Louisville City FC's Oscar Jimenez produced a crucial goal for his side on Saturday night to cap a rousing victory at Lynn Family Stadium. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
The 25th weekend of the 2023 USL Championship season had a little bit of everything, going from the sublime to the ridiculous, occasionally in the same game.
Here are seven top storylines we took away from a weekend that saw the top three teams in the Eastern Conference all close in on clinching their playoffs places, and the hottest team in the league continue its drive to the top without its leading scorer.
The performance by Louisville City FC was exactly the response that was needed after its flat display against Birmingham Legion FC, but still with time ticking down against Oakland Roots SC on Saturday night the prospects of a much-needed win were dwindling.
And then, with the latest goal that has been scored in the USL Championship so far this season, Oscar Jimenez delivered. The left wingback broke in unmarked and measured his volley off Tyler Gibson’s angled cross perfectly, sending a crowd of more than 10,000 fans at Lynn Family Stadium into wild celebrations.
“I had my eye on it, went for the clean strike,” Jimenez said, “and as soon as I hit it, I said, ‘that’s going in unless this goalie pulls it out of his…’ – you know.”
If there’s a player whose form deserved that moment, it’s Jimenez. Since LouCity moved to a three-center back system prior to its 2-0 win against Indy Eleven on July 29, Jimenez has been given more license to push forward. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but the quality the veteran brings was once again on display on Saturday in a game that showed Louisville at its best once again.
“When the second goal goes in, it’s incredible,” said LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz. “It’s what I’m going to remember for a long time for sure. I think a lot went against us tonight, and I feel the players responded incredibly. I was really happy with the performance. I didn’t feel we deserved to lose that game. I felt we deserved to win that game.”
Now the key question for LouCity is whether it can sustain that level over the next few weeks. With games on the road at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies on deck in the next two weekends, it’s time for the defending Eastern Conference title holders to make their move.
Apparently, there’s something within the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ roster about facing their former clubs of late.
After JJ Williams’ goal and assist led to victory on the road against FC Tulsa a week prior, on Saturday night it was the turn of goalkeeper Connor Sparrow, who put in a five-save shutout to hold his former club, Miami FC, at bay in a 2-0 win for the Rowdies at Riccardo Silva Stadium.
Sparrow made a collection of keys stops, most notably in the 32nd minute to deny Joaquin Rivas what would have been the opening goal. Three minutes later, Cal Jennings put Tampa Bay ahead, and that proved all Sparrow needed before Charlie Dennis’ late penalty kick sealed the result for the visitors.
With the Rowdies short-handed due to injuries – only three players were available as outfield substitutes – the side’s fourth victory in five games under new Head Coach Nicky Law was another impressive statement.
“It was a complete effort from our players and our staff effort tonight,” said Law. “We spoke before the Tulsa match about coming to these difficult places, with difficult field conditions, and grinding out wins. We’ve done that the last two weeks. These are important three points for us. We knew it was going to be a tough game, but we had to get the three points tonight. We’ve got some big games ahead and we’ve got to keep racking up the points.”
Among those big upcoming games? Consecutive weekends in which the Rowdies will host Louisville City FC (Sept. 9) and visit San Antonio FC (Sept. 16). After this weekend’s results, though, Tampa Bay has a path to claiming not only top spot in the Eastern Conference but the Players’ Shield at the end of the season.
Just like in 2014, Sacramento Republic FC and its fans were ready for a celebration at Hughes Stadium.
Nine years on, Orange County SC played the role of the Harrisburg City Islanders and made some club history as well.
Through second-half goals by Thomas Amang and Seth Casiple and a shutout in his professional debut for 18-year-old goalkeeper Juan Santana, OCSC’s 2-0 victory ran the club’s winning streak to seven games as it put together another impressive display to claim a season sweep of its NorCal rival before 20,231 fans at Hughes Stadium.
Maybe the most important performance of the night, though, was that of veteran center back Dillon Powers, who took the club’s Player of the Match honors after another stellar display to help keep Sacramento’s attacking corps in check. One of the players who helped Orange County’s run to the 2021 USL Championship title, the 32-year-old has been in a rich vein of form of late to help OCSC post shutouts in four of its last five outings overall.
There’s still a five-point gap to make up for Orange County to Sacramento and San Antonio FC at the top of the Western Conference standings. At the same time, the side still has both of its games left against SAFC and now holds the tiebreaker over Republic FC after sweeping the regular season series. It’s an outside shot, but a challenge Orange County looks ready to take on.
After a long 4 months, I was able to step back on pitch. Some of the hardest months are now past me. Countless Hours and hours of hard work were all worth it. Special thank you to our medical staff and Fitness coach for all your hard work to making this happen. pic.twitter.com/wGO215ifS6— Rodrigo Lopez (@Lopez_Roro) August 27, 2023
It wasn’t enough to help turn the game in Republic FC’s favor, but the sight of Rodrigo Lopez returning to the field for his first appearance since April will at least have provided something positive for fans to take home with them after Saturday’s defeat.
After successfully undergoing surgery to repair the rectus tendon in his right leg, the 35-year-old made his way back as a late substitute at Hughes Stadium, where he had previously been a starter in Sacramento’s inaugural home opener nine years ago.
