Indy Eleven's Sebastian Guenzatti scored the winner in his side's crucial win against Miami FC on Saturday, and now has five goals in his past six games. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven
The first two berths in the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs were claimed this weekend, and Orange County SC’s winning streak continued, but while we got additional clarity in some parts of the race of the postseason there is still plenty up for grabs across both conferences.
Here are eight key storylines we took away from the action, as well as some additional thoughts on what we saw play out in the past two days.
The first five months of Indy Eleven’s season and Sebastian Guenzatti’s performance in front of goal were almost mirror images of each other, and not in a good way. The side had won only six games in 22 contests, while Guenzatti had only three goals to show for his consistent endeavor on both sides of the ball.
Over the past six games, however, Guenzatti has found his groove with five goals in the past six games, helping fuel a run of five wins and a draw that has gone a long way to securing Indy’s first postseason appearance since the 2019 campaign.
With game-winners in each of the past two games after providing a close-range finish in Saturday’s 1-0 win against Miami at Michael A. Carroll Stadium, the reward the veteran forward is earning was heartening for Indy Head Coach Mark Lowry.
“He’s played really well without the ball, he’s always fantastic,” said Lowry. “The guys love him, his work-rate, his quality on the ball is phenomenal, and he’s getting rewarded with goals now.
“I’m glad Aodhan [Quinn’s] taking our penalties because he scores, but the fact is that if Sebastian was on pens, he’d be the top goalscorer in the league. When people look at the stats of goalscorers, we’ve got one right now that’s right up there. We’ve got two that are right up there. And that feels good to have.”
There was no surprise as to who Orange County SC’s first goalscorer against Las Vegas Lights FC was on Saturday night. Milan Iloski’s 34th goal for the club in just his 57th appearance was the ninth time he had opened the scoring in a game this season.
What happened next was emblematic of where Orange County is now compared to a season ago, when Iloski won the Championship’s Golden Boot, but the side missed the playoffs. With five different players finding the net in a 5-1 victory against Lights FC at Cashman Field, the visitors swept to an eighth consecutive victory, the longest winning streak in the league this season.
“It was very much a team performance,” said Orange County SC Head Coach Morten Karlsen. “It was professional performance, I would say, and showed that we are a team developing and also in a good run, as you mentioned. I really liked our team effort throughout the game.”
With the weekend’s other results, Orange County is now within three points of second-placed San Antonio FC, with those two sides still to square off twice in the final seven games. Both should be must-see games.
There is nothing that can open up a game like an early goal. Just look at Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night, when Danny Trejo’s thunderbolt of a finish gave his side the lead against Rio Grande Valley FC after just 64 seconds.
It was the earliest Phoenix had scored in the league this season, and for Head Coach Juan Guerra it changed the game immediately.
“When you can play at home and you can start on the front foot and score early, then teams have to change behaviors,” said Guerra. “You could see how they were pressing a little bit, and I just look at my three center backs and the goalkeeper, and they’re saying ‘yeah, they’re pressing, they’re not sitting deep.’ And as soon as we saw that, we said ‘OK, let’s play. It’s going to be a game where there’s going to be spaces, and we can explore those spaces.’”
With that in mind, it’s easy to connect Phoenix’s first goal to its second, produced by a beautiful pass by Mohamed Traore that allowed Manuel Arteaga to get in behind the Toros’ defense – pushed higher than it might otherwise have been – for a finish.
From there, Phoenix’s defense took over, earning a second shutout in a run of three consecutive wins in eight days that left Rising FC in fifth place at the end of the weekend. The playoffs are in sight, and with Trejo (15 goals) and Arteaga (14 goals) both firing, Rising FC is looking more and more dangerous.
Facing its first two-game losing streak of the season, Sacramento Republic FC got out to an ideal start against NorCal rival Oakland Roots SC on Saturday night when Sebastian Herrera converted from the spot inside the first three minutes.
From then on, though, it was a grind for the visitors at Pioneer Stadium as goalkeeper Carlos Saldaña – given a spot-start as Danny Vitiello got a night off – produced a sparkling six-save shutout to see the visitors through to a 1-0 victory that was just the display Head Coach Mark Briggs was looking for.
“Perfect performance,” said Briggs. “Gritty, hard working, showed fight and showed spirit, showed mentality. Wasn't necessarily our greatest performance, but they did the things that I asked of them.”
You could argue Sacramento’s visit to Oakland was its last major test of the regular season. In its final six games, Republic FC faces teams that are seventh or lower in their respective conference, with four coming at home. With a week to rest up ahead of that final stretch, the path to the Players’ Shield is in place for the side that has been at the top of the West for most of the campaign.
“The 10 days off now allows us to get more fitness to serve some players and allows other players to recover,” said Briggs. “Then when we come back, we can hopefully put our strongest team on the field and everybody can compete to play.”
The Tampa Bay Rowdies are the team Sacramento may be battling for the Players’ Shield at the end of the regular season, and while it wasn’t close to the Rowdies’ best display of the year there was a similar determination from the side to finally get over the line in a 2-1 win against Hartford Athletic.
