Johnny Rodriguez's bicycle kick finish highlighted Oakland Roots SC's 2-1 win against San Diego Loyal SC on Wednesday night, which moved the side into the playoff positions in the Pacific Division. | Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC
The playoff picture in the USL Championship’s Western Conference took another shift on Wednesday night, particularly in the Pacific Division after key wins for Oakland Roots SC and Sacramento Republic FC. That has set up a big weekend of action across both divisions to wrap up Week 23. Here are five things to watch for over the next two days.
You might have thought there would be a moment to reflect on how far his side had come after Oakland Roots SC moved into fourth place in the Pacific Division on Wednesday night after its 2-1 win against San Diego Loyal SC at Las Positas College, but for Head Coach Jordan Ferrell there was no time like the present to remind his side of what’s next as Roots SC tries to now hold that position and continue to forge on toward the USL Championship Playoffs.
“I tell the boys let’s get ready for Orange County, that’s really all that matter now,” said Ferrell after Wednesday’s win. “We did our business tonight and got the three points we needed to get. It feels good. We struggled early on in the season when we played them but after tying with them a couple weeks ago, we knew we needed to play just as well defensively as we did then. Credit to the guys for getting that three points.”
Oakland’s rise has been one of the stories of the second half of the season, with the side now having won seven of its last 11 outings to pass Tacoma Defiance, which by contrast has suffered four consecutive defeats. Roots SC’s form will be tested as it heads to Southern California to visit Orange County SC on Saturday night at Championship Soccer Stadium, with the hosts looking to maintain their four-point edge over Oakland while taking aim at a top-two finish of their own in a key game in the weekend slate.
Elsewhere within the USL Championship, there’s still at least some intrigue as to the direction of which side will claim the division title, but in the Pacific Division, Phoenix Rising FC is already within reach of clinching the crown – and at least one home playoff game – on Saturday night as it visits Tacoma Defiance at Cheney Stadium. A Rising FC win, plus victories by Oakland Roots SC against Orange County SC and Las Vegas Lights FC against San Diego Loyal SC, would send Rising FC clear of its competition and continue its drive toward the best record in the league.
Rising FC became the first visitor to win at Cheney Stadium against Tacoma this season when it last visited earlier this month as a pair of goals by Darren Mattocks helped pave the way to a 3-1 win. On Saturday night, though, the spotlight will be on the current streaks of Santi Moar – who has scored in five consecutive games – and Aodhan Quinn – who has notched an assist in five games in a row as well. Quinn’s mark is the longest of his career, and only two back of the league record held by former LA Galaxy II standout Raul Mendiola, who notched an assist in seven consecutive games in the 2015 season.
New Mexico United's David Najem and Amando Moreno were part of an incisive attacking display for New Mexico United last Saturday night, something the side needs more of down the final stretch of the regular season. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico
If there was a lesson New Mexico United needed to take away from its 2-1 victory against Real Monarchs SLC last Saturday night, it was that good things happen when the side consistently gets into the penalty area to create chances. The directness the side showed – combined with an impressive incisiveness – resulted in a season-high 20 chances created for the hosts at Isotopes Park and 19 shots from inside the penalty area that if not for an excellent performance by Monarchs goalkeeper Jeff Dewsnup could have resulted in a more lopsided final score.
“I think it was a challenge for us to be a bit more dynamic and play in behind more often, and really be aggressive on the night,” said New Mexico Head Coach Troy Lesesne last Saturday. “We need three points. We're going to go after it.' So, that's what went into that style of play, and we need to continue that throughout the rest of the season.”
New Mexico has gone 3-1-1 in games in which it has recorded at least 10 shots inside the penalty area this season, and with a five-point gap separating the side and Austin Bold FC – which currently sits fourth in the Mountain Division – that aggressiveness needs to be sustained over United’s final nine games of the season. That will be a challenge against a defensively solid San Antonio FC side at Toyota Field on Saturday night, but the early minutes could tell us what we should expect, and whether United can back up its best attacking display of the season with something close to as strong.
Austin Bold FC’s four-game undefeated streak under new Head Coach Ryan Thompson has not only pushed the side into the playoff positions in the Mountain Division, but has impressed fellow Head Coach Brendan Burke, whose Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC side plays host to Bold FC on Saturday night at Weidner Field.
“Austin are entirely different now with Ryan coaching and it’s changed their identity,” said Burke this week. “He’s moved a couple guys like Amobi [Okugo] into their natural positions and he’s kind of cut the team loose. They’re now a lot more aggressive from what I can see so far, so I expect a totally different game from the last time we saw them. They’re not conceding and they’re finding ways to win – they haven’t lost yet. They’re absolutely more dangerous now under Ryan.”
The Switchbacks took a 4-1 victory when the teams last met at Weidner Field on August 28, the last game before Thompson took the reins on the sideline from Marcelo Serrano, who is now serving as the club’s Sporting Director. With four points separating the sides going into Saturday’s game – and Austin holding a game in hand on Colorado Springs – the contest could be an intriguing one as both battle for playoff position.
Sacramento Republic FC produced the result it needed on Wednesday night in a 1-0 win against Tacoma Defiance to move within a point of the playoff positions in the Pacific Division, but as tight as the picture remains for fourth place it needs to back up what was a strong attacking display that was rewarded by Dariusz Formella’s 78th-minute winner on Sunday afternoon against the LA Galaxy II back at Heart Health Park.
“Tonight was always going to be a battle, and it was always going to be gritty,” said Republic FC Head Coach Mark Briggs on Wednesday night. “I’m proud of the players for digging and showing that mentality and togetherness which allowed us to grind out three points.”
Sacramento hasn’t won consecutive games since its opening two games of the 2021 regular season, with the side having gone 0-1-3 in four subsequent victories. With five of the club’s final eight games of the season on home turf, the door seems open for Republic FC to earn a return to the postseason, but the side’s consistency is going to have to rise to meet that moment.