Tani Oluwaseyi's hat trick and Jorge Hernandez's one goal and two assist night powered San Antonio FC to another impressive victory at Memphis 901 FC on Friday night. | Photo courtesy Ryan Beatty / Memphis 901 FC
The past weekend in the USL Championship started with a bang thanks to San Antonio FC, gave a big farewell to a Tampa Bay Rowdies icon, and elsewhere delivered some brilliant individual performances and crucial results.
Here are eight key storylines we took away from the action, plus some other thoughts on what we saw play out.
Ask San Antonio FC Head Coach Alen Marcina, and he’ll tell you there’s a selflessness that’s needed to make his side’s system work.
In forward Tani Oluwaseyi – on loan from Minnesota United FC of Major League Soccer – the club looks to have found its latest perfect proponent.
A first-half hat trick on Friday night propelled SAFC to a 4-0 romp past Memphis 901 FC, giving the defending Championship title holders a second consecutive win and moving them back within reach of top spot in the Western Conference. As good as the goals were – and they were certainly sharply taken – it was the overall work the 23-year-old put in that pleased Marcina the most.
“His commitment to do the selfless running, that’s the pressing actions, off-ball running when we do have the ball, and then he’s put himself in great positions and executed,” said Marcina, who also sang the praises of Oluwaseyi’s personality. “We’re incredibly proud of his offensive output, as well as his defensive commitment.”
With nine goals in nine games at a strike rate of a goal every 77.2 minutes, Oluwaseyi and the now surging Jorge Hernandez – who had a goal and two assists on Friday – are providing the firepower that Samuel Adeniran and Santiago Patino provided a year ago, and it’s making SAFC incredible dangerous ahead of a huge Copa Tejas clash on Wednesday night at El Paso Locomotive FC.
“Everything’s kind of fallen into place the way we wanted it to,” said Oluwaseyi. “I said last week that we haven’t really hit our peak yet, and I think that with each game that comes and each win that we get we can definitely get closer and closer to that peak.”
On the other side, after absorbing the defeat it did in Phoenix the prior week, Memphis 901 FC showed initiative to battle back, but it both ran into a performance by San Antonio FC goalkeeper Jordan Farr that showed him back at the top of his game, and a visiting attack that was ruthless to punish the errors the hosts made.
The reality was that Memphis’ first good chance at goal didn’t arrive until after it trailed by two goals, and when the fourth goal went in for San Antonio five minutes into the second half that was effectively it as a contest.
“It’s frustrating that we couldn’t get back in the game,” said Memphis Head Coach Stephen Glass. “I think when you’re down three, you still have a chance, but when it gets to four the games are out of reach. That happened pretty quick. I think we’re going to have to get used to the physical aspect of these games. We need to get back on and start getting points on the board if we want to remain where we want to be.”
With two games in hand on the Tampa Bay Rowdies at the top of the Eastern Conference, 901 FC is still within reach of the leaders, but this week’s trip to Northern California to face both Oakland Roots SC on Wednesday night and then Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday is going to be a great measuring stick for this side.
One of the main tenets of Neill Collins’ tenure at the Tampa Bay Rowdies was every player had to earn his chance to be in the starting lineup.
After a breakout display as a substitute two weeks ago against Loudoun United FC, Cal Jennings became part of that in the past two outings, to spectacular effect. The 26-year-old’s outstanding finish against former club Las Vegas Lights FC to kick off July was followed by a hat trick on Saturday night against Oakland Roots SC to send Collins off to Barnsley FC with a 3-0 win and first place in the Eastern Conference.
“Cal has shown real resilience,” said Collins. “I always picked what I thought was our best team. I’ve been picking him now because he’s shown he can be part of our best team. I’m so pleased for Cal and he’s only going to get better.”
Out of nowhere, Jennings now leads the Rowdies with eight goals this season, six of which have come in the past three games. If that’s a sign of things to come for Tampa Bay alongside JJ Williams up front, the Rowdies are going to be just fine moving forward.
For Rio Grande Valley FC, one of the keys to success on Sunday night against an Orange County SC side that was on a good run of form was to try and wear them down in the South Texas humidity.
And while the visitors got some chances early in either half – most notably a header by Anish Chatta seven minutes after he came on as a halftime substitute that flashed over the bar – the Toros’ plan appeared to work. After having previously gone close hitting the post from a prior corner kick, Wahab Ackwei’s opening goal with just over 20 minutes to go was followed by a powerful shot by Jonathan Ricketts nine minutes later that OCSC goalkeeper Colin Shutler got a hand to but couldn’t turn wide to earn the side a 2-0 victory at H-E-B Park.
“The more that we have the ball, the more that we’re attacking, the less energy and opportunities they’re going to have to go forward,” said Ricketts. “You could tell early on in the game they were already pretty tired from the heat and humidity they’re not used to. We tried to take advantage of that and try to keep them on their heels to limit their opportunities and attack.”
The Toros are now undefeated in their last six games, the longest undefeated run for the side in league play since the 2018 season. After the first half of the season saw the side struggle for consistency, the playoff places are coming into view for Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera’s side as they seek a third consecutive postseason berth.
“When we are solid defensively, we will be able to win games; and today we were solid defensively,” said Cabrera. “It’s not easy to score on us, but it doesn’t mean we’re invincible. You are solid defensively when you force the opponents to work as hard as possible to try to create options. We also want to score and have power offensively and create chances. We want to compete on that level with everyone.”
