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USL Championship Talking Points | Week 18

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 07/11/22, 9:43AM EDT


Top-six separation arrives in the Eastern Conference, while Tampa Bay, Sacramento deliver thrilling endings

Detroit City FC celebrates its earliest goal in the USL Championship this season, which led to a 1-0 win on the road at Indy Eleven this Saturday. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven

The past weekend in the USL Championship produced two game-changing goals in second-half stoppage time, a potentially decisive night in the Eastern Conference’s playoff race, and plenty of drama besides. Here are 10 things we took away from the action.

1. Separation Saturday

When we look back at the regular season, the past Saturday night might be the one on which most of the Eastern Conference playoff field was set. Each of the top six teams in the standings took victories, while only one team from the No. 7 spot or below did so, leaving a five-point gap between the two that feels like the dividing line between the contenders in the postseason and the pretenders.

From Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s 4-1 victory against Miami FC on home turf that saw Jelani Peters notch his first two-goal game of his professional career and Kenardo Forbes record another pair of assists, to Birmingham Legion FC’s comfortable road victory against the Charleston Battery that included Enzo Martinez’s 50th regular season goal, to Detroit City FC holding Indy Eleven without an official shot on target as Connor Rutz’s early goal proved the difference, the line of demarcation has been drawn.

Only FC Tulsa of the teams below the playoff line claimed victory, which could jump-start its challenge to Miami for seventh place. With each of the top six teams now rated an 88 percent chance or better to make the playoffs by, though, that seventh spot might be the only one still up for grabs.

2. Pittsburgh Hits Stride with Increased Intensity

Over the club’s six-game winless run – the longest in Head Coach Bob Lilley’s tenure after taking over before the 2018 season – it felt to the experienced manager there was a lack of intensity being shown by his side that allowed opponents to take the initiative and make the Hounds reactive instead of proactive.

While Saturday’s 4-1 victory against Miami FC wasn’t all smooth sailing, the quality the Hounds showed in a third consecutive victory that also narrowly saw the side miss out on a third consecutive shutout was of a level that has put the side into a top-four spot in the standings.

“We’ve been standing around waiting for things to happen, and I think that happens sometimes when you lose a bit of confidence as a group, and you go through a winless patch,” said Lilley. “You start not taking any risk, playing conservative, and we’ve been trying to get them to get after it and be aggressive.”

3. Detroit Continues Wynning Form

When it had lost its way for a short run last month, going winless in four games, Detroit City FC was pulled back into the win column by the combination of Deklan Wynne and Connor Rutz, whose first goal in the USL Championship delivered victory against Las Vegas Lights FC on July 2. This past Saturday night, the same duo combined again as Rutz scored the earliest goal Le Rouge have netted this season in the fifth minute of a 1-0 win against Indy Eleven that further solidified the squad’s playoff candidacy.

For Wynne, it was the third consecutive game with an assist after also providing the delivery for Pato Botello Faz’s close-range goal against Hartford Athletic last Wednesday night in the 1-1 draw between the sides at Keyworth Stadium. While not of the same stature as Antoine Hoppenot upon his arrival this offseason, the former New Zealand international has now his highest individual assists total in a single season with six and has provided a strong left-sided option for DCFC over the course of the campaign.

4. Fernandes Keeps Cool in Rowdies’ Rally

On multiple occasions, things could have gone sideways for the Tampa Bay Rowdies against Hartford Athletic on Saturday night. From conceding a pair of goals in seven minutes early in the second half to let their lead slip, to a late red card that gave the Athletic an opening to grab victory, Tampa Bay instead came through thanks to Leo Fernandes, who kept his cool from the penalty spot twice to keep the defending Eastern Conference title holders in touch with the top two in the standings.

“The last few minutes were down to the players,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “I got one message on about where people were going to play, and the boys just went on and took it. To be fair, after [the red card] we looked like the only team that was going to win the game. I think we’ve been on the end of a couple of these moments, so tonight to be able to take advantage of, I wouldn’t call them breaks because I thought they were both penalties, but to just get rewarded for some of our hard work was good.”

Fernandes had already set a single season best in goals this campaign, but now sitting with nine tallies this season the veteran playmaker has in some ways taken over from good friend Sebastian Guenzatti as the heartbeat of the squad. The Rowdies have also now earned 14 points from losing positions this season, the most in the league, and while Collins would likely prefer his side be more in control of contests, the spirit and fight they’ve shown is a trait that will again serve them well come the postseason.

5. Sacramento DEFENDS HOUSE in thriller

Fernandes’ game-winner for the Rowdies was the latest on Saturday night in the eighth minute of second-half stoppage time, but it was run close by Sacramento Republic FC’s Luis Felipe Fernandes, whose goal in the sixth minute of stoppage time against Oakland Roots SC preserved the side’s undefeated record at Heart Health Park this season with a 3-3 draw and delivered another classic to this burgeoning rivalry.

The back-and-forth nature of the game was reminiscent of the first league meeting between the clubs at the same venue last June, as both teams again held the lead before Sacramento grabbed an equalizer thank to Jordan McCrary in another six-goal thriller. This time around, though, we had not only a packed house with strong travelling support from Oakland but the drama of a late equalizer to go with it. After a game that ended up with 17 shots on target combined (Oakland 10, Sacramento 7), the deciding game of the three-game set the teams play this year on August 27 at Heart Health Park should be another must see.

