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Top 7 takeaways from the second weekend in the USL Championship | Talking Points

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/20/23, 7:26AM EDT


Koke Vegas finding new level for SD Loyal; Sacramento, Louisville show resilience despite ending with 10

With two shutouts in two games, San Diego Loyal SC's Koke Vegas looks to have found a new level in his second season in the USL Championship. | Photo courtesy Ben Nichols / San Diego Loyal SC

We’ve completed two weeks of the 2023 USL Championship regular season, and the early storylines are starting to form.

Louisville City FC? Every bit the title favorite they were expected to be.

The battle out West? We’ve got familiar names at the top.

Here are seven big things we took away from the weekend, as well as some quick hits at the end.

1. SD Loyal’s Vegas Finding Higher Level

A season ago, San Diego Loyal SC’s Koke Vegas had ups and downs between the sticks for his new club. There were highlight reel moments that showed his potential quality, but he also leaked goals that needed to be kept up at key moments.

With two shutouts in two games so far this season after Sunday’s 3-0 victory against Phoenix Rising FC at Torero Stadium, the Spaniard has begun to show a more consistent level, and that’s a major plus for his side as it looks to take another step toward being a contender this year. It was key against Phoenix, in which he was voted SD Loyal’s Player of the Match by fans as he helped keep Rising FC at bay before and after Evan Conway’s ideally-timed goal right before the halftime break, which ultimately set the hosts on their way to victory.

“We knew he’d have a much better season,” said SD Loyal Head Coach Nate Miller. “Coming over from a totally different culture is hard, and he’s never really been a full-time starter before, so just getting week-in and week-out of games and games and games, he’s been really clean, no mistakes. We also ask him to do a ton of build out, so I asked a lot of Koke, and like you say, yeah, he looks in midseason form. He’s come in, he’s improved his body, and he’s just performing at a high standard right now and that’s definitely a big difference compared to where we were at last year.”

Vegas made a difference in net, but the other key difference between the two rivals was the quality of finishing each produced. While Phoenix produced 16 shots to SD Loyal’s 10, the hosts put seven efforts on target including a brilliant debut goal for Ronaldo Damus after the Haitian came on as a second-half substitute to get acclimated to his new surroundings.

“He has the ability to score out of nowhere, and you saw that today,” said Miller. “So, we’re taking it slow with Ronaldo, we’re not putting too much information right at first. We brought him off the bench today, two quick things of what we wanted to do, and you let a guy like that fly and keep it simple. He’s a tremendous footballer.”

2. Sacramento Shows Mettle of Contender

SD Loyal will face a fellow undefeated side next time out when it visits Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday night in one of Week 3’s marquee games, with Sacramento having shown the mettle of a title contender as it rallied for a 1-1 draw against the Charleston Battery despite playing 55 minutes down to 10 men.

Luis Felipe Fernandes’ red card in the 36th minute after receiving a second caution could have proven challenging with the Battery having already taken the lead midway through the opening half thanks to AJ Paterson’s headed finish. Instead, Sacramento’s adjustments sustained positive attacking play while holding Charleston at bay, and resulted in Jack Gurr delivering an equalizer 10 minutes into the second half after Russell Cicerone’s cross reached him despite an attempted block by a Battery defender.

“I think the game is going to throw adversity at you, and it’s how you handle that adversity and how you face it,” said Sacramento Head Coach Mark Briggs. “You know, we had a few minutes where we were frustrated, and after that the guys began to realize that we could still get something from this game.

“We adjusted the formation, and that allowed us to have a little more clarity on who’s doing what role on the field. And the guys gave as much as they could give when you’re down to 10 men and when you face adversity. I always say to the guys, we're going to bend and it's going to be hard, but we're not going to snap, and tonight we’ve bent at times but we didn't snap.”

The promise shown in the partnership being built by newcomer Cicerone and Gurr might be the most important thing Republic FC has seen in its opening two games. With Gurr having set up Cicerone for his first goal in Old Glory Red in Week 1, the two combining again this week is a very positive sign ahead of what should be a fascinating contest at Heart Health Park between two Western contenders.

3. Louisville Sees Out 10-Player Road Result

Louisville City FC was also forced to end the game with 10 men after Brian Ownby was shown a second yellow card midway through the second half of his side’s visit to Monterey Bay F.C. on Saturday night. Holding a one-goal lead that had come through Ownby’s first goal of the season shortly after the break, LouCity also shifted into a similar 5-3-1 formation employed by Sacramento, and with Sean Totsch marshalling the back line the visitors were able to see out their 1-0 result and a second consecutive win to start the season.

“The players had worked on it in the preseason, so they know the shape,” said LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz. “They know what we’re looking to accomplish in those moments. … It’s not easy to make those changes in the middle of a game, but to see everybody on the same page – to see them work extremely hard to grind out a result – I think that shows the caliber of group we have.”

LouCity was also boosted by the return of young standout Joshua Wynder, who made his season debut coming on at halftime and won 2 of 2 tackles and looked solid overall. The 17-year-old will head out to the United States U-20 Men’s National Team camp on that note, but LouCity will expect another solid display next weekend as it hosts its home opener against a struggling El Paso Locomotive FC.

4. New Mexico STILL At Home on the Road

One of New Mexico United’s best traits a season ago was its ability to find results on the road. In the regular season it lost only three times, picking up seven wins and seven draws away from Isotopes Park.

