There weren't many friends made when Louisville City FC visited Detroit City FC on Saturday, but the LouCity defense held firm again to help the Eastern Conference leaders to victory. | Photo courtesy Jon DeBoer / Detroit City FC
On a night when the gap at the top of the Eastern Conference expanded, the one at the top of the West narrowed slightly, and an unfamiliar favorite emerged to take one of the two apparent Western Conference playoff berths that still appear up for grabs, there was a lot to take on board in the USL Championship.
Here are 10 things we took away from the weekend’s action.
A season ago, the root of Louisville City FC’s difficulties was its defense’s inability to stop leaking goals. It was a challenge in the regular season – LouCity ended the regular season with the lowest Expected Goals Against mark in the league at 28.12xGA, but conceded 37 times – and then in the playoffs the dam broke at the most inopportune moment against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the Eastern Conference Final.
Now, LouCity is again the league-leader in Expected Goals Against in the league, but after a fourth shutout in the past five games – and ninth win in the last 10 overall – the Eastern Conference leaders are also the side with the fewest goals conceded this season as well. In a hard-fought game on the road at Detroit City FC on Saturday night that the visitors came through with a 1-0 result, that defensive solidity was the thing that shone through the most and makes LouCity the current favorite to win the USL Championship Final at the end of the season.
“I felt we were relentless for 90 minutes,” said LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz. “We talked about it all week. It’s not about playing soccer at this stadium. It’s about being resilient, about having the right mentality, understanding that the ball is going to spend half the time at this stadium in the air.
“I felt that given what the game asked for, we answered the call. I was really, really proud of how our group handled going up a goal. I was really proud of how our group handled the red cards that we received, a collective effort from the group, and I couldn’t be more proud.”
LouCity might have been fortunate to be awarded the penalty kick that led to Sean Totsch’s goal – although you can certainly understand from the angle the official had how it could have been construed in real time – but there was no question the Tampa Bay Rowdies were hard done by in being denied a penalty kick on a handball by Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC defender Matt Mahoney that went unnoticed late in their loss at Weidner Field.
As disappointing as that decision not going their way was for Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins, the performance that saw the side held scoreless for a second consecutive outing was even more so as the side lost ground on LouCity at the top of the Eastern Conference.
“I was disappointed with the call at the end but not as disappointed as I was with our performance tonight,” said Collins. “A clear penalty. Referee’s missed that call, but the performance leading up to it reflects the result that we ended with.”
There’s little doubt as of now that the top five teams in the current Eastern Conference standings are all well set for a postseason trip. The order they’ll end up in? Well, that became a little more interesting this weekend after Birmingham Legion FC took a 4-2 victory against Southern Harm rival Memphis 901 FC in maybe the most entertaining game on Saturday night. The season week of their rivals saw the Three Sparks remain in fourth place for now and offered a chance to move up over the final stretch of the season.
“Anytime you're chasing someone ahead of you, you're never going to catch them unless you can beat them,” said Legion FC Head Coach Tom Soehn. “I think throughout this year, you gauge tests that you have to take on, and this is a big one and I think we've done really well against big teams. This result, obviously coming off Detroit, where we felt like we let ourselves down, was really important. I feel like we really dictated the terms of the game in the first half.”
Hanging the first four-spot that Memphis had conceded in a game this season on your biggest rival has got to be a good feeling, and with four different players finding the net there was the variety in finishing that made this feel like an important result.
In preseason, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC was certainly considered among the teams to watch in the Championship’s Eastern Conference with the players the side had added to a strong central core providing on paper an exciting team that could challenge the duopoly of the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Louisville City FC.
Five months into the season, and coming off a 2-2 draw against the last-placed New York Red Bulls II that saw the youngsters fight back from two goals down at Highmark Stadium, that potential still has yet to be fully realized, and Head Coach Bob Lilley isn’t happy about it.
“We didn’t play well, and we took New York for granted, which we talked about all week,” said Lilley, whose side remained in fifth place after the result. “This is a massive blow in the standings. We went and gifted two points when we can’t take New York at home. It’s been the story of us this year. Everyone written in preseason was about how talented we were. We’ve underperformed as a team. It’s frustrating that we aren’t growing from that.”
San Antonio FC rallied from a two-goal deficit to earn a 2-2 draw against South Texas Derby rival Rio Grande Valley FC on Saturday night – a result that left the Western Conference leader just short of clinching its playoff berth – but the game itself was the epitome of what the Toros’ season has been like.
Strangely, the Toros are in some ways defensively similar to Louisville City FC a year ago. You might not think it, but RGVFC’s defense and structure has in general been good, giving the side the lowest Expected Goals Against mark in the Western Conference at 22.57xGA through 24 games – less than 1.00xGA per game alongside SAFC. Where the difference comes is that the Toros have just leaked goals, sometimes at the most inopportune moments. Mitchell Taintor’s equalizer in stoppage time was the latest of those, and put another roadblock up to the Toros’ hopes of making a late run to return to the postseason for a second consecutive year.
