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USL Championship Talking Points – Week 23

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 08/15/22, 4:17PM EDT


The story behind Hernandez’s strike for San Antonio, a wild encounter in Colorado Springs, and more from the past weekend

San Antonio FC's Nicky Hernandez scored one of the cleverest goals of the season on Saturday night, and had teammate Mitchell Taintor to thank. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC

The inside story on one of the most memorable goals of the season, the exhilaration and frustration of one of the most dramatic games of the season, and a historic road victory for one of the Eastern Conference’s contenders were among the key storylines coming out of Week 23 of the USL Championship’s regular season.

Here’s what we took away from the action.


For most of us watching San Antonio FC on Saturday night, there was absolutely no question about the intent behind Nicky Hernandez’s opening goal against Las Vegas Lights FC. Laced home from a narrow angle to the near post from outside the right edge of the penalty area, the strike caught out Lights FC goalkeeper Abraham Romero, who was shading for the cross you’d expect from the area Hernandez was placed.

In case there was any doubt, though, Hernandez told reporters after the game how the idea came about – from San Antonio center back Mitchell Taintor, who was watching on from the stands while serving a one-game suspension for caution accumulation.

“This morning, I received a text from our captain … one of our leaders, Mitch,” said Hernandez. “He texted me, he sent me a video. He’s like, I think it was the Arsenal game. Arsenal against Leicester. Someone shot-crossed it. He’s like ‘dude, you should do this.’ And I’m like ‘bro, I’m going to score tonight and do that.’

“We have the receipts if y’all want them. We’ll send the screenshots over … He was like ‘try it out man, if it goes in it goes in if it doesn’t it doesn’t.’ So, I credit Mitch on that. I wouldn’t have thought about it. I would’ve just crossed it in.”


The wildest game of the weekend – and one of the wildest of the season so far – came on Friday night as Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and El Paso Locomotive FC traded momentum swings to finish in only the eighth 4-4 draw in the Championship’s history. Taking all the parts into account, somehow a draw felt like it was a fair result – Locomotive FC ended up with a 14-13 edge in shots, the Switchbacks a 9-8 edge in shots on target and a narrow advantage in Expected Goals at 2.41xG vs. 2.01xG for El Paso.

Unsurprisingly, though, the sentiment of it being a game in which both teams had dropped points was also there, with the Switchbacks squandering a three-goal lead earned in the first nine minutes before grabbing a stoppage-time equalizer through Aaron Wheeler after El Paso had scored four goals in 14 second-half minutes.

“We were talking to the whole group,” said Switchbacks Head Coach Brendan Burke. “We had a hard conversation, and a lot of words were exchanged. You can't lose a three-goal lead on the road or at home, and to do it at home is shameful. There is no other way to put that.”


Going into Saturday night’s game, Memphis 901 FC hadn’t scored a goal in its three prior meetings with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, let alone earned a result. With third place in the Eastern Conference at stake, though, Memphis produced the sort of display that showed a potential playoff-readiness when the end of the regular season arrives.

Given the personality 901 FC has shown throughout the campaign so far, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. What impressed then most, though, was the way the visitors were able to see the game out in the second half, not only limiting the attacking avenues for the Hounds – Pittsburgh had only four shots after the break compared to 11 before – but seizing on their best chance to put the game away on Aaron Molloy’s 73rd-minute finish.

“Our boys deserved this,” said Memphis Head Coach Ben Pirmann. “They worked their tails off start to finish. It was a big, physical game. Some things didn't go our way here and there, but we focused on the things we can influence and focused on playing our match. There were 15-20 minutes in the first half where they kind of turned the screw on us a little bit and had some chances. In the second half, I thought we were magnificent and played the game on our terms.”


With another two-goal performance in a crucial victory, it was always going to be Orange County SC’s Milan Iloski grabbing the main headline from the side’s 2-1 victory against Phoenix Rising FC that – coupled with other results – kept the defending title holders in the mix for a late playoff run.

What shouldn’t be underestimated, though, is the performance of midfielder Dillon Powers, whose beautifully delivered assist on Iloski’s second goal of the night provided a snapshot of what he’s brought back to the side since his return from Irish club Glentoran. Part of OCSC’s title-winning squad last year, Powers has now contributed to goals in consecutive games, and his ability to set the tempo overall in the middle of the field is an invaluable asset for Head Coach Richard Chaplow to have back at his disposal.

“Dillon is massive for us; we knew that and that is why we fought so hard to get him back,” said Chaplow. “It’s disappointing that we didn't have him from the start of the season for sure. But we have him now, and he's been great for us. We really have had an upturn in performances since he arrived.”


While Monterey Bay F.C. was finding its feet during its first season, the belief for veteran center back Hugh Roberts was that the side just needed to find a signature victory it could build some confidence around. Over the past six weeks, those have arrived for MBFC, but the club’s 1-0 victory on Saturday night against Northern California rival Sacramento Republic FC might be the biggest so far given the defeats the side had previously suffered this year.

