By the end of Saturday night, and everything that had gone on in the seven prior hours, a thought arose.
Y’all, it’s good to have the USL Championship back.
Here are six big things we took away from the weekend, as well as some quick hits at the end.
You just had to know Sebastian Guenzatti was going to find a way to make an impact for Indy Eleven as he returned to face former club the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday.
Was there a bit of gamesmanship in the way he earned a stoppage-time penalty kick against former teammate Forrest Lasso? Yeah, probably.
(At the same time, Lasso held up his hands, saying “I could’ve done a lot better, but he used his body well.”)
And so, Aodhan Quinn was handed the ball, and he put away the chance from the spot to earn Indy a 1-1 draw.
The Rowdies will probably feel they left points on the table. It certainly looked good for the hosts when Jake Areman opened the scoring in the 57th minute, completely unmarked at the back post to put away a chance from Sebastian Dalgaard’s low delivery from the right. But the Rowdies were made to pay for their missed chances – a saved penalty kick by Indy’s Yannik Oettl in the first half on Cal Jennings the biggest.
And so, Indy and Guenzatti found a way to get a result in a game that looked like it had slipped out of reach.
It took just one game for the 2023 USL Championship season to see its first major surprise. Loudoun United FC – entering a new era led by Attain Sports & Entertainment – jumped a Memphis 901 FC side that finished 40 points ahead of it in the Eastern Conference last season with two goals in the first 11 minutes and then held on impressively before Zach Ryan’s second goal of the game iced a 3-1 victory last.
Named one of the club’s captains alongside Cole Turner, Ryan had a hand in all three goals. He provided a slick assist to set up Tommy Williamson for the opener and then was the beneficiary of a wicked deflection three minutes later for his first of the game. That was a nice break, but it came about thanks to the work and structure the visitors put in at AutoZone Park that rocked 901 FC back early.
“The team is obviously thrilled, not only in the win, but to have shown our capabilities in moments,” said Ryan. “We played quick and were organized. We definitely made it more difficult than we needed to in the second half. A great result and a lot to improve on. I’m glad I could help the team by contributing my two goals and assist.”
Memphis roared back, as you would expect. Bruno Lapa’s expert swipe of possession in midfield set up a goal for Laurent Kissiedou late in the first half that set the stage for a potential comeback. That still looked to be on after Kissiedou was sent off, but the equalizer was always seemingly just out of reach – see Phillip Goodrum’s attempt at a diving header with three minutes to go.
Loudoun pulled an opening-day surprise last season when they upended Indy Eleven at Segra Field, but couldn’t sustain that success. With San Antonio FC up next, United’s going to have to be ready for another big test.
“Really proud of the guys to get three points in a tough place to play against one of the top teams in the league last season,” said Loudoun Head Coach Ryan Martin. “They stepped up and made crucial plays on both sides of the ball. Fantastic start to the match and made key plays to close it out. The guys have been working tremendously hard so it’s amazing to be rewarded with three points.”
For a new striker, there’s nothing as good as getting a goal to mark your first official appearance. Mission accomplished, then, for San Antonio FC’s Niko Hansen and Sacramento Republic FC’s Russell Cicerone.
Hansen got the defending Championship title holders out to an ideal start with a great run and finish to open then scoring against Oakland Roots SC before The Lamar Batista Show began, while Cicerone’s sliding back-post finish to cap a great team move for Republic FC showed the impact he can have in the final third for a team expected to be a serious challenger to San Antonio this season.
“Russell is a threat,” said Sacramento Head Coach Mark Briggs. “I think he [had] a shot earlier in the first half that just hit the top of the net. He constantly puts himself in positions to score goals, but he’s a team player. He works his socks off for the team. He does the defensive side of the game and he’s there to score goals for us.”
Cicerone did a bit of everything in Sacramento’s win. As well as the finish and two chances created, he logged seven recoveries – tied for the team high. That goal is what Sacramento fans will have been happiest to see, though, as well as the three points it delivered.