“That’s what a local derby is, right?” said Sacramento Head Coach Mark Briggs. “That’s what I grew up with at home, that’s what local derbies are. There’s a little bit more intensity, there’s a little bit more desire, there’s a little bit more fight. They had a few hundred fans which only adds to the environment. These are the games you want. This is what the country needs for football to continue to develop. You need these rivalries, you need these passionate fans.”

6. El Paso Remains Switchbacks’ Roadblock

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC has shown major growth in its second season under Head Coach Brendan Burke. When it comes to El Paso Locomotive FC’s Southwest University Park, however, it remained the same old story on Saturday night.

A beautifully created and finished goal that saw Eder Borelli and Josue Aaron Gomez combine for the No. 2 entry on Saturday night’s ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 proved the difference as El Paso ran its undefeated streak to 10 consecutive games while holding Colorado Springs’ potent attack in check just enough to come away with victory. The result moved El Paso to a 5-0-1 record at home against the Switchbacks on their home turf all time, closing the gap to the top three for Locomotive FC while sending Colorado Springs to a fourth defeat in its last five games.

That last number represents the first real adversity the Switchbacks have faced this season. While they remain in second place in the standings, there will be questions that need to be answered next weekend as the side faces another challenging pair of games on a quick turnaround, playing host to the LA Galaxy II on Friday night before visiting San Diego Loyal SC the following Monday.

7. Los Dos run away from San Diego

There were arguably mitigating circumstances given an early red card that looked on replay as though it might have been incorrect, but the way the LA Galaxy II delivered in the attacking third was impressive to behold as they handed San Diego Loyal SC its heaviest defeat in club history with a 5-0 win that saw both Preston Judd and Cameron Dunbar record two goals and an assist apiece.

Los Dos have now scored 11 goals in their past three games overall with Judd moving into contention for the Golden Boot with 11 goals individually this season, his second consecutive campaign with double-digit goals after recording 17 a season ago. There’s a swagger to this Galaxy II side that sets them apart, too. These players know they’re good and they’re riding that confidence right now. If could end up with one final bow in the USL Championship Playoffs at the end of the season.

8. Ownby, Mushagalusa go off for LouCity

After Wilson Harris went down with injury last weekend, the question for Louisville City FC was which player would step up into the No. 9 role with Cameron Lancaster also currently sidelined. On Saturday night, at least, we got our answer as Brian Ownby recorded the first two goal, two assist night of his career in a 6-0 romp past the New York Red Bulls II that also saw Enoch Mushagalusa record a hat trick.

“I should have had five or six. I wish I would have taken some lessons from Cam,” Ownby joked after the game. “I’m usually the one out wide putting the ball in, but I’m just glad to get on the score sheet.”

Ownby’s speed made him the most likely candidate for the role in the interim, with both his and Mushagalusa’s ability to stretch the defense causing major problems for the visitors. We’ll likely need to see how this plays out against a stronger opponent – which is set for next weekend – but all-in-all this was a very promising sign for Head Coach Danny Cruz.

9. Memphis sets up 1-2 clash

That opponent next weekend will be Memphis 901 FC, which set up a No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash in the Eastern Conference against Louisville City FC next Saturday night at AutoZone Park in the first of two must-see contests between the clubs this campaign. 901 FC claimed a 3-1 victory against the still struggling Phoenix Rising FC on its home turf on Saturday night, with the hosts good value for their victory as they became the latest side to expose Rising FC’s defensive problems.

“Proud of the boys tonight,” said Memphis Head Coach Ben Pirmann. “We wanted a response from the Tampa Bay game, and I think, you saw the first half, we were absolutely dominant. We were really disappointed to only be up one goal. It should have been two or three. It was a really good first half.”

With Phillip Goodrum now up to 10 goals this season and Aaron Molloy continuing to be a major piece in the center of midfield and on set pieces, Memphis will be eager to prove itself against LouCity and regain top spot in the standings in the process.

10. Playoff Hopes Drifting for Orange County

As distant as the playoffs look for Rising FC currently, the numbers say they’re an even bigger longshot for defending title holders Orange County SC. After a 2-0 defeat at home to Monterey Bay F.C. on Saturday night at Championship Soccer Stadium – a win the visitors certainly merited – the gap to the playoff positions rose to double-digits for Orange County, which now sits 11 points behind Sacramento Republic FC while having played two games more.

It's going to take a run arguably as special as the one Orange County made last season to claim its first league title to now get into the playoffs to try and defend it over the final 15 games of the season. As always, a useful rule of thumb when it comes to playoff math is the number of games remaining, and the number of points it takes to close the gap. Once the points-gap is higher than the games remaining, chances are your season is over.

That’s not going to stop OCSC from believing, though.

“I think we've got to stay positive in respect to everything, it’s not mathematically out of our reach,” said OCSC Head Coach Richard Chaplow. “We have Dylan Powers coming in. We have Brent Richards cleared for next week. We have all the guys back from suspension. We were obviously thin on the ground tonight. Now we have to ultimately put a team out there next week that goes out to win a football game.”

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