El Paso Locomotive FC took its fifth victory in the past six games on Saturday night against Real Monarchs SLC to move six points clear in the Mountain Division. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC
The USL Championship’s Western Conference was action-packed this past weekend with some outstanding goals and notable results across both the Mountain and Pacific Divisions. Here are five things we took away from the slate of games.
There’s a good debate to be had as to which top six has the better depth in the USL Championship this season between the Atlantic and Mountain Divisions, but with every team in the latter having at least 20 points through the end of Week 15’s action it’s going to show how impressive El Paso Locomotive FC’s recent run of form – which saw it take its fifth win in the past six games on Saturday night against Real Monarchs SLC – is proving.
That El Paso has pushed its way to the top – now sporting a six-point lead in the division after Rio Grande Valley FC’s loss to Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night – isn’t necessarily a surprise; Head Coach Mark Lowry’s side entered the season as favorites to finish on top and with only one loss this campaign has done little to dissuade anyone of that prediction. The way the team is going about its work – earning a point on the road in New Mexico before back-to-back wins in four days against San Antonio FC and the Monarchs – as part of a stretch of five games in 15 days that wraps up this week is showing the belief within the squad that more success is to come.
“Today was Final No. 14 of the season against Real Monarchs,” said Lowry after Luis Solignac scored twice to lead his side on Saturday night. “On Wednesday, it will be Final No. 15 of the season against San Antonio. That’s the kind of mentality that we have and that’s how you keep accumulating points across the season which ultimately leads you to where you want to be.”
San Antonio had to dust itself off after its midweek defeat to El Paso, but it did so in about as impressive manner as you can with a 3-0 win against Austin Bold FC on Saturday night that saw the visitors return to the form that had earned it back-to-back wins prior as Nathan Fogaca and Jose Gallegos continued to shine with a goal apiece.
“I think the resilience of this group is incredible,” said SAFC Head Coach Alen Marcina. “We've had to face a number of challenges and adversity, and the guys remain confident, on the front foot, and give their all. I'm incredibly proud of the collective.”
That resilience is going to be tested again this week with a tough two-game trip that sees San Antonio first face a rematch with Locomotive FC on the road at Southwest University Park on Wednesday night and then head for a South Texas Derby against Rio Grande Valley FC on Sunday. As challenging as the Mountain Division’s playoff race is becoming, SAFC will need to keep its momentum going but if it can do so it could find itself in a very strong position by this time next week.
“It gives us a lot of confidence to bounce back like this, and we have to keep going,” said SAFC midfielder Emil Cuello, who also found the net from the penalty spot in Austin. “We're not happy with just this, we're not satisfied, and we want to keep going and keep getting wins on the road.”
Aodhan Quinn gets congratulated by his Phoenix Rising FC teammates after scoring the second goal in the club's 3-1 victory against Rio Grande Valley FC on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orellana / Phoenix Rising FC
Given the numerous options he has at his disposal, Phoenix Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz has plenty of ways to try and balance his lineup on a give night. This Saturday’s midfield trio that saw Kevon Lambert sit deep while allowing Arturo Rodriguez and Aodhan Quinn to connect in the center and join the attack provided a balance that proved key in unbalancing a good midfield unit in Rio Grande Valley FC on the way to a 3-1 victory at Wild Horse Pass. Quinn found the net – the second of the side’s three goals – while Rodriguez had two assists and seven key passes and brought a balance to the side that was impressive in action.
“Aodhan’s vision, his ability to direct traffic and slow the game down at times, that matched well with Arturo’s [Rodriguez] willingness to dribble at people,” said Schantz. “There’s a good balance there.”
Phoenix is now a perfect 10-0-0 this season when it scores first and sits with the most points in the Western Conference, only a point back of Louisville City FC for the most points in the Championship with two games in hand. As the side heads to Oakland on Wednesday, we should expect more of the same from the defending Western Conference Title holder.
New Mexico United has gone three games without a goal after Sunday afternoon’s 0-0 draw against the Tacoma Defiance at Cheney Stadium, and even though there were some prime opportunities for the returning Amando Moreno after his 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup duties with El Salvador in the final 30 minutes, a key stop by Defiance goalkeeper Andy Thomas and a moment that seemed to see Moreno brought down soon after only for no penalty kick to be awarded, United wasn’t able to create enough penetrative attacking movement overall to break down Tacoma’s resistance.
“We have to create more moments like that,” United Head Coach Troy Lesesne told the Albuquerque Journal’s Glen Rosales. “If we have another two or three chances like that, one of them is going to fall that way. We can’t wait on a decision on a penalty, but trying to create more to give us a chance to score goals.”
The difficulty for New Mexico was illustrated in Sunday’s box score. While the visitors outshot the Defiance 15-7, 11 of those efforts came from outside the penalty area, including a cluster of shots from just outside the top of the penalty area where the Defiance defense racked up four blocked shots in addition to the two efforts that landed on target. Almost 44 percent of New Mexico’s shots this season have come from beyond the penalty area overall, and while that’s seen the side sit tied for the most goals from outside the penalty area this season with seven, it’s also tied for sixth-fewest goals inside the box with 12.
When you think about Corey Hertzog as a goalscorer, you’re probably thinking about clever movement to create space in the penalty area and finding ways to get on the end of crosses and through-balls. Since the Championship partnered with Opta before the 2017 season as its official statistics provider, 41 of Hertzog’s 44 regular season goals have come from within the penalty area, as have 211 of his 304 shots.
So that’s what made his goal on Sunday – as he celebrated his 31st birthday – against the LA Galaxy II such a rarity, with his clipped finish from 45 yards out over Los Dos goalkeeper Justin vom Steeg providing the early strike the visitors were looking for in a 2-0 win at Dignity Health Sports Park.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done that from that far out,” Hertzog said. “It was a lucky pass I got before sending it and the ‘keeper was out and I was able to take advantage of that.”
Hertzog’s goal was his 70th regular-season tally in the Championship for his career, putting him only two back of Jorge Herrera for second all-time in league history. We might not get as spectacular a finish to reach that landmark, but if Hertzog can get on track then it will make San Diego that much more dangerous as this season goes on.