San Antonio FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies delivered a classic contest on Saturday night but showed areas that need to be improved in the process. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
One more team booked its place in the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs, while two more are on the doorstep this midweek, while the biggest game of the weekend more than lived up to the billing.
Here are eight top storylines we took away from the past weekend’s action, and some additional thoughts on what we saw play out.
There’s always a danger that a game that comes with high expectations doesn’t live up to the billing.
Saturday night’s clash between San Antonio FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies was not one of those, and in fact only made the potential for it to be repeated in the USL Championship Final in November more appealing.
The back-and-forth between the sides that saw the Rowdies reel off three consecutive goals to take the lead before Ignacio Bailone scored in second-half stoppage time to earn the hosts a 3-3 draw at Toyota Field was an incredible show, and one that both sides will be able to find silver linings from despite failing to claim all three points.
“When you’re down two goals and you’re dealing with absences of key guys because of injury, rarely would I expect to get anything out of a game like that,” said Rowdies assistant coach Stuart Dobson. “But these guys showed great character to come away with a point. This is one of those games that makes the whole coaching staff proud of the team with the way they faced adversity. If we can take that effort into our remaining five games and then the playoffs, there’s not many teams that can beat us.”
There will be a major concern for the Rowdies moving forward, though, with Forrest Lasso’s first-half departure due to a non-contact injury adding to Aaron Guillen’s absence after a similar injury against Louisville City FC this past weekend. Tampa Bay is going to either need its two most important defenders to get healthy quickly or be prepared to work a deal or two before this Friday’s USL Championship roster freeze.
If Saturday night showed anything, it’s the difference between this year’s San Antonio FC side and last year’s.
If San Antonio was ahead by one goal last season – let alone two – then it was almost a done deal that the side was going onto win. SAFC only dropped two points from winning positions in 2022, the best mark in the league.
This year that’s far from the case, and the defensive errors that have slipped into the side’s game are making SAFC’s title defense much more challenging.
“Yeah, individual mistakes happen, for sure,” said SAFC’s Connor Maloney. “They did tonight, and we got punished by a really good team in Tampa [Bay]. Cleaning up those mistakes is going to be key for our playoff run. As we move into playoffs, those moments are what are going to win us or lose us games. So we’ve got to clean those up, the rest of these games in the regular season, and then we go into the playoffs hopefully not making those mistakes.”
As buoyed by Ignacio Bailone’s goal San Antonio was, that’s still six games without a win, the longest such streak experienced by SAFC since the 2021 season. With Sacramento Republic FC taking victory to move three points clear with a game in hand, top spot is starting to look like a big ask for SAFC over its final four games.
Sacramento Republic FC’s place in the postseason field has felt assured for quite a while at this point, but there’s still something significant about the game in which you get over the line and make it official.
To do so in the manner that Republic FC did against El Paso Locomotive FC on Saturday night? Well, that just provided a feeling that called back to last season’s Open Cup triumphs.
“Obviously we’d been plugging away all night,” said Republic FC Head Coach Mark Briggs. “We created opportunities and chances, but hadn't quite finished them. Then we missed a penalty. So, it was just a complete release of emotion, a complete release, because I knew tonight was important in the overall standings. We wanted to get three points tonight and we found [Luis Felipe Fernandes’ finish] to obviously get that. It's just a huge release of emotions.”
Luis Felipe Fernandes’ back-post header off Keko’s cross from the right sent another sellout crowd at Heart Health Park into celebrations and offered a call-back to a season ago. The Brazilian’s run of three consecutive game-winning goals in the club’s run to the Final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup was a major storyline of that success, and his powerful header here felt reminiscent of that.
Fernandes now has a career-high six goals this season and put Republic FC in position to clinch top spot in the West for the first time since 2016.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has the best defensive record in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference – trailing only Sacramento Republic FC overall – but there has been one area where it’s not quite lived up to the standards you’d expect.
