No more perfect records, and only nine undefeated sides left after three weeks of the season. Business is picking up fast in the USL Championship this season, and we’ve got plenty to talk about after the past weekend.
Let’s dig in.
Are you on the Fidel Barajas Hype Train yet?
You’d better get on soon. It’s starting to leave the station.
The Charleston Battery’s 16-year-old starlet produced a brilliant goal for his first in the professional ranks to start a 3-0 victory against the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Saturday night at Patriots Point, delivering Head Coach Ben Pirmann’s first win at the helm while continuing an undefeated start to the campaign.
Coming off a series of impressive performances as Mexico won the Concacaf U-17 Championship in February, this moment was coming. Barajas’ qualities as a provider had been on display in the club’s opening two games of the season. This finish, though, just three minutes in against the Rowdies was a sign of his top-tier potential.
Take a bow, @fideljr_barajas!!!— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) March 25, 2023
The 16-year-old bagged his first league goal from this terrific curler! #CHSvTBR | @Chas_Battery pic.twitter.com/yZLo7voFkJ
Barajas added an assist later in the contest, which was as complete as the Battery had produced without reward in their opening two games. Nick Markanich also produced a goal and assist for the host, his first since moving from FC Cincinnati this offseason.
It’s a fine sign for the Battery as they keep up with the contenders at the top of the Eastern Conference.
“Every single day we talked about the only thing that was acceptable was three points and doing whatever it took, whether that's from outworking our opponent, moving the ball, or being aggressive on the press,” said Pirmann. “We started fast and scored a couple of goals early. That was great. And then we just kept pushing. Going back to our foundation, it's all about being selfless and being courageous.
No fear here, especially for Barajas.
After succumbing to an agonizing defeat last time out, FC Tulsa put down a marker in its home opener on Saturday night with a 3-0 victory that might have been harder-fought than then final score might indicate but showed more positive signs in the direction Head Coach Blair Gavin would like to see from his side. In front of the largest home opener crowd at ONEOK Field in five years, Blaine Ferri treated the fans to a beautiful piece of skill and finish at the end of the first half before Milo Yosef added a second inside the opening minute of the second half.
“We came out of halftime and knew we couldn’t drop the intensity and that we should actually raise it,” said Yosef. “I think we did that. The goal was off a great combination play, and I had a little bit of luck and was able to tap it in. I think those goals are the best goals.”
Loudoun experienced its first serious bump in the road this season, but Gavin was full of praise for the visitors, who created their fair share of chances in a highly entertaining contest. Getting a first win ahead of a busy week that also sees Birmingham Legion FC and El Paso Locomotive FC visit ONEOK Field in the next five days was a good moment for Tulsa as it looks to make a claim for a postseason return.
“It feels great,” said Gavin. “I’m really proud of the team and I’m really proud of the effort. It’s always amazing when you have the fans’ support, and they push the guys forward and we were able to accomplish something as a city together. Hopefully this is a push in the right direction and in the development of things. I’m very, very happy and proud of everyone in the group.”
There’s a long way to go – especially for New Mexico United, which has won its only outing and has its electric new kits ahead of its return to action next weekend – but San Antonio FC, Sacramento Republic FC and San Diego Loyal SC sitting in the top three out West feels like the shape of things to come.
Sacramento earning a 1-0 win to end SD Loyal’s perfect start accompanied by San Antonio FC’s Jordan Farr continuing to deliver early-season heroics provided a snapshot of where all three teams are right now. With no disrespect intended to the other teams in the West, this is pretty close to what we were expecting.
“We want to show that we're the business this year,” said Sacramento Head Coach Mark Briggs, whose side hosts Louisville City FC in another marquee clash next weekend. “We want to show that we're a team that wants to compete to win a championship and I think [in] our start to the season we're facing a lot of top teams. … So, the hard games keep on coming in. It's about us turning up with the right attitude and the right mentality and showing the quality that we have.”
With San Antonio playing host to Sacramento on April 8, we’re getting some great early markers for the contenders.
Things warmed up in the evening’s set of games, but the trio of home openers that kicked off Saturday’s slate in the afternoon resulted in three setbacks for the hosts. First and foremost, there was Louisville City FC’s defeat to El Paso Locomotive FC – which we dug into here – but Hartford Athletic and Detroit City FC also came up on the wrong end of the result as Birmingham Legion FC and Indy Eleven respectively came away with all three points.