While lacking depth, Hartford didn’t lack quality in its lineup at Al Lang Stadium, as evidenced by Elvis Amoh’s brilliant first-half strike to put the visitors ahead. An equally brilliant leveler by Cal Jennings got the Rowdies level in first-half stoppage time, though, and Ariel Martinez’s goal against the side he played for a season ago proved enough in a tense ending that easily could have gone either way, but secured a postseason berth for Tampa Bay.
“My biggest fear going into the game was complacency and there was definitely a little bit of that in the first half,” said Rowdies Head Coach Nicky Law. “It was the poorest performance we’ve had since I’ve been here. But I have to say, the players dug in and got the three points. I do have to praise them for getting us over the line. Sometimes, this time of year, you’ve just got to win like that.”
The Rowdies’ win ensured they maintained the highest potential ceiling of any team in available points. With eight games to go, though, they’ll need to be sharper to hold off the challenge of Republic FC, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, and others for the first silverware of the year.
Last season, Louisville City FC was among the league-leaders with 69 goals across the regular season and playoffs.
This season, that’s not the case, but there is an area where the side has retained the cutting edge it needs, and it could be the key to another top-four finish at the end of the season.
After leading the Championship’s with 12 goals from corner kicks last year, LouCity is on target to match that total with a league-high eight so far this campaign, two of which played a decisive role in Saturday’s 3-2 win on the road at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.
20-year-old LouCity Academy product Carlos Moguel Jr. picked up the assists on both, providing great deliveries for Jorge Gonzalez and fellow Academy grad Elijah Wynder to produce quality finishes at Weidner Field. The result moved LouCity back into the top four despite an impressive effort by the Switchbacks, who were held off by a battling defensive display by the visitors despite recording 22 shots overall and 16 inside the LouCity penalty area on the night.
“I think we fought the whole game,” Gonzalez said. “Like [LouCity Head Coach] Danny [Cruz] says, when we have the right mentality, with our quality, that’s the job. They were a great team. They did really good things. But we fought, and we got the three points. That’s what matters.”
Historically in the USL Championship, teams that have been able to win on the road have had a history of finding playoff success. Last season, San Antonio FC had the best away record in the regular season, while fellow former title winners the New York Red Bulls II (2016) and Louisville City FC (2018) are also among the most successful road teams in a single campaign.
That bodes well for the Charleston Battery’s potential this October, with the side now only one win away from clinching a return to the postseason after Saturday’s 1-0 win on the road against New Mexico United at Isotopes Park.
Not that the playoffs are on Battery Head Coach Ben Pirmann’s mind right now, of course.
“We take it moment by moment, minute by minute, day by day, play by play, game by game,” said Pirmann. “We had a good week of training, building into it. Travel is always tough, but we were focused and ready to go. From kickoff, we carried the play on our terms in a really tough and difficult place to play. I thought we deserved to win and that is three more points on the table. We're having a great season, but it's about taking it one game at a time.”
Augustine Williams’ team-leading 11th goal of the season provided the difference in New Mexico, but you could argue the Battery could have grabbed the advantage prior to his finish with 16 minutes to go. What Saturday night’s result meant in the big picture, though, is Charleston has now claimed 28 points in 15 road games this season. That’s more than the side earned home-and-away a season ago, another number showing how massive the Battery’s turnaround has been.
There is, sadly, a finality for San Diego Loyal SC at the end of this campaign.
So, in the club’s first home game since it was announced the side is playing its final campaign, a confident 3-0 victory against Birmingham Legion FC at Torero Stadium on Sunday afternoon with a passionate crowd behind them was an ideal starting point toward that conclusion.
“[SD Loyal Head Coach] Nate [Miller] always reminds us, and puts into perspective, important moments in the season, important moments for our fans, and this was no different,” said SD Loyal midfielder Collin Martin. “I’ve tried to cherish every moment that I’ve had out on this field, but um, but we definitely tried to show the fans that we’re going to try to win for them today. It feels really good to be able to say we got the job done.”
Martin scored the final goal at Torero Stadium, tapping home from close range after Ronaldo Damus’ initial shot had come off the post. There was another goal for Tumi Moshobane, who now has four in the past three games, after Blake Bodily had got the ball rolling in the 18th minute.
SD Loyal has been one of the best teams to watch in the Championship not just this season, but over its short history, but it hasn’t always been able to find a way to match results to its play. It’s seven dropped points at home this season are the current difference between fighting for a top-four finish and fighting for first place in the West.
Given the finality of the situation, there could be one final push to be made to end SD Loyal’s history on a high.
Here are some other things we took away from the weekend’s action…
- FC Tulsa produced one of the results of the season with its victory on Sunday night against San Antonio FC. Here’s how Eric Bird and the side’s impressive midfield helped pull it off.
- San Antonio FC at least avoided being shutout for a fourth consecutive time, but things don’t quite seem right currently for the defending champions. “Hopefully, we look back on this time as a as a way that kind of springs us forward,” said midfielder Jacori Hayes.
- Birmingham Legion FC is feeling less than the sum of its parts right now. “We need to show up with a better mentality, and that’s also on me,” said Head Coach Tom Soehn after the defeat in San Diego.
- Miami FC had enough of the game in Indy to get ahead but couldn’t make it count. Now it’s under the gun in a crucial game at Detroit City FC next weekend.
- OK, Monterey Bay F.C., you have our attention again. Ugo Okoli’s goal in El Paso at the very least gave us a serious battle for the playoffs out West.