El Paso Locomotive FC and attacking midfielder Diego Luna will have a sellout crowd to perform before on Saturday night as it looks to rebound from its first loss of the season. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC
The holiday weekend in the USL Championship’s Western Conference brings us two of the biggest rivals squaring off, and more than will further shape the race for the postseason further down the line. Here are five things to watch for in Saturday and Sunday night’s action.
El Paso Locomotive FC’s 18-game regular-season undefeated streak may have come to an end on Wednesday night against Rio Grande Valley FC, but the side will not have long to dwell on it with another big game coming up on Saturday night at Southwest University Park as New Mexico United visits in the renewal of one of the best rivalries in the Championship right now.
Locomotive FC got a late equalizer at home when these sides met for the first time back at the start of May with Leandro Carrijo the hero then in the fifth minute of stoppage time after Devon Sandoval had put the visitors ahead. El Paso went from strength to strength after that result and hadn’t trailed in a contest until Wednesday night’s loss to the Toros, which also stood as the first time this season Locomotive FC had conceded more than one goal in a game.
Now the side has a different streak to maintain having gone undefeated in its last 11 home regular-season contests, and it will have a sellout crowd backing it as it goes up against its regional rival. New Mexico was the last visiting team to taste victory at Southwest University Park on July 24, 2020, and with the two teams separated by only one point in the standings this is setting up to be a big game for the hosts.
It’s one thing to struggle for results early in a season – we’ve already seen some teams expected to be contenders hit bumps in the road over the first quarter of the 2021 campaign – but for Sacramento Republic FC the club’s current six-game winless streak is starting to become a major concern. As the side heads to face San Diego Loyal SC on Saturday evening (7 p.m. ET | ESPN2) for its first nationally televised game this season, its underlying numbers don’t paint a pretty picture.
Sacramento has scored only nine goals in eight games and sits with a -4 goal differential after its 2-1 defeat to Phoenix Rising FC last Saturday night at Heart Health Park. In some circumstances, you could point to this being a run of misfortune, but the numbers right now appear to indicate that this is what Sacramento is. Its current Expected Goal Differential is at -3.14, while its Expected Points for the season (7.90) is almost running almost parallel to the seven points the club has currently according to American Soccer Analysis.
That’s a worrying trend for a club that has reached the postseason each of its previous seven seasons, and one that is going to need to change soon. Facing a San Diego Loyal SC side that currently sports the longest winning streak in the Championship at four games is going to be a major challenge for Republic FC, but one that it might need to come through to get some belief that things are going to turn out OK in the end.
New Mexico United returns to Southwest University Park for the second time this season aiming to turn things around defensively after conceding six goals in its past two outings. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC
Everything seemed to be under control for New Mexico United on Wednesday in its visit to Real Monarchs SLC, with Daniel Bruce and Andrew Tinari each finding the net inside the opening 25 minutes. But then, suddenly, things started to go wrong, as the side suffered a second consecutive defeat after the Monarchs rallied for a 3-2 victory that left United still sitting in fourth place in the Mountain Division standings.
New Mexico has now conceded six goals over its past two games as it heads to face El Paso Locomotive FC on Saturday night at Southwest University Park. United Head Coach Troy Lesesne believes the side needs to take greater control of the game’s flow instead of the back-and-forth contests its played recently against both the Monarchs and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, which abruptly ended a three-game shutout streak the side had built previously.
“We have to take ownership over the idea of when the ball is going back and forth, back and forth, that's a tough game to play,” said Lesesne to local media. “That's not our style of play. We want to make sure we're in control.”
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC saw both its three-game winning streak and Hadji Barry’s seven-game scoring streak come to an end on Thursday night in a 2-0 defeat to Orange County SC, but Switchbacks Head Coach Brenden Burke believes the quick turnaround to Sunday’s home contest against Real Monarch SLC could be just what his side needs to quickly put a tough night in front of goal behind it.
“We have to control what we can control so it's about taking care of their bodies, and getting good rest,” said Burke after Thursday’s game. “But it can help definitely I mean when you have that taste in your mouth, when you create that much and then walk away with nothing, you want nothing more than to get back on the field. I'm sure half those guys, mentally anyways, would want to get back on that field tonight if we let them.”
The Switchbacks could still have a chance to move into second place pending the result between El Paso Locomotive FC and New Mexico United as it faces its Rocky Mountains rival. With Barry set to celebrate his 100th regular-season in the Championship, and still having a chance to tie Chandler Hoffman’s record of the fastest player to 50 goals in the league’s regular-season history, the chance to bounce back is one the Switchbacks will likely embrace.
With the LA Galaxy II having to visit Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night, there’s a big opportunity for Tacoma Defiance to regain its spot in the top four places in the Pacific Division when it visits Las Vegas Lights FC (10:30 p.m. ET | ESPN+), but it may only accomplish that aim if it learns from its prior trip to Cashman Field this season.
Back on June 5, Tacoma headed to Nevada still undefeated on the season but got overwhelmed by the hosts as Lights FC got on the front foot early and never really relinquished control on the way to a 2-0 victory that saw Las Vegas own an 18-4 shot advantage against its visitors. The Defiance haven’t typically been fast starters this season – the side has recorded only three goals and 28 total shots this season in the opening half of games – but setting the tempo early and finding the opening goal would be a major step toward avenging that prior defeat and picking up a first road win of the campaign.