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A potential Championship Final preview, Copa Tejas returns, New Mexico aims to break Phoenix hex | USL Championship Talking Points

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 04/15/22, 1:25PM EDT


Here’s everything you need to know before a loaded Saturday night of action across the league

Louisville City FC and San Diego Loyal SC squared off a season ago with LouCity taking a 2-1 win. Saturday brings the rematch at Torero Stadium with both teams on top of their conferences. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

If this USL Championship weekend was a weekend cinema launch, it would be an early-summer blockbuster Saturday night. From a potential USL Championship Final preview in San Diego, to one of the fiercest rivalries in the Western Conference and the return of the Copa Tejas, there are plenty of storylines across the league this weekend.

Here’s what you need to know before the action kicks off.


When the USL Championship expanded its interconference play this season – building on the success of a year ago – Saturday night’s clash between San Diego Loyal SC and Louisville City FC at Torero Stadium were the sort of games being envisioned.

Just over one month into the season, and we get the top teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences squaring off in a game that not only serves as one of the highlights of a great Saturday slate but could end up being a preview of the 2022 USL Championship Final. For LouCity, which enters the game undefeated through its first six games of the season, it’s an opportunity to continue to build on its strong internal identity as it faces its first game in the Pacific time zone in its history.

“There’s a strong belief in the group right now,” Cruz said. “The culture that is set at this club, you can tell that the new players coming in are integrated and completely bought in. For us, that’s what it’s about.

“As a team comes together and begins to grow with one another, everybody is obviously fighting for a common goal and relationships begin to build. I think certainly from back to front, whether players are starting, or whether players are on the bench or not in the 18, you absolutely have that collective buy-in right now.”


San Diego Loyal SC could have gone into Saturday’s showdown on the back of a solid road victory against Oakland Roots SC on Wednesday night as it twice held the lead against its 10-player hosts at Laney Stadium. For the first time this season, however, the side dropped points from a winning position after Grant Stoneman’s potential late winner was cancelled out by Oakland’s Ottar Magnus Karlsson in the fourth minute of stoppage time that saw the game end in a 2-2 draw.

San Diego has been the highest scoring side in the league this season with 16 goals in its first seven outings. Compare that to Louisville’s defensive record, where the side has recorded shutouts in five of six games and has conceded just twice and you get to the center where the game may be won and lost. For SD Loyal Manager Landon Donovan, however, how the team bounces back after Wednesday’s result is going to be the biggest factor in his side’s potential success.

“The biggest thing for Louisville is physically and emotionally to recover,” Donovan said. “We have to get the physical part right, which we’ll do, our guys are really good pros. Emotionally, we have to get it right, too.”


There might not have been a timelier victory so far this season than El Paso Locomotive FC’s romp against Monterey Bay F.C. last Saturday night at Southwest University Park. This weekend, buoyed by the highest-scoring single game in the club’s history, Head Coach John Hutchinson’s side heads to San Antonio FC for the first official game in this year’s Copa Tejas, which Locomotive FC claimed a season ago for the first time in the all-encompassing Texas rivalry series’ short history.

In the middle of that success was a 2-1-1 record against San Antonio which was in part driven by the club’s 18-year-old standout Diego Luna. The United States U-20 international recorded three goals in four games against San Antonio, including in Locomotive FC’s 2-1 victory that opened the four-game series at Toyota Field. After notching his first goal of the season against Monterey Bay, if Luna can shine brightly once more against San Antonio’s formidable midfield and defensive units, Locomotive FC’s season could be right back on track.  


Phoenix Rising FC and New Mexico United will meet for the sixth time overall on Saturday with New Mexico looking to find their first official win in the series. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orellana / Phoenix Rising FC

In New Mexico United’s history, there might not have been a team that has been more vexing to go up against in its history than Phoenix Rising FC. Since an epic home-and-home series in 2019 that was supplemented by United’s penalty shootout victory in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the two sides have met each regular season with New Mexico still yet to register an official win.

What’s made that all the more painful is that in all four regular season games, United has held a lead, only for Phoenix to find ways to come back and earn victory three times in four. That’s why when the sides square off at Wild Horse Pass on Saturday night, the visitors will enter with all the motivation they need to earn a result.

“This is one of the teams that I would love to beat,” said United defender Sam Hamilton, who spent time on loan with Rising FC from the Colorado Rapids in 2017. “You know, if we are looking around the league at really anybody in our region, I always think there is a little something there. So, yeah, I think we are jacked up and focused and we really want three points.”

New Mexico’s start to this campaign offers some hope – in its Week 2 visit to El Paso Locomotive FC, United came away with a 2-1 win against its other archrival. A repeat result would cement Head Coach Zach Prince’s side as one of the leading contenders in the West after their four-game undefeated start to the season.


Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC has gone about building one of the best starts in the USL Championship’s history on the road in recent weeks, with its victory last weekend at Las Vegas Lights FC its third in row on the road. With the chance to make it six wins in a row overall to start the campaign – and in turn equal the best start previously achieved by the Richmond Kickers (2011) and Rochester Rhinos (2012) – Head Coach Brendan Burke is hoping his side will get a crowd that measures up to the side’s success so far.

“It’s really refreshing to be back,” said Burke, who on Wednesday was named the Championship’s Coach of the Month. “I expect us to have a lot of pop this weekend. … Hopefully the weather cooperates and we get some great support this weekend. This team deserves a full building. The players have done everything we’ve asked them to do. The staff the same. The front office the same. We want to put on a show on Saturday and we want to do it in front of a full house.”