On Saturday night in its 2023 season opener at Miami FC, Head Coach Zach Prince’s side picked up where it left off. A late penalty kick by Justin Portillo gave United a 1-0 win at Riccardo Silva Stadium after a performance in which it dictated the tempo of the game for good portions to its hosts, holding Miami to only two shots inside the penalty area and two shots on target for Alex Tambakis’ 41st regular season shutout.

There was a level of method and patience to New Mexico’s display that it may need to alter moving forward to create more consistent scoring chances, but in terms of a first outing there was a lot to like about the structure the side had in place to combat a Miami side that had looked positive in its debut a week before.

5. Tampa Bay Finds Way to Result

There’s often a crucial difference between the teams that find themselves in contention for silverware at the end of a season, and those that don’t. In Saturday’s meeting between Orange County SC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, we got to see a good example of it, with the Rowdies grabbing a late equalizer thanks to Zach Herivaux’s back-post finish of a corner kick and seeing out a 1-1 draw despite a below-par overall performance.

There was a lot for Orange County to like from its display, to be sure. In fact, the hosts could have been out of sight before Herivaux crashed in to take advantage of a good near-post flick by Cal Jennings off Charlie Dennis’ corner from the left side. That the Rowdies were still in it thanks to a brilliant goal-line clearance from Aaron Guillen and a big save by Phil Breno – twice denying OCSC’s Milan Iloski his first goal of the season – showed why the Rowdies were the most resilient side in the Championship last season, picking up 16 points after trailing during games, a trait they aim to maintain this year.

“It’s very difficult when you come out to the west coast,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “There’s no getting away from that, but we hung in there and kept going, kept putting our bodies on the line. It certainly wasn’t our prettiest performance ever, but I think that’s the kind of point that you need to try and grab and that we failed to do a couple of times last year. Lots to improve but you’ve got to be pleased with the point and be pleased with the attitude.”

6. Hounds’ Dikwa Steps into Spotlight

It’s been almost six years since Albert Dikwa scored his first goal in the USL Championship as a somewhat raw 19-year-old for Orlando City B on April 8, 2017. The veteran striker is now showing the polish of an all-around force for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC that was highlighted by his first career hat trick on Saturday afternoon as the Hounds rolled past Memphis 901 FC in a 3-1 win at AutoZone Park that continued their solid start to the season.

Dikwa broke out last season, bagging a career-best 11 goals that included the first multi-goal games of his career. At the same time, the 25-year-old was still somewhat overshadowed by the work of former teammates Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon and the ageless Kenardo Forbes. Now Dikwa has the spotlight, and it looks like he’s ready to make the most of it.

“It was nice to see him step up and finish calmly on the penalty, and the third goal might have been the best of all,” said Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley. “At that point, he had extra defensive responsibilities playing with the lead. He was positioned under Tola [Showunmi] and was responsible for closing down the right side, but he still made the run forward, and it was a good pass from Tola. I just think he's always working hard for the team, and today he finished well and got rewarded.”

7. Detroit City Gets Up and Running

Detroit City FC’s players couldn’t find their shooting boots as they fell in their opening game of the season. On Saturday night’s return out west, though, Le Rouge put in a sterling display that capitalized well on the chances the visitors created against El Paso Locomotive FC to take a 3-1 victory to get the side off and running this season.

It was a contest that could easily have tilted in El Paso’s favor in the first half, with Chris Garcia’s close-range miss for the hosts a pivotal moment that allowed Detroit to stay on level terms. A halftime adjustment in midfielder Maxi Rodriguez’s positioning helped stem the tide for the visitors defensively – El Paso had the same number of shots in the first and second half, but the quality of looks they created was greatly diminished – and Rodriguez’s finish to follow that of Yazeed Matthews put the game away in impressive fashion.

“[Head Coach Trevor James] told us, but I think we kind of knew we were disappointed in how we came out,” said Rodriguez. “I think my starting position in the first half was a bit off and I think it left the team vulnerable in the midfield. … Trevor got into us like we deserved, and we came out and wanted to show a better team, a better fight, and that’s what we did, that’s how we got the win.”

Here’s what else we took away from the weekend’s action…

- Tyler Pasher returning to the Championship and almost immediately becoming a cheat code for Birmingham Legion FC should be an alarming sign for opponents. Read more about Friday night’s clash here.

- Orange County looked bright despite its draw with Tampa Bay. The other side of the coin is that it’s going to have to find ways to turn leads into victories in a way it was unable to in last season. More on that here.

- Loudoun United FC got dominated by San Antonio FC in the second half at Segra Field. The difference between that game and last season? Loudoun found a way to hold on for a creditable draw. Another result to build on.

- The Charleston Battery are in a similar boat to Orange County two games into the season. Two solid displays, but only two points to show for it after scoring the opening goal of the game.

- How close was Oakland Roots SC to grabbing all three points at Rio Grande Valley FC? You wouldn’t have been able to say the visitors didn’t deserve it if Trayvon Reid’s finish had found the net instead of the crossbar.

- “[Zach] Zandi always steps up in big moments, that’s who he is,” said Zandi’s Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC teammate Deshane Beckford after his late equalizer against Hartford. It was certainly a point the hosts deserved.

- Three games, three losses, and eight defeats in the last 10 at home going back to last season for El Paso Locomotive FC. Head Coach Brian Clarhaut’s got his work cut out for him.

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