San Diego Loyal SC's victory against Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night propelled it into the postseason for a second consecutive season. | Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC
The Eastern Conference field for the 2022 USL Championship Playoffs presented by Hisense was set this weekend, while the picture throughout the Western Conference remained up in the air aside from the question of top spot.
After some brilliant games and performances over the past three days, here are 10 things we took a way from the action.
If there’s been a hallmark for San Diego Loyal SC this season, it’s been its desire to control games through possession and limit transitional moments for opponents. For SD Loyal Head Coach Landon Donovan, there wasn’t nearly enough of that in the first half of his side’s game against Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night, where the visiting Rising FC outshot its hosts 8-5 and 3-1 in shots on target at Torero Stadium.
“We didn't have control of the game in the first half,” said Donovan. “It was too transitional and too hectic, so we tried to make a few adjustments that would help us just get control of the game even if we weren't as dangerous going forward. I think that helped us. Once we had control of the game the flow was much better for us, and we were able to play the game on our terms.”
You can say that again. A combination of decisive finishing and improved tempo led SD Loyal to a 3-0 victory which sealed its second consecutive trip to the postseason as Evan Conway, Kyle Vassell and Jackson Kasanze found the net. San Diego completed more than 90 percent of its passes in the second half as its more patient approach saw the side record fewer touches in the final third (35) than in the opening half (42) but prove much more dangerous.
After leaving itself a bit too open defensively in its visit to Rio Grande Valley FC in its prior trip to Texas last weekend, New Mexico United’s discipline in its trip to face first-placed San Antonio FC on Saturday night left the game of a sort of duel where both sides were waiting for the other to draw first. A good second-half finish by Chris Wehan earned the visitors a point after San Antonio had taken the lead through Ignacio Bailone on arguably its only good chance of the night, and while United dropped a place in the standings the point it took away kept the side on track for the playoffs.
“We represented ourselves the right way tonight,” United Head Coach Zach Prince told the Albuquerque Journal’s Ken Sickenger. “I thought the last 30 minutes we dominated and put ourselves in a position to get the full three points, but that’s a positive performance on the road against a first-place team. I’m completely proud of that performance.”
New Mexico probably would have been fortunate to grab a winner – a draw certainly seemed the fairest result – and it’s going to need to find a way to loosen up its attacking options to close out the season in positive fashion. With crucial games at Las Vegas Lights FC (Sept. 30) and at home to the LA Galaxy II (Oct. 5) up next, the upcoming bye is a chance to find the balance the side needs to close out a postseason berth.
San Antonio FC has still lost only once on home turf this season after Saturday’s draw, and while the side was disappointed with what it felt was a defensive error that left Chris Wehan free to record New Mexico’s second-half equalizer – “We made one error on their goal, we expected to be man-to-man in the box, we weren’t, and we allowed a talented guy like [Chris] Wehan free, and that’s on us,” said Head Coach Alen Marcina – the side was happy to be getting back into action on Tuesday night.
“Guys are buzzing right now to get back on the field, because we felt like we had more left and we felt like should have gotten three points, but we didn’t,” said SAFC defender Connor Maloney. “So, it’s another opportunity to get those three points, and hopefully solidify first place in the West.”
San Antonio can’t quite clinch the No. 1 seed on Tuesday against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC thanks to second-placed San Diego Loyal SC holding the head-to-head tiebreaker on goal differential, but the Switchbacks are going to need to be ready for what should be a high-energy start at Toyota Field.
Rio Grande Valley FC could certainly have been more clinical and earned a score-line more befitting what ended up as a 1-0 victory against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on Saturday night at H-E-B Park, but the club’s third consecutive win and fifth in its last six games overall gave the Toros what they entered the weekend looking for – control over their playoff path.
After Las Vegas Lights FC’s loss to Hartford Athletic earlier in the night, RGVFC now sits in seventh place in maximum available points with five games to play, and is full of confidence it can make a second postseason trip.
“We have a lot of belief in ourselves right now,” said Toros forward Jonas Fjeldberg, who scored the only goal just before halftime. “As I said last week, I believe that no team can stop us if we are at 100 percent. Tonight, we were not there but it was a really strong performance by winning 1-0. Overall, we are very happy with the situation that we are in.”
The assertion the Toros can compete with anyone will get tested down the stretch. RGVFC faces the top two teams in the East in Louisville City FC and Memphis 901 FC to start October and there’s also potentially crucial final game of the season against Monterey Bay F.C. to come on October 15. Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera’s side is in the position its needs to be now, however, and that combined with some strong underlying numbers are the mark of a side that could do some damage.
Monterey Bay F.C.’s 5-0 victory against Indy Eleven maintained the first-year club’s drive toward the postseason in brilliant style at Cardinale Stadium and delivered a pair of landmarks for two of its key players this season. For veteran forward Christian Volesky there was his 50th regular season goal in the Championship, and midfielder James Murphy grabbed his first goal in the professional ranks on his 25th birthday.
Volesky became the 20th player in the Championship’s history to reach a half-century of goals, a landmark that came a week later than he had hoped after MBFC’s postponed contest against Las Vegas Lights FC on September 10.
“I am from Las Vegas, and I had a lot of family and friends come out, I figured I would get it in that game,” said Volesky. “But in front of these fans, it was incredible. Now we go for 100.”
