Orange County SC equaled its club record with a sixth consecutive win, and has now won nine of its last 10 overall to continue its upward surge. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
We’re officially three-quarters of the way through the 2023 USL Championship regular season after the past weekend’s action, and things could hardly be in better shape when it comes to the battles for top spot in both conferences, and as to which sides will be part of the postseason in October.
Here are the seven top storylines we took away from the weekend, and some additional thoughts on what we saw transpire.
There is nothing like success to breed confidence, and right now Orange County SC is proof.
Before another sellout crowd at Championship Soccer Stadium on Saturday night, the 2021 Championship title winners put together a comprehensive display in the second half to build on Brian Iloski’s brilliant first-half free kick to take a 2-0 victory against the Charleston Battery.
It was the ninth win in the last 10 games for OCSC, and a club-record equaling sixth win in a row, a run that has moved the side from 11th to third in the Western Conference standings. The victory also capped a week that also saw the side earn a 1-0 result against current Eastern leader Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
“The highlight, I think, is that we kept the second-best team of the East to one or two chances,” said OCSC Head Coach Morten Karlsen. “I think we showed energy in our presence on the field. And I saw a team effort, a really a good team effort today with players coming on, players starting, so it was just it was good energetic performance.”
The Battery had the best chance of the first half as OCSC goalkeeper Colin Shutler and defender Markus Nakkim did enough to prevent Augustine Williams getting a clean look at close range. After the break, however, Charleston mustered only one official shot as the hosts shut down the game in impressive style.
With a trip to Sacramento Republic FC up next, Orange County’s momentum is building in the same manner as it did two years ago when it lifted the title.
“We just use that energy that we have in the group now,” said Karlsen. “We have such a great energy, such great belief. Our mindset is always when we score, we want to score a second. We always want to stay positive.”
The side that gained the most from Orange County SC’s week aside from the club itself? That would be the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which took a 2-1 victory on Friday night at FC Tulsa while seeing their two biggest rivals for first place in the Eastern Conference both fall out west.
A goal and assist by JJ Williams either side of halftime highlighted an impressive road display the Rowdies desperately needed. While the side has an ongoing seven-game home winning streak it had been winless and held scoreless in each of its past three road outings. This was a far different looking performance, which while put under pressure late by the hosts as Tulsa rallied, was deserving of the result.
“For 70 minutes it was the perfect away performance,” said Rowdies Head Coach Nicky Law. “We made the game a lot harder than it needed to be for the last 20 minutes. We switched off a little bit and gave them opportunities to get back into the game. … We obviously wanted one on the road and with results around the league it was a huge win.”
Williams has made a habit of showing up in big moments against the clubs he represented last season this year. He’s now scored in both the Rowdies’ games home-and-away against Tulsa and also in the side’s victory against Phoenix Rising FC, where he concluded the 2022 campaign. All three have aided victories for the side.
With two games in hand on both Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and the Charleston Battery, the Rowdies have some big tests to come, but mathematically they also have the inside track to top spot in the East at the end of the regular season.
Given the caliber of chances Sacramento Republic FC created in the first half against Loudoun United FC, you had a very good case that the visitors at Segra Field should found the net beyond Matt LaGrassa’s finish and been comfortably ahead.
They didn’t, and Loudoun almost made them pay for it. Kalil ElMedkhar leveled the game, and Sacramento had to weather other dicey defensive moments before its attacking prowess came through. A superb finish by Zeiko Lewis restored the lead before Luther Archimede added a third late off a debut assist by Cristian Parano, and Republic FC regained top spot in the Western Conference.
“Good teams go on the road and pick up points, and we’ve shown tonight that we’re a good team and we can pick up points at home and on the road,” said Republic FC Head Coach Mark Briggs. “But I think this trip has brought a togetherness and a grit and a determination that will bode well for us in the final stretch of the season.”
No matter where a team travels, picking up a win on the road is nothing to downplay. At the same time, for a team that prides itself on its defensive record, Republic FC might spend a good amount of time this week getting back to basics after allowing a single-game high in Expected Goals Against (1.86xGA) before a much tougher opponent in Orange County SC comes to Hughes Stadium.
Sacramento Republic FC moved back to the top of the Western Conference after San Antonio FC was held to a scoreless draw by Monterey Bay F.C. at Toyota Field, dropping SAFC a point behind its rival for top spot.
In what was an intriguing contest that saw Monterey Bay show signs of a turnaround in its form – the visitors could easily have grabbed a goal if not for a solid display by SAFC goalkeeper Jordan Farr – maybe the most notable part was how San Antonio became the team that drew energy from going down to 10 players when Jorge Hernandez was dismissed for his second yellow card of the game.
Despite having a player advantage, MBFC failed to record a shot the rest of the way, while SAFC hammered away in search of a winner. Going down a player seemed to galvanize the resolve of the hosts to deliver, and Mitchell Taintor went close with an 89th-minute strike that was well saved by Carlos Herrera, who finished with seven saves for the visitors.
“It’s just about finding it within yourself to overcome adversity, and I think this team thrives off that,” said Farr. “I think when certain things in the game happen that maybe go against us, we’re trying to train our minds to be like ‘that’s when we step it up.’ Where some team maybe crumble, some teams maybe start changing for the negative, we want to be a team that reacts positively to every situation so for us.
