The Tampa Bay Rowdies delivered a five-goal performance with JJ Williams claiming a hat trick in a third consecutive victory on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
The busiest night of the USL Championship season so far delivered a ton of goals, some incredible individual performances, and for a couple of clubs the wrong sort of history.
Here are seven key storylines we took away from the action, and some additional thoughts on everything we saw.
With almost an entirely new cast – and absent last year’s USL Championship MVP Leo Fernandes due to a season-ending injury – the Tampa Bay Rowdies hadn’t quite clicked into gear in the attacking third over the first seven weeks of the season.
After the past three weeks, though, the chemistry the side has been looking for has finally arrived. A hat trick by JJ Williams – including the club’s fastest goal this season after just 122 seconds – paved the way to an emphatic victory against a Detroit City FC side that whatever else it has been going through this season had at least had its defensive solidity to fall back on.
Williams was the beneficiary of a second consecutive game with an assist by New England Revolution loanee Ryan Spauling, while Charlie Dennis made it three consecutive games with a goal with his patient first-half finish.
“Honestly, it was my teammates,” said Williams. “I can’t say enough or give them enough praise. Everything they did put me in a good spot to be successful. It looks like it was just me, but I promise you it starts with the ball going long, guys continuing to press, getting in good spots. Really all the praise goes out to those guys first and foremost.”
The Rowdies have now recorded three consecutive games with at least a 2.00xG mark, something they hadn’t achieved in their first seven games. While a five-goal haul is great, that consistency is a very positive sign.
JJ Williams wasn’t the only player to notch a hat trick on a memorable night for goalscorers on Saturday. Elsewhere, Russell Cicerone bagged the second hat trick of his career in the Championship to help keep Sacramento Republic FC undefeated with a 3-1 victory against Indy Eleven at Heart Health Park.
With two goals in the opening eight minutes, Republic FC once again got out to a fast start – its five goals in the opening 15 minutes of games are tied for the league lead, while it has a league-best 11 first-half goals overall – as Cicerone continues to look like the piece the side was missing a season ago.
“When you get into those situations, those opportunities, the ball has to go into the back of the net,” said Cicerone. “That’s what [Mark Briggs] brought me in to do, and that’s one of the big reasons I’m here. I think I only had three shots tonight. I had three opportunities tonight, and I hit the back of the net on them.”
It’s only May, but Cicerone’s seven goals have already equaled the total Republic FC’s two leading goalscorers from the 2022 regular season in Rodrigo Lopez and Maalique Foster. He’s likely heading toward a career-best campaign.
When a team hadn’t scored multiple goals in a game in more than two months – as Louisville City FC hadn’t going into Saturday night’s contest with Miami FC since its 3-1 win at Orange County SC to start the season on March 11 – it could be right to be concerned.
Certainly, it was something LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz was hearing.
“A lot of people were worried about it. I’m not worried about it,” said Cruz on Saturday. “I made it clear: We create chances, and there was poor execution there in a few games. Every year since I’ve been here, the question comes at some point.”
It might just have been one performance, but LouCity’s 3-1 victory in front of a crowd of 11,279 fans at Lynn Family Stadium should have been enough to assuage some of those concerns. In particular, the second goal of the night on a lovely, curled finish by Brian Ownby after a crisp passing move found him in space in the right side of the area, was a sign that things should be just fine for the defending Eastern Conference title holders.
“We’re getting healthy,” said Cruz. “There’s a lot of competition, and tonight was a really good night for the group. Ultimately, once guys start feeling it going into the back of the net, more will continue to come.”
One of the keys to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s victory against the New England Revolution in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup last week was its defensive organization, which closed out the game allowing only one shot on target to its hosts from Major League Soccer.
And while Albert Dikwa might have grabbed the big headlines on Saturday night with both goals to move to nine this season to lead the USL Championship, it was that defensive solidity again that might have been as important in a 2-1 win against Birmingham Legion FC at Highmark Stadium.
Aside from a wonderstrike by Matthew Corcoran for the visitors – serving as the Legion FC 17-year-old’s first goal in the professional ranks – Birmingham just wasn’t able to get much going in the attacking third. The visitors registered only six touches and one shot inside the Hounds’ penalty area, allowing Dikwa’s angled header to serve as the game-winner.
