Orange County SC's Thomas Amang scored twice against his former club San Diego Loyal SC, leading a comeback 3-1 win that vaulted OCSC into the top four in the Western Conference. | Photo courtesy Ben Nichols / San Diego Loyal SC
The direction of the playoff races in both the USL Championship’s conferences continued to twist this weekend with comeback victories and lockdown defensive displays providing some major food for thought as we enter the final 10 weeks of the regular season.
Here are seven top storylines we took a way from the action, and some additional thoughts on what the weekend delivered.
If there were any lingering questions before Saturday night about Orange County SC’s viability as a challenger in the Western Conference, it put them to bed in a 3-1 victory on the road against a San Diego Loyal SC side that had won three in a row itself and held a halftime lead at Torero Stadium before the visitors took over.
In terms of satisfying wins, it’s probably hard to top Thomas Amang scoring twice against the club he put away double-digit goals for a season ago only to be surplus to requirements this preseason, but his play alongside the rest of OCSC under its new guise led by interim Head Coach Morten Karlsen has continued to ramp up.
Since June 1, no team in the Championship has won more games than OCSC’s eight victories, and it’s not been by good fortune at all. The side ranks in the top five in the league cumulatively in Expected Goals (20 goals on 15.49xG) and in the top three in Expected Goals Conceded, where the side is actually slightly underperforming (12 goals against on 9.75xGA).
After a week off this week, OCSC will get to host Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on August 16 in what should be a fascinating clash at Championship Soccer Stadium. It says here the 2021 title winners will be up for the challenge.
For its part, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC produced an equally impressive display in the marquee game on Saturday night, with an early goal by Albert Dikwa setting up a defensive masterclass that stifled the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ attack on the way to a 1-0 win in front of another great crowd at Highmark Stadium.
The Rowdies were held to only four shots overall – their lowest total of the season – with JJ Williams’ sharp effort late in the first half the only effort that forced Jahmali Wate into a save. The Jamaican international kept himself busy otherwise in a commanding display overall, but the Hounds now have a five-point lead at the top of the Eastern Conference and seem in full control of their path to the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
“Overall, it was a great result,” said Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley. “With Tampa Bay, you've got to pick up a lot of loose balls. You've got to be very physical and competitive. They don't make it easy. Considering they had more of the ball, our guys had to dig in and do a lot of work, and I think they were up for that challenge. I think we can play better.
“We still have to go to Tampa Bay, and maybe we catch them there with a better performance, but the most important thing tonight was the result, and the guys were able to achieve that.”
There has been a lot to enjoy in Sacramento Republic FC’s season so far, but the club’s recent three-game winning streak has been keyed by a player that might have flown under the radar a little with the headlines being grabbed by Russell Cicerone and others.
Spanish winger Keko, though, now has assists in three consecutive games, teeing up Cicerone’s 13th goal of the campaign to deliver a 1-0 win on the road against Monterey Bay F.C. to keep San Antonio FC at arm’s length at the top of the Western Conference. The combinations being produced between Keko, Cicerone, Jack Gurr and Zeiko Lewis have given Sacramento an incisiveness that it lacked in recent seasons.
“I think we've got a great chemistry,” said Cicerone. “We’re all guys that are comfortable on the ball. And we want the ball, we want to combine and make things happen. We’ve just been working really well together and we’re seeing it on the score sheet.”
At an inflection point in his career after competing in the top two flights of his native Spain, Keko made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Sacramento prior to last season. He’s now producing at a level that can help carry Republic FC toward its first silverware since its inaugural season.
As San Antonio FC’s Tani Oluwaseyi put it, after Phoenix Rising FC went down to 10 players in just the 13th minute, “games like that you think they’re going to be easier, but your whole gameplan gets thrown out the window.”
Instead, it was Rising FC that took the lead as Danny Trejo struck seven minutes after teammate Manuel Arteaga’s dismissal, and from there the game took on the same attritional form that the first meeting between these sides in San Antonio early this season. SAFC pressed, but Phoenix resisted admirably until with four minutes to go a momentary lapse in concentration by a defender left Justin Dhillon with the space to level the game.
If that was a tough moment for the hosts at Phoenix Rising Stadium, what followed was almost inexplicable. A rush of blood to the head by Rising FC goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo saw him second-best to a hopeful ball upfield for Oluwaseyi, and the current Golden Boot leader put home a finish that provided a bonus the visitor’s persistence had earned.
“Truth is, even the best teams in the world have to know how to win ugly,” said Oluwaseyi. “Every game can’t be pretty, every game can’t be a 5-2 or 6-1, there’s always going to be games like this where it comes down to a one-goal game, it comes down to a 90th minute winner and it’s just having the right mentality and just knowing that you’ve got to play to the very final whistle and see things through. That’s exactly what we did today.”
