Welcome back to the USL Championship’s Talking Points, where we revisit some of the most important moments and trends from an exciting week of action on the field. Just one week remains in the regular season and there are still 10 teams in contention for seven playoff spots in the Western Conference.
The No. 1 seeds are officially locked in, but seeding elsewhere remains up for grabs in both conferences. Teams around the playoff line in the Western Conference posted a 4-1-2 record this week and it seems like no one is backing down.
We’ll take a look at those points and more as we look back on Week 31 of the USL Championship season below.
There were 14 matches played this week and one team managed to keep a clean sheet. Somewhat paradoxically, the only game that featured a zero on the scoreboard was also the highest scoring match of the week as the Rowdies cruised to an 8-0 victory over Loudoun United FC.
Ok, Loudoun didn’t put up much of a fight – recording just one shot on target – but you still have to give the Rowdies credit for posting an eight spot. Six different players scored in the victory, led by Sebastian Guenzatti, who became Tampa Bay’s all-time leading scorer with his 61st and 62nd goals for the Rowdies, taking sole possession of the record from Georgi Hristov, who scored 60. Guenzatti’s second goal was particularly spectacular, an acrobatic finish with the outside of his right boot as he leapt to meet a Connor Antley cross.
Tampa Bay also got two goals off the bench from Dayonn Harris in the closing minutes, both assisted by Nicky Law. A special shoutout is also due to Tate Johnson, a 17-year-old midfielder who made his debut off the bench and provided an assist for Lucky Mkosana in the 83rd minute.
The Rowdies set a pair of club records in the game, setting new high marks for goals in a game and in a season (69).
“That’s the best way to win,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “To be relentless. To be relentless against the ball. To keep a clean sheet. To create chances. It should give our players a lot of confidence.”
The victory means the Rowdies are guaranteed to finish no lower than third in the Eastern Conference. If Tampa Bay wins out (against El Paso Locomotive FC on Wednesday and against New York Red Bulls II on Saturday), it could still finish with the No. 2 seed if Memphis 901 FC fails to beat FC Tulsa in its regular season finale. Tampa Bay and Memphis will meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals if seeds hold and they avoid a quarterfinals upset, but where that match will be played is still to be determined.
Louisville City FC clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference with a 2-1 victory over Detroit City FC on Wednesday night with Memphis also dropping points at home against Rio Grande Valley FC. As recently as two weeks ago, Memphis controlled its destiny at the top of the Eastern Conference standings after beating Louisville at Lynn Family Stadium, but LouCity has recovered from that stumble with back-to-backs wins over teams above the playoff line.
Louisville trailed at halftime after Detroit’s Antoine Hoppenot scored against his former club, but goals from Wilson Harris and Josh Wynder within three minutes of one another just after the hour mark saw Louisville take the lead. Not long after, Memphis 901 FC blew a 2-0 lead at home to draw 2-2 against Rio Grande Valley FC.
“I thought we started the game really well,” said LouCity coach Danny Cruz. “We took our foot off the gas a little bit — gave them a little too much joy — and we made the decision at halftime to change the shape. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I was really proud of how the group responded. I thought it made us better in the second half.”
It was a decisive few minutes in the race at the top of the Eastern Conference. We now know the East will run through Lynn Family Stadium, where LouCity is 12-2-2 at home this season.
“When I look at the body of work that my staff and these players have put in this year, I’m extremely proud that the East has to come through Louisville,” Cruz said. “This is a difficult place to play because of the fans, the stadium and the field size.”
We wrote about San Antonio FC’s stellar season a week ago, but it’s worth noting that the team just keeps winning. SAFC overturned an early deficit this week with goals from Ignacio Bailone and Santiago Patino to beat Birmingham Legion FC 2-1 at Protective Stadium on Sunday.
The win was San Antonio’s 24th of the season, equaling the 2019 Phoenix Rising FC squad for most wins in a season in USL Championship history. SAFC would break the record with a victory in its season finale against Orange County SC on Saturday.
“I’m proud of the collective. This was a clear and total team effort,” San Antonio Head Coach Alen Marcina said. “There were players who hadn’t received many minutes [who] stepped up today in a big way. We were missing our four captains so leadership was dispersed among a number of different players, and all 11 guys, guys entering the field, all talking and all communicating remained cohesive. I felt we deserved and earned the three points.”
The win over Birmingham on Sunday was San Antonio’s fifth-consecutive victory by a single-goal margin. The team doesn’t blow opponents out, but it almost always wins. It’s a remarkable trend that bodes well for the postseason, where games are generally tighter. No team in the league is more comfortable in close games or protecting narrow leads than San Antonio, which won’t have to leave Toyota Field for the rest of the year as the No. 1 overall seed.
It was a good week all around for teams around the playoff line in the Western Conference, but RGV FC deserves particular plaudits. Wilmer Cabrera’s side fought back from a 2-0 deficit in Memphis, scoring twice in the final 17 minutes of the match to earn a 2-2 draw and an important point away from home against one of the best teams in the league.
