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USL Championship Talking Points | Week 9

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 05/09/22, 12:41PM EDT

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Phoenix makes its chances count, Monterey Bay gets a delightful debut, and the rest you need to know from this weekend


Phoenix Rising FC's Greg Hurst scored twice to lead his side to a crucial 3-0 victory against San Antonio FC on Saturday at Wild Horse Pass. | Photo courtesy Phoenix Rising FC

With game-changing late goals, big saves and finishes and a successful opening night at the USL Championship’s newest soccer-specific stadium, there was plenty to take from the past weekend of action as Week 9 of the regular season came to a conclusion.

Here what we learned from the past three days.

1. PHOENIX RIDES THE BUMPS FOR CRUCIAL VICTORY

The contrast between the first meeting between Phoenix Rising FC and San Antonio FC in Texas in early April and this past Saturday’s contest couldn’t have been greater. But, when the dust settled at Wild Horse Pass with Phoenix holding a 3-0 victory, the result couldn’t have been more important for the hosts.

“San Antonio was very good in the first half. They went through us pretty easily. There was a lot of emergency defending,” said Phoenix Head Coach Rick Schantz. “There was a special effort from Greg [Hurst] to get the second goal. We did struggle a bit defensively, but they locked it down. This may not be the prettiest team we’ve ever had but they’re fighters. They will throw their body in front of anything. They’ll battle.”

Phoenix’s victory came thanks to the execution in both penalty areas. From Greg Hurst’s two goals – of which Hurst said of the second, “I don’t think I’ve ever scored many better than that” – to the seven-save shutout produced by Ben Lundt – his second game-winning performance in net this campaign after Rising FC’s 1-0 win at home to New Mexico United three weeks ago – Phoenix delivered where SAFC didn’t. Thanks to that, they’re still in touch with the Western Conference leaders.

2. FINISHING DRAWS A BLANK FOR SAN ANTONIO 

Defeat for San Antonio came with silver linings. The visitors outshot their hosts 25-23 and won the Expected Goals battle 2.39 to 2.35. The performance was everything they had hoped to deliver in the first meeting between the sides.

What didn’t arrive was the finishing that had seen SAFC put up six goals against Monterey Bay F.C. the weekend prior, which left the visitors with a result they might have otherwise deserved.

“We did a lot of great things,” said SAFC Head Coach Alen Marcina. “The type of opportunities we created were high, high percentage opportunities. Yes, we have to be more clinical, we understand that. That being said, we have to go into [Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup game at] Houston [Dynamo FC] confident, with the belief that we can go in there and win the game.”

3. MONTEREY BAY DELIVERS WIN, SPECIAL OPENING NIGHT

There was a sense of poetry that Santa Cruz native and first signing in Monterey Bay F.C. history Walmer Martinez delivered the first signature moment in Cardinale Stadium’s history. His superb second-half strike from 25 yards brought the hosts a 1-0 victory against Las Vegas Lights FC in MBFC’s inaugural home opener to cap a great opening night for the club in front of its home fans.

A crowd of just over 5,000 was on hand, getting close to capacity as the night unrolled, and the venue itself drew positive reviews from those in attendance.

“I think they did a really good job,” MBFC fan Brittany Silva told KSBW.com’s Ariana Jaso. “The field looks great and the stands and all the colors, they did a great job with the beer garden. I like how close we are to the field so we can see the players close by.”

With a squad that is starting to get close to full strength again after injuries, the next few weeks could deliver a few more big moments in Monterey Bay’s inaugural campaign.

4. PITTSBURGH DOMINATES IN BOUNCE-BACK DISPLAY

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC could have been far more clinical in its finishing on Saturday night after Danny Griffin’s early goal put the hosts on top at Highmark Stadium. Against a Birmingham Legion FC side that offered little of its own, however, it didn’t really matter much as the Hounds responded to its defeat at Louisville City FC the prior weekend with a solid 1-0 win that kept the side perfect at Highmark Stadium this season.

“I thought we were really dominant,” Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley told Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s John Krysinsky. “The last 15 minutes, it gets a bit scary when you haven’t put the game away yet because you don’t want to drop points on a night like tonight.”

There wasn’t much need for worry for Lilley. Pittsburgh’s defense put in arguably its best performance so far this season, holding Legion FC to only 15 touches inside the penalty area and no shots on target, a throwback to the dominant defensive displays delivered by prior editions of Lilley’s squads.

5. GRIND CITY DELIVERS WITH WIN IN CHARLESTON

Speaking of bounce-back displays, Memphis 901 FC delivered another on Friday night with its 2-0 win against the Charleston Battery that was as comfortable as the scoreline might indicate. 901 FC got out to a strong start, bagged a pair of goals in the first half while limiting Charleston’s opportunities and moved into the top four in the Eastern Conference in the process even after weathering a late flurry of chances.

