Sacramento Republic FC secured a home playoff game as it scored three times in the opening 16 minutes on Saturday night against San Diego Loyal SC. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
On a night that saw the final whistle in the final game of the regular season deliver the final berth in the 2022 USL Championship Playoffs presented by Hisense, there was some drama to be had. Equally, however, the teams that needed to deliver results produced early and often enough to take the sting out of their situations, leaving us with a playoff field that seems primed for a compelling month of action that kicks off next Saturday night.
Here are 10 things we took away from Saturday night’s contests.
With New Mexico United having put the pressure on with a comprehensive display against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC prior to Sacramento Republic FC’s kickoff, it was quickly alleviated by the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Finalists in a superb opening against a San Diego Loyal SC side that got jumped at Heart Health Park.
Two goals in the opening four minutes by Rodrigo Lopez and Keko were supplemented by a third from Matt LaGrassa in the 16th minute and the eventual 4-0 victory ensured the clash between Sacramento and New Mexico – a rematch from the 2019 postseason – would be on Republic FC’s home turf next Saturday night. After breaking a four-game winless streak that took a potential top-four finish out of reach, Sacramento defender Conor Donovan believes the side is now ready to make a playoff run.
“We looked at the season in three different competitions, obviously with the Open Cup,” said Donovan “We had a goal in making a long run in that and we did that. Home game in the playoffs, did that. And now it's a four-game season. There's standings and positions, but now it's a one-off game, and we have some experience with that, so we’re going to lean on that and take it one game at a time.”
San Diego Loyal SC Head Coach Landon Donovan didn’t mince words after his side’s defeat in Sacramento. Even with the side locked into the No. 2 seed prior to kickoff the lack of competitiveness early in the game provided an example of what the side has to avoid to make a deep postseason run.
“[It’s a] good learning lesson for our guys,” said Donovan. “If you don’t show up to play against a team that has a lot to play for then you can get embarrassed, and that was embarrassing. The first 20 minutes were embarrassing. The response was good, fine, a little challenging when you have nothing to play for, but we need to make sure we’re competing next weekend, and we will.”
Maybe the most concerning was the play of goalkeeper Koke Vegas, who looked out of sorts on both of Sacramento’s opening two goals and as subsequently substituted at halftime for 16-year-old Duran Ferree. San Diego will need the Spaniard to be much sharper when Oakland Roots SC comes to town next Sunday night.
Rio Grande Valley FC booked its postseason return with a 4-1 victory on Saturday night against Monterey Bay F.C. | Photo courtesy Christian Inoferio / Rio Grande Valley FC
Rio Grande Valley FC knew with a win against Monterey Bay F.C. it would seal a second consecutive postseason trip going into Saturday night’s game, and Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera’s aim to ensure the side’s focus remained inward on the standards that had carried the side to that point were rewarded with an outstanding first-half display that couldn’t have gone much closer to plan.
An early goal by Juan Pablo Torres coupled with MBFC being reduced to 10 men as Hunter Gorskie was sent off for denial of a goalscoring opportunity set up 45 minutes in which the hosts outshot their visitors 15-2, including seven shots on target. After last year’s Western Conference Quarterfinal upset of Phoenix Rising FC, the No.6 seed now gets to head to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC to try and deliver another surprise.
“The focus was to play this match like a playoff, making sure we did not drop our level, because when we do that, we become below average,” said Cabrera. “We made just one mistake throughout the game which was at the final minute. All of this is helping us get better and helping prepare for what is coming. Now, we play away for the first round of the playoffs and we will try to be ready.”
After Oakland Roots SC’s defeat early on Saturday night against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, the idea of a picture-in-picture screen as they watched Las Vegas Lights FC take on the LA Galaxy II later in the night would have been a good one, if it could have been accomplished. Las Vegas entered its final game of the season in control of its fate as a win over Los Dos would have pushed Lights FC into seventh place and its first postseason berth, eliminating Oakland after its remarkable late-season run.
For Roots SC’s players and staff, though, the end of the night brought relief and a second consecutive postseason berth. Las Vegas did almost everything it could against Los Dos, and after Danny Trejo’s first-half goal leveled the game following Cameron Dunbar’s early finish at Dignity Health Sports Park, it felt as though the visitors would come through.
The second, decisive goal didn’t arrive, however, despite Trejo’s best efforts. The standout forward – now signed by Los Angeles FC – matched the club’s single-game high this season with six shots and Lights FC ended the game with a 1.75-1.16 edge in Expected Goals, but the last-gasp chance with a minute to go off a brilliant counterattack clearance by goalkeeper Abraham Romero went agonizingly wide of the right post. With that, Oakland was in, and Las Vegas was going home.
Oakland was made to wait by Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which delivered what Head Coach Bob Lilley tabbed as “our best performance on both sides of the ball,” of the season. The Hounds’ 3-1 victory against Roots SC at a sold-out Highmark Stadium saw Russell Cicerone notch a goal and assist, breaking a run of five appearances without a goal for the side’s leading goalscorer, and provide him and the squad with some confidence after a five-game winless run that had coincided with that streak.
“I thought we played a really good game,” said Cicerone. “We created a lot of chances. I should’ve scored one in the first half when I got slipped in by Angelo. I should have put that one away. I haven't scored in a couple games, so I was starting to feel a little bit of a drought. So, it was nice to get on the scoring sheet and get a little momentum going towards the playoffs.”
