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USL Championship Talking Points | Week 29

By Staff, 09/26/22, 2:00PM EDT


The USL Championship Playoffs presented by Hisense are right around the corner and the jockeying for seeding remains unpredictable across both conferences. No new teams clinched a postseason berth this past week, though we do now know the Western Conference playoffs will run through San Antonio’s Toyota Field. 

Here are 10 things we saw on the field this weekend. 

1. San Antonio clinches the top seed out west 

It’s felt inevitable for weeks, but San Antonio FC has finally clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference following a week in which it took narrow victories over the teams currently sitting third and fourth in the conference, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and Sacramento Republic FC, respectively.  

Both scorelines were tight, but they’re the kind of results that will fill Alen Marcina’s side with confidence ahead of the postseason. In the playoffs, there are no style points for blowout wins. All that matters is that you move on at the end on the night. This week, facing two tough opponents, San Antonio showed just how hard it will be for opponents to leave Toyota Field with a result.  

Colorado Springs and Sacramento combined for just five shots on target, all of which were saved by San Antonio goalkeeper Jordan Farr. San Antonio put 11 shots on target in those two matches.  

Should San Antonio end up facing one or both of these opponents in the postseason, it won’t have to reach too deep into the memory.

2. Memphis takes control of its destiny in the east 

Memphis 901 FC and Louisville City FC played another wild contest Friday night with Memphis defender Graham Smith scoring the game-winning goal in the fifth minute of added time on a crazy sequence of play.  

Was Aaron Molloy shooting or passing when the ball ended up at the feet of Jeremy Kelly for the assist? We may never know, but we do know how important this result was for the entire playoff field. 

Memphis now controls its destiny in the race for the spot and home field advantage in the Eastern Conference. If 901 FC wins its remaining four games, it will earn the No. 1 seed in the east, regardless of what Louisville does in its remaining three games. 

It should be noted, though, that the road team has won both meetings between these two teams this year. Both games featured an away victory and three red cards, so if these teams meet again in the postseason, get the popcorn ready. 

3. San Diego earns a home game 

San Diego’s 2-1 victory in Las Vegas on Saturday guaranteed that Loyal SC will host its first-ever postseason game. With 58 points on the board, San Diego can finish no lower than fourth place in the West.  

San Diego knew heading into that match that a draw would be good enough to secure a home game. From the opening whistle, the players looked absolutely desperate to deliver that prize to their fans.  

Kyle Vassell opened the scoring after just 15 seconds, the fastest goal in the USL Championship this season. Elijah Martin doubled the lead in the fourth minute and Loyal SC was off and running toward a home playoff game.  

With a 12-4-0 record at home this season, San Diego will prove a tricky out for anyone that has to visit. Of the four teams to beat San Diego at home this season, none are in the current Western Conference playoff field.

4. Christian Pinzon stays hot 

Rio Grande Valley’s charge up the table has been led by dynamic midfielder Christian Pinzon, who scored twice in his team’s 3-0 road victory over the flailing Charleston Battery. Pinzon has scored in six of RGV FC’s last seven matches. 

In 10 games since joining the club, Pinzon has tallied seven goals and two assists. That’s a goal or assist every 92 minutes.  

Powered by Pinzon, Rio Grande Valley has won four consecutive matches by a combined score of 9-1 to climb to seventh place in the Western Conference. The next two games (vs Louisville on September 23 and at Memphis on October 1) will show us if the Toros are for real or if their success is unsustainable. 

5. The middle of the Eastern Conference playoffs remain tight 

This weekend saw Eastern Conference teams in first and second face each other head to head, as well as the teams in third and fourth. While Memphis delivered a decisive blow to claim a statement win in the former matchup, neither Birmingham Legion FC nor the Tampa Bay Rowdies could match it in the latter. 

The teams played out a 1-1 draw at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night, leaving them tied on points for third place. Marlon gave the visitors the advantage in the 10th minute, only for Leo Fernandes to score his team-high 16th goal of the season seven minutes later to tie the match.  

A win for either team would’ve been a major result. Tampa Bay has the advantage of a game in hand over Birmingham, but the Rowdies have dropped points in three consecutive contests, so there’s no guarantee that the game in hand is worth anything. 

6. Pittsburgh misses a big opportunity 

The Riverhounds nearly joined Tampa Bay and Birmingham in a three-way tie on 55 points, but conceded a goal at home … in the 90th minute … against the worst team in the Western Conference, settling for a 1-1 draw against Orange County SC. 

Albert Dikwa had given the Hounds a lead in the fourth minute and Pittsburgh looked set to pick up a victory, but a complete defensive lapse allowed Milan Iloski to score his 21st goal of the season in the 90th minute. Three Pittsburgh defenders closed on Cubo Torres, but he still managed to find Iloski, who somehow found space between two more Hounds to score from six yards out.  

Had Pittsburgh won that match, we would be looking at a three-way tie on 55 points and one of these teams would have to open the playoffs on the road. 

7. Monterey Bay extends its unbeaten run 

There may not be a better story in the USL Championship right now than Monterey Bay F.C. which started the season dismally, as many expansion teams do. The team opened its inaugural campaign with seven straight road games. At the end of that trip, the Union had just three points on the board and a goal differential of -16.  

Now, Monterey Bay sits just two points below the playoff line in the west courtesy of a five-game unbeaten run. Frank Yallop’s team was unlucky not to beat Phoenix in a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw last Wednesday night. 

Fresh off that heartbreak, the team had to board a cross-country flight to Miami, where it ground out a scoreless draw against The Miami FC on Saturday night.  

While the team dropped four points this week, it kept itself in the hunt, which is a real positive. 

8. Where the rubber meets the Western road 

This could be a critical week in the race for the playoffs in the Western Conference, which remains tightly packed. The difference between fifth and 11th is only seven points at the moment.  

Las Vegas, LA Galaxy II and Phoenix Rising FC are all still mathematically alive, but their margin of error is razor thin at this point. It’s highly unlikely any of them reach the playoffs. 

That leaves five teams fighting for three spots in the playoffs, assuming Sacramento Republic FC and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC are in. Monterey Bay, New Mexico and Rio Grande Valley have the benefit of a game in hand compared to El Paso and Oakland, so their positions should be considered strong, regardless of where they fall relative to the current playoff line. 

Las Vegas could play spoiler and get itself back in the race this week with home games against both Monterey Bay and New Mexico. 

9. There will be a new champion  

Orange County SC’s title defense is officially over, as the team has now been eliminated from playoff contention. With 32 points on the board and three games left to play, Orange County can only reach 41 points. The current playoff line is already at 42, leaving Richard Chaplow’s team out of options. 

It’s been a really challenging season for the Orange County. Milan Iloski leads the Golden Boot race with 21 goals, but the team as a whole has struggled to a disappointing record. It doesn’t appear as though the players have given up yet, though.  

It would have been easy for Orange County to mail it in after flying all the way to Pittsburgh and conceding in the fourth minute, but the players kept fighting and were eventually rewarded with a 90th minute Iloski goal for a 1-1 draw. The remainder of this season is all about building momentum for 2023 and it looks like Orange County is up to the task. 

10. Le Rouge marching toward first postseason  

Detroit City FC is now unbeaten in six games with four shutouts and two scoreless draws in that span. But the past two results – a scoreless draw at New York Red Bulls II and a 2-2 draw at home against Tulsa – were disappointing. In its quest for home playoff match, Le Rouge has three games remaining: at Loudoun Oct. 1, at Louisville Oct. 5 and home against Miami in the regular season finale on Oct. 15.  

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