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USL Championship Talking Points | Week 22

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 08/08/22, 10:20AM EDT


San Diego wears down SAFC for victory, Dos Santos still flying for Rowdies, Eastern divide continues to grow

San Diego Loyal SC's victory against San Antonio FC on Saturday night saw the hosts wear down the current Western Conference leader and enter the conversation for the USL Championship title at the end of the season. | Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC

Featuring one of the results and performances of the season so far, the past weekend of the USL Championship regular season also saw the top two teams in the Eastern Conference maintain their form ahead of next weekend’s contest at Lynn Family Stadium, while the East overall became more separated, and the West became even tighter.

Here’s a look at 10 things we took away from the action.

1. SD Loyal Makes Statement

The keys storyline going into Saturday night’s top-two clash in the Western Conference was the opportunity San Diego Loyal SC had to position itself as a contender to claim the USL Championship title in November.

After a 3-0 victory against San Antonio FC at Torero Stadium that saw the hosts wear down their visitors in the manner SAFC has been used to doing this season, it seems safe to put SD Loyal in that conversation for contention.

“We dodged a couple of bullets early, but this was a game that over the course of 90 minutes we just wore them down,” said SD Loyal Head Coach Landon Donovan. “We could tell in their body language coming off the field at halftime that they were spent. They had done so much running.

“It was a full effort tonight. Evan [Conway] and [Thomas] Amang beat them down for 60 minutes and then you have to deal with [Kyle] Vassell and Tumi [Moshobane] coming in, so those are big problems for defenders. Over the course of 90 minutes, we showed we’re the better team.”

SD Loyal has now won seven of its last eight games, and while there’s still a four-point gap to San Antonio in the standings this contest set up a great rematch in Texas on September 10. You’ll want to circle your calendar now for that one.

2. San Antonio Looks for Reaction

For San Antonio, there was the disappointment of not only defeat, but falling in such a way that was uncharacteristic of the way the side has succeeded this season. The incisiveness with which San Diego was able to play through the visitors marked the highest passing completion rate any side had managed against SAFC this season, while San Antono itself wasn’t able to create chances consistently enough, particularly when chasing the game in the second half.

“We know collectively we need to better,” said SAFC Head Coach Alen Marcina. “A benefit of the short turnaround is we will learn, reflect, and then the expectation is that there’s a response. A positive response. And we do what we know we’re capable of.”

SAFC returns home on Wednesday night to host Loudoun United FC knowing it has rebounded each of it prior three defeats this season with a victory. It will be looking for the same against a United side coming off a solid victory of its own against the LA Galaxy II on Saturday night.

3. DOS SANTOS, Rowdies Continue STREAK

As well organized and difficult to break down as Detroit City FC has been this season, it was never likely to be an easy task for the Tampa Bay Rowdies to continue their recent winning streak, even at home at Al Lang Stadium. Eventually, though, the pressure the hosts were able to apply paid off as Steevan Dos Santos bagged his fifth goal in the past four games, reacting quickest to the rebound off a shot by Lewis Hilton to finish and send the Rowdies to an 11th victory in their now 13-game undefeated streak.

“That’s where a striker that has scored over a hundred goals would expect to be, in the box, ready for the keeper to make a good save and put it back into play,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “He’s on a great run. In the second half, I thought he was terrific. The first half, we expected a little bit more, but he really raised his game and set the platform for us to win the game.”

Dos Santos’ second season in Tampa Bay saw some early struggles with injury, but the 6-foot-4 center forward is now showing exactly why he’s in the Top 10 in the Championship’s all-time scoring leaders, while helping the Rowdies sit with the most goals in the Eastern Conference this season.

