Oakland Roots SC's late equalizer against Monterey Bay F.C. was among a collection of key late goals in the past week that shaped the playoff race in the Western Conference. | Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC
Three more berths in the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs were booked in the past weekend of action, but maybe the most intriguing moments came from the games featuring sides directly above and below the playoff line in the Western Conference this weekend.
Here are seven of the top storylines we took away from this weekend’s action, and some additional thoughts on what we saw play out around the league.
It’s obvious, but there is no span of time in the USL Championship – or most leagues, really – in which more goals are scored than the final 15 minutes and second-half stoppage time.
This season so far, 225 of the 997 goals scored in the USL Championship have arrived in that timeframe, a mark of 22.57 percent.
At this time of year, those goals feel more consequential, and the Western Conference showed us just why in the past week.
Between Wednesday and Saturday night, six games saw their results change in the 85th minute or later. Each of those games altered the playoff outlook for the teams that either found a late goal or suffered the misfortune of conceding one.
The team affected most? Monterey Bay F.C., which remains in need of help to earn its first playoff berth after first conceding twice in midweek against San Diego Loyal SC to fall 3-2 at Cardinale Stadium, and then allowing a 90th-minute equalizer in a 2-2 draw against Oakland Roots SC on a miraculous finish by Roots SC’s Neveal Hackshaw.
Those goals took MBFC from potentially sitting on 46 points and in full control of their playoff fate to sitting on 41 points and hoping for favors from elsewhere to get into the postseason.
That’s not a place any team generally wants to be.
Monterey Bay F.C.’s weekend could have been even worse if not for Phoenix Rising FC doing Head Coach Frank Yallop’s squad a massive favor with Dariusz Formella’s stoppage-time equalizer in a 1-1 draw against El Paso Locomotive FC a little bit earlier on Saturday night at Southwest University Park.
Formella’s third goal since arriving via transfer from Oakland Roots SC this summer was created by a fine pass by Carlos Harvey, who had a stellar week across both of Phoenix’s games and earned the visitors an important point of their own as they pursue a top-three finish.
For El Paso, however, it denied the side a move into the top eight that would have eased some of the pressure to take a victory in the game in hand it holds on Monterey Bay with four games to play in the season. Having had the better of the game in the first half – including Josue Aaron Gomez hitting the woodwork before finding the net 11 minutes into the second half – El Paso Head Coach Brian Clarhaut saw the game as a missed opportunity to position itself for a playoff return.
“With what we created in the first half, I thought we had a lot of opportunities to bury the game,” said Clarhaut. “Internally, it feels like a loss, but I spoke to the group and I said, ‘It's an important point.’ We'll take the point. It's a disappointing result because I thought we played well, and I thought we deserved more.”
With the rest of the teams around the playoff line in the Western Conference missing out, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC made the most of their opportunity. Thanks to a pair of pieces of magic from Romario Williams and Jairo Henriquez, the Switchbacks are once again well set for a postseason berth.
A 2-0 victory against Western Conference leader Sacramento Republic FC at Weidner Field on Saturday night gave the side its second consecutive win against a top-three opponent, with Williams’ finish a spectacular strike late in the first half to stake the side to a lead.
If Williams’ goal was brilliant, Henriquez appeared to see it and say, “Yeah, I can top that.” An incredible piece of control and bicycle kick finish in stoppage time sealed the result and put the El Salvador international on everyone’s highlight reel from the weekend.
As superb as both finishes were, they underscored a performance that saw Colorado Springs thoroughly deserve its victory. Completing a sequence of four consecutive games that saw the side face a challenging sequence of opponents in Louisville City FC, San Antonio FC, Orange County SC and Sacramento Republic FC and emerge with seven points, that might have been the most important thing of all for Colorado Springs Head Coach Stephen Hogan.
“We talked about the stretch from Louisville until now,” said Hogan. “Obviously [we had] one loss between those four games, which was against Louisville. Louisville saw our mistakes in set pieces. The character of the San Antonio fight pretty much started a new season, and hopefully our playoff season. When we went against San Antonio and got a 1-1, it was because we fought them to their game. We deserved something out of that game.
“Then going to Orange County, nobody in the league or anyone expected us to get anything out of that. They are [on] fire, they are a very, very, very good team. Then coming here [Weidner Field], people are like, ‘eh, Colorado are going to be up and down again and here we go with another loss.’ But the understanding of what we did, the prep we did, and the quality of those two goals, was just fantastic. That's character.”
It says something about Wilson Harris that as a 23-year-old, he’s already scored more than his fair share of important and memorable goals in the USL Championship.
Even with that, Harris’ finish on Saturday night in a torrential downpour against Loudoun United FC might have been of the of the best he’s produced. As the 90th-minute winner in a 2-1 victory that sealed LouCity’s ninth consecutive postseason berth, it was definitely one to treasure.
“I need to watch it back,” said Harris. “But I think you could see I liked that one a lot with my celebration. I think I’ve scored one later than that, but it means a lot scoring a game-winning goal like that for LouCity.
“We’re in a good position now to attack these next few games we have and really try to go on a run from there into the playoffs. I think all the guys are really motivated and happy with the result tonight.”
LouCity’s attack hasn’t been as consistent as it would have liked to be this season, with Harris’ nine goals this campaign the current club-high. Between his fourth goal in as many games – equaling a club-record streak – and Dylan Mares’ superb strike to begin then comeback at Segra Field, however, LouCity is still in the fight for a top-four finish with three games to go.
