New Mexico United's Greg Hurst struck twice to give the hosts a 3-1 victory against Orange County SC, capping a big week at Isotopes Park. | Photo courtesy New Mexico United
We’re officially one-quarter of the way through the 32-week USL Championship regular season, and after the past weekend we’re down to one undefeated team standing as other clubs out west continued to build their upward momentum.
Here are seven storylines we took away from the weekend, and some additional thoughts on what we saw elsewhere.
With four of its first five games of the season away from home, New Mexico United’s new arrivals had seemed to find a little difficulty getting properly embedded in their new surroundings.
On Saturday night, however, with more than 10,000 fans on hand at Isotopes Park the side started to show signs of the potential it has to build on last year’s postseason trip. A three-assist night by Josh Dolling – the first in club history and 25th in the Championship’s regular season – and a pair of goals by Greg Hurst paved the way to a 3-1 win against Orange County SC and a big jolt of confidence.
“People always talk about the culture here and the fans, but you don’t really understand until you play here,” said new United forward Greg Hurst, who had a three-goal week across the club’s Open Cup and league victories. “The fans didn’t let us get down after we gave up the tying goal. They kept us up, and the feeling and energy they give us when we score is unbelievable. I love it.”
New Mexico is undefeated in its last six games at home across all competitions dating back to its consecutive home victories to close the 2022 regular season. The side will have to wait to try and build that streak as it only plays once again at home in May, but the chemistry that Hurst and Dolling showed in their two-win week – which also saw the side advance past Phoenix Rising FC in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday night – should be something New Mexico can take with it on the road.
“You’re starting to see more interchange between these two as they get more familiar with each other,” said New Mexico Head Coach Zach Prince. “The more they play together, the harder they’re going to be to handle.”
Phoenix Rising FC rode the back of a stellar first-half display to claim its first win at its new home at Washington and 38th St. on Saturday, bringing Loudoun United FC’s recent winning run to a close with a 3-1 victory as Jose Hernandez and Manuel Arteaga both had a goal and assist in the first half.
It was about as different a display as you could have expected after Phoenix’s backs-to-the-wall performance in San Antonio the prior weekend as the side racked up a season-high 617 passes and 552 accurate passes to dominate the flow of the game in the first half.
“Getting the win tonight was important,” said Rising FC Head Coach Juan Guerra. “Now we keep pushing. After we win is when we push. We won’t relax. We now have a full week to recover mentally and physically after the week we had.”
After the first half the side had, though, there didn’t seem quite the same level of urgency to put the game away in the second half. Until Baboucarr Njie’s goal in second-half stoppage time put some gloss on the final score, Phoenix had only one shot in the second 45 minutes. While it took the steam out of Loudoun’s sails effectively enough, it was a surprise to see a less proactive Rising FC side at home than we’ve seen in the past.
By contrast, there was little letting off the gas pedal for the Tampa Bay Rowdies as it took a second win of the season against Detroit City FC with maybe its most complete performance so far in 2023. Tampa Bay needed to keep the pressure on – its winner didn’t arrive until 11 minutes to go as Charlie Dennis converted from the penalty spot thanks to a stellar display by Le Rouge goalkeeper Nathan Steinwascher – but it was full value for its result even as it suffered a stoppage-time scare when DCFC’s Richie Ballard hit the crossbar.
“I think that anyone that knows us will say that was a very good performance in very difficult conditions,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “In terms of the environment, you come to here in Detroit, but also our third game in seven days, all in all a fantastic performance. Really the only thing that was missing was more goals. That wasn’t even down to wasteful finishing. JJ had a header off the post. Steinwascher made a fantastic save on Charlie.
“For me, had we not come away with three points it would have been hard to swallow considering I thought it was a totally dominant performance.”
The challenge for both Phoenix and Tampa Bay so far this season has been stringing together consecutive good displays. Their meeting on Saturday night at Al Lang Stadium is a big opportunity for both.
It was a long night at the office for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, but in the end the wait was worth it as the visitors handed the Charleston Battery their first loss of the season with a 2-1 victory in a lightning-delayed duel at Patriots Point in which the visitors were good value for their result.
The victory was Colorado Springs’ fourth in its last five league outings. The only blip in that time a 4-0 defeat on the road at Sacramento Republic FC, when Sacramento got the early jump on the Switchbacks at Heart Health Park. This time it was Colorado Springs’ turn to get the early goal as Maalique Foster struck before the lightning arrived in the sixth minute and Steven Echevarria did the same soon after the teams resumed.
