Las Vegas Lights FC claimed its first win of the regular season - and first win in club history at Phoenix Rising FC - with Friday night's 1-0 result. | Photo courtesy Arianna Grainey / Phoenix Rising FC
The final winless record in the Championship this season is no more, highlighting a weekend that saw the top clubs remain on top and leave others looking for answers with the season about one-third complete.
Here are the seven key storylines we took a way from the action, and some other thoughts on what we saw over the past three days.
There have been games this season where Las Vegas Lights FC competed well and potentially deserved more from games, only for a first league win of the season to elude them.
For Head Coach Isidro Sanchez, that meant Friday night’s game at Phoenix Rising FC had an added pressure not only as the lone side yet to take victory in the USL Championship but with the knowledge that another setback would leave two more weeks before the side would get another chance to change that.
“These 10 games without a win, knowing this 11th game was a break point because with a bad result we have two weeks to play again,” said Sanchez. “We will begin to get a lot of distance in between us and the playoff line, so it was everything.”
Emerging with a 1-0 win thanks to Erick “Cubo” Torres’ second-half winner – giving Las Vegas its first victory on the road in Phoenix in club history at its seventh try as well as its first win of the regular season – was a result that might not immediately turn Lights FC’s season around but that can at least build some confidence for the squad that the way it is approaching the season is one that can have success.
With only one home game next month against Monterey Bay F.C. in two weeks, the aim now for Sanchez is to build game by game and find a way to more consistent success, which in turn he expects will build the players’ belief in what Lights FC is doing.
“I think if you’re really confident in what we have been doing, that confident line, every time you lose it moves,” said Sanchez “So yes, now that we can say that we can win now, it’s different. It’s not that we will have it easier, but before every game we can be, ‘OK, we can win’ because we know how to do it.”
It’s got to be fun to be Sacramento Republic FC right now.
Not only is the club sitting on top of the Western Conference with a five-point lead to your nearest rival, but so far almost everything you touch turns to gold in the final third. Take Friday night’s 4-1 win at Hartford Athletic as an example – Sacramento recorded only seven shots overall, put five on target, and came away with four finishes and another impressive victory.
Add in Russell Cicerone bagging his 50th regular season goal in the Championship for his career with a beautifully taken long-range strike and things couldn’t be much better for Head Coach Mark Briggs and his side.
“He's been massive for us,” said Briggs of Cicerone. “I think that's nine goals now in 12 games is it? Which is obviously fantastic. We're fortunate to have him. Love his energy, love the quality brings, but he’s a winner. And that’s what we need at this football club. And proud to have him, and glad he got to score his 50th [league] goal playing for Sacramento.”
Republic FC will square off with the Tampa Bay Rowdies next weekend at Al Lang Stadium in one of the marquee games of the regular season, and a potential USL Championship Final preview. Sacramento will be hoping to deliver another top-drawer performance after its finishing clinic this weekend.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies have had some big all-around contributions to its perfect month of May including those from midfielder Charlie Dennis and forward JJ Williams, but the run that left-sided wingback Ryan Spaulding is currently on is among the most impressive we’ve seen in the Championship’s regular season history.
The New England Revolution loanee became only the 10th player in the Championship’s history to record assists in at least four consecutive games on Saturday night with his helper setting up JJ Williams for his fifth goal of the season and moving Spaulding into a tie for the league lead in assists.
“Tonight, some of the attacking play was really exciting,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “I was so pleased to get that goal just prior to halftime. I think to come in one-nil maybe would not have been a fair reflection on our performance. But to be fair, you aren’t given goals. You have to earn them, and we got that, which was great.”
Spaulding’s part in the Rowdies’ goal shortly before the break made him look like a player who has been with the side for multiple seasons, rather than one whose sixth appearance in Green and Gold was this past Saturday. The build-up to Williams’ goal illustrated that with the underlapping run Spaulding made to receive a return pass from Dennis in the left channel giving him the time and space to deliver a perfect cross for Williams to turn home.
The 24-year-old has now recorded 12 chances created in six games overall and is looking an ideal fit for the Tampa Bay squad.
Sometimes, whoever you might be, you can use a little divine intervention.
The Charleston Battery certainly did on Saturday night when a lightning delay after 20 minutes provided a respite and chance to regroup after Rio Grande Valley FC had dominated early proceedings at H-E-B Park. The Toros recorded the first seven shots of the game, forcing four saves from Battery goalkeeper Trey Muse, before the teams departed.
After the delay ended? The Battery regrouped, established their own game, and after Augustine Williams put the visitors ahead on the half-hour mark found their way to a 2-0 victory to remain four points clear at the top of the Eastern Conference.
