws in 2019, and their playing styles would seem to potentially offer a high-quality contest featuring standout midfielders such as Xavi Baez and newcomer Emilio Ycaza and Locomotive FC bringing Nick Ross, Richie Ryan and Dylan Mares. There’s notable firepower on both sides as well with Luis Solignac leading El Paso after his arrival this offseason and Sean Okoli doing the same for Austin. With ground to make up on the current front-runners, if there’s a winner here it would go a long way in the drive to move top of the standings.
The third and final new venue for the 2021 USL Championship season is set for this Saturday night as the Charlotte Independence play host to the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Memorial Stadium near downtown Charlotte. Completed at a cost of just over $40 million, the new 10,000-seat stadium will give the Independence a new accessible permanent home in the heart of the city. The Rowdies, though, will be looking to spoil the party and could have some history on the line as it arrives in the Queen City. Should Tampa Bay come through its opening game of the month on Wednesday at the New York Red Bulls II with a win, it would be one victory away from equaling the best start to a USL Championship season with six consecutive wins off the bat. After taking a 3-0 win against the Independence at Al Lang Stadium in the opening game of the season for both sides, the Rowdies could arrive confident, while the Independence will be out for revenge as they look to defend their new home turf.
A passionate home crowd will be on hand as El Paso Locomotive FC hosts Indy Eleven in a big interconference matchup at Southwest University Park on June 9. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC
If the meeting between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Phoenix Rising FC in May was the current favorite to be the matchup for the 2021 USL Championship Final, this interconference meeting between two serious contenders in their respective divisions could be an under-the-radar contender as well. The contrast in styles the two sides have used previously could also be interesting, with El Paso’s possession-style approach and Indy’s willingness to be ready to go on the counterattack on the road offering potential intrigue. There are also some ties between the squads – Macauley King began the 2020 season with Indy before a midseason move to Locomotive FC, where he’s now an established start, while current El Paso playmaker Dylan Mares spent three seasons with Indy at the start of the club’s history and then returned for another brief stint in 2018. Those subplots should only add to what looks like a very tasty game indeed.
When this matchup arrives last season, it provided one of the high-points of the 2020 Championship season with Tyler Pasher’s stoppage-time run and finish grabbing Indy a 1-0 victory at Highmark Stadium. The Canadian standout may have moved on – to continue to thrive with Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo FC – but this interdivision matchup between the Boys in Blue and the Hounds should provide plenty of potential entertainment. Indy in particular has ramped up its attacking options in lieu of Pasher’s departure with Jordan Hamilton and Manuel Arteaga leading the way so far alongside playmaker Gordon Wild. Pittsburgh has welcomed some new faces as well, and forward Russell Cicerone will be a familiar face after scoring in each of the past two seasons against the Boys in Blue for Saint Louis FC. With both teams aiming for a high finish in their respective divisions, and the atmosphere both sets of supporters can bring, this should be a compelling contest on national television.
San Antonio FC and Jose Gallegos fell to New Mexico United when the sides last met in the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs. Their first meeting since then should be a must-see at Isotopes Park. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
In the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs, a single goal by New Mexico United’s Chris Wehan proved the difference in extra time as the visitors recorded the only home defeat San Antonio FC suffered last year. This matchup at Isotopes Park marks the first meeting between the two sides, who are now rivals vying for first place in the Mountain Division. There’s no shortage of potential fireworks in place, with Santiago Patino currently tied for the Championship lead with five goals in his first five games for the club, while New Mexico’s attack has also been bolstered by the arrival of local product Sergio Rivas and Jamaican international Brian Brown. With the bigger-picture goals both sides possess, this should be a very good matchup for fans and neutrals alike.
