Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
There was no shortage of intrigue across the past weekend in the USL Championship as Week 13 concluded with some impressive displays, brilliant moments and key results as the standings in both the Eastern and Western Conference continued to take shape.
Here are 10 things we took away from the action.
Whatever challenges Sacramento Republic FC has faced on the road so far this season, when the team’s been on home turf at Heart Health Park, it's proven one of the most difficult teams to beat in the USL Championship. That was illustrated again on Saturday night when a San Antonio FC side tied for the lead in the Western Conference came in and was effectively stymied by Sacramento’s squad, which allowed the visitors only one shot on target and none of any serious note among its 11 shots overall to take a 1-0 victory.
Sacramento’s back three of Lee Desmond, Dan Casey and Connor Donovan were central to that. None of San Antonio’s three shots inside the penalty area coming between the edges of the six-yard area as the trio made the central path to goal a no-go area for a strong San Antonio lineup. For Republic FC goalkeeper Danny Vitiello, it was a sign of the experience and expertise all three bring to the squad.
“These guys have been doing it with their football clubs for years,” said Vitiello. “Lee [Desmond] and Dan [Casey] over in Europe and Connor [Donovan] has been doing it in the MLS and USL you know, for years. I mean, just having that experience on the backline you know, it really helps. You know there’s so much communication going on, we're all on the same page. I'm grateful to have those guys in front of me.”
Through postponements, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC had gone 23 days without a game before it suffered a defeat on the road against Monterey Bay F.C. in Week 12 in a display that was below par for the standards the Western Conference front-runner had set over the first third of the season. On Friday night, back on its home turf, a more accurate representation of who the Switchbacks are reappeared with crisp finishing and attacking play leading to a 3-0 victory against Las Vegas Lights FC with goals by Elvis Amoh and Michee Ngalina the highlights of the night.
“[The] most important thing for me was, we had those two-and-a-half to three weeks off going into Monterey, we laid an egg in Monterey, and we responded here tonight,” said Switchbacks Head Coach Brenden Burke. “We didn’t let that mistake get compounded. This group has championship caliber in them. We’re missing a bunch of guys right now, when we get those guys back, we will be a serious threat to the rest of the Western Conference.”
There was some good fortune for Colorado Springs on the way to its win. A brilliant save by Jeff Caldwell to deny Las Vegas’ Alex Lara offered up a prime rebound chance that was spurned by Cal Jennings with Colorado Springs only a goal ahead in the first half, and Lights FC had other chances to challenge. As many chances as the Switchbacks created themselves, though, the performance gave a packed house at Weidner Field the entertainment it has come to expect over the past two seasons.
After numerous flight cancellations in the days after the Tampa Bay Rowdies visit to FC Tulsa on Wednesday night – which saw some club members arrive back in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Saturday morning, and Head Coach Neill Collins sleeping on the couch of Goalkeeping coach Stuart Dobson – there was an air of Planes, Trains and Automobiles in getting the hosts back for one of their biggest games of the season, shifted to Sunday night against Louisville City FC because of the travel travails.
In the end, though, the Rowdies produced a performance that belied the challenges of the prior few days to take a 1-0 victory that moved the two-time defending Eastern Conference title holders within range of the top four in the Eastern Conference. There might have been questions over the award of the penalty kick that led to Leo Fernandes’ decisive goal from the spot, but the overall display was one Collins was proud of.
“I thought it was probably more than a professional win if you know the type of the week we’ve had,” said Collins. “The first half had some fantastic bits of play, we really created some great opportunities. In the second half, we had to really dig it out and show a lot of grit. I thought the boys did that. It was really important to see that side of it.”
On the other side, Louisville City FC Head Coach Danny Cruz was disappointed in his side’s display, which saw the visitors held without a shot on target and to only four efforts overall. A missed opportunity for Wilson Harris in the first half proved the best for LouCity, with the replacement of the young forward by Cameron Lancaster as a halftime failing to spark the required response to earn a result.
“I thought the first half was extremely poor for the group,” said Cruz. “Pretty much every aspect of it was really disappointing. We didn't create enough on both sides of the ball. It's a terrible result but more frustrating because of the performance, not necessarily the result.”
The question that could come from the game is whether LouCity will look to try and team Harris and Lancaster as an attacking pairing, instead of having the two share minutes. That may require a change of formation, and a rethink of how the perennial contender has achieved impressive success already this season.
LouCity’s defeat left Memphis 901 FC on top of the Eastern Conference to start the new week after it came back from an early deficit to sweep to a 5-2 victory against Atlanta United 2 at AutoZone Park on Saturday in a game that was at least partly defined by former Atlanta players. Phillip Goodrum notched a pair of goals, Luiz Fernando a pair of assists and Laurent Kissiedou a goal against their former club, continuing to show the quality that the ascendant contenders have shown regularly this campaign.
