The Tampa Bay Rowdies took their 10th victory in a 12-game undefeated streak on the road at Indy Eleven on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven
From late game-changing goals to the continuation of lengthy undefeated streaks, there was a lot to dig into this weekend in the USL Championship, with the playoff picture in the Western Conference becoming that much more intriguing after a mixed bag of results.
Here are 10 things we took away from the action.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies conceded first for a second consecutive game, this time against Indy Eleven, on Saturday night, but once the visitors to Michael A. Carroll Stadium got back on level terms thanks to Steevan Dos Santos’ penalty kick just past the half-hour, there was no stepping off the gas pedal for the visitors. The Rowdies outshot Indy 10-2 over the final 57 minutes of the games – with both shots by the Boys in Blue coming from outside the penalty area – as Tampa Bay moved to 10-0-2 in its last 12 games to keep up the pressure on Louisville City FC at the top of the Eastern Conference.
The chances that delivered could have seen the Rowdies put the game away far earlier than Leo Fernandes’ insurance penalty kick in second-half stoppage time, but the consistent pressure Tampa Bay applied to their hosts continued to look imposing as a key showdown with LouCity appears on the horizon on August 13.
“It’s easy to take a step back when you’re leading, but I thought we stayed really brave,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “We stayed high and kept making them turn the ball over. Really my only negative of the night is we should have put away one of those great chances we created. The performance then would’ve had the result to match, but we got there in the end. This is a really difficult environment to come into.”
If you’d watched Louisville City FC’s comeback victory against Memphis 901 FC earlier in July, you might have seen it coming. After all, it was the same triggerman, different finisher. Niall McCabe’s low set piece from the right to an onrushing teammate coming off a screen – in this instance, Jorge Gonzalez after Brian Ownby’s conversion against Memphis – has been a staple for LouCity, and it proved the difference in a 1-0 victory against El Paso Locomotive FC on Saturday night at Southwest University Park that let the Eastern Conference leaders retain their position in a hard-fought game on the road.
“We didn’t practice it this week, but right before the game [Head Coach) Danny [Cruz] talked about it,” Gonzalez said. “It was a great set piece play, and we executed it right how we wanted to.
“It’s never easy to get three points when we play away, but those are the games we need to win to end up first in the league.”
Future opponents of LouCity, scout up.
After the jubilation of the club’s victory in the Semifinals of the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday night, it could have been easy for Sacramento Republic FC to suffer a letdown as it headed to the East Coast to face the Charleston Battery three days later.
In a back-and-forth contest that saw the visitors give up their fair share of chances, however, the sharp finishing Sacramento’s rotated lineup showed the depth of quality Republic FC can call on to ensure it earns a postseason berth while also taking aim at history in the Open Cup Final on September 7 against Orlando City SC. A goal and assist apiece from Emil Cuello and Luther Archimede as well as a goal from former Battery man Zeiko Lewis saw Sacramento home, and emphasized the options Head Coach Mark Briggs has at his disposal.
“We have a deep squad and everyone on this squad is talented,” said Archimede. “Everyone has a big role to play. Whenever we're not playing... whenever we're not in the squads, we know that we still have to continue to work hard because in two, three days... in like a week, you're going to be in it and have a big role to play. It's a team effort.”
According to San Diego Loyal SC Head Coach Landon Donovan, there was a really good argument for Evan Conway to be in the starting lineup for the side’s visit to Orange County SC on Saturday night. Coming off a goal and assist in the side’s win against Rio Grande Valley FC the prior weekend, the former Union Omaha standout has provided timely finishing this season, his first in the USL Championship.
If there’s a role Conway has proven adept at this season, though, it’s been as an impact player off the substitutes bench. That proved the case again at Championship Soccer Stadium, where Conway’s goal with five minutes to go sent SD Loyal to a 3-2 victory for their sixth win in the last seven games and solidified the side’s place in second place in the Western Conference.
“The wins we’ve been getting lately are huge,” said Conway. “We’re in every game, we’re in it until the end, and it seems like every time we’re in this kind of situation we just have that edge to push through the last 20, 30 minutes, seal out the wins and win games.”
Conway’s role in those wins has been notable. The Wisconsin native now leads SD Loyal with three goals in the 76th minute or later, and each has been a game-winner on the road. Prior to Saturday, Conway delivered the game-winning goal in victories at the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. Every player wants to start, but Conway’s ability to impact a game as a substitute continues to be of great value to Donovan and his squad.
Conway wasn’t the only player to deliver a key late goal over the weekend’s action in the Championship. Overall, four games saw game-changing goals in the 90th minute or later, including a collector’s item for New Mexico United’s Will Seymore on Sunday night to cap the weekend against the New York Red Bulls II.
The central midfielder’s 90th-minute header was his first goal in the USL Championship in his 107th regular-season appearance and gave United a 2-1 victory that ultimately it deserved, but also showed how essential putting away chances is going to be for New Mexico moving forward. The visitors dominated the first half, posting an 8-1 shot advantage and 1.69xG, but took only a one-goal lead into the break. An improved Red Bulls II in the second half pulled level thanks to Steven Sserwadda, and if not for Seymore’s late intervention it could have proven a major letdown in United’s pursuit of a top-three finish, which is now within reach.