The Switchbacks will face Memphis 901 FC for the second time in their history to try and grab their sixth win in a row, with the two sides having squared off last year at AutoZone Park in a 1-1 draw that saw 2021 Championship MVP Hadji Barry find the net. With the side appearing to have taken the next step up from its return to the playoffs a season ago, Colorado Springs can add to the buzz the club is building early this campaign.


When it comes to attacking partnerships this season, there have been no more prolific duos in the USL Championship than Las Vegas Lights FC’s Danny Trejo and Cal Jennings, and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s Dane Kelly and Albert Dikwa. The duos have each combined for eight goals this season, with the league’s Player of the Month for March in Trejo sitting with a league-high five goals and four assists.

The two sides will meet for the first time on Saturday evening at Cashman Field in what has the potential to be another entertaining contest in the desert. Las Vegas will enter as a home underdog as Pittsburgh arrives with a strong recent history and an undefeated start to the season in tow, but if Lights FC is going to show itself to be a postseason contender this year finding a result in this contest would go a long way to solidifying those credentials.


The Tampa Bay Rowdies will try to break a two-game scoring drought when they play host to FC Tulsa at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

The Tampa Bay Rowdies will go into Saturday’s contest at home to FC Tulsa after being held scoreless in back-to-back league contests for the first time since 2018, but the side is optimistic that a turnaround is coming, and the numbers would indicate that confidence is well-placed. Through six games, the Rowdies are tied for fourth in the Championship with 78 shots, and the side has delivered a cumulative 7.54 Expected Goals mark for its seven goals while only being held below 1.00xG in a game twice.

“We’re creating chances,” said Rowdies assistant coach Jon Stead this week. “We’re pinning teams in. Teams are looking to sit in and be as compact as possible and try to hit us on counters. That kind of respect has been earned over the last couple of years. That’s what this team has been doing long before I’ve been here. Any team that comes into Al Lang, they know they’re going to be in for a game. It’s going to be a difficult evening for them. We can convert some more of our chances. I think that’s the key, and try to get ahead in games, especially at home because that creates a different challenge for the opposition. It’s not as easy to sit in when you’re chasing goals.”

Stead is currently overseeing the side in the absence of Head Coach Neill Collins, who is in England as he works toward his UEFA Pro coaching license. If there’s a team Tampa Bay could get right against, too, it’s Tulsa, with the Rowdies’ having notched a 6-2 victory last postseason when the sides met for the first time in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the USL Championship Playoffs. Tulsa will be aiming to put up a better account for itself in what is a top-four clash in the Eastern Conference going in, but the visitors are coming off giving up four goals to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC last Saturday and have conceded 10 goals overall so far in six games.


Despite the longstanding nature of the series since the 2014 season, it would be a stretch to call the matchups between Orange County SC and Sacramento Republic FC a rivalry compared to other matchups the clubs face each season. The balanced nature of the series as a whole and the notable games that have dotted its path have served as a good litmus test for the season-long possibilities for both sides over the year, however, with Sacramento entering the 23rd all-time meeting with a narrow 9-8-6 edge in the series.

Republic FC has looked strong so far this season with three wins out of four in the league, but all of those have come on home turf at Heart Health Park. The defending title holders haven’t quite hit their stride coming out of the blocks this year, meanwhile, after a 1-0 defeat to San Antonio FC last Saturday. If Sacramento can continue that slow start on Saturday, it would cement Head Coach Mark Briggs’ side as a serious contender after last year’s disappointment and add a little more pressure on Orange County to respond.


Elliot Panicco’s current goals-against average of 1.20 might not indicate it, but by another metric the Indy Eleven goalkeeper has been among the sharpest between the sticks so far this season. With a league-best -1.98 Goals minus Expected Goals mark according to American Soccer Analysis, the 25-year-old Kentucky native is putting in work for the Boys in Blue as they try to find a turnaround under Head Coach Mark Lowry.

Panicco’s play helped his side earn its first victory of the season last weekend against Rio Grande Valley FC at H-E-B Park and offers a foundation behind an experienced defense featuring players such as Mechack Jerome and Bryam Rebellon that helped Lowry find success at El Paso Locomotive FC. As Atlanta United 2 comes to Michael A. Carroll Stadium on Saturday, Panicco could be key again as Indy looks for its first consecutive victories since May last year.


Oakland Roots SC's Ottar Magnus Karlsson celebrates his stoppage-time equalizer against San Diego Loyal SC on Wednesday night. | Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC

It’s been a challenging start to the season for Oakland Roots SC and new Head Coach Juan Guerra, but if there’s anything that can be learned from the club’s past three outings – all drawn against teams currently in the postseason positions – then the fight within the team is going to lead to results arriving sooner rather than later.

That was driven home by Wednesday night’s 2-2 draw against current Western Conference leader San Diego Loyal SC, where despite being down to 10 men for almost the final half-hour, the hosts battled back twice to earn a point. While Guerra pointed to moments his side needed to improve in – including allowing SD Loyal to regain the lead on a corner kick in the final minute before Ottar Magnus Karlsson’s equalizer in the fourth minute of stoppage time – the spirit Roots SC is showing is heartening to the first-time manager.

“The team had the character and the courage to keep fighting until the last minute,” said Guerra on Wednesday. “They got the goal and deserved it.

“The truth is that no one is going to give us absolutely anything. We’re not going to get anything for free. It’s time to start getting it for ourselves because we’re not going to get it from anybody else.”

The next opportunity for that arrives on Saturday night against a Loudoun United FC side that is on a two-game losing run after a bright start to its campaign. Given the circumstances, Oakland may not get a better chance to pick up a much-needed first victory on home turf.

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