Oakland Roots SC's victory on Wednesday night in Las Vegas gave the side four wins in its last five outings, keeping it in with a shot at the USL Championship Playoffs with 12 games to in the regular season. | Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC
The playoff picture in the USL Championship’s Mountain Division got even more crowded in midweek to set up a big Friday night game in Texas, but there’s plenty more to keep an eye on in the Western Conference this weekend. Here are five talking points to watch for.
The odds are still against Oakland Roots SC reaching the USL Championship Playoffs in its first season in the league, but Wednesday night’s 1-0 win on the road against Las Vegas Lights FC thanks to Johnny Rodriguez’s first goal for the club continued to build belief for the side after its tough trip to Tampa Bay last Friday night. With 12 games to go, there’s a seven-point gap to be made up for Roots SC in the Pacific Division to the fourth-placed Tacoma Defiance, which makes games like Saturday’s home contest with San Diego Loyal SC at Laney Stadium key to the route Oakland is going to have to navigate.
Oakland’s contest with San Diego is the first of four in a row for Roots SC at home, with the second coming against the Defiance next Wednesday night. Should the hosts pick up all three points – no sure thing, with San Diego also coming off a positive 4-2 victory last Sunday afternoon against the LA Galaxy II – it would pull Roots SC within four of Tacoma and raise the stakes ahead of their third meeting this season. As good as Oakland has looked outside of its defeat to Tampa Bay of late, it should make for an intriguing matchup on the field even before you add in the postseason implications it has for the hosts.
With one-third of the regular season to go, what all five teams currently battling for three playoff places below El Paso Locomotive FC in the Championship’s Mountain Division are looking for is some positive momentum. With Austin Bold FC and New Mexico United set to square off on Friday night at Bold Stadium as the two teams currently below the playoff line – with both having ended lengthy winless streaks in their last outings – the team that emerges with a win will take a big step forward in their postseason aim.
New Mexico’s win at home to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC last Saturday night was notable for the pieces finally seeming to fit together, giving United’s attack more dynamism and penetration as it knocked in three goals for only the fourth time this season. United put up a season-high nine shots on target in the contest as the right-sided combination of Sergio Rivas and Josh Suggs – with help from the rotating duo of Isidro Martinez and Chris Wehan – seemed to find the chemistry that had been lacking at times this season. Maintaining that could be the biggest key to New Mexico sustaining its success.
For Austin, though, the change bringing Ryan Thompson in as Head Coach while Marcelo Serrano moved upstairs to be the club’s Sporting Director, also produced a change in system. After limited appearances this season, the introduction of Jermaine Taylor for only his sixth start of the season into a three-man back line and a shift of Amobi Okugo into the center of midfield gave the visitors a new look, and a more direct approach, in a 2-1 win against San Antonio FC. Bold FC was energized after its Tuesday night result and will be looking for more of the same as United comes to visit.
Rio Grande Valley FC was unable to break out of its winless run last weekend, and now heads to face a big test from Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Christian Inoferio / Rio Grande Valley FC
There was a lot to like about Rio Grande Valley FC’s performance against Loudoun United FC last Saturday night, but the end result of a 1-1 draw at H-E-B Park wasn’t the reward the Toros were looking for. Instead, the side’s winless streak reached six games and put the side in danger of dropping below the playoff line in the Mountain Division for the first time this season.
The Toros now head to Colorado Springs on Saturday night aiming for a similar performance, but better result. In order to do that, though, it will need to try and slow down a Switchbacks’ attack that rolled up five goals when the teams last met and leads the Championship with 49 goals overall this season, with the left flank in particular bringing the visitors joy in that encounter. What you may see is a more compact midfield – and potentially deeper-sitting back line – than the approach Colorado Springs was effectively able to get in behind in transition on August 14. If RGVFC can pull that part off, the attacking pieces could provide a similar threat that it posed in that same game, and against Loudoun last week.
Veteran forward Leandro Carrijo has only played 291 minutes this season for El Paso Locomotive FC, but the impact he’s made has been substantial. With three goals and two assists this season, the Brazilian forward has provided game-changing moments as a substitute, including last Saturday night’s equalizer in the club’s 2-2 draw against Orange County SC that helped El Paso avoid back-to-back defeats for the first time this season.
The 36-year-old has certainly seen a lot in his career, playing both in his native country and in China before landing at Mexican Second Division club Celaya in 2013. Two years later he came to the Borderplex with FC Juarez, where he scored 72 goals in 164 appearances, before making the move to El Paso last season. While he may not have the capacity to be a game-in and game-out starter, for Head Coach Mark Lowry – who is one month older than his veteran forward – the value that Carrijo’s experience brings has been notable in late-game situations.
“We know bringing Leandro off the bench – whether we’re up 1-0 to help us maintain the lead or whether we need a goal for him to come on and score like he did – is what’s best for the team,” El Paso Head Coach Mark Lowry told KTSM’s Andy Morgan. “He has embraced it because he’s a true professional. He’s one of the best professionals that I’ve ever worked with, frankly. I’m sure he’d like to play more minutes, just like everyone would, but he has a role on the team that I think is one of the most important out of the whole group.”
One of the challenges Orange County SC has faced at times this season has been injuries along the back line, which at times necessitated a shift of former United States Men’s National Team player Michael Orozco outside to full back, or even into central midfield. What the past three games have seen under interim Head Coach Richard Chaplow is a re-establishment of the partnership between Orozco and Rob Kiernan, which has helped steady the side in its bid for a return to the postseason in November.
The duo sit 1-2 on the team in minutes played this season – Orozco has started all 22 of OCSC’s games, while Kiernan has started all 20 of his appearances – and have been among the stronger performers game-in and game-out for the side in the process. Kiernan ranks second on the team to standout forward Ronaldo Damus with a +4.81 G+ rating while Orozco isn’t far behind at +3.93, putting both in the Top 11 center backs in the Championship in that metric according to American Soccer Analysis.
As Orange County plays host to Las Vegas Lights FC on Saturday night with a chance to avenge the 3-1 defeat it suffered at Cashman Field in late July, Orozco and Kiernan is a good defensive foundation to build on.