San Antonio FC's clash with El Paso Locomotive FC on July 23 will bring two of the top squads in the Western Conference together for a Copa Tejas clash. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
We officially reach the second half of the 2022 USL Championship season on Saturday night, passing the midway point of the 459-game regular season schedule, and that means the pressure is about to rise on the team vying to claim top spot in the Eastern and Western Conference’s, and those just hoping to get into the playoff field in October.
Here are 14 games over the month of July that look set to shape those battles, including three set to be aired nationally on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.
The top three teams in the Eastern Conference have started to create some separation from the pack over the past month, with Louisville currently rated the favorite to finish on top ahead of the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Memphis 901 FC by fivethirtyeight.com. Memphis is the current leader, however, and took a 3-1 victory against Tampa Bay when they first met this season at AutoZone Park thanks to goals by Phillip Goodrum, Derek Dodson and Chris Allan on April 27. If 901 FC can repeat that display at one of the most formidable venues to visit in the Championship, it would not only cement its position as a leading title contender this season but could also set up a duel for first place with LouCity ahead of their two meetings this season.
Absolutely no-one saw Phoenix Rising FC and Orange County SC being in the predicament they face at the midway point of the campaign when the regular season began. Phoenix enters July having lost four games in a row for the first time since the 2016 season, and currently sits four points out of the playoff positions in 11th place in the Western Conference. Orange County is in even greater danger of missing the playoffs after claiming the league title a season ago, with a run of five defeats in its last six to close June putting it eight points out of the playoffs and in 12th place in the standings. That makes this a de facto six-pointer for both clubs, with the winner earning a major boost to its postseason aspirations at the expense of the other.
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC has been riding high for much of the 2022 season, sitting in the top two in the standings as the club’s progression in its second year under Head Coach Brendan Burke has been evident. Recently, though, the side has seen its first real adversity of the campaign, suffering consecutive defeats for the first time to close June, which makes its Fourth of July contest against the side currently in third place – San Diego Loyal SC – an intriguing one. SD Loyal has also made impressive strides in its third season under Head Coach Landon Donovan, with forward Kyle Vassell sitting on 10 goals and the side as a whole pushing into the conversation for its first silverware. If Colorado Springs can find a way past SD Loyal here, it will maintain the separation the top two have previously created. If not, it will set up a potential race for position in the second half of the season.
The first meeting between Indy Eleven and Detroit City FC could serve as the starting point to a strong midwestern rivalry in years to come. This season, what’s certain is the two meetings between the sides will shape their potential playoff futures with each vying for a place in the top seven going into July. One of the stories of the season after its arrival, Detroit City begins the month in fourth place in the Eastern Conference but is in the middle of its first extended winless run of the campaign after going four games without a victory to close the month. Le Rouge still hold a five-point cushion over Indy, however, with the Boys in Blue sitting in the seventh and final playoff place to start the month after some bumps in the road of their own to end June. With what’s likely to be a strong contingent of travelling support making the trip down I-69 from Detroit, and a high level of quality on both sides, this will be an important game for both clubs that also offers the potential for real entertainment.
Sacramento Republic FC’s season so far has been a welcome return to form for the 2014 title-winners, with the club making its deepest run in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in its history as it looks forward to a Semifinal at home to Sporting Kansas City on July 27 at Heart Health Park. There’s one thing Republic FC would like to add to its list of accomplishments this season, though, and that’s to take a first win in the series against its recently arrived NorCal rival Oakland Roots SC. After a 1-1 draw when the teams played on May 28 as Ottar Magnus Karlsson bagged the equalizer from the spot for the hosts at Laney Stadium, Sacramento is now winless in five official contests against Oakland. With Roots SC fighting for a second consecutive playoff berth, and Republic FC looking to chase down San Antonio FC at the top of the standings, there won’t just be bragging rights on the line here, but Sacramento certainly would love to get one over on its regional foe.
The top two teams in the Eastern Conference going into the month, Memphis 901 FC and Louisville City FC will be aiming to retain those positions as they meet for the first time in 2022 at AutoZone Park as Memphis gets the chance to further build its title-contender resume. 901 FC has been stellar at home this season with seven wins in nine outings so far, including defeating fellow top-four sides the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Detroit City FC on home turf this season. Memphis also defeated LouCity the last time the teams squared off in the Bluff City last season, but Louisville claimed the season series with two victories on home turf, with Cameron Lancaster bagging a hat trick on October 23 to close out the regular season series between the sides. As perennial title contenders, LouCity offers a major measuring stick for any opponent. Memphis will be aiming to measure up in front of what should be an enthusiastic downtown crowd.
The first edition of this version of the Black and Yellow showdown offers a handful of notable storylines. The biggest? That may be Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC going up against their former standout forward Neco Brett, now at New Mexico United, as both teams look to try and keep their course set toward a place in the postseason. The Jamaican forward’s 32 goals across the regular season and playoffs are the most by any player for the Hounds in the USL Championship era and helped Pittsburgh finish on top of the Eastern Conference in the 2019 season. Now he’s aiming to provide the same firepower for United as it tries to return to the postseason after missing out a year ago. With a plethora of attacking options at their disposal, the Hounds have hit a rough patch to end June and could need to deliver a result here to keep things moving forward on their side. The combination of those two attacks, and an electric atmosphere at Isotopes Park, should provide some major entertainment here.