“Obviously he's been out for a long time so he can only play a certain amount of minutes,” said Republic FC Head Coach Mark Briggs. “We knew that he was only going to play a small portion tonight and I just wanted to get him on the field. And [I’m] glad we got him on the field, we got him some valuable minutes. Now he’s back with the squad, he’s back fit, so now we’ve just got to keep him healthy and keep him with us because he’s a big component of what we want to do.”
Lopez notched two assists and 21 chances created in seven appearances at the start of this season, providing quality minutes in the attacking third. Sacramento will be cautious with his return to ensure there isn’t a setback, but the former Championship Final MVP coming back has the potential to push things forward once again for the side.
San Antonio FC and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC gave us almost exactly what we expected on Saturday night – a hard-fought game out of which the image of Hounds forward Albert Dikwa’s ragged jersey collar might be the most enduring image.
It was a game of few clear chances, let alone one that might qualify to have the potential to be decisive, a 0-0 draw at Toyota Field saw San Antonio held scoreless at home for a second consecutive game.
“Tough result today, it was a tough game,” said SAFC’s Connor Maloney. “Those are playoff-type games right there. Going against a team right there, toe-to-toe, it’s a really good team. We had a lot of good opportunities, take a lot of positives from this game, you know? We move on. Past six games I think we’re four wins, two ties, so I think we’re peaking at the right time and I think we played this game at the right time. It’s a playoff team and it’s getting us set up for the playoffs.”
A lot of good opportunities might be pushing it slightly. San Antonio certainly had more opportunities than its visitors, but only three of the 10 shots the hosts took came inside the Pittsburgh penalty area and it didn’t feel like Hounds goalkeeper Jahmali Waite was seriously tested enough to challenge a goalkeeper of his standard.
As with Monterey Bay F.C. a week prior, Pittsburgh’s back line sat in a deeper position and challenged San Antonio to break them down. SAFC couldn’t, and so was unable to take advantage of Sacramento’s defeat.
There might be local heroes and bigger names on San Diego Loyal SC’s roster, but there might be no player who has made his mark at the club more than Tumi Moshobane.
On Saturday night, after the announcement the club would not return for the 2024 USL Championship season earlier in the week, the South African playmaker once again showed why that might be the case with a two-goal display at Rio Grande Valley FC that included a crucial finish – which proved to be the game-winner – only moments after it looked like victory had slipped away at H-E-B Park.
Staying just the right side of the offside line, Moshobane received a great through-ball by Elliot Collier before finishing clinically for his club-leading 23rd goal in the USL Championship to cap his 104th appearance in the Championship in the club’s colors.
It remains to be seen how SD Loyal’s final season will conclude, but there may be no-one more determined to ensure it ends on a high note than the 28-year-old.
There is still a long way to go for Indy Eleven to reach its Magic Number of 16 with seven games to go in the season, but Saturday night’s 2-1 win against Loudoun United FC was the latest evidence we received that the Boys in Blue are ready for their postseason return.
It’s been one of the great oddities of the season that Indy has been substantially better on the road than at Michael A. Carroll Stadium this year -- only two of the club’s prior nine victories had come on home turf – and when the side conceded after 39 seconds to Loudoun’s Tommy Williamson it looked to be more of the same.
But now the side has won two in a row at the Mike and is undefeated in five overall after its gutty scoreless draw on the road at Memphis 901 FC in midweek. The key to that? The players that Indy was relying on to carry it back to prominence are delivering. Aodhan Quinn scored his ninth goal of the season to level the game before Sebastian Guenzatti found the winner from Solomon Asante’s assist. Over the past five games that trio has combined for five goals and five assists, with Douglas Martinez Jr. also chipping in a pair of goals.
Is it going to be enough for Indy to challenge as a dark horse when the postseason arrives? We may have some fun finding out.
Here are some additional thoughts on what we saw this weekend…
- Want to go inside the Charleston Battery’s massive victory against Memphis 901 FC? Here’s what we took away from the game, including reaction from Battery Head Coach Ben Pirmann.
- Birmingham Legion FC has got to be scratching its collective heads as to what happened on Sunday evening against Detroit City FC. What a strange game, and uncharacteristic performance for some veterans, as Le Rouge came away with victory again.
- Was El Paso Locomotive FC great against Hartford Athletic? No. Did it get the win it had to have? Yes. Los Locos are probably going to need a greater display to get the same result against Monterey Bay F.C. next weekend but take this one and feel good about it.
- It looked like Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC might pull off the improbable after Jay Chapman’s incredible free kick with his side down to nine men at Monterey Bay F.C. Then the Switchbacks did the unthinkable and gave it away.
- At the same time, that’s an illustration of what Rafael Baca can bring MBFC when he’s on. Sharp passing, good movement, and a correctly awarded penalty kick to start then comeback.
- Phoenix Rising FC scores such beautiful goals sometimes you need to remind yourself that they’re in seventh place for a reason. Finding a second consecutive strong display against Sacramento Republic FC on Wednesday might convert a few more believers.
- Rio Grande Valley FC is going to have to summon all its Copa Tejas powers on Wednesday night against San Antonio. It can’t afford anything other than three points.
- About a month ago, FC Tulsa was looking like a lock for the postseason. One six-game winless streak later – including Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at New Mexico United – and it’s almost all slipped away.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Birmingham Legion FC Indy Eleven El Paso Locomotive FC San Diego Loyal SC Detroit City FC Monterey Bay F.C.