4. LouCity Set for Showdown

After Tampa Bay’s victory, Louisville City FC set the table for maybe the biggest game of the season for both clubs with a 4-1 victory against the Charleston Battery at Lynn Family Stadium that saw Brian Ownby, Enoch Mushagalusa and Wilson Harris find the net and the hosts rack up a season-high 25 shots overall, 11 of which were on target. Ahead of hosting the Rowdies next Saturday night with one point separating the teams, LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz was already looking forward to the promise of what the clash could mean in the big picture.

“It’ll be a huge opportunity at home in front of a full stadium,” said Cruz. “I am confident that with the support that’s coming, the players are going to put on a good performance.

“It’s an opportunity to drift away from a team that’s chasing us in the table. It’s a massive opportunity to pull away.”

It will also be a chance for LouCity to make their mark in the recent rivalry between the sides. After claiming each of the past two Eastern Conference Final contests – including their last visit to Lynn Family Stadium in 2020 – the Rowdies pulled through for a 1-0 win when the sides met at Al Lang Stadium earlier this campaign. A Louisville win to even the season series could set the road to the Eastern Conference Final this year to go through its new Kentucky home.

5. Miami Delivers Ahead of Midweek Clash

Miami FC hasn’t drawn too many headlines of late with narrow victories against the Charleston Battery and Loudoun United FC, the latter coming on a dramatic stoppage-time winner by Paco Craig, but the South Florida side made everyone stand up and pay attention on Saturday night with a 3-0 victory against New Mexico United that showed how good the side can be when it all clicks into place.

The visitors to a packed Isotopes Park rode their luck a little – New Mexico hit the woodwork three times while outshooting Miami 21-9 – but the quality of the chances the visitors produced was reflected in their relative Expected Goals marks, which saw Miami hold a 1.49 to 1.18 advantage as Connor Sparrow recorded a two-save shutout, and Kyle Murphy bagged a pair of goals to reach 50 for his regular-season career in the Championship.

Ahead of a key game with FC Tulsa on Wednesday night, Miami now has a nine-point lead over its closest rival for seventh place and could put a firm grip on a second consecutive trip to the playoffs with a win.

“I’m really proud of the group,” said Miami Head Coach Anthony Pulis. “I mean, everyone’s played their part tonight, which makes it even more pleasing, and the players can enjoy it, but it’s really important now that we make sure that we focus and make sure that we recover, and we prepare thoroughly and we’re ready for another massive game on Wednesday night against Tulsa.”

6. Pickering Gives Glimpse at Memphis

Becoming the youngest professional signing in Memphis 901 FC’s history last Thursday, United States youth international Nighte Pickering got an immediate chance to introduce himself to the fans at AutoZone Park on Saturday night as he came on as a second-half substitute against Hartford Athletic with half-an-hour to go.

“I said two things,” said Memphis Head Coach Ben Pirmann about his instructions. “Defensively, you've got to hunt the ball. He and Laurent [Kissiedou] went on at the same time, so I told them they have to re-energize us for 30 minutes, and they did. And I told them when we’re in possession, you have to be a threat vertically. I always tell him to have fun. You’re 17 and you’re playing football, so you’ve got to have fun and I think he did.”

We can second that. Pickering provided the moment of the night for the hosts in a 3-1 victory, sending home a bicycle kick with three minutes to go to seal the win for 901 FC and give himself a perfect ending to his professional debut.

“It’s obviously a dream come true,” said Pickering. “I wasn't expecting it to happen like that. The whole night I was thinking if I got one it would be insane. The whole time I was just ready.”

7. Birmingham, Pittsburgh Continue to Roll

Memphis’ victory kept it in third place in the Eastern Conference standings on what was a very good night for the teams we’re expecting to be part of the playoff field at the end of the season. Six of the seven teams above the playoff line took victory – Detroit City FC’s loss at Tampa Bay was the only miss – and Birmingham Legion FC did so in emphatic fashion with a 6-0 win against Atlanta United 2 that saw Sadik Balarabe score on his debut as well as standout displays by Enzo Martinez and Juan Agudelo.

