New Mexico United's Chris Wehan registered career-highs in shots (9) and shots on target (5) in his side's 4-2 victory against San Antonio FC on Wednesday night. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
After a hard-fought collection of games in midweek, the final two playoff places in the Western Conference could be clinched this weekend in a big slate of games across the next three nights. Here are five storylines to follow as the action progresses.
If you wanted a sense of the urgency being felt by New Mexico United in the club’s 4-2 victory against San Antonio FC on Wednesday night, you needed only to look at the performance and output of attacking midfielder Chris Wehan. The standout playmaker, who returned to the club in midseason after starting the campaign with Orange County SC, recorded a single-game career high with nine shots and five shots on target as he drove the team forward in pursuit of a crucial three points at Isotopes Park.
Combined with Austin Bold FC’s 3-0 defeat at El Paso Locomotive FC on Wednesday night, United can now clinch its third consecutive postseason berth on Saturday with a win against Rio Grande Valley FC at H-E-B Park.
“The most important thing is just to get results,” said Wehan on Wednesday night. “Coming off of a win feels great, especially with where we're at in the season. I'm just doing what I can and just trying to get in the right spots and do everything in my control to help this team win. And, you know, like I said, it's clicking right now. It's exciting going into these next few games with the players we have.”
Wehan could be the most important figure in United’s lineup right now. On Wednesday night it was revealed that El Salvador international Amando Moreno will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, while on Friday morning the club published a video in which Devon Sandoval explained his recent absence from the squad after being diagnosed with a pair of arterial blood clots in his heart that were discovered after he felt pressure in his chest and went to have hospital tests performed.
While Ilija Ilic has produced two goals in two games in Sandoval’s absence, Wehan could have to carry a broad attacking burden that on Wednesday he appeared more than capable of bearing.
Phoenix Rising FC announced on Thursday a contract extension for Head Coach Rick Schantz that will keep him at the club through the 2024 USL Championship season, and given his record of success so far, it’s not hard to understand why. In fact, Schantz recently equaled the most victories earned by a Head Coach in their first 100 games in the Championship’s regular season with a record of 66-19-15 after the club’s 1-0 win against Orange County SC on October 2.
Schantz’s mark equaled that of former Orlando City SC Head Coach Adrian Heath – who now leads Minnesota United FC in Major League Soccer – with the Lions posting a record of 66-12-22 in Heath’s first 100 games in the league, which almost spanned the Championship’s first four seasons from 2011-14. Given the evolution of the league from then until now, however, it’s possible to argue that Schantz’s achievement has been greater, with a higher level of competition across the league visible in the play and number of players now being selected from national team duty throughout the Championship.
With Rising FC looking to clinch the best record in the Western Conference on Saturday night at home to Sacramento Republic FC – where a win would put the side clear of Mountain Division title-winner El Paso Locomotive FC on 68 points – the lone thing Schantz now has to add to join Heath and others is a USL Championship Title to his resume.
El Paso Locomotive FC rebounded in impressive fashion on Wednesday night in a 3-0 win against Austin Bold FC that extended its undefeated streak to 24 games at Southwest University Park. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC
There has been a lot to admire about El Paso Locomotive FC’s 2021 season, but one of the best attributes the side has been able to call on is its resiliency, which was on display once again on Wednesday night as it took a 3-0 victory against Austin Bold FC to extend its undefeated streak at Southwest University Park to 24 games. The performance, which saw both Luis Solignac and Josue Aaron Gomez notch a goal and assist, continued the trend of the side rebounding after a defeat, which earlier his season saw El Paso take a 2-1 victory against New Mexico United on July 3 and then rallied late to take a 2-2 draw on the road against Orange County SC after its prior two losses in the campaign.
“It’s great to bounce back with the clean sheet and three goals,” said Locomotive FC Head Coach Mark Lowry. “It was the response we were looking for. There was an opportunity for the guys tonight to do that, so I was excited for them going into the game. They had an opportunity to put the train back on track after a tough game a couple of days ago. They did it really well.”
El Paso last suffered back-to-back defeats early in the 2020 season against New Mexico United at home and Phoenix Rising FC on the road. The loss to Phoenix was the last the side suffered in that regular season, with El Paso now sitting on a 25-3-13 record in 41 games since that result in the regular season. As it prepares to host OKC Energy FC on Sunday night, the two-time Western Conference Finalist could be ready to make another serious run at its first silverware.
The USL Championship Playoffs aren’t here for another two weekends, but the intensity of games such as Orange County SC’s 1-0 victory against San Diego Loyal SC illustrated the manner in which the atmosphere surrounding postseason contests has already arrived on Wednesday night as OCSC held off its visitors at Championship Soccer Stadium to remain in with a chance of taking second place in the Pacific Division and earning a home playoff game to open the playoffs.
“For sure it's a little bit of a playoff mentality tonight, you know we know if we don't win the game that second is out of reach, and we want a home playoff game if we can,” said OCSC interim Head Coach Richard Chaplow. “It's also against San Diego in the head-to-head was up for grabs, so you know it's great to have the bragging rights over them and does it matter how we do it, you know, we're a team full of resilience and character and we showed that again tonight.”
Orange County plays its home finale on Saturday night against Las Vegas Lights FC with a chance to put pressure on San Diego, which it now sits just a point behind with two games to go in the season. Should OCSC take its third win out of four meetings against Lights FC this season, it would move into second ahead of SD Loyal’s game on Sunday afternoon against Oakland Roots SC and have a chance to stay there with Oakland in need of a victory to keep its postseason chances alive.
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC has a chance to put pressure on San Antonio FC on Friday night as it visits Real Monarchs SLC at Zions Bank Stadium with the Switchbacks and SAFC level on 48 points with two games left to play and the season finale against each other to come on October 30 at Toyota Field. The assignment against the Monarchs – who have long been eliminated from playoff contention – might appear the easier one this weekend for the two sides as San Antonio hosts Austin Bold FC, but Colorado Springs Head Coach Brendan Burke is wary of what that elimination has meant for Real as it closes out its season.
“They’re playing with complete freedom,” said Burke this week. “I’ve been on that side of it before with a really young team, and they have talent, and they can hurt you in a number of different ways. There’s really nothing on the line for them and when they play with real freedom that makes them that much more dangerous.”
The Monarchs handed a 4-3 defeat to Bold FC in their last outing, and the Switchbacks were held to a 0-0 draw two weeks ago when the teams last met at Zions Bank Stadium after Colorado Springs had won their prior two meetings at Weidner Field. With Hadji Barry one goal from moving into sole possession of the Championship’s single-season scoring record, the visitors will be looking to put in an attacking but controlled display on the road to pick up a key three points.