“Coming out strong right out of that break when the red card happened was vital, regardless whether we agree or disagree with the decision. It’s about getting over it as quickly as possible and pushing. Because ultimately we need to give the amount of people that come and watch us play, that support us, we need to give them everything we have every minute of the game.”
SAFC’s efforts came up short, but the drive the side has is why it has reached the point it has over the past three seasons.
Last offseason, we wrote about the potential impact Juan Galindrez could make for Rio Grande Valley FC as he followed fellow former Chattanooga Red Wolves SC standout Ricky Ruiz to H-E-B Park.
While it took a while for the Colombian forward to make his Toros debut, he’s coming good for a side that once again is in position to make a final kick down the stretch and reach the playoffs for a third consecutive year. Galindrez’s deft header off Taylor Davila’s corner kick proved the difference in a 1-0 win against Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night that the Toros were good value for in a game they needed to win to close the gap to Rising FC and El Paso Locomotive FC in the playoff positions.
Added value? His post-goal celebration was on point as well, a sign of a player who’s enjoying himself.
“Every week that goes by I gain confidence on the pitch,” said Galindrez. “On tonight’s scoring play, it is a play that I have practiced and have very well calculated where I attack the first post. Tonight, it paid off with a very important goal for us.”
Galindrez has now notched three goals and two assists in just 383 minutes for the Toros, with Saturday his fourth start in 12 appearances. If he can sustain that pace over the final nine games of the season, RGV FC can put a club currently above the playoff line’s place in peril.
Some of the usual suspects earned well-deserved plaudits for Birmingham Legion FC after the side’s 2-0 win against Louisville City FC.
Enzo Martinez bagged the opening goal, and Neco Brett became only the fourth player in Championship history to reach 75 regular season goals shortly after.
The player that grabbed the most attention, though, was one of the club’s newcomers. Diba Nwegbo’s performance didn’t show up on the scoresheet, but it was his hustle play that gave Juan Agudelo the chance to pick out Martinez just five minutes in, and he was also brought down for the penalty kick Brett converted. A first-year pro, the former Vermont Green standout in USL League Two is starting to come into his own at the next level.
“He has grown,” said Legion FC Head Coach Tommy Soehn of Nwegbo. “He’s a kid coming out of college, so there’s some lumps and mountains you got to get through along the way. But, we’re putting game plans in and he’s starting to really execute his timing of runs, getting in behind, defending, and keeping plays alive. He’s doing a really good job. It’s been fun to watch him grow throughout the season.”
Birmingham’s victory saw the side sweep a season series against LouCity for the first time in its history and broke a recent winless run to provide a cushion above the playoff line. While there’s more work to be done, Nwegbo’s endeavor and quality provides a useful element to the attacking talent the side has assembled.
Conventional thinking is to succeed over a regular season, you need to win at home and earn enough results on the road.
This year, Indy Eleven is flipping that idea on its head.
On Saturday night, the Boys in Blue took a 3-2 victory against El Paso Locomotive FC in a successful return to Southwest University Park for Head Coach Mark Lowry. It marked the seventh road win of the season out of nine overall for the side, with Douglas Martinez Jr.’s winner also pushing the visitors to a third consecutive win for the first time this season after they had rallied twice after Locomotive FC had taken the lead.
There are still a few questions about how good this Indy side might be, but it certainly looks good enough to be part of the postseason for the first time since 2019 at this moment.
On the other hand, its counterpart in sixth place in the Western Conference – Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC – has been going about things more conventionally. The Switchbacks are averaging almost two points per game at home this season, which made Saturday’s 3-2 victory on the road at Oakland Roots SC a key bonus as Tyreek Magee had two excellent goals laid on by Juan Tejada.
With five of their remaining nine games this season at Weidner Field, its looking positive for the Switchbacks to return for a third consecutive postseason. This weekend’s result, though, might go just as far in having helped secure that spot as any home win this campaign.
Here are some additional thoughts on what we saw this weekend…
- The moment Tumi Moshobane put San Diego Loyal SC ahead at Torero Stadium, we were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Amando Moreno’s stoppage-time equalizer for New Mexico United means the two teams have ended all square in all five of their official contests.
- Congratulations to Joaquin Rivas on the first hat trick of his professional career in Miami FC’s win at Hartford Athletic. Now, what do you have in store for in-state rivals the Tampa Bay Rowdies this weekend?
- What’s going on at Louisville City FC? Head Coach Danny Cruz didn’t mince words after his side’s loss in Birmingham – “I thought the mentality was really, really poor tonight. I’m really, really frustrated with that.”
- It’s got to be somewhat frustrating to be a Phoenix Rising FC fan at this point. Each blockbuster performance is followed up by a dud, and that means the playoffs are by no means assured.
- Detroit City FC is still in the playoff race after victory against Las Vegas. It’s probably not going to be able to rely on gifts like that to find the net every week, though.
- El Paso Locomotive FC is still, somehow, above the playoff line. If it can’t find all three points in Hartford, though, it’s hard to see where this current winless streak ends.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Birmingham Legion FC Indy Eleven El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United Loudoun United FC Hartford Athletic San Diego Loyal SC Miami FC Detroit City FC Monterey Bay F.C.