At the midway point of their seasons, both Rio Grande Valley FC and Las Vegas Lights FC are right in the middle of the fight for the playoffs in the Western Conference. Their meeting on national television at H-E-B Park could be key to maintaining that status as they meet for the first time since 2019. The Toros have been solid, if not spectacular, as they bid to return to the postseason for a second consecutive year under Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera. They rank 13th out of 27 teams in both goals scored and conceded going into the new month, with that consistency dotted by some moments of brilliance to keep the side in contention. Las Vegas has been similar, with a strong defensive foundation installed by Head Coach Enrique Duran supplemented by one of the most entertaining attacking duos in the league in Danny Trejo and Cal Jennings. That makes this matchup a pivotal one for both sides, and a potentially intriguing tactical battle for fans.
The inaugural USL Summer Showcase will bring together Louisville City FC and Phoenix Rising FC for the first time since they squared off in the 2018 USL Championship Final, when Luke Spencer’s game-winning goal for LouCity brought the curtain down on Didier Drogba’s career without one final hurrah. The fortunes for the hosts and Rising FC have been very different this season, with Phoenix in danger of missing out on the postseason for the first time since the 2016 season. This contest for Phoenix – which follows a visit to Eastern Conference leader Memphis 901 FC in its prior outing – could be a make-or-break game against a Louisville side that has lost only once at home in the league so far this season, with six wins out of eight entering the month. We expected fireworks when this game was scheduled, and we just might get them as Phoenix goalkeeper Ben Lundt looks to deny his former club in one of the biggest games of the season.
Two of the most passionate fanbases in the United States should make for a tremendous atmosphere in the first meeting between Detroit City FC and New Mexico United, with the interconference clash at Keyworth Stadium offering major on-field potential as well. Both Le Rouge and United enter the month in the playoff positions in their respective conferences having taken aim at playing an entertaining and progressive style. The individual matchups here could be very good indeed, with a potential midfield duel between Detroit City’s Maxi Rodriguez and New Mexico’s Justin Portillo featuring two of the best in the league this season, while goalkeepers Nathan Steinwascher for Le Rouge and Alex Tambakis for United have also shone consistently throughout the campaign. Add to that mixture a reunion for ex-Reno 1868 FC duo Antoine Hoppenot (DCFC) and Chris Wehan (NMU) and you have the makings of a tremendous contest.
In boxing, there’s a mantra that “styles make fights.” That could certainly apply to El Paso Locomotive FC and San Antonio FC, who are currently the most possession-positive and possession-averse sides in the USL Championship. Locomotive FC leads the league in passes attempted and accuracy. San Antonio sits last in the league in both categories. And yet, both teams have made that work for each other, with Locomotive FC having shaken off its slow start to the season to rise to fourth place in the West through an eight-game undefeated streak that began in mid-May. It’s a very different team to the one that fell 1-0 to SAFC at Toyota Field in April, having lost only once since then, and with San Antonio’s season setting up for it to not only top the Western Conference but finish with the best record in the league, this might be the best test of how far El Paso has come over the past three months. Add in that El Paso will likely need a win to give itself a chance at retaining the Copa Tejas, and both sides will be aiming to deliver a knockout blow here.
There can always be a sense of intrigue when a former assistant coach faces the organization he departed to make the move to a head coaching position. That offers a major subplot to what looks to be a key game for Oakland Roots SC’s first-year Head Coach Juan Guerra, who spent the 2021 season on Phoenix Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz’s staff, as both Oakland and Phoenix try to push their playoff potential forward. On record and by the underlying numbers, Guerra’s Roots SC squad has outperformed Rising FC’s this season. Not only does Oakland sit three points ahead of Phoenix in the standings – albeit having played three games more – it also ranks fifth in the USL Championship according to American Soccer Analysis’ Expected Points metric at 28.18xP, well ahead of Rising FC at 20.11xP. An Oakland victory here would likely be very satisfying for Guerra, and be potentially pivotal for both sides in the playoff race.
Chances are, we’re not going to get a repeat performance of the seven-goal thriller that saw Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC hold on for a 4-3 victory against FC Tulsa at ONEOK Field earlier this season when these sides first met. That said, this could be a crucial game for both sides as they convene at Highmark Stadium for the rematch. After the departure of Head Coach Michael Nsien in June, Tulsa has made additional moves as it tries to turn its season around and earn a third consecutive postseason berth. If those moves come off, this could be the litmus test for whether interim Head Coach Donovan Ricketts’ side will be a contender, with the Hounds facing challenges of their own as June closed. With former Hound Lebo Moloto in tow, Tulsa could need to deliver a big road performance to keep its playoff chances moving forward.
When Orange County SC took victory against San Diego Loyal SC last October 20, it helped flip the direction of the season for both teams as OCSC maintained its upward momentum that carried it to second place in the Western Conference, which in turn dropped San Diego to third and a Western Conference Quarterfinal elimination at San Antonio FC. The second of three meetings this season could be just as pivotal for the defending Championship title holders, who enter the month eight points out of the playoff positions and with little margin of error moving forward if they’re to reach the postseason. After the fireworks of their first contest on June 29 that saw both SD Loyal’s Kyle Vassell and Orange County SC’s Ahmed Longmire sent off after a heated confrontation before San Diego’s Alejandro Guido gave the hosts victory at Torero Stadium with a late first-half penalty kick, we could be in for another high-tension clash at Championship Soccer Stadium.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Las Vegas Lights FC Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United San Diego Loyal SC Oakland Roots SC Detroit City FC