Louisville City FC Head Coach Danny Cruz described his side’s 3-0 victory against FC Tulsa on Friday night as a “Louisville City performance.”
Unsurprisingly, that meant Cameron Lancaster was one of the key figures.
With a goal and assist, the veteran forward put in maybe his best showing of the season so far in a year that has been lean compared to prior campaigns. For the English veteran whose ability to find the net in bunches has been pivotal to the Boys in Purple over the years, it was a major confidence boost for someone who at times recently looked in need of one.
“It was, I think, much-needed for me and much-needed for the team,” said Lancaster. “It’s been a tough year-and-a-half. I’m just happy to be on the pitch and contribute with a goal, an assist and most importantly, the three points.”
There were murmurs that LouCity wasn’t the club it was in previous seasons starting to build during its three-game losing streak. After consecutive convincing 3-0 victories, the defending Eastern Conference title holders appear ready to make their customary late-season push.
There are some clubs for which the opening goal of the game just seems to matter that much more.
One of those is Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, which going into its Friday night clash with Birmingham Legion FC had gone undefeated in more than a year when it found the net first. After Deshane Beckford’s first-half goal, everything seemed set fair for the hosts before another rousing crowd at Weidner Field, but Neco Brett’s incredible bicycle kick finish for Legion FC – which landed at No. 1 on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 that night – could have changed the story.
Instead, the Switchbacks players responded in the way they needed to. After a heavy defeat in their last home outing to San Diego Loyal SC, Juan Tejada’s winner provided the side with the lift it needed to remain firmly above the playoff line.
“When we score first, we normally win, and the team kept going,” said Switchbacks Head Coach Stephen Hogan of his side’s reaction after Brett’s equalizer. “Players like Juan [Tejada] are needed in this organization. He doesn’t stop, and the goals were fantastic. [Deshane Beckford’s] as well, and he composed his finish. I have to give a little bit of kudos to [Aaron] Wheeler helping out with the attackers. The composure Becky [Deshane Beckford] has been showing is coming from sharing ideas and training with Wheeler.”
Tejada has scored three goals in the past five games for the Switchbacks, a throwback to his first season form with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. As up-and-down as Colorado Springs’ season has been so far, a consistent output from the mid-season arrival could prove the difference for the side’s playoff hopes.
Miami FC’s 4-0 victory against El Paso Locomotive FC might not have been its most emphatic attacking performance of the season so far – that would still be its 4-1 win against Las Vegas Lights FC – but the control the side showed against an opponent which saw its downward spiral continue might have made it the most satisfying display the South Florida club has delivered so far this campaign.
“I thought they were excellent tonight,” said Miami interim Head Coach Lewis Neal. “For me it was almost a perfect performance in the first half. … The way we managed the game in the second half for me was fantastic.”
Having secured a two-goal halftime lead through Joaquin Rivas’ brace – the first a beautifully confident strike – the hosts showed off the defensive instincts that formed the basis for their playoff berth a season ago. Miami hasn’t allowed more than one goal in a game in its last six games, with goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas and a back line led by Paco Craig getting back to what they do well.
It also meant for the first time in a long time, Miami is back above the playoff line in the Eastern Conference ahead of a crucial game next Saturday against Indy Eleven, currently a point below them in the table. With the club’s first three-game winning streak of the season, the side knows it can’t get complacent, but is in a much better place than it was a few short weeks ago.
“I’m just really proud of the guys, what we’ve been working on extremely hard,” said Rivas. “I think we all deserve it… proud of myself, proud of the boys. We just got to keep going.”
Here are some other things we took away from the weekend’s action…
- Oakland Roots SC keeps giving us reasons to believe in them. Very impressive win at Charleston.
- On the other hand, the Battery got the other side of the coin after finding ways to emerge with a win. Nothing too much to worry about, though.
- Tabort Etaka Preston, have a night. Las Vegas Lights FC has deserved a result like Saturday, and it finally arrived.
- Same for you, Beverly Makangila. What a way to score your first goal in the USL Championship. Brilliant strike to spark Hartford’s comeback.
- Didn’t it feel a bit like El Paso Locomotive FC Head Coach Brian Clarhaut went for the motivational ejection, only for it to not pan out?
- New Mexico United has an argument it did enough to get something from Saturday’s visit to Hartford, but for the first time in a while it just misfired in front of goal.
- You could probably hear all the sighs of relief from Memphis 901 FC’s locker room in a five-mile radius after Saturday’s victory. Pressure relieved, slightly.
- What did we learn Rafael Baca can give Monterey Bay F.C.? As expected, he was really tidy on the ball, but he’s going to need back-up on the defensive side at first glance.
- More individual landmarks at Indy Eleven, but that’s not going to be much consolation after another setback.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks 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 Birmingham Legion FC Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United Hartford Athletic San Diego Loyal SC Miami FC Oakland Roots SC Monterey Bay F.C.