San Diego Loyal SC might lead the USL Championship with 56 goals this season, but when it comes to assists the side has been a bit more reliant on individual creativity, good bounces, and sharp long-range finishing than some of the other of the league’s leaders. Still, watch this dime by Jack Blake, and you get a sense of why this side is a serious contender for the USL Championship in its third season.
“We created a ton of chances,” said SD Loyal Head Coach Landon Donovan. “We’ve said all along that if teams are going to leave us two-v-two in the back with [Kyle Vassell] and [Thomas] Amang, or Evan [Conway] and Amang, or Andrew [Carleton] and Vass, or Tumi [Moshobane] and whoever, then you’ve just got to kill them and score goals. Tonight was a night where because they came after us and didn’t adjust, we said, ‘OK, just keep going into those two, we’ll create 20 chances, score three of them, take the points and go home.”
SD Loyal’s 3-1 win on the road against El Paso Locomotive FC was as comprehensive as it seemed and could have come by a wider margin. Overall, San Diego had seven big chances created per Opta, tied for the second-most in a game this season, and should be another warning to upcoming opponents as to their capabilities in the attacking half.
It might not have been as dominant a performance as San Diego’s, but New Mexico United’s 2-0 victory against Monterey Bay F.C. on Saturday night might have delivered a renewed optimism and belief that the side certainly could use as it goes after a top-four finish and home playoff game. After conversations among the squad about how difficult earning victories can be, according to defender Sam Hamilton, Head Coach Zach Prince believed his side showed the willingness necessary to not only take control of a game, but keep control in the way the side hasn’t managed to consistently of late.
“We changed our shape a little bit, which I think might have helped us a little bit,” said Prince. “But at the same time, you could just see the hunger from these guys to go and score goals. And I showed some video on that. And it ends up that you just try as a coach to help them as much as possible. But in the end, you trust the players that are on the field to go and execute. And that's why we put these players in these positions.
“They just did such a good job tonight of being aggressive, making plenty of runs that really confused them defensively and kept those numbers up. And they were really committed and sprinting in those types of moments. Even if they didn't get the ball and won the second one, they kept going and kept going over and over again.”
The question for Las Vegas Lights FC this season has been, if it’s not Danny Trejo or Cal Jennings scoring the goals, then who? Going into Saturday’s contest with Sacramento Republic FC at Cashman Field, the duo had accounted for basically two-thirds of Las Vegas’ goals this season, with 18 of the 28 tallies the side had put up.
Thanks to Christian Torres and Daron Iskenderian – both current youth internationals for Mexico and Armenia, respectively – the hosts grabbed a 2-1 victory that not only broke Las Vegas out of a recent run without a win – although the side picked up three draws in its prior four outings – but also up the Western Conference standings. With five of its remaining eight games on home turf, the door to a first playoff place is starting to open.
“I think the last four games, the results haven’t been portraying the way we’ve been playing,” said Iskandarian. “Today, getting three points against a very strong opponent was very big for us and we’re going to keep this momentum going into our next games.”
In a playoff race, one of the key players for a side must be its goalkeeper. On Saturday night, FC Tulsa’s hometown standout Austin Wormell delivered a seven-save performance that not only helped the side eke out a 1-0 victory thanks to Machuca’s late winner, but also saw the 24-year-old get major praise from the club’s current boss and former Jamaican international shot-stopper Donovan Ricketts.
“A good goalkeeper keeps his team in the game, especially in a big game like this when we are battling for points,” said Ricketts, who made 100 appearances internationally and was twice MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. “For a youngster, people say he lacks experience – he was huge tonight. This is a huge process for him, and I think he is standing firm. I cannot give him enough credit, for being a kid his age and his lack of experience, to be playing like he’s been playing.
“In the first half he made a few mistakes kicking the ball. But he grew up here. He grew up in the second half and he stood firm and he kept us in the game.”
The odds are still against Tulsa making the postseason – its current odds according to fivethirtyeight.com are 18 percent – but in Wormell it has a prospect that it could build a brighter 2023 campaign around.
One of the teams FC Tulsa is trying to chase down is Miami FC, which hit the road on Saturday night and took a solid 2-0 victory against Hartford Athletic to keep the gap between the teams at nine points with nine games to for Miami in its campaign. It was a relatively no-frills performance by the visitors at Trinity Health Stadium, who were effective in limiting Hartford’s clear chances as goalkeeper Connor Sparrow notching his 11th shutout of the season.
Miami has now earned eight road victories this season – tied for second-most in the league – a potentially good sign with the side looking likely to reach the playoffs but still out of range of a potential top-four finish after winning only three times in 10 games at home so far this season.
“I think when you go on the road, you have to show certain qualities and I thought we showed all of those tonight,” said Miami Head Coach Anthony Pulis. “I think at times in the first half we could have used the ball a little bit better – that was probably the only real disappointment, our ball retention in certain areas of the field could have been a little bit better, but we knew what it was going to be like. They’re in a situation where they’ve got nothing to lose, they were going to throw a lot of numbers forward and we had to defend a lot of set pieces, but we did all those things really well and scored a couple of really good goals.”