Phoenix Rising FC battled while down to 10 men and pulled out a 2-1 victory against Orange County SC to keep the club's drive for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs moving on Saturday night at Wild Horse Pass. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orellana / P
As the final quarter of the 2021 USL Championship season approached, the weekend’s action in the Western Conference was as much about mentality as it was quality on the field in earning results. Here are five things we took away from the end of Week 22’s action.
If you were looking for an illustration of how adamant Phoenix Rising FC is to claim homefield advantage throughout the USL Championship Playoffs this season, the determination that the side showed in battling while down to 10 men against Orange County SC on Saturday night at Wild Horse Pass to claim a late 2-1 victory might be the perfect example. After a red card to Tate Schmitt had put the side down a man in first-half stoppage time, Phoenix conceded early in the second half as Orange County pulled level, but an 86th minute goal by Darren Mattocks provided a winner in front of another enthusiastic home crowd.
The assist for Mattocks’ goal came from Aodhan Quinn, who alongside fellow central midfielder Kevon Lambert came in for praise from Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz after they helped marshal the side throughout the second half before Quinn’s sixth assist in the past five matches showed the veteran to still be full of running even with the workload he and Lambert had carried over the 90 minutes, and throughout the campaign.
“What can you say about [Kevon] Lambert and Aodhan [Quinn]?” asked Schantz after the game. “The amount of miles those two have put in this season, for them to finish a game like this and for Aodhan to get the assist. [Darren] Mattocks, we didn't think he was going to finish the game because of his hamstring, but we had to use a sub for Tate [Schmitt]. I felt bad taking Arturo [Rodriguez] out because he was playing really well. I told him I'm so sorry. He told me after the game, coach, I understand, I know it's important to the team.”
San Antonio FC’s gas tank could have been close to empty on Saturday night as it finished its cross-country road trip that took it from Utah and a 1-0 win against Real Monarchs SLC the prior weekend to a 2-1 win against the New York Red Bulls II on Wednesday night before heading to the West coast on Saturday to face Sacramento Republic FC. In coming away with another 1-0 win thanks to Kortne Ford’s first goal since arriving on loan from the Colorado Rapids, the side continued to forge a path toward the postseason.
Sacramento tried to jump on San Antonio early and take advantage of the visitors’ potentially tired legs, but an excellent early save by goalkeeper Matt Cardone and then crucial goal line clearance by Connor Maloney allowed SAFC to hold on before Ford’s second-half goal. Now in second place in the Mountain Division, San Antonio will take a few days to recover before another critical game at home to New Mexico United next Saturday night.
“This recent stretch is not only these three games in the past seven days but also seven games in 21 days and we came out on the positive side of that,” said SAFC Head Coach Alen Marcina. “The guys have earned a couple days of rest, but after that all our focus is on New Mexico in front of our home fans, competing and hopefully earning three points.”
New Mexico United's Amando Moreno celebrates with teammate David Najem after scoring in his side's 2-1 victory against Real Monarchs SLC on Saturday night at Isotopes Park. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
There have been numerous ups and downs for New Mexico United’s attack this season, but while the side’s 2-1 victory against Real Monarchs SLC might not illustrate it the win was one of the best attacking displays the side has produced this season. If not for some key misses – including a penalty kick by Devon Sandoval being saved by Monarchs goalkeeper Jeff Dewsnup early in the second half – the scoreline could have been far more lopsided in favor of the hosts as they set a fast tempo from the start to end up outshooting their visitors 26-7 and recording a 4.12xG-0.52xG matchup in Expected Goals.
After the disappointment the side had in its loss to Austin Bold FC the prior weekend – where the side recorded only seven shots – the shift in approach to push the tempo from the opening kickoff paid off handsomely. With a four-point gap to fourth-placed Austin and nine games to go in the regular season for both clubs as they battle for a place in the postseason, Saturday’s performance is one New Mexico must repeat consistently to keep itself in with a chance of a third consecutive playoff berth.
“I honestly think it was our mentality,” said Moreno. “Tonight, we just came out and the first thing we needed to do was start the game that way. I think we started really well, and that keeps kind of pushing the momentum. Even though it was 0-0 in the first half, coming into the second half it helped us out in how we played – and for me – how I combined with Chris [Wehan] and Dev [Sandoval] or even [David Najem] at times to try to find players on the outside, coming in. I just think that was one of the biggest parts – the mentality of it – that whatever we saw that's what we were going to do.”
San Diego Loyal SC’s first win in club history might have come against Tacoma Defiance early in the 2020 season, but this year the tables had turned with Tacoma having claimed victory in all three prior meetings before Sunday’s regular season series finale at Torero Stadium. Thanks to some notable adjustments on the field – and a positive energy boosted by vociferous support in the stands – that enabled the hosts to come away with a 1-0 victory to further boost their playoff aspirations.
“The first half was excellent the way we approached the game and got the goal,” said SD Loyal Head Coach Landon Donovan. “The second half was just a grind, it wasn’t pretty. We didn’t play great but looks like a playoff game, basically. Not the most entertaining game but I thought we did a lot. Every time you face a team that you played before, one of two things happen, you have had success and you continue, or you haven’t had success and you have to make adjustments. We made a few good adjustments that helped us stretch them.”
Couple with Orange County’s defeat on Saturday night in Phoenix, Josh Yaro’s first goal in SD Loyal colors sent the side into sole possession of second place going into Week 23, and with its season series against Rising FC complete, San Diego is set to face a potentially easier run-in than its rivals as it aims for a first postseason berth, and potentially a first home playoff game in November.
Coming off one of their toughest games of the season in midweek, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC wrapped up a run of five games in 15 days on Saturday night on the road against Rio Grande Valley FC, and in the first half the wear of the recent run of games was on display. The visitors at H-E-B Park only recorded two shots overall as the Toros hammered away to take the lead midway through the first half through Emilio Ycaza.
The second half proved a different story, however, as a pair of goals by Hadji Barry – one early to level the game in the 49th minute and then a winner with nine minutes to go – sent the Switchbacks’ to a 2-1 win that could prove a key moment should the side claim its first trip to the USL Championship Playoffs since 2016 at the end of the season.
“When you're physically tired, your mind can go quickly,” said Switchbacks Head Coach Brendan Burke. “We've shown enough resilience to not let it slip so I think that sums up the whole thing. We can go deep in our roster, we can put different combinations of players out. José [Torres] was so good tonight, it was that rotation in midfield on Wednesday when Rony [Argueta] and Stevie [Steven Echevarria] and Bev [Beverly Makangila] stepped up that we were able to rotate the entire three tonight and put a fresh three out. We did just enough to get out of here. But on the road, that's all that matters, just enough.”