Louisville City FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies will square off for the second time this season in what's set to be a top-two matchup in the Eastern Conference on August 13 at Lynn Family Stadium. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
There are officially 11 weeks to go in the 2022 USL Championship regular season, and that means at the top of the Eastern and Western Conference standings – and around the playoff lines – the action is about to pick up.
That’s aided in August by a slate of games that gives us a pair of matchups between the top two teams in either conference going into the month on the next two weekends, a collection of playoff six-pointers featuring teams above and below the playoff line, and some key rivalries that are a must-see whatever the circumstances of the season.
Here are 14 games we think you should have circled for the next four-and-a-half weeks to either be on hand for, or tune into on ESPN Plus.
The two-time defending Eastern Conference title holder Tampa Bay Rowdies enter August on a heater. Their current 12-game undefeated streak is the longest in the league this season, and it’s moved the side within a point of first-placed Louisville City FC in the standings. Tampa Bay will look to continue that form against a Detroit City FC side that has impressed throughout its first season in the league but has worn down a little over the course of the campaign to sit in sixth place in the East – comfortably set for a playoff berth, but in need of a boost. With former Rowdies player Antoine Hoppenot set to lead Le Rouge into their first meeting with the Rowdies this season, though, this could offer an intriguing matchup and potential playoff preview for further down the line.
Here it comes – the battle of the irresistible force and the immovable object. Second-placed San Diego Loyal SC leads the Championship with 49 goals in 22 regular season games and has nine players that have recorded multiple goals this season. First-placed San Antonio FC sits tied for the league-lead with 11 shutouts and 15 goals conceded in 21 regular season contests, which has proven key to the side becoming the first to 50 points in the league this year. The contrast in styles – SD Loyal has completed twice as many passes this season (8,178) as San Antonio (4,029) – could make for a tremendous tilt in the first of the two meetings between the sides this season at Torero Stadium. If the hosts can find a way to claim all three points, it could also make the final stretch of the season a two-horse race. If San Antonio delivers another road victory, there will likely be no catching it at the top of the standings.
As August begins, you’d not be too far off to think the seven playoff positions in the Eastern Conference are locked up. According to fivethirtyeight.com, Miami FC sits at an 89 percent chance of reaching the postseason, while FC Tulsa sits at a 13 percent chance as its closest competitor. If that’s going to change at all, then Tulsa is going to have to come out and claim three points on the road in Miami, in the first of two potential six-pointers between these sides in the final stretch of the campaign. There are some great storylines besides that headline, though, most notably that of Miami FC’s Joaquin Rivas and Tulsa’s Sean McFarlane, who moved in opposite directions in late June, one of a handful of moves Tulsa has made to try and reinvigorate its playoff bid. How Rivas fares against his former club will be fascinating to watch, and if he’s successful it could go a long way to ensuring the South Florida club’s playoff berth.
For both Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and El Paso Locomotive FC, things were not moving in the right direction as July ended. At one point vying for top spot in the West alongside San Antonio FC, four defeats in seven games as injuries took their toll sent the Switchbacks down to third in the standings, while El Paso ended the month on a three-game losing streak to slip closer to the playoff line. If there’s been a tonic for Locomotive FC in its history, though, it’s generally been to get a game against the Switchbacks. El Paso is 6-0-5 all-time in its meetings with Colorado Springs, including a 1-0 victory on July 9 this season that marked its most recent win coming into August. The Switchbacks will be eager to finally make the breakthrough against their playoff rival, and with Hadji Barry and Michee Ngalina leading the way certainly should be capable of doing so.
If you told anyone who followed the USL Championship in recent years at the start of the season that both Orange County SC and Phoenix Rising FC would be outside the playoff places at the start of August, it’s unlikely they would have believed you. And yet, here we are with defending title holders Orange County at the bottom of the Western Conference and two-time Western Conference title winners Rising FC in 10th place. Phoenix has shown signs of a revival – last weekend’s 4-0 victory against Colorado Springs was a very familiar return to form – but Orange County hasn’t been able to overcome injuries that have resulted in a defense that has conceded 38 goals in 22 games, negating what’s on course to be an all-time great individual campaign by forward Milan Iloski. As Rising FC arrives for a Friday night showdown, this is a must-win for both as they try to push up the standings.
Both Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Memphis 901 FC are looking certainties to be part of the Eastern Conference playoff field at the end of the season, but there’s still homefield advantage to be battled for in what looks like a great three-way battle for two home playoff games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in October, with Birmingham Legion FC the third wheel in the mix. Pittsburgh produced the most points in the league in July with a 5-0-1 record, which allowed it to at least briefly jump past Memphis into third place in the standings. What could make this game special, though, is the potential matchups all over the field, including Pittsburgh’s Kenardo Forbes against Memphis’ Aaron Molloy in midfield, Memphis forward Phillip Goodrum against Pittsburgh’s defense led by Mekeil Williams and Shane Wiedt, and the Hounds’ Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon against the likes of 901 FC’s Niall Logue, Rece Buckmaster and Patrick Seagrist. Expect entertainment.