“We know we have to grind, then we can let our quality shine,” said 901 FC midfielder Jeremy Kelly, who bagged his second goal of the season. “We also must make sure we dig in and work hard. You saw that in both halves, but first half we were able to play a bit more. Probably should have had more goals in that half. Second half, being up 2-0, they started going forward a bit more, so we dug in and defended.”

With 16 points from its first eight games, Memphis is off to easily the best start in its history. If it can maintain the balance it showed between work-rate and on-ball quality against the Battery, there should be even brighter things to come.

6. HERTZOG’S INFLUENCE HELPS HARTFORD VICTORY

The main challenge for Hartford Athletic as it sought its first league win of the season had been both creating and finishing chances in the final third. On Saturday night, the presence of Corey Hertzog showed just what the veteran forward could offer in boosting that performance as the hosts broke through with a 1-0 win against Loudoun United FC at Trinity Health Stadium.

Hertzog has been a consistent finisher in the Championship with 73 regular-season goals to his credit, second-most in league history. What he offers otherwise was on display against Loudoun, however, as his check back to receive pressure, dragging a marker with him before releasing Joel Johnson into the vacated space for a breakaway chance, could be just as important. Hertzog didn’t record a shot in Saturday’s game but was central to the side’s win anyway.

7. NEW MEXICO FINDS VALIDATION IN LATE ANSWER

There have been more than a fair share of late disappointments and lost leads for New Mexico United on home turf so far in its history – including twice already this season against Orange County SC and Oakland Roots SC – so when Harry Swartz popped up to deliver a late goal and earn a 1-1 draw against San Diego Loyal SC on Saturday afternoon at Isotopes Park it felt like a small redress of the balance.

It was also arguably what New Mexico had deserved. After going without a goal in its past three outings, conceding late in the first half as SD Loyal’s Kyle Vassell broke the deadlock in stoppage time, United pushed hard for an answer in the second half. The late goal validated the effort and the performance, in which the side believed there was plenty to be pleased about.

“Obviously, it felt good,” said Swartz. “But just like Coach said, there's so much positive to take from that game. We were dictating the game and we felt like it was going to come. It was chance after chance after chance. It was good to definitely get one.”

8. OAKLAND DELIVERS LATE SHOW, AGAIN

New Mexico wasn’t the only team to find stoppage-time salvation on Saturday, with Oakland Roots SC pulling out a 2-2 draw on the road against Orange County SC thanks to Ottar Magnus Karlsson’s free kick in the fourth minute of stoppage time. Yes, it might have taken a deflection off the top of the defensive wall, but that break was also deserved by Roots SC, which held Orange County without a shot over the final 50 minutes of the game while mounting its comeback.

Oakland still has only one win this season, and now sits with five drawn contests, the most of any team in the league so far this season. That’s not the sort of form that will get a playoff place, but the ability to rally Roots SC has shown – its six goals after the 76th minute are tied for the most in the league – is something for Head Coach Juan Guerra and his side to build on as it enters the next phase of the campaign.

9. RIVAS, TULSA PRODUCE, NOW NEED CONSISTENCY

The team Oakland is tied with when it comes to late finishes is FC Tulsa, which got another late goal that provided the insurance marker in a 3-1 win against Detroit City FC on Saturday, snapping the seven-game undefeated streak for the visitors to ONEOK Field. The performance showed just what this Tulsa side can be capable of when it’s firing on all cylinders as Joaquin Rivas scored the first and third goals of the night in a result that never really seemed doubtful after Rodrigo da Costa added a second midway through the first half.

Tulsa’s win snapped a four-game losing streak, though, and that’s the challenge for the side moving forward. With a trip out west to Orange County up next, can the Black and Gold continue to deliver consistently enough to climb above the playoff line in the Eastern Conference?

10. LATE, LATE SHOW AGAIN FOR SACRAMENTO

Sacramento Republic FC’s fans might have been settling in for a Mother’s Day brunch on Sunday as their side kicked off against the New York Red Bulls II thanks to the early-afternoon east coast kickoff. By the time the visitors shook off the time difference, they delivered a win that could be important moving forward in the manner that’s become a little too common so far this campaign.

Maalique Foster’s 88th-minute winner was the third game-winner Republic FC has scored inside the final five minutes of games this campaign, with the side having officially led for only 47 minutes of its contests overall. The results are there – as is Republic FC’s fifth place in the standings – but it would probably cause less angst if Sacramento could produce a little earlier and more often than it has so far.

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  • USL Championship Talking Points | Week 9

  • By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com 05/09/2022, 12:41pm EDT
  • Phoenix makes its chances count, Monterey Bay gets a delightful debut, and the rest you need to know from this weekend
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