Hartford’s defeat in particular felt a cruel one as the hosts did more than enough to find the net in their 1-0 loss but just couldn’t find the finishing touches. A point-blank chance for Elvis Amoh after good work by Prince Saydee five minutes before halftime was brilliantly turned away by Legion FC goalkeeper Trevor Spangenberg, while in the second half Antoine Hoppenot managed to turn over when given the chance to finish inside the six-yard area.
At the same time, Hartford Head Coach Tab Ramos believed his side could have retained possession more tidily and needed to find more chance creation overall.
“We certainly have to improve in the final third,” said Ramos. “Because today we had 14 shots, but it didn’t feel like we created 14 shots. You know as a coach you always feel more comfortable when you’re doing something to create those opportunities and they don’t just come from individual play.”
For Detroit City FC and Indy Eleven, the blustery wind that blew across Keyworth Stadium was the biggest opponent on an afternoon that resulted in limited chances for both teams in the form of 15 combined shots.
When the decisive moment did arrive, it was from one of the more unlikely sources on the field. It had been 938 days since Bryam Rebellon had found the net in the USL Championship – a game-winner for El Paso Locomotive FC against Real Monarchs SLC on August 29, 2020 – but his second-half finish had Head Coach Mark Lowry beaming.
“He’s my guy,” said Lowry. “He steps up to the plate every single time. He’s got a heart the size of a mountain. And I know he gives 100 percent every time he steps on that field, and it’s great to have him back. He’s been injured throughout preseason, but it’s great to have him back and he shows it on the field how good he can be.”
It’s been an underrated trait of Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC as to the nuance that has come into the club’s passing and movement over Head Coach Bob Lilley’s tenure, and in the club’s Friday night home opener at Highmark Stadium in the first half there was more of that on display.
The challenge? The clean upfield moves were faltering in the final third. So, Lilley and the Hounds adjusted, and while the directness the side went after Miami’s defense with might have made for a more rock ‘em, sock ‘em style of soccer in the second half, it was certainly effective.
“It was a battle of attrition where we decided to play more direct, we had to do smash-mouth football, and I think we did a pretty good job of that in the second half,” said Lilley. “The subs who came on did a good job creating chances for us, the guys did well not to concede again, and Burke [Fahling] was able to get that important goal to get something out of the game.”
Burke Fahling’s fantastic half-volley with five minutes to go was the Hounds’ reward for a half in which they had a lower passing accuracy mark but four times as many shots as the opening 45 minutes. Still undefeated, the Hounds showed they can play any way you want and find a way to succeed.
Rio Grande Valley FC put a Championship season-high 10 shots on target on Friday night against Monterey Bay, and 20 shots overall, second-most by a club in a single game so far this season.
And in the end, they needed a stoppage-time equalizer by Taylor Davila to come away with a third consecutive 1-1 draw at H-E-B Park.
Toros Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera’s glass was still just about half-full after the game, but it’s certainly one his side would have walked away from thinking it should have had all three points.
“The team is doing the right things; we move the ball and explore the field; we keep possession and attack well,” said Cabrera. “Right now, it is just a matter of believing in ourselves and not create any sort of tension. It was just the third game of many; we have not won, but we have not lost either. We are not happy, we also can’t place ourselves in a panic situation.”
While it’s not as marked as last season, the Toros have all the signs of a good team that’s coming up a little short of expectations. Next weekend’s trip to Detroit City FC will be a challenging one.
Here’s a few other thoughts from the weekend…
- Big plus for Orange County SC’s Milan Iloski to deliver his first goal of the season, but that 2-2 draw wasn’t ideal against Las Vegas Lights FC.
- At the same time, Lights FC is undefeated in its last six games going back to last season. That’s the longest undefeated streak in club history, and more proof Las Vegas is no pushover.
- As mentioned above, Jordan Farr is becoming inevitable, and it’s plugging the gaps in San Antonio’s defense.
- Two penalties conceded already this season by Tampa Bay’s Forrest Lasso. That’s not great.
- Miami FC looks like a difficult team to play against, but have they got enough in them to deliver enough wins?
- Welcome to the pros, Gabriel Alves. Fantastic strike for Legion FC.
- After his reprieve from a one-game suspension, it figured Luis Felipe Fernandes would come up big for Sacramento Republic FC.
- Memo to our friend at Keyworth Stadium: If you’re going to do it – and the rest of you, please don’t – you’ve got to go the whole way, Captain Underpants.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks 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 Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United Loudoun United FC Hartford Athletic San Diego Loyal SC Miami FC Oakland Roots SC Detroit City FC Monterey Bay F.C.