“We were winning balls played in; we were not letting them control the balls,” said Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley. “I think the team is really starting to come together. We are seeing a team that is starting to create. The addition of Danny Griffin has helped, but the overall competition amongst our guys is starting to heat up. It isn’t easy to leave people out of the lineup. The guys coming in are really helping, and we are moving in the right direction.”
If there was any concern Memphis 901 FC might suffer lingering effects from its midweek loss in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, they were quickly put to rest against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.
But what might have summed up the night was the quality 901 FC showed even after going down to 10 men in the 31st minute when Bruno Lapa received a red card for violent conduct. Far from retreating to earn a result with the game level at that point, Memphis outshot the Switchbacks in the second half, got timely saves from Bill Hamid, and in the end saw a moment of magic by Luiz Fernando lift the side to victory.
“Unbelievable spirit,” said Memphis Head Coach Stephen Glass. “We knew we were capable of that because of what happened in the Loudoun match. You don’t want to go to the well for that, but when it’s in there and you have to, they got everything they deserved tonight. Their quality on the ball was brilliant. The desire not to get beat even with 10 men was huge. I think you saw the spirit of the group.”
As remarkable as the victory might have been, maybe more was the fact that – given the success of the past two seasons – it earned 901 FC its first six-game undefeated streak in league play in club history. Moving into sixth place in the standings, there should be more to come here.
Prior to the past couple of weekends, you could have made a good argument that Oakland Roots SC was putting in good performances that weren’t necessarily getting rewarded. According to American Soccer Analysis, the club’s Expected Points metric was the highest in the USL Championship, while its Expected Goals mark was highest in the league according to Opta.
On Saturday night – in a historic doubleheader with Oakland Soul SC’s inaugural home opener in the USL W League – the reward came for the home fans. Roots SC’s 3-0 victory against Orange County SC was well earned, giving the side a second consecutive win and a move up to sixth place in the Western Conference.
“We didn’t get a couple goals in a couple games, and I thought we were pretty unlucky,” said Roots SC Head Coach Noah Delgado. “Tonight, though, the ball went in. … I thought we played some good balls — building, finding players in between lines, finding penetration and players in the box — so I’m just going to keep harping on things we need to work on and keep to our principles.”
With Soul SC also picking up all three points thanks to Kaytlin Brinkman’s second-half finish – taking the side to two wins from two to start its season – and the positive movement for a home venue, everything seems to be going right in The Town at present.
We’re not quite one-third of the way through the season, but at this moment you could probably sum up Hartford Athletic’s campaign through the decisive moment in the club’s 3-1 loss to Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night.
With the game all-square, and taking an attacking corner kick, the ball was cleared and then inexplicably turned over by Matt Sheldon as he lost control, giving Phoenix’s Carlos Harvey a breakaway from his own half he summarily dispatched. Overall, Phoenix was probably good value for its victory, rebounding well to remain undefeated at home this season, but Hartford will be ruing another mistake that left it chasing the game in Arizona.
The Athletic are tied for the league-lead in errors committed that have led to shots for opposing teams (4) and are tied for the league-lead in errors committed that have led to goals (3) alongside Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. With the side also ranked fourth in Expected Goals conceded, it’s tough sledding for Head Coach Tab Ramos and his squad right now.
And now some additional thoughts on what we saw this weekend…
- San Antonio attacking efficiency – aided by a series of Grade A chances – saw it set a club record in Charleston. Here’s why it was the breakout the defending champions needed.
- The difference is night and day when Rio Grande Valley FC is proactive, rather than reactive. Tremendous victory for the visitors at San Diego Loyal SC.
- It didn’t look like it might arrive in time, but El Paso native Chris Garcia bagging the club’s late winner for El Paso Locomotive FC – giving the hosts a 1-0 win against Loudoun United FC – was massive.
- Alex Waggoner, fox in the box. The nose for goal the 18-year-old Academy product has is great, and he just might be starting to get acclimated to this level.
- Las Vegas Lights FC and FC Tulsa both really needed a win to get things moving. So, of course, they ended all square.
- Five goals against for Detroit City FC, seven goals against for the Charleston Battery? Those are the sort of club records you don’t want to experience, but they’re the most both have conceded in a single game in the USL Championship.
- The new manager bounce is not currently being detected in Orange County. Five consecutive defeats in all competitions, and both Sacramento Republic FC and Phoenix Rising FC coming to visit this week.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Las Vegas Lights FC Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United Hartford Athletic Oakland Roots SC