“Our go-to this year is making sure we’re solid defensively,” said Legion FC Head Coach Tom Soehn. “The rest we said was to come, and it's taken longer than I wanted to, but we keep adding pieces. Sadik showed some of his qualities, he's not fit yet. But Enzo was unselfish, Juan had his best game. You're starting to see guys really gel and that's important.” 

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, meanwhile, kept the pressure on Memphis with a 2-0 victory against Indy Eleven that continued the difficulties for the Boys in Blue this season as Russell Cicerone put home a pair of close-range finishes to move into double digit goals this season.

“He works hard in the box, and he's always sniffing, trying to get in behind teams,” said Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley. “Sometimes we need to work the ball around the edges more rather than playing the first ball long, because we've got enough good players in the midfield to move it. But I'm happy for Russ. He made two good runs and had two good finishes today, and he's going to put himself in those positions to score as long as we keep working the ball in behind teams.”

8. Monterey Bay Playing Way into Conversation

Monterey Bay F.C. is still currently 12th in the Western Conference standings, but if a season comes down to a matter of moments then this past Saturday night might have contained two that could define the club’s path over the final third of the campaign. From the missed penalty kick by El Paso Locomotive FC’s Luis Solignac late in the first half to Adrian Rebollar’s 87th-minute winner at Cardinale Stadium, MBFC’s undefeated streak continued with a 1-0 win that continued to open a potential pathway to the postseason.

“[The goal] always makes everything worth it because we’re busting our tails the whole game,” said Rebollar. “The first half didn’t go as expected, but we went to the locker room and talked to each other, and we knew we had to come out and have a better second half. That’s exactly what we did. We came out and it definitely showed that we wanted it more. It showed in the result.”

Monterey Bay still has 13 games to go this season, and because of that it currently sits seventh in available points in the Western Conference. This week brings a pair of massive tests in a visit to San Diego Loyal SC on Wednesday night before a home contest against Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday, but the door is open for Head Coach Frank Yallop’s side to make the sort of late run Oakland Roots SC did a season ago to claim a playoff place in its first season in the league.

9. Phoenix’s Lundt Keeps Shutout Streak Alive

Phoenix Rising FC’s performance on Saturday night against Las Vegas Lights FC didn’t quite live up to the standard it had set a week before, but with five consecutive shutouts the back end of Rising FC that was leaking goals consistently during its downturn in form earlier this season continued to remain tight, with goalkeeper Ben Lundt continuing to remind everyone why he was the Championship’s Goalkeeper of the Year in 2020.

Lundt has now not conceded a goal in 455 minutes of action and has recorded 23 saves over the past five games. On Saturday, he held Las Vegas Lights FC’s duo of Cal Jennings and Danny Trejo off the board with a four-save shutout in a game that saw the visitors hold the edge in chances and shot on target – earning Lights FC its first point in a road game against Phoenix in club history – but Lundt ensured Las Vegas didn’t get all three to keep Rising FC in the middle of the playoff hunt.

“Five straight clean sheets is pretty impressive,” said Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz. “We also have played a lot of really good attacking teams lately. We dominated possession tonight but struggled to break them down. Overall, we’re continuing to improve. … It’s a little bit frustrating but I told the team as long as they continue to get clean sheets, we’ll be OK.”

10. Collector’s Item for Lopez earns Republic FC Result

If you were at Heart Health Park on Saturday night, you saw a rarity – a headed goal by Rodrigo Lopez. According to Opta, the veteran midfielder’s finish was his first headed goal in the Championship since returning to the league in 2020. It was notable for longtime Republic FC observers as well.

The goal itself was, as it has tended to be with Lopez this season, an important one, securing Sacramento a 1-1 home draw against Rio Grande Valley FC as it continues its push up the Western Conference standings. After New Mexico’s defeat on Saturday, a top-four finish is within reach for Republic FC, something it will be eager to grab hold of given the magic it’s been able to produce on home turf this season.

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