“I felt we started a little flat,” said Goodrum. “We should have put two or three away early and we didn’t. Robbie Mertz is a great player for Atlanta United and he put one away early and that kind of put us on our heels, but if we want to be a first-place team, a championship team, we have to deal with adversity, and I think we dealt with it really well.”
Memphis will next face Birmingham Legion FC in one of the league’s more underrated rivalries on Wednesday night with Legion FC coming in off a big victory of its own on the road against Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night. Prosper Kasim again proved the hero for Birmingham with his fourth goal of the season and that proved enough for goalkeeper Matt VanOekel and his defense as the veteran picked up a fourth shutout of the season and the 31st of his career in the Championship at Wild Horse Pass.
VanOekel’s biggest moment came nine minutes before halftime as Phoenix carved open a big chance for Joey Calistri from 12 yards out that was turned away well. Add in a late key clearance by Alex Crognale in second-half stoppage time to deny Rising FC’s Santi Moar on a follow-up effort after VanOekel had punched an angled cross centrally, and the visitors showed the resilience they’ll need to not only get back into the postseason, but challenge 901 FC at Protective Stadium.
“Phoenix is going to get looks, they’re a good team. You need someone to keep it out,” said Legion FC Head Coach Tommy Soehn. “I thought our defensive group did a really good job, but there are points where Matt has to come in and save what he should, as well as throw in a couple monsters. That was a monster save. We’re fortunate to have someone with his experience and his ability to make game saving saves. He’s done it for us as long as he’s been here.”
There could hardly have been a timelier moment for Alex Tambakis’ first penalty kick save as part of New Mexico United. The Greek shot-stopper’s denial of Orange County SC’s Erick “Cubo” Torres in second-half stoppage time at Championship Soccer Stadium on Saturday night to preserve a 2-1 victory and avoid a massive collapse in added time was the biggest moment of a contest that saw United emerge with its fourth consecutive victory and a jump to third place in the Western Conference standings.
While Tambakis stole the show late, two other veteran standouts also had their roles to play in the win as Chris Wehan and Justin Portillo continued their excellent recent runs of form with a goal apiece. For Wehan in particular, who had gone without a goal or assist in the opening eight games of the season, the uptick in form has been notable. He’s now appeared on the scoresheet in each of the past four outings with three goals and one assist, delivering the sort of form that almost carried United into last year’s postseason. With the support of Portillo, Neco Brett and others around him this year, New Mexico is looking dangerous.
It says something about Oakland Roots SC’s season that its combined total of points gained from a losing position (7) and points dropped from a winning position (9) add up to the second-highest total in the league behind El Paso Locomotive FC so far. The up and down swings for Head Coach Juan Guerra’s side have been a bit of a roller coaster for the first-time manager as the squad and its new faces come together.
Saturday night, though, offered something different. Roots SC’s 2-0 victory on the road against Monterey Bay F.C. before a solid contingent of travelling support at Cardinale Stadium was about as drama-free as you could have asked for as a coach, with Edgardo Rito’s first-half goal being supplemented by a stoppage-time insurance tally by Dariusz Formella that sent Oakland to its third win in the past four games, and seven points in the last eight days.
“[I told them pregame] the week finishes today at 9:30 and the boys got the job done 27 minutes early,” said Guerra. “We finished the week strong. We finished with three points on the road. I’m happy. When you see this (pointing to the fans) you are telling me that it’s almost 400 traveling of our own coming here to support and to push, to suffer and now to enjoy it together. It makes me understand a bit more the responsibility that we have. Because when you put on this crest and you put on this jersey, when you represent this organization that has so many people who love it, there is a big responsibility for us.”
The parallels between the first and second meeting of the season between Detroit City FC and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on Saturday evening at Highmark Stadium were, let’s face it, eerie. Pittsburgh takes a first-half lead through Albert Dikwa, as it had at Keyworth Stadium in March. Le Rouge answer with a second-half finish by Maxi Rodriguez, as they had three months ago.
The moment of the match, though, might have been Rodriguez’s reaction after his finish.
We’ve all seen that celebration before, but the context of a moment to bring a smile to everyone’s face – celebrating your teammate’s new arrival to the family – shows the camaraderie that this Detroit City squad has. They’re a contender not just because they’re a good team – which they most certainly are – but because they have the intangibles that elevate those qualities further, allowing a short-handed squad to battle through at one of the harder places to play in the league.
You could hardly write a better script. Coming on as a second-half substitute for your third appearance in the professional ranks, Academy product Diego Abarca gave El Paso Locomotive FC fans a moment to remember on Saturday night with his first goal in the USL Championship, a superlative finish that ended the night on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10.
“I’m grateful for the trust of the coaches,” Abarca said. “I wasn't expecting to go in but I'm always ready. To get my first goal, it's incredible. I'm just working hard every day, staying dedicated and have the mentality that the chance will come.”
We can talk about the impact that clubs like Locomotive FC and others are having in providing opportunities for young players in their communities to rise into the professional ranks. Seeing it in person just drives that point home even more strongly.