El Paso Locomotive FC's seventh consecutive victory continued the best run in the club's history and moved it into sole possession of second place in the Western Conference. | Photo courtesy Brandino / New Mexico United
The first weekend of June gave us plenty to enjoy and talk about after a 10-game slate of action across the USL Championship on Friday and Saturday night.
Here are eight key storylines coming out of the weekend, starting with the hottest team in the league right now, and some additional thoughts on what we saw.
It was a pretty atypical rivalry game in the end – neither New Mexico United nor El Paso Locomotive FC was willing to give up much to their opponent in the final third and it looked like it would take either a moment of individual brilliance or one big opportunity to decide it.
The latter arrived for Locomotive FC with 19 minutes to go with Denys Kostyshyn’s header off a beautifully-delivered cross by Eder Borelli lifting the visitors to a 1-0 win before 11,247 fans at Isotopes Park for the second consecutive road victory for El Paso in the Derby del Camino Real.
For everything Locomotive FC has achieved in its first four seasons, by the numbers this is the best run of form we’ve seen for the side as Head Coach Brian Clarhaut rebuilds with pieces new and old. Seven consecutive wins has the side sitting tied for the sixth-longest winning streak in the Championship’s regular season – let alone being the club’s best all-time – and Locomotive FC has also recorded goals in 11 consecutive games, another club best.
Now alone in second place in the Western Conference, next week’s visit to San Antonio FC is going to be must-see.
With the club’s major move early last week to bring in playmaker Rodrigo da Costa from FC Tulsa while sending forward Phillip Goodrum in the opposite direction, a week to get the new face acclimated could have been a good thing for Memphis 901 FC.
At the same time, there was a little bit of concern for Head Coach Stephen Glass that the side might show a little rustiness as it looked to build on its three-game winning streak at home to Miami FC.
“Anytime after a week off, you’re never certain with what you’re going to get,” said Glass. “But for the boys to start the way they did and get the ball rolling with a slightly changed group was good. It shows the strength of the training. There’s a danger to a week off. You’re rested, but there’s also the chance you switch off mentally. The team showed that they didn’t do that at all.”
It took only 58 seconds for the opening goal to arrive for 901 FC against Miami on a textbook training ground corner that saw Jeremy Kelly lash home Aaron Molloy’s corner kick from the top of the penalty area, and from there the hosts were off and running to a 5-1 victory.
This is starting to feel like the 901 FC side of a season ago in the way it’s able to control tempo and find good passing movements with the quality it has in midfield. Next Saturday’s game at Louisville City FC should be a very interesting one.
On one hand, San Antonio FC’s 3-3 draw against San Diego Loyal SC was unprecedented in club history. It was the first time that SAFC had held a three-goal lead against an opponent and failed to come away with victory.
On the other, the circumstances around the result – starting with Tani Oluwaseyi’s red card after 20 minutes for a second yellow card for dissent – made the resistance the hosts showed defensively admirable, even if at the last SD Loyal was able to come through with a stoppage-time equalizer.
“We’ve got to reflect and, I think it just comes down to us as a team – we win together we lose together, all 11 or 10 guys on the field, plus our staff and guys on the reserves,” said SAFC goalkeeper Jordan Farr. “We all take that as a loss, to be fair. We’re proud, at the same time, because what we did wasn’t easy, but I’ve seen a lot of teams lose those games. And we’re just going to refuse to make excuses and continue to fight forward.
San Antonio is still undefeated in its last 22 games at home, but on a night when Sacramento Republic FC dropped points as well this was a missed opportunity to gain ground as others took victory in the top five of the West. One of those was El Paso Locomotive FC, which comes to Toyota Field next weekend in what’s going to be a must-see Copa Tejas kickoff.
Given SAFC’s squad, you’d expect a positive response – even with the nature of this result one that could leave a more long-lasting mark than others.
“We’ve got three big games coming up,” said Farr. “It’s kind of about putting it behind us at this point.”
On the other side of the ledger, the fightback San Diego Loyal SC produced to earn a point was impressive in its own right. There remains, however, serious concern about the club’s early-game focus that continues to persist.
If there’s one place you know you cannot afford a slow start, it’s at San Antonio’s Toyota Field, and yet there were the visitors down two goals inside five minutes as they just weren’t at the races with the side they’re chasing in the Western Conference.
“We’ve shown that we can come back, but I’m really unhappy with how we’re starting games, and that has to change,” said SD Loyal Head Coach Nate Miller. “Our guys have to address that and I have to address that, and we’re trying our best, but it’s going to be an obstacle we have to overcome.”
SD Loyal has now conceded the most goals of any team in the first half of games this season and is tied for the most goals conceded (6) in the opening 15 minutes of contests. In regular circumstances, those aren’t going to be situations the side is going to be able to extract itself from normally.
As well as the Tampa Bay Rowdies have played of late, even a team having as good a season as Western Conference leader Sacramento Republic FC could have felt some trepidation as it visited Al Lang Stadium for the first time in its history.