In both the final 15 minutes of the first half and the second half, the side has conceded eight goals, accounting for more than half the side has allowed (26) overall this season. On Saturday night, that almost proved costly as a 10-player Miami FC equalized through Ryan Telfer, only for Pittsburgh’s Robbie Mertz to provide an immediate response and give the Hounds a 2-1 victory at Riccardo Silva Stadium.
“You want to close that game out, even against 11, so against 10, it's disappointing to give one up, but I love their response afterward,” said Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley. “Luke (Biasi) was very proactive when he came in, even before Miami got their goal, and he got forward into a good space to help create Robbie's goal. Miami's going to pin you back at times, and one time they caught us.
“We've been playing well all year, but we're going to have to do a better job closing out games, because it's been a few times now we've given up goals late when we had a lead.”
The Hounds’ victory – coupled with that of Republic FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ draw at San Antonio FC – has set up what looks like a three-way race for the best record in the regular season and playoff shield over the final four weeks. Pittsburgh will need to be careful to avoid late concessions to claim the silverware.
Given their hit-or-miss nature in the past, there is always a question when an older player joins a USL Championship club to try and stretch his career a little further.
If we’re honest, the early returns for Monterey Bay F.C. after signing 34-year-old Rafael Baca as a free agent after he’d recorded only 320 minutes for Cruz Azul in last spring’s Liga MX Clausura weren’t great. He looked overmatched in his second start against the Tampa Bay Rowdies as Jordan Doherty and Yann Ekra ran the show in a 4-1 win at Al Lang Stadium.
Since then, though, Baca appears to have found his level, and it’s paid off for Monterey Bay. The club’s current winning streak reached four games on Saturday night in a 3-2 comeback win against Las Vegas Lights FC at Cardinale Stadium with Baca finishing off the result with a winner in the 74th minute. It was the first time MBFC had rallied to win from a two-goal deficit in its short history and moved the side back above the playoff line again with five games to go in the regular season.
Baca’s age and size mean he looks like he needs back-up defensively. He’s won only 46 percent of his duels and 50 percent of his tackles and recorded only five interceptions since his debut against Sacramento Republic FC on August 6.
You can’t argue with his passing and feel for the game in possession, though, where he’s completed more passes (299) than anyone on the team at an 84 percent accuracy rate since his debut. If Monterey Bay makes its first postseason trip next month, Baca will have a key part to play.
As halftime approached for Memphis 901 FC Head Coach Stephen Glass on Saturday night, it was clear something major needed to change for his side.
The changes he made – both in bringing on center back Jelani Peters and central midfielder Samuel Careaga and changing the side’s tactical shape to a 5-3-2 from a 4-2-3-1 – proved decisive in a game Memphis eventually claimed 4-2 against Hartford Athletic.
“I don't really like changing shape too much, but I felt like drastic action was needed, so [we made] a couple of subs,” said Glass. “It could have been anyone of them so the two that came off, it’s not singling them out. We felt a change of shape would help let us take grasp of the game and we came out with traps and looked like we wanted to score goals. I think when you start the second half like that with a new shape it gives the boys belief and the crowd got up again. They could feed off of it.”
With Peters moving into a three-center back system, allowing Aidan McFadden and Akeem Ward to push on into attacking positions, and recent arrival Samuel Careaga joining Aaron Molloy and Jeremy Kelly in midfield, Memphis took control of the game in the second half. You can see the difference in our friend John Morrissey’s thread on the game here, with McFadden ending the game with a pair of assists and Careaga producing a fine finish before Luiz Fernando and Rodrigo Da Costa both put home outstanding finishes to secure another valuable three points for the hosts.
901 FC has a big week ahead with visits to Birmingham Legion FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies to come. The flexibility it showed on Saturday will certainly come in hand both now and in the postseason.
Compared to a season ago, Louisville City FC hasn’t always made fast starts during this USL Championship campaign.
On Saturday night, when Wilson Harris’ seventh goal of the season arrived in just the fifth minute, it marked only the fourth time this season the side has scored in the opening 15 minutes of a contest in 2023, half its number in the 2022 campaign.