The Hounds will get to face Birmingham Legion FC in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, a theoretical rematch of the game that didn’t take place last year due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Lilley believes his side has the quality to match Birmingham, but it also needs to match – or surpass – the work-rate Legion FC will bring.
“We have very refined players, too, but refined players can’t coast through games,” said Lilley. “They still have to do the work.”
If you needed an example of why Miami FC could be the team to upset the odds in the Eastern Conference this postseason, you only had to look at the display Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ side put in on the road against Detroit City FC before a sold-out Keyworth Stadium this weekend. Joaquin Rivas capitalized on the best chance of the game for the visitors, who then were excellent defensively in limiting clear looks for the hosts over the second half.
“I thought it was a fantastic road performance,” said Pulis. “It was a great atmosphere, and I thought the players really thrived in that. Full credit to Detroit and their club and their fanbase because it was probably the best atmosphere we’ve played in this year, and like I said I thought the players managed the environment fantastically well and ground out a really, really good three points on the road.”
Miami has been one of the best sides in the Championship when it comes to playing with a lead this season, particularly when it has led at halftime. In those situations, Miami is undefeated, going 11-0-4 when ahead at the break. Combine that with its propensity to hold opponents off the scoreboard in the first half – Miami allowed only 15 goals and held opponents scoreless in 21 of 34 first halves – and you have a potential threat to the established order.
The margin of the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ 1-0 victory against the New York Red Bulls II didn’t really reflect the manner of the game, in which the hosts at Al Lang Stadium were dominant in all facets and saw Leo Fernandes deliver the telling finish in the first half. A nine-save performance by New York’s AJ Marcucci prevented Fernandes from his first 20-goal campaign, but with the side now on a four-game winning streak entering the postseason the two-time defending Eastern Conference title winners seem to be in a good place to try and reach the Championship Final again.
“It’s been a difficult year for so many reasons,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “The players have just kept forging ahead. They’ve shown a great deal of resilience. The last three or four weeks, we’ve seen a different side of the group in respect to how they’ve dealt with adversity. Whether you’re in good form, bad form, indifferent form, it’s a different kind of game next Saturday. I’m certainly more happy than I was a couple months ago.”
Tampa Bay’s clash at home to Miami FC is arguably the marquee game of the opening weekend of the 2022 USL Championship Playoffs presented by Hisense, with the two Florida clubs meeting for the first time in a playoff setting. That should only intensify the rivalry between the two sides moving forward as well.
Another main contender for the most intriguing contest next weekend is that between Memphis 901 FC and Detroit City FC, which was locked into place after Memphis’ 3-0 victory on the road against FC Tulsa on Saturday night kept 901 FC as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Phillip Goodrum and Aaron Molloy’s first-half goals set the visitors on the way to cap the best regular season in club history, and while Goodrum ended up a goal short of equaling Orange County SC’s Milan Iloski for the league’s goalscoring lead after his substitution late in the first half, Head Coach Ben Pirmann was proud of how his side build on last year’s postseason berth with raised expectations this year.
“I'm proud of where we are and the incredible season we've had so far,” said Pirmann. “Last season we were just happy to make the playoffs but this year we have a lot more to play for. Detroit is a top team in the conference, a very physical and aggressive team, so we are going to take this week to ready ourselves and take it one game at a time.”
San Antonio FC came up short of the regular season records it had within reach going into the final game of the season on Saturday as Orange County SC made a final stand as defending title holders in a 2-2 draw at a sold-out Toyota Field. A brilliant strike by Cristian Parano provided the highlight of the night for the hosts, who ended the season tied for the single-season mark for wins (24) and shutouts (17) and tied the second-best points total in a season (77), but the eight-game undefeated run to close the campaign left SAFC as the favorites to claim the league title next month.
The road to become the first team to end the season with both the best regular season record and league title winner since the New York Red Bulls II in 2016 will begin in two weeks after a bye to the Western Conference Semifinals. When San Antonio next takes the field, however, the belief in the tenacity that has brought them to this point is at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
“I think that we’ve developed a culture here,” said SAFC forward Justin Dhillon. “And it’s just been ingrained … we had a lot of returners come back so we’ve experienced that culture, that Alen’s created with us. And every year that we progress that culture becomes stronger and stronger and stronger, so I think it’s developed on what we’ve done in the past, and you’re seeing it culminating in what it was always meant to be.”
The Charleston Battery’s Fidel Barajas couldn’t find the scoresheet for a third consecutive outing in his first start at Patriots Points on Saturday night, but the 16-year-old Mexico youth international showed again why he’s a player that everyone should keep tabs on next year as he enters his first full professional season. Barajas had five shots on the night, completed 33 of 39 passes overall – including 19 in the final third at a 79 percent accuracy rate – and had the sellout home crowd buzzing for what’s next.
For Barajas, what’s next is a call-up to the Mexico U-17 Men’s National Team as it plays in the UNCAF U-17 Championship that starts on Monday with El Tri facing Nicaragua at the tournament being staged in Guatamala. As bright as he’s been so far in Battery colors, next year is going to be a major one for Barajas’ progression in the league.