That certainly felt the case in the early going on Saturday night when Tampa Bay was the more aggressive on and off the ball and put Republic FC on its heels before JJ Williams gave the hosts the breakthrough just past the half-hour mark.
It’s a sign of where Sacramento is now, however, that it responded as well as it did to not only come away with a 1-1 draw after Nick Ross’ goal late in the first half seemed to turn the game around but potentially looked the side more likely to find a winner in the second half.
“I just saw courage,” said Republic FC Head Coach Mark Briggs of his side’s performance. “I felt in the first half that we didn’t play our game. We didn't show any courage to get on the ball and to move the ball and to play with a little bit of confidence. And I thought that allowed Tampa to dominate, quite frankly, the first 20 minutes. Whereas you know, the last 10 minutes of the first half and then the whole of the second half, I felt like we actually showed who we are as a team and could have won it.”
Sacramento has succeeded this season by scoring first and playing from the front. Finding a way to earn a result on the road the opposite way should provide even more confidence.
If Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC needs a pick-me-up after losing five in a row, they just need to look at their opponent on Friday. Oakland Roots SC lost five games in a row in 2021 – part of an 11-game winless streak – and still made the playoffs.
There should now be concern over where things are going wrong for the Switchbacks, though, which is underperforming its underlying numbers at both ends of the field. Colorado Springs has 13 goals on a cumulative 16.58xG mark and has conceded 18 goals on a 15.16xGA mark. That came to the fore again on Friday night as the side was unable to take advantage of its opportunities to take something from the game in a fifth consecutive one-goal defeat.
The Switchbacks in particular need to be better in the final third with their finishing, which is creating enough chances but isn’t putting them away consistently. Romario Williams has been solid enough with four goals, but Maalique Foster needs to start delivering more consistently – his one goal has come on an individual 2.88xG.
After the goal-rush of the past two seasons with Hadji Barry, Michee Ngalina and Elvis Amoh, the new crop need to start finding their shooting boots to keep Colorado Springs in contention.
There have been times this season when Monterey Bay F.C.’s attack has been hit or miss.
When it’s hitting, though, Head Coach Frank Yallop’s side is among the most entertaining to watch in the USL Championship. It showed that again on Saturday night in a 4-1 victory against Loudoun United FC that saw Sam Gleadle notch a goal and assist and four different players find the net at Cardinale Stadium as Ugo Okoli made his first start of the season.
“Great effort, some good goals, an exciting game again,” said Yallop. “Wednesday was a little disappointing, I think we should have got three points that night as well. It would’ve been a great week, but it wasn’t to be. But tonight, I was really happy with the guys. We changed the system a little bit, we played two up-front with Ugo [Okoli] and Christian [Volesky] and I think it worked. We dominated a lot of the play and created some great chances.”
Monterey Bay has racked up 16 of its 22 goals this regular season in four games, an indicator of the feast or famine way things have gone through 13 games overall. The side is back in the playoff positions now, though, and if it can keep all its attacking pieces healthy can be extremely dangerous.
There might not be a team in the USL Championship that has underperformed its underlying metrics as Orange County SC has this season, but that made Saturday night’s 2-0 victory against Rio Grande Valley FC on goals by Milan Iloski and Korede Osundina one that should bring some optimism for the 2021 Championship title winners.
“It was a great game, it's awesome to get three points and to do it in the way we did,” said Iloski. “We were so solid in the back again, and it was such a team effort and the guys coming on did great and we had a great tactics going into the game, and it felt like a full team performance. Ultimately, that's all we can ask. We got the three points tonight and hopefully this can keep pushing us on to the next couple of games that we have on the road.”
Orange County’s 12 goals this season have come on an Expected Goals mark of 16.69xG while the side leads the Championship in Big Chances Created with 28. If it can build on this performance and deliver some consistent finishing, there’s reason to believe a rise in the standings could be due.
Here are some other things we took away from the weekend’s games…
- Louisville City FC isn’t a team you’d expect to see in the bottom five of the league in goals scored, but that’s where we are with 12 goals in 12 games so far this campaign.
- Oakland Roots SC keeps finding the right formula for success and could easily have scored more in Colorado Springs. They shouldn’t be under the radar any longer.
- Arturo Ordonez, goalscoring machine? “He gets on the end of a lot of stuff, he’s so aggressive, and he deserves a lot of credit,” said Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley after his center back scored in a third consecutive game.
- Miami FC was looking to make a statement against Louisville City FC on ESPN2 a few weeks ago. Now it’s winless in four and has conceded 11 goals in that span.
- Charleston Battery defender Leland Archer, meet former Wilmington Hammerheads FC midfielder Paul Nicholson, the only other player to have been sent off inside 20 seconds in a USL Championship game all time.
- Indy Eleven ended up making it look convincing on the scoreboard, but there was a lot of time when the Charleston Battery were still outplaying them down a player. Work still to be done.