As we mentioned at the top, the first meeting between these potential rivals is set for Wednesday night, but this contest two-and-a-half weeks from now has all the makings of something special. Start off with the fact that it’s going to be Oakland’s first home opener in the Championship, and that it lands on Juneteenth, which has become a highly significant day in Black American culture that Roots SC as a club is well tuned into. The on-field product should be intriguing as well, with some carryover from the old rivalry Sacramento held with Reno 1868 FC in the form of Oakland’s attacking midfielder Lindo Mfeka and former Republic FC favorite Tyler Blackwood now in Roots SC’s colors. If the opening game between the two is the curtain raiser, then this could be the main event as the rivalry gets into full swing.
Phoenix Rising FC's Santi Moar has scored in six consecutive games going into the month of June. If he continues that streak, he could claim a league record as Rising FC visits San Diego Loyal SC at Torero Stadium on June 19. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orell
Phoenix Rising FC has two meetings with San Diego Loyal SC this month, but it’s this one – which serves as a nice Pacific Division doubleheader with OAKvSAC above – that has our attention. The reason? It’s the game in which Santi Moar could make USL Championship history. Going back to the final game of the 2020 regular season, the Spanish winger has recorded goals in six consecutive regular season games, reeling off five goals in five games to start this campaign. If he’s going to set a Championship record and reach nine consecutive games with a goal, overtaking the mark set by current Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC forward Hadji Barry, the ninth would come in this contest against SD Loyal. There are two more hurdles to get over before then, but this could be a historic individual night for one of the league’s best players.
Birmingham Legion FC will have good memories of its first trip to FIU Stadium. Last season it arrived in Miami and promptly handed a 4-0 defeat to its hosts as Neco Brett and Alex Crognale each scored twice on the road to the postseason. Miami’s got a new look this year, though, and it’s one of a playoff contender after claiming wins in three of its opening five games of the season. That’s in part to the piece it added this offseason, with the acquisition of midfielder Bolu Akinyode via transfer from Birmingham, and with the back-up of Speedy Williams the midfield battle between those two and Legion FC’s Bruno Lapa and Anderson Asiedu among others could be intriguing. While these two teams are in different divisions, there’s also a big-picture element to look at here as well, with any points gained here giving a leg up on the potential one side could have the right to host should these teams meet again later in the season.
Rio Grande Valley FC and FC Tulsa have each made positive starts to the 2021 season, which should make for an entertaining encounter when they meet at H-E-B Park in an interconference clash in June.
When the season began, we expected FC Tulsa to take the next step toward contention and aside from a sizeable bump in the road against Atlanta United 2 it has to sit a point off the Central Division lead. For the Toros, there were also expectations of contention, but maybe not quite as quickly as Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera and his squad have been able to pull off, where then enter June on top of the Mountain Division. A matchup of those two squads in an interconference matchup, then, brings together two of the more interesting storylines of the season at H-E-B Park for a game that should have plenty of entertainment value considering the talent on the field. From Wan Kuzain, Rodrigo Da Costa and a rejuvenated Tyler Deric in goal for the Toros to the quality of Jorge Luis Corrales, Rodrigo Da Costa and Joaquin Rivas in Tulsa’s squad, this one should be worth tuning in for.
Yes, it’s a rematch of the opening night contest at Weidner Field, when New Mexico United fell behind early to come back for a 3-1 victory, but there should be plenty to look forward to when these teams reconvene for their second meeting of the season. For one, the Switchbacks – who’ve only played three games so far this season – should have had a chance to build up the chemistry in their new squad a little more so the attack led by Hadji Barry and Michee Ngalina could have more flow, which could result in another free-flowing game between these two sides. Plus, with New Mexico’s position as one of the favorites to at least advance to the playoffs, if not contend for a top-two place in the Mountain Division, it should give us a yardstick as to whether the Switchbacks are going to be capable of potentially joining them at the end of this season. The atmosphere should be another cracker, and the action on the field can match it, so it should be worth tuning in.
Tag(s): Features Top-10 San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Birmingham Legion FC Austin Bold FC Indy Eleven El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United San Diego Loyal SC The Miami FC Oakland Roots SC