It’s a quirk of the schedule over the past two seasons, but when the Tampa Bay Rowdies visit Louisville City FC for what’s likely to be a top-two matchup in the Eastern Conference, it’ll be the first time the teams play a regular-season contest at Lynn Family Stadium. Of course, we know what happened when the Rowdies visited for the first time in the Eastern Conference Final of the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs, and that began a run of three consecutive victories for Tampa Bay in the series across the regular season and playoffs. After Leo Fernandes’ penalty kick earned the Rowdies a 1-0 win at Al Lang Stadium on June 5 in their first regular season meeting of the season, LouCity will be aiming to turn the tables, and it could be essential to the hosts holding onto top spot in the Eastern Conference at the end of the season. As great as both these teams have been so far this campaign, this looks on paper to be one of the biggest regular season games in the Championship’s history.
Detroit City FC was steady throughout July, going undefeated while winning two and drawing three contests, but it was overtaken by the rapidly accelerating Birmingham Legion FC side that found its attacking form to jump into fifth place in the East ahead of the side from the Motor City. That should mean this meeting between the sides – a rematch of a 1-0 victory for Le Rouge at Keyworth Stadium back in April – offers a snapshot of where each club is now, and what that could mean for the postseason that both sides are almost certain to be part of. If Legion FC can claim victory, it’s pursuit of a home game to open the playoffs could be in really good shape. If Detroit can pull a result on the road, its own path to the playoffs – even if not hosting at Keyworth Stadium – will continue to take shape.
In terms of interconference matchups, the forces at work at both New Mexico United and Memphis 901 FC offer a great potential mix of talent and tactical awareness for two sides who have their eyes on hosting a playoff game for the first time in their respective histories. United and 901 FC both sit in position to earn that opportunity as they enter the month in fourth place in the West and East respectively, and with New Mexico loading up its attacking talent – seeing both Romario Williams make his club debut and Amando Moreno return from injury this past weekend – it should provide a solid test for the visiting defense. Memphis’ attack is strong as well, with Phillip Goodrum, Laurent Kissiedou and Jeremy Kelly each having good seasons, which should make for an entertaining first meeting between the clubs in New Mexico.
It used to be when professional wrestling was regionalized, you had the “loser leaves town” match. Well, for FC Tulsa and Indy Eleven, this may well be the “loser leaves the playoff race” contest. The chances for both teams are slim coming into the month – Tulsa sits at 13 percent chance to finish in the top seven, while Indy is at six percent – and both have made moves to try and jolt those numbers upward. One of those was a deal with each other in which Trinidad and Tobago international Noah Powder made the move to Tulsa, and goalkeeper Sean Lewis headed to Indy. The influence of both players will be a storyline to watch here, but the thing that will matter most is which side emerges with three points.
Going into August, the Tampa Bay Rowdies sit second in the Championship with 47 goals, and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC sits tied for third with 45. That’s the big appeal of the first regular season meeting between these teams as the Rowdies head to Weidner Field, with two potential MVP candidates leading the way in Colorado Springs’ Hadji Barry and Tampa Bay’s Leo Fernandes, and two potential Young Player of the Year candidates in the Switchbacks’ Michee Ngalina and the Rowdies’ Jake LaCava offering attacking back-up. The difference between the sides and their current trajectories has been defensively, with the Rowdies having conceded 12 goals fewer than Colorado Springs, but the atmosphere and the altitude should be in favor of the hosts in what should be a high-flying affair.
At the start of the season, the rematch of the 2021 USL Championship Final looked like it would be one of the key games of the season. That could certainly still be the case for the Rowdies, who’ll be aiming to gain a little revenge for last year’s defeat by the visitors to Al Lang Stadium as they continue a pursuit of first place in the Eastern Conference. For Orange County, however, it could be a decisive game in whether the defending Championship title holders get a chance to be part of the postseason at all. Despite Milan Iloski’s contention for the Golden Boot with 16 goals so far this campaign, OCSC enters August in last place in the Western Conference and in massive need of the sort of run that carried it to a title a season ago.
The rivalry between Sacramento Republic FC and Oakland Roots SC has quickly turned into a classic, with the NorCal clubs bringing the atmosphere and some great entertainment over the past two years that continued with the first meeting between the sides this season. A stoppage-time equalizer by Luis Felipe Fernandes for Republic FC provided the topper to a thrilling 3-3 draw at Heart Health Park on July 9 after Championship Golden Boot contender Ottar Magnus Karlsson had scored twice previously for the visitors. Sacramento, of course, has gone on to make history as the first lower-division side to reach the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final since 2008 in the weeks that have followed, and is currently sitting much more comfortably in the standings than Roots SC when it comes to the postseason. The one thing Sacramento has yet to accomplish, though, is earning victory against Oakland in the young series between the clubs, and that’s something the hosts would love to pull off here.
It’s safe to say things haven’t quite gone as hoped at Indy Eleven so far this season. The side’s disappointing run of results in July saw it slide out of the playoff places and find a decent gap to Miami FC in seventh place, meaning potentially a third consecutive season without playoff action in the Circle City. When Louisville City FC comes to visit for the LIPAFC, though, you should put all of that aside. No matter the situation, this is a game that both clubs get up for, as evidenced by Indy’s 1-1 draw against LouCity back in March when the sides squared off at Lynn Family Stadium with Stefano Pinho scoring for the visitors. With Louisville battling for top spot in the Eastern Conference once again, there would be little Indy would enjoy more than putting a pin in those plans with a victory at home to claim the season series, which would serve as a potential silver lining and starting point for the upward build ahead.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United San Diego Loyal SC The Miami FC Oakland Roots SC Detroit City FC