Monterey Bay F.C.’s victory ensured the celebration could begin across the country for Detroit City FC, which did it part to clinch a playoff berth in its first season in the Championship with a 1-0 win against the Tampa Bay Rowdies earlier in the night at Keyworth Stadium. Antoine Hoppenot’s goal earned the hosts victory late on – giving the side its first home win since May in the process – and now Le Rouge have their sights set on finding a way into the top four and a home playoff game to open.
“We’re trying to figure out where we’re going to land,” said Hoppenot. “We want a home playoff game, at this point now with our last two wins I think it becomes very realistic. We never lost hope, and now we’re looking up and there’s a big chance that we’re able to play here in the playoffs, which I think would be a huge advantage.”
According to fivethirtyeight.com, DCFC has a 15 percent chance of landing that spot ahead of Birmingham Legion FC (36%) and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (26%). For a team that just earned consecutive victories while entering as a supposed underdog, they’ll like those chances.
Memphis 901 FC knows how much is at stake when it heads to face Louisville City FC next Friday night, with the top-two clash in the Eastern Conference likely to determine which team ends up as the No. 1 seed in the postseason. The good news for Memphis is right now, its biggest gun is firing on all cylinders with Phillip Goodrum bagging another two goals against the Charleston Battery this past Friday at AutoZone Park in a 5-0 victory.
“We know next weekend is a cup final for us,” said Goodrum after the game. “We’re playing Louisville who’s in first and we’re in second. Everything’s on the line. There’s not going to be much needed to be said because we’re all motivated to get the top spot. We control our own destiny, and this team doesn’t need any extra motivation.”
Goodrum’s run of five goals in the past two games – leading Memphis to victories by a combined 9-0 scoreline – has put him one back of Orange County SC’s Milan Iloski too in the race for the Golden Boot, with Iloski on 20 and Goodrum on 19 going into Week 29. If there’s any added motivation needed for the Tennessee native, that individual honor could certainly serve as one.
Louisville City FC ensured the gap between itself and Memphis remained at five points going into their crucial showdown on ESPN Deportes with a 4-2 victory against Loudoun United FC that saw Sean Totsch set a Championship single-season record for goals by a defender with his ninth of the season.
Each of the club’s current regular front three also found the net after Enoch Mushagalusa and Wilson Harris’ first-half goals were added to by Brian Ownby as an insurance marker after Loudoun rallied within a goal. Those defensive moments were front of mind for LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz after the game ahead of what’s now the biggest game of the regular season for his squad.
“Being at home it's important that we set the tone there,” said Cruz. “But at the same time, we have to make sure that we get better in the areas we need to get better. We were poor in transition tonight on defense. We were poor in transition in attack. But again, you put in four goals, and I think it's a good thing that I'm frustrated scoring four goals and winning the game.”
After scoring four goals in the second half of its rebound match against Loudoun United FC following the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final last Saturday night, Sacramento Republic FC repeated the feat in the first half of this Sunday’s nationally televised clash against Orange County SC as it continued to illustrate how good it can be in full flight. In bagging four goals in consecutive league games for only the second time in its history – and the first time since 2016 – Republic FC moved into position to claim not only a playoff berth but third place in the Western Conference next weekend.
The opponent standing in the way of both of those ambitions? First-place San Antonio FC, which Sacramento will visit next Saturday night in one of the marquee games of Week 29 and a potential postseason clash further down the line. Given those stakes – and the fact that Sacramento took a 1-0 victory when the teams met at Heart Health Park on June 4 – Head Coach Mark Briggs wasn’t ready to get carried away despite a performance that allowed his side to cruise to victory in the second half.
“We're not getting carried away,” said Briggs. “We’re going into a team who has been in form all season. They’re rightly at the top of the league because they deserve to be at the top of the league. But you know, we've had to battle with two competitions. We've had to balance our roster and now we were able to focus on one goal. So, we're just happy with our performances. We’re happy we got the three points today and then we'll focus on the No. 1 team in our conference.”
The postseason is going to have to wait for Hartford Athletic until next season, but after holding on for victory in new Head Coach Tab Ramos’ first game at the helm last weekend, the side put in a stellar second-half shift while continuing to look sharp offensively in a 3-0 victory against Las Vegas Lights FC before another sellout crowd at Trinity Health Stadium. A pair of goals by Ariel Martinez got the hosts out to a great start, and while Las Vegas had more shots after the break after a bright opening, the Athletic regained enough control to add to their lead and see out a shutout for goalkeeper Yannik Oettl.
“We didn't struggle in the end to keep a clean sheet and I thought that was important for us,” said Ramos. “We had a couple of moments, I think the first 15 minutes of the second half, and about a period of about two minutes in the first half where we weren't sharp, and we kept losing the ball. But I thought the rest of the game we really controlled it, sometimes with the ball sometimes without the ball, and I’m happy with that performance.”
Hartford faces a quick turnaround to Wednesday’s visit to Loudoun United FC, which is coming off a 4-2 defeat to Louisville City FC on Saturday night. It will be interesting to see how the remaining four games of the season play out for Ramos’ side, especially their season finale on the road against Eastern Conference leader LouCity.