“Maybe the lightning delay helped us,” said Battery Head Coach Ben Pirmann. “Then, after that, we started to hold more possession and we were able to really get him behind them in the wide channels with our full-backs and wingers. That's how we scored the first goal, which was a great finish, and we got more and more chances.”
Charleston got a big display overall from Muse, whose 10 saves were the most by a goalkeeper in the Championship so far this season and the most in a shutout since the 2019 campaign. With the Battery now sitting on seven wins – one more than they accumulated overall in the 2022 regular season – the breaks certainly seem to be going their way on top of the qualities they’re showing under Pirmann’s guidance.
Last Wednesday night’s loss for Louisville City FC against FC Tulsa – the club’s first at home after holding a halftime lead in almost two years – could have been deflating.
Certainly, the speed and strength that contest pulled out of the side was noticeable as it tried to rebound on the road against its biggest rival Indy Eleven on Saturday night at Michael A. Carroll Stadium.
“Halftime came, and you could tell the guys were fatigued,” said LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz. “We spoke about needing to suffer to get to where we want to go. We were under it for sure.”
But this is where LouCity has shown in the past why it’s been the standard for the USL Championship as long as it has, and it did so again here. Holding onto a one-goal lead at the break the visitors limited the big chances Indy was able to create with Oliver Semmle putting in a fine display in a four-save shutout and emerged with a crucial victory to keep the side in touch with the rest of the Eastern Conference leaders.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you get the points, just that you do.
“This is this league. There’s ups and downs, but we’re in a good spot,” said Cruz. “I’ve been saying it: We’ll continue to get better as the season progresses. We’re happy ultimately with the three points at a difficult place.”
If there’s one thing that teams who’ve gone into San Antonio FC’s Toyota Field and earned a result this season have done, it’s that they’ve matched the hosts intensity.
New Mexico United came up short in the opening 45 minutes, and it ultimately proved the difference in a 2-1 win for SAFC that showed the difference between a team that is once again a team that is a serious title contender, and one that still doesn’t feel like it’s quite there yet.
“The first half we got impatient and panicked a little bit,” United Head Coach Zach Prince told the Albuquerque Journal’s Ken Sickenger. “We went long and didn’t get the ball to the other side of the field even when it was wide open. We’ve also got to be better on that first goal, we had three defenders there. That’s got to be blocked.”
United showed a marked improvement in the second half when it came to its application. It even got a goal from Kyle Colonna on his first start for the club, a scrambled effort off a set piece that made a game of things.
If there’s anything that New Mexico takes away from this game, though, it’s that it needs to have that presence and energy from the off, or else it’ll end up being a long day at the office.
It’s a sign of how quickly things can change in bottom half of the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference right now that with two consecutive victories, Detroit City FC is now only a point out of the playoff positions.
Saturday’s 1-0 victory against Birmingham Legion FC – which continued to struggle in league play after its Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup heroics in midweek – was powered by Maxi Rodriguez’s excellent first-half finish, with the side’s back line putting in a disciplined performance to earn a second consecutive shutout, not least thanks to a brilliant goal line clearance by Stephen Carroll when the game was scoreless in the first half.
“For us to persevere, get a goal and then lock down [was important],” said Rodriguez. “Make Keyworth a fortress, we’ve talked about that the last couple of weeks, and I’m happy that we did that, competing, winning second [balls], it’s all about grinding out results at the end of the day.”
Le Rouge are now the only side in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference with consecutive wins in their last five outings, and while the road doesn’t get easier from here – next up is a June 7 visit to conference leader the Charleston Battery – the side is showing a turnaround from the narrow defeats it was suffering previously.
Here are some other thoughts on what we saw this weekend…
- Oakland Roots SC keeps finding good results, with goalkeeper Paul Blanchette now leading the league with 41 saves after a stellar display in a 2-0 win against San Diego Loyal SC. Don’t sleep on this group.
- San Antonio’s new arrivals keep making an impact. Loanee Rida Zouhir’s first professional goal added to his assist against Charleston in his first three games for the club.
- Arturo Ordonez is building a case for Defender of the Year so far for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. Moments like Sunday’s game-winner in Loudoun will help that cause.
- Rio Grande Valley FC did a lot right again on Saturday, but its finishing wasn’t sharp enough. Seventeen shots on target and no goals in the past two games is a tough look.
- We think Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC is going to be OK in the long run, but the group’s going to be very happy to be back at Weidner Field after these three consecutive losses to Eastern Conference squads.
- Two consecutive seasons Miami FC and Orange County SC have played to a scoreless draw. Stating the obvious, but both of these teams should be better.