“I’m really proud of the result,” New Mexico Head Coach Zach Prince told the Albuquerque Journal’s Ken Sickenger. “When you look at the first half, we could’ve completed some of those chances and it wouldn’t have been so close at the end. But at the end of the day, we came here for three points and that’s what we got.”
It’s still a long shot that Monterey Bay F.C. reaches the USL Championship Playoffs – its current odds are 10 percent at fivethirtyeight.com – but the club’s undefeated run through July that was capped by Saturday’s dramatic 1-0 victory against Loudoun United FC thanks to Seku Conneh’s 93rd-minute winner at Segra Field kept that potential within reach.
Conneh’s finish, which followed a mad scramble in the penalty area after a late corner kick, was in some ways representative of a team for which the bounces are finally going the right way after miscues earlier in its first season. The schedule is going to get trickier from here, the club’s next four outings are against sides above the playoff line in the West, but the mood around the club right now feels like it’s in a good spot to take that challenge on.
There was no question about Birmingham Legion FC’s midweek victory against Loudoun United FC, which saw the playoff contender emphatically deliver victory. Saturday night? Well, it might have been somewhat fortunate, but in this instance the visitors certainly played a role in creating their luck.
After giving up the better chances to Hartford Athletic throughout the 90 minutes at Trinity Health Stadium, a major miscue by the hosts gave Enzo Martinez the chance to grab victory as he anticipated and intercepted a pass out of the penalty area. The veteran made no mistake, sliding a low finish home to send Birmingham to a 1-0 win that summed up Hartford’s fortunes this season, and kept Legion FC on track for a fourth consecutive postseason berth.
“Honestly, I think everything we do starts with our willingness to defend,” said Martinez. “The best games we played are because of that. It really starts with our forwards. And the rest of the team does the same. The more selfless running we do the better the team plays.”
We’ve already discussed the swagger that seemed to return to Phoenix Rising FC’s lineup in Saturday’s 4-0 victory against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. Maybe a key part to that was the presence of JJ Williams as the club’s center forward, with the 6-foot-4 striker not only scoring in his debut but putting in a solid all-around display for his new side.
When Phoenix’s acquisition of Williams from FC Tulsa early last week was announced, the potential for him to be an Adam Jahn- or Rufat Dadashov-type for the side was one I and others immediately expressed. His finish for Phoenix’s second goal of the night – and his 10th overall this season – was a great exhibition of what Williams can bring moving forward. We’ll likely need a couple more games of evidence, but it’s probably safe to consider Phoenix’s playoff chances revived.
“I couldn’t have dreamed for a better first night,” said Williams. “It’s not just getting a goal. It was our performance as a whole. This performance shows the caliber of team I’m coming into. I’m thankful for that. These guys have been doing this all season, playing well, they just needed the final product.
Down a man and a goal, San Antonio FC went for a miracle in the fifth minute of stoppage time. A hopeful long ball into the penalty area, the sort you’d expect to be dealt with by a team defending a one-goal lead, was allowed to bounce, and in stole Shannon Gomez to head home and earn the hosts a 1-1 draw against the LA Galaxy II, continuing SAFC’s undefeated streak before the crowd at Toyota Field.
For Gomez, it was a sign of the side’s resilience that it was able to bounce back and earn a positive result.
“I’m glad you used that word because that’s one of our key words,” said Gomez. “It’s stuck in everybody’s locker. Resilience. And it’s one of those things where regardless of any part of the game we fight for every action. We got an opportunity to win the game, not from anything spectacular but just doing the simple things well, and trying to create an opportunity even if it’s five seconds left … I think it just speaks to our identity as a team.”
That’s certainly true, and a great trait for a team to have. The game that preceded it, though, showed again that as good as San Antonio’s results have been this season, it may not be the team that’s left standing at the end of the season. Los Dos frustrated their hosts, winning the majority of the game’s duels and tactically fouling to keep them from gaining any sort of rhythm – the Galaxy II recorded five fouls, and received four yellow cards. Against a team that can manage the game better – see this year’s earlier defeats against Phoenix Rising FC and Sacramento Republic FC – SAFC might not have been as fortunate.
The level of marksmanship Milan Iloski is delivering for Orange County SC is among the best we’ve seen in the Championship’s history. The 23-year-old now leads the Championship’s Golden Boot race with 16 goals, of which seven have come beyond the penalty area after Saturday’s clash with San Diego Loyal SC, which saw Iloski deliver another highlight-reel finish.
The only players with that sort of scoring ratio in Championship history in a season? How about FC Cincinnati’s Emmanuel Ledesma – who had 16 goals, eight of which were from outside the penalty area in winning MVP in 2018 – and Louisville City FC’s Cameron Lancaster – who had 25 goals and seven goals outside the penalty area in sitting runner-up to Ledesma in the MVP vote the same season.
The problem? It may not matter in the end. Orange County’s 3-2 defeat to San Diego Loyal SC left the defending title holders bottom of the Western Conference, and rated a four percent chance to reach the postseason. If Iloski claims the Golden Boot, he’d be the first to do so while his team missed the postseason in league history.