“The fact that we beat a quality team was alright, but we owed these guys,” said Roberts. “They beat us twice already and another time in preseason. We knew we had lost three times in a row, and we had a little chip on our shoulder this game. It was more so us fighting, not doing it pretty, but doing it ugly knowing that we were going against our rivals. We were up for the challenge tonight.”

MBFC is now only four points outside the playoff places with 11 games to go in the regular season. The performances from here on in might not always be the prettiest – although the free kick and header by James Murphy and Christian Volesky undoubtably were – but in the middle of a playoff drive they just need to be effective.


It was an intriguing call by Louisville City FC Head Coach Danny Cruz to exclude leading scorer Wilson Harris from the starting lineup on Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. With the raucous atmosphere generated by a club-record crowd of 14,673 fans at Lynn Family Stadium, the 2020 Championship Young Player of the Year was clearly eager to make an impact when introduced on the hour-mark.

Three minutes later, Harris had done exactly what he set out to do. His quick pressure on Tampa Bay’s Connor Antley to force a turnover – one of 12 times LouCity won possession in the attacking third for the game – and convert the only goal of the night was a massive moment in the race for top spot in the East as Louisville took its first win against Tampa Bay in almost three years.

“It’s a great feeling,” Harris said. “You could feel that energy. I was waiting for my moment. I really wanted to be on the field. I couldn’t have written a better script to be honest.”

“For him to come and do what he did after probably being a bit disappointed in not starting, it shows a lot about his character,” added Cruz.


Of all the ways for the Rowdies to concede, the uncharacteristic nature of it might have been the thing that stung the most. For a team as proactive as Tampa Bay typically it, a negative throw-in followed by a touch that turned Conor Antley toward his own net – allowing LouCity’s Wilson Harris to catch him in possession – was just the sort that you just don’t expect a team like the Rowdies to entertain.

“I think we learned a little bit about ourselves, maybe a lot about ourselves tonight,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “I’m sure some individuals will learn a lot about themselves. These are the games that you do learn a lot. Ideally you want to win, but sometimes the losses, as tough as they are, sometimes they make you better. We need to make sure this one makes us better.”


With the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ loss, the longest winning streak in the USL Championship now belongs to Birmingham Legion FC, which took a fourth consecutive victory on Saturday night in defeating Western Conference contender San Diego Loyal SC on a first-half goal by former United States international Juan Agudelo.

The victory moved Legion FC into fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings, but there’s little time for Head Coach Tom Soehn and his squad to rest on their laurels. The next seven days bring a home game against fellow playoff contender Detroit City FC and a visit to Southern Harm rival Memphis 901 FC, offering opportunity and challenge in equal measure.

“Everybody looks at the table and they know where we sit, and we know who's around us, so they all become big games,” said Soehn. “We’re aware that these next two are big, and we need to treat them exactly like we did today and, and make sure we come out with the right mentality and a really good gameplan. Today I thought our pressure was really good. Our game plan was good. Would've made it easier on ourselves had we taken our chances from those good presses, but all we need is one.”


If there’s one thing you’ve got to tip your hat to when it comes to Detroit City FC, it’s the resilience the side shows. A week after falling on the road against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, DCFC was in danger of suffering consecutive defeats for the first time this season, only for Francis Atuahene to deliver a late equalizer in front of another great crowd at Keyworth Stadium – including The Strokes’ lead singer Julian Casablancas – to pick up a 1-1 draw with Oakland Roots SC and another step toward a playoff berth.

During James’ tenure, Le Rouge are still yet to lose consecutive games across all competitions. After Atuahene’s sharply taken finish, that record remains intact as the former FC Dallas player showed his quality in the final third.

“I’m really delighted for him,” said James. “He’s a funny lad, he’s a little bit down because we draw and he only scored one and not two. That’s the way he is, but I’m delighted for him. His strength is his pace, so he’s always going to be a threat against a team like Oakland who will push and leave space in behind them. Maybe I should have got him on the field a little bit earlier, but it certainly paid dividends for him tonight.”


There was a lot to like about New Mexico United’s performance in the first half against the LA Galaxy II on Sunday evening at Dignity Health Sports Park. The visitors had less possession, but looked more dangerous when they had the ball, and it resulted in not only Romario Williams’ first goal for the club but a two-goal advantage at the break after a cross by Cristian Nava deflected off a defender and into the net for an own goal.

But the challenge for any team playing Los Dos – especially on its home turf – is being able to contain its threat for 90 minutes. Sunday’s game was a particularly sharp passing outing for the hosts, who completed 89.1 percent of more than 500 passes, and as they snapped into gear in the final third it left United chasing shadows at times. A 2-2 draw was probably adequate to United’s pursuit of a top-four finish, but Head Coach Zach Prince was left to wonder what might have been if his side could have kept pace in the second half.

“We always want to be the aggressor and put a lot of pressure on the ball,” Prince told the Albuquerque Journal’s Ken Sickenger, “and we did that effectively for large portions of the match. But we got a little too wide open in a couple of moments when we sent numbers forward and [Galaxy II] was able to get in transition. That’s something we have to clean up.”

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