Call it a shift from the sublime to the ridiculous, only both had the same outcome. Lamar Batista was one of the last signings by San Antonio FC ahead of the Saturday’s opening game – to a 25-day-contract no less – and there was the 24-year-old center back providing two of the most memorable moments of the weekend.
First came the sublime, a beautifully executed bicycle kick off a corner in first-half stoppage time. You simply couldn’t have asked for a better piece of technique. Then, the ridiculous. Watch Batista after he hits the ball forward at the halfway line – if I didn’t know any better, that was supposed to be a pass, if his raised hand to apologize for wildly overhitting it is any indicator. And of course, it carries all the way into the top-left corner of the net, leaving Oakland’s Paul Blanchette red-faced.
“You don’t often see that from center backs, but we’ll take it,” said SAFC Head Coach Alen Marcina, who was also full of praise for the bigger job Batista did in helping limit Oakland’s attacking chances.
Getting off the mark for your new club is one thing. Bagging a hat trick – the first of your career, and the first in your new club’s history – is quite another.
For Monterey Bay F.C.’s Alex Dixon, the club’s incredible 5-3 victory against Hartford Athletic was also a night to remember as he reached 50 regular season goals in the USL Championship, the 21st player all-time to do so. His 51st goal, which came from the penalty spot, showed the maturity and chemistry MBFC looks to have sustained from last season.
“Sam [Gleadle] was going to be on it, but [MBFC assistant] Ramiro [Corrales] told me yesterday that I’d be on a pen, so I kind of gave him a shout, took it and it went in,” said Dixon. “I was happy about that. Normally since [Gleadle] went down, I’d let him take it, but he gave it to me since I was on the hat trick, so I am thankful to him for letting me get my first career hat trick and the first one in team history.”
Louisville City FC’s Cameron Lancaster, meanwhile, was achieving his own landmark moment a little further down the California coast. The veteran English striker’s goal in the 57th minute against Orange County SC proved the game-winner in a 3-1 win for the visitors at Championship Soccer Stadium, and made Lancaster the third player to record 75 goals in the Championship’s regular season.
One of Louisville City FC’s other originals also made a big impact in Orange County, with Niall McCabe scoring the first goal of the season for the defending Eastern Conference title holders in the victory with a fine header off a good cross from Brian Ownby. After seeing his 2022 season shut down by foot surgery, you could hardly have asked for a better return to the field for McCabe, still a vital piece of LouCity’s squad.
“It’s what you want,” said McCabe. “We’re away from home and on the west coast, there’s the time zone and other factors involved. To come here and get three goals on the road and a win, it’s a great start to the season.”
And now the rest of the weekend…
- What a banger of a goal by Miami FC’s Florian Valot, right? But if it’s immediately followed by giving up an equalizer to FC Tulsa, and a 1-1 draw at home, then that’s a reminder of what held Miami back from being a contender last season.
- You can read more about it here, but the Charleston Battery look like they’re going to be just fine with Head Coach Ben Pirmann at the helm once they sharpen their finishing.
- Phoenix Rising FC, meanwhile, logged the fewest shots of any team on Saturday night. There’s a way to go for Head Coach Juan Guerra’s project, which had possession but not nearly enough edge in Charleston.
- Jackson Kasanzu has his middle name, Simba, on the back of his jersey. San Diego Loyal SC’s young lion certainly had everyone at Torero Stadium beaming on Saturday with his game-winner, and celebratory bottle of water.
- Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Birmingham Legion FC takes the lead against Protective Stadium against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, and the Hounds find an equalizer. Robbie Mertz’s cool finish was excellent for the visitors, who were well worthy of a result.
- Ricky Ruiz, woof. His brilliant goal for Rio Grande Valley FC seemed to spark the Toros, who were much sharper in the second half of their 1-1 draw with Las Vegas Lights FC on Sunday night. Going to have to clean up the giveaways in their own half, though.
- Spare a thought for Hartford Athletic’s Kaveh Rad, who became the ninth player in the USL Championship’s history to score for both sides in a game in the Athletic’s 5-3 defeat in Monterey Bay.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Birmingham Legion FC Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC Loudoun United FC Hartford Athletic San Diego Loyal SC Miami FC Monterey Bay F.C.