The Toros followed that up with a 2-1 victory over Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night to boost their playoff aspirations. RGV FC is 5-1-1 in its last seven matches, with the only loss a narrow 1-0 defeat against Louisville City FC. As things stand, the Toros sit in fifth place in the Western Conference and know that a victory over Monterey Bay F.C. at home on Saturday will see them reach the postseason.
As recently as the first matches in August, RGV FC sat just three points above last place in the Western Conference. Now, the Toros look more than capable of hanging with the very best in the league, as evidenced by the recent matches against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. This team is worth keeping an eye on.
Roots SC stayed above the playoff line with a 3-1 cross-country victory in Hartford on Saturday, keeping pace in the race to reach the postseason. Goals from Juan Azocar, Ottar Magnus Karlsson and Johnny Rodriguez see Oakland sit in sixth place in the Western Conference with one game to go.
This team has fought through more than its fair share of adversity this season with former Head Coach Juan Guerra departing in late August for Phoenix. That seems to have been a galvanizing point for Oakland, which has posted a 5-2-1 record since the move was announced and is currently unbeaten in five matches.
Oakland will face Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on Saturday at Highmark Stadium with a ton on the line. Roots SC is in the middle of a three-way tie with RGV FC and El Paso Locomotive FC on 46 points, just one point ahead of New Mexico United, which has a game in hand Wednesday against LA Galaxy II.
El Paso had a lengthy layoff, waiting 17 days between matches before taking on Colorado Springs Switchbacks last Wednesday night. When the time finally came, El Paso laid an egg in a 4-1 defeat at home. Michee Ngalina scored a hat trick and Locomotive FC looked to be out of steam in a bruising home defeat.
Give El Paso credit though for recovering with a 2-1 victory over Orange County on Saturday night. The margin was tight against the team in last place, but the three points count all the same. Another defeat would have been devastating.
El Paso finds itself in a difficult spot heading into its season finale on the road against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in a rescheduled match Wednesday night. That won’t be an easy task and El Paso badly needs a result. Locomotive FC is just one point ahead of New Mexico United, but New Mexico still has two games left to play. The head-to-head tiebreakers aren’t kind to El Paso, so the team likely needs a win at Al Lang Stadium on Wednesday to reach the postseason.
New Mexico started the week in fifth place and looking forward to possibly clinching a playoff berth this weekend. Well, it’s Monday morning and New Mexico is now below the playoff line.
Wednesday night’s contest against LA Galaxy II was called off after seven minutes due to unplayable field conditions at Isotopes Park and then New Mexico let a 3-2 lead slip in a 3-3 draw on the road in San Diego on Sunday night. In isolation, it’s a good result to avoid defeat away from home against the No. 2 seed, but it leaves New Mexico with work to do in the final week of the regular season.
The good news is that while New Mexico dug itself a hole this week, it’s a very shallow hole. A win Wednesday night in the rescheduled match against LA would see New Mexico book a postseason ticket with 48 points if El Paso fails to beat the Rowdies a few hours earlier in St. Petersburg. New Mexico plays Colorado Springs in its regular season finale on Saturday in a match with no real significance for the Switchbacks, who are already locked into the No. 3 seed.
Las Vegas stayed in the hunt for a postseason berth with a 3-2 victory over The Miami FC on Saturday night. Goals from Danny Crisostomo and Cal Jennings, plus a Miami own goal, leave Las Vegas with 44 points ahead of a season finale against LA Galaxy II on Saturday night.
Las Vegas needs a lot of help this week to reach the postseason, but the door is still technically open, which is pretty remarkable for a team that lost four consecutive matches by a combined score of 16-2 between August 27 and September 24.
Phoenix Rising FC and LA Galaxy II saw their playoff homes evaporate this week with both teams now officially eliminated from contention. LA Galaxy’s 3-1 home defeat to Atlanta United 2 leaves the Galaxy with a maximum points total of 45, one short of the current playoff line at 46.
After a 2-1 defeat at H-E-B Park on Saturday, Phoenix can only get to 42 points.
It was a valiant effort for both clubs to get to Week 31, but neither has looked like a real challenger this season.
The Indy Eleven have been eliminated from playoff contention for a long time now after a disappointing season, but it’s worth mentioning that they beat the Charleston Battery 4-1 on Saturday to pick up their sixth win since August 27. Indy won just six of its first 24 USL Championship matches this year but has now won six of its last nine.
A brutal run of 10 losses in 11 matches from June 18 to August 20 doomed the season, but you have to applaud Indy for ending the year in good form.
Tag(s): San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks LA Galaxy II Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Charleston Battery Louisville City FC New York Red Bulls II Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Las Vegas Lights FC Birmingham Legion FC Atlanta United 2 Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United Loudoun United FC Hartford Athletic San Diego Loyal SC The Miami FC Oakland Roots SC Detroit City FC Monterey Bay F.C.