What’s been the backbone of the Switchbacks’ success with a reconstructed roster has been its defensive unit. The side has allowed an Expected Goal mark of only 4.82xGA outside of its loss in Sacramento, in line with its five goals conceded in seven games. If that continues, it’s a great foundation for Head Coach Stephen Hogan to build on.
The other team currently experiencing major upward mobility in the Western Conference? That’s El Paso Locomotive FC, which is now undefeated in its last five games after not only handing San Diego Loyal SC its first loss at Torero Stadium this campaign but claiming the club’s first win against SD Loyal in the overall series.
There’s no doubt Locomotive FC got some decent breaks along the way to find the result – Ricardo Zacarias’ opening goal took a wicked deflection off a defender before finding its way into the net – and SD Loyal missed some opportunities it would have liked to get back – just take a look at this goalmouth scramble from the first half on Saturday.
At the same time, it’s undeniable Head Coach Brian Clarhaut’s side has figured a lot of things out since its early-season stumbles. Midfielder Denys Kostyshyn is probably the pick of the new arrivals – the Ukrainian scored the winner against SD Loyal in fine style – but there’s a lot going right here in terms of individual contributions and collective responsibility to put El Paso back among the Western Conference contenders.
There might have been reason for optimism on FC Tulsa’s side that Saturday would be the day it could finally take down Sacramento Republic FC after going winless in 11 prior meetings. The hosts were rested and kicking off on their home turf in the early evening, with Sacramento facing a short turnaround after its Open Cup victory on Wednesday night at Heart Health Park.
Sacramento found a way to earn a 1-1 draw, however, to end the week as the lone remaining undefeated side in the Championship as Sebastian Herrera did what all good goalscorers do and sacrificed his potential well-being to win a 50-50 challenge and find the back of the net. Tulsa leveled through Moses Dyer, ending Sacramento’s shutout streak in league play at 594 minutes, but a point was good enough for Republic FC Head Coach Mark Briggs as he noted the fatigue in his side as it entered a bye week.
“It's important that the guys are able to get away and switch off and have some downtime,” said Briggs. “It’s been a hectic first couple of months in the season. However, I think they’ve been fantastic, absolutely top class for the first couple of months, and they deserve a little bit of time away. They'll get some time away and then we’ll come back, and we'll get them prepared for Colorado.”
Memphis 901 FC came away with another positive result in its 1-1 draw at home to Louisville City FC at AutoZone Park on Saturday night, but it might have been a different result if not for an offside flag that ruled out Phillip Goodrum’s finish on a tight call in the 68th minute.
“I think it shows our level of performance that we’re disappointed to come away with [just] a point,” said Memphis Head Coach Stephen Glass. “I think if the officials do their job, we’re 2-1 up ... [but] at the end of the day it’s a comeback against one of the best teams in the league. We showed our mettle.”
At the same time, the only team conceding more goals early in games right now than Memphis might be Tottenham Hotspur. LouCity’s ninth-minute goal that saw Sean Totsch flick home a perfect near-post corner by Ray Serrano from the left was the sixth goal 901 FC has conceded inside the opening 15 minutes of games already this season, something it knows has to change to contend.
“We’re not happy with conceding early goals this season,” said midfielder Bruno Lapa. “There’s a lot of games that we’ve started on the back foot. We emphasized that before the game but unfortunately, we conceded early again.”
And now some thoughts on what else we saw this weekend…
- Enzo Martinez recorded his 40th regular season assist, passed 100 regular season combined goals and assists, and was his vintage self in Birmingham Legion FC’s comeback against Hartford Athletic
- San Antonio FC is winless in four, but Head Coach Alen Marcina says he’s not frustrated by the current run. Other clubs might have found a plan to combat SAFC’s style, though
- Las Vegas Lights FC had every reason to be shouting “Ball Don’t Lie” after Leo Diaz’s second penalty save early at Toyota Field. The first – ruled out for leaving the line early – looked good as well
- It’s probably fair to say neither side will feel great about the 1-1 draw between Indy Eleven and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, especially Hounds goalkeeper Jahmali Waite
- The teams that are struggling for goals this season? They’re really struggling. Looking at you Detroit City FC (5.5% conversion rate) and Rio Grande Valley FC (6.9% conversion rate). By comparison, the Red Bulls II managed a 10.7 percent rate last year.
- Shout-out to Hartford Athletic’s Prince Saydee, who continues to be stellar (4 goals, 3 assists) despite his side’s overall struggles. Two assists on Sunday in Birmingham.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Las Vegas Lights FC Birmingham Legion FC Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United San Diego Loyal SC Detroit City FC