By their nature, streaks can build their own momentum and gravity.
When you’re on a run of success, there’s nothing that can bring you down. When you’ve gone a while without a win, it’s a weight that starts to feel heavier with each result that doesn’t go your way.
For Miami FC, at least some of the weight the squad has been carrying came off its collective shoulders on Saturday night as its 2-1 win against Phoenix Rising FC at Riccardo Silva Stadium broke a run of eight games without a win as goals by Kyle Murphy and Christian Sorto proved the difference.
“Really good to score the goal but overall, really happy that we came out with the three points,” said Murphy. “Hopefully it keeps us going. Luckily, we’ve got some more guys back, we’re starting to build and we’re going keep moving forward now.”
As challenging as the past two months have been in Miami, including the departure of Head Coach Anthony Pulis last month, the reality is the side is still right in the mix for a place in the Eastern Conference playoffs. With a midweek trip to FC Tulsa up next on Wednesday night, Miami has a chance to pull its season together at just the right moment.
“The biggest thing to me now is that we don't get too excited we carried away with it, make sure that now we start to recover properly,” said Miami interim Head Coach Lewis Neal. “Hopefully that’s the first of many wins, but obviously we can’t take it for granted now and make sure that we stay grounded.”
As good as Sacramento Republic FC has been defensively throughout this season, it might have come as a surprise that the side hadn’t recorded a shutout since April 23 going into its contest this weekend with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
Against its closest rival for the best defensive record in the league, though, the visitors at Highmark Stadium shored up their back line to claim a 0-0 draw as Danny Vitiello posted a four-save shutout on his old stomping grounds.
“I asked the guys to embrace defending, to embrace winning individual battles, to embrace keeping a clean sheet,” said Sacramento Head Coach Mark Briggs. “That’s what the guys have done tonight so, I’m really proud of them. I’m really pleased with an away point against a difficult opponent. Everyone that stepped on the field, playing in different positions, rotating people in because we're still a little bit short-handed. I thought everyone did a fantastic job.”
Republic FC was still missing defender Jack Gurr, midfielder Luis Felipe Fernandes and forward Sebastian Herrera from the lineup, but the hope for the side is they’ll be back sooner rather than later to replenish Sacramento’s attacking resources. In the meantime, the Western Conference leaders will continue to lean on their defense to stay in the hunt for the Players’ Shield.
For any Head Coach, taking over a new position midseason can be a challenging situation, especially when your remit is to take a team that was inconsistent and unlock its potential.
At New Mexico United, however, the direction the side has taken under new Head Coach Eric Quill keeps trending upward. In Saturday night’s 1-0 victory against Detroit City FC at Isotopes Park, the game could have been well in hand by halftime – Amando Moreno hit the woodwork twice – but it remained scoreless.
There didn’t appear any hesitance to persist for the side, however, and it was rewarded when Alex Waggoner notched the winner with eight minutes to go on his second goal of the season. It’s the sort of growth Quill has been looking for, and it now has United above the playoff line with three wins in its last four games.
“We want to play more football and play through lines,” said Quill. “That’s a lot to try to change in a short amount of time. They've accepted me, and they’ve accepted my message, and our concepts that we’re trying to instill in them. And with each game, we're showing more growth. Along with playing football is the mentality that we believe we can be champions. That’s a big part of it too. You can play the football all you want, but you also have to have a championship mentality. And I’m starting to see this within the group.”
The player that Quill’s arrival might have unlocked more than anyone is Daniel Bruce, who provided the assist on Waggoner’s goal with a beautifully flighted cross from the right to the back post. Used as a utility player for most of his career in New Mexico, the 27-year-old has become a livewire leading the forward line, contributing two goals and one assist in the past four games with Saturday’s display arguably his best of the season so far.
The cliché is the mark of a good team is one that can win when it’s not playing well.
After Louisville City FC earned a 1-0 victory against Loudoun United FC on Saturday night at Lynn Family Stadium, however, it continued to feel like there had been too many of those performances by the defending Eastern Conference title holders already this season.
“I’m happy with the three points, but I don’t think it was anywhere near the performance that we expect of the group,” said LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz “I’m proud of the shutout, but ultimately, we have to start the game better, no question about it. I thought we were overrun there for probably the entire first half. We missed a few chances we probably need to finish, but I thought their energy and mentality were a level ahead of ours.”
Cameron Lancaster’s goal early in the second half proved enough as Oliver Semmle notched his ninth shutout of the season, but you get the feeling that Louisville is going to need to be better this Wednesday night with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC coming to visit.
Here are a few more takeaways we picked up from the past weekend…
- Antony Siaha is doing it all in net for Monterey Bay F.C. right now. Three goals conceded in his last four appearances, 24 saves, and one saved penalty kick. Remarkable stuff.
- It takes a level of organization and collective belief to defend the way FC Tulsa did to hold onto its early lead against Indy Eleven. It might have rode its luck at times, but that’s a huge win.
- Las Vegas Lights FC aren’t winning, per se, but the never-say-die kids continue to be a pain for teams playing them as we’ve seen twice now in the past week.
- Enzo Martinez, meanwhile, continues to be irresistible for Birmingham Legion FC. Twelve combined goals and assists, one off the league-lead, twice as many as his closest teammates.
- It’s definitely good news for San Diego Loyal SC to get off the winless run. We would like to see it against someone other than Hartford Athletic, though.