It’s somewhat remarkable given what a talisman Rodrigo Da Costa had become for FC Tulsa, but this past Saturday night marked the Brazilian’s first hat trick in the USL Championship.
In delivering a historic 4-2 victory on the road against the Tampa Bay Rowdies – the first home defeat suffered by the side in more than four months, breaking a 10-game undefeated streak, and Memphis’ first win at Al Lang Stadium in its history – Da Costa continued to set a tone for what 901 FC is aiming to accomplish this season.
“Rodrigo’s done brilliantly for us since we managed to get him in the door,” said Memphis Head Coach Stephen Glass. “He’s a player that plays like a leader in the group. He wanted to be here. His quality is never in doubt, and it’s been a matter of time since he’s gotten the reward for the work. We’re happy for him tonight.”
Da Costa’s 14 goals this season combined across the two clubs is an individual single-season high, while his 11 tallies for Memphis alone have seen him step into an attacking role with aplomb. The 29-year-old’s strike rate of a goal every 153.55 is the best he’s produced in his career and has helped Memphis become the second-most prolific attack in the Eastern Conference as the postseason approaches.
There are some games or performances that you simply cannot legislate for.
On Sunday night, Birmingham Legion FC was on the wrong end of arguably the best goalkeeping performance in the USL Championship this season.
Miami FC’s Jake McGuire simply could not be beaten. The veteran goalkeeper produced a 12-save shutout as the visitors took a 2-0 victory at Protective Stadium, shutting down a Birmingham attack that threw everything it had at him and simply couldn’t find a way through.
For McGuire, it was a career night. Birmingham racked up 2.96xG on its shots on target, including a penalty kick by Enzo Martinez early in the second half, and McGuire stopped them all, setting his individual single-game high in the Championship. He was only two saves shy of equaling the all-time single-game record, and one shy of equaling the most saves in a shutout in the Championship’s regular season history.
Add in goals by Ben Ofeimu – his first of the season – and a late goal you could describe as insurance by Kyle Murphy, but probably shouldn’t since Legion FC could have seemingly played all night and not found a way past McGuire, and that was that.
Thanks to McGuire, Miami FC is back in the playoff hunt, however slim those chances might be. Legion FC’s players, meanwhile, are left to wonder how this happened to them.
For a team flying as high as Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC this season, there has still been the potential to suffer late-game jitters in closing out games.
During the club’s current five-game undefeated streak, the Hounds have twice had instances where they conceded a late equalizer against Hartford Athletic and Miami FC, only to immediately find an answer and pull another three points out of the fire.
Those concerns were raised again on Saturday night when New Mexico pulled back a goal with seven minutes to go at Highmark Stadium on a penalty kick by Justin Portillo, but the efficiency with which the hosts saw out a 2-1 victory that clinched at least one home game in the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs was a positive sign for Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley.
“I’m happy, because I think we closed the game really well,” said Lilley. “At halftime, we said, let’s go for the shutout, but if they get a goal ... let’s immediately reset. If we give up a goal, nothing else. … I think we did a good job. There was still a lot of time on the clock, and we did a good job not to have a repeat of Hartford and Miami.”
With 39 points from 16 games at Highmark Stadium this season, and defeats for the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Sacramento Republic FC this weekend, it’s looking increasingly likely the club will claim its first silverware of the USL Championship era with the Players’ Shield, and that the road to the USL Championship Final is going to go through Pittsburgh.
As strong as the Hounds have been all season on home turf – with impressive backing in the stands – it could be a tough combination for visitors to overcome.
Here are some additional thoughts on what we saw this weekend…
- San Antonio FC’s Tani Oluwaseyi didn’t want to call his side’s 4-0 victory against Orange County SC a statement game. I’ll bet it made everyone else in the league sit up and take notice, though.
- That was something special from Fidel Barajas for the Charleston Battery. The first goal of his first professional brace against FC Tulsa was great, but the second? World class. Get to know the 17-year-old standout.
- The Tampa Bay Rowdies lost, but Cal Jennings remains red hot. What odds he takes the Golden Boot lead this week with games against Hartford Athletic and Loudoun United FC?
- Detroit City FC’s performance against Hartford Athletic was almost as dazzling as its Brilliant Detroit Kits, especially Nathan Steinwascher as he returned between the sticks. Get your bids in here for a game-worn edition.
- It still seems unlikely, but Rio Grande Valley FC is somehow going to make a go of this playoff run, right? Frank Lopez scoring his third goal in four career games against Indy Eleven got it done on Sunday evening, giving the Toros consecutive wins for only the second time this year.
- After Wednesday night's high it felt like San Diego Loyal SC was primed to kick on back at home. It didn't quite happen, and in the end a draw was probably a fair result against Las Vegas Lights FC.
- At the same time, you’ve got to admire Las Vegas Lights FC’s tenacity. They’re still pushing for results even though the season’s gone.
- If Sacramento Republic FC’s final three games weren’t against teams below the playoff line, there might be some real concern it wouldn’t hold onto first place after this past week’s performances. Going to have to finish strongly.
- How are you feeling if you’re Oakland Roots SC? Thrilled and relieved to salvage a point and stay above the playoff line, or still concerned that you haven’t won in more than a month?
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Las Vegas Lights FC Birmingham Legion FC Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC San Diego Loyal SC Miami FC Oakland Roots SC Detroit City FC Monterey Bay F.C.