Unlike some prior instances this season where the defending Eastern Conference title holders haven’t capitalized on gaining the advantage, however, against San Diego Loyal SC it set up a 1-0 victory that was all things considered about as comfortable as that sort of result can be.
“I think some of those games where we don’t score first but we’ve been on the front foot, there’s a change in the confidence level,” said LouCity Head Coach Danny Cruz. “You start the game well, but you don’t score, and you think, ‘is it going to fall?’ I think we had that early in the season.
“But obviously it’s the response after you score. Are you staying with the right mentality — staying on the front foot like we talk about — and tonight I thought we did that.”
Harris scoring in a second consecutive game for the side is also a plus to take away. The 23-year-old has now scored 47 regular season goals in the Championship for his career, and if he can build momentum toward the postseason it would be exactly what LouCity’s attack needs to make another playoff run.
New Mexico United came out of the blocks fast on Friday night.
The hosts recorded the first three shots of the game inside the first five minutes, pinning Indy Eleven back in its own half early, and even after Sebastian Guenzatti gave Indy the league with a clever improvised finish off a corner kick in the ninth minute, United’s response was to immediately drive forward again to try and respond.
Then, as it has seemed to go for United this season, another momentum killer arrived in the form of a penalty kick for the visitors. Guenzatti stepped up but has his effort to the right corner saved by New Mexico’s Andrew Thomas, and the game shifted again.
“That was the momentum changer that you need,” said New Mexico Head Coach Eric Quill. “It gave us life. And the game changed from that point on. I thought we took the game to them and got the goal we deserved at the end of the half to really give us the momentum going into the second half. I'm so proud of the second half performance. I thought we were really on our front foot and it really disrupted them.”
Second-half goals by Nicky Hernandez and Justin Portillo – who converted from the penalty spot where Guenzatti couldn’t – after Sergio Rivas’ goal in first-half stoppage time led United to a 3-2 victory that was fully deserved.
It also provided a glimpse into the mentality Quill wants to see from his side, whether or not it reaches the playoffs this season. In his view, one-goal leads need to turn into two-goal leads, and there’s no time like the present to achieve that.
“You want to create the aggressive mindset that even though you've just gone up one, the next one is [as important],” said Quill. “You’ve got to keep going, keep pushing. You can’t rest. It’s not a moment when you lead, it’s about ‘now, let’s get the third and capitalize on what we’ve just accomplished.’”
Here are some other thoughts on what we saw this weekend…
- Phoenix Rising FC isn’t the most consistent goalscoring team in the league yet – it’s still been held scoreless in 24 percent of its games - but when this side goes, how it goes. Manuel Arteaga, Danny Trejo and Panos Armenakas were tremendous against Detroit City FC.
- Oakland Roots SC and FC Tulsa combined for the second-most fouls (40) in a game this season, and it showed, not that Tulsa will care too much. A victory on the road was exactly what they needed.
- Sometimes all you need is a hot goalkeeper and a sniper. Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC’s Christian Herrera and Tyreek Magee played those roles to perfection in Orange County on Friday night.
- Orange County shouldn’t feel too bad about its performance, even if it lost its undefeated streak. The pieces were there, even if the result wasn’t. “One thing we've learned is teams respect us and change their game plans against us. We need to solve that quicker,” said OCSC Head Coach Morten Karlsen.
- The Charleston Battery probably could have come away with a win against Loudoun United FC but didn’t take enough care defensively and got stung by the hosts at Segra Field. “The lesson is that we have to make sure that we’re really dialed in,” said Battery Head Coach Ben Pirmann.
- It’s reductive, but the underlying storyline from New Mexico United and Indy Eleven was the penalty takers. New Mexico’s Justin Portillo is now 20 of 22 for his career. Indy’s Sebastian Guenzatti is 2 of 7 since September 2021.
- Birmingham Legion FC is a conundrum. Big opportunity to move up a place on Sunday night and the side came out flat against Rio Grande Valley FC. It’s going to need to produce better in bigger moments soon enough.