Birmingham Legion FC maintained its upper hand on Southern Harm rival Memphis 901 FC with a 2-1 win that ran the club's undefeated run in the series to five games. | Photo courtesy AceShot Photography / Memphis 901 FC
More than half the places in the USL Championship Playoffs have been claimed with two weeks of the season to go, but there’s still plenty to be decided at the top, middle and bottom of the playoff positions after another compelling weekend of action.
Here are seven key storylines we took out of the weekend, and some additional thoughts on what we saw.
There were two ways to look at Birmingham Legion FC trailing at halftime against Memphis 901 FC in the latest chapter of the Southern Harm rivalry on Saturday night.
One was the recent run of form Legion FC had been on, where its inconsistency left a top-four finish likely out of reach. And then, there was the fact that Legion FC has shown regularly this season the ability to come back.
According to Legion FC Head Coach Tom Soehn, the manner in which the first half played out meant there was a sense of calm even as the side trailed at the break.
“Even though we gave up a goal I thought we were the better side in the first half and then when I came in at halftime I could just — you could feel the confidence of the guys,” said Soehn. “They knew we were coming back. You could feel it. And they did. It was a really important character-builder.”
A goal and assist apiece from Diba Nwegbo and Neco Brett turned the game around within six minutes of the second half kicking off, and from there the visitors seemed to keep the game in check comfortably. Legion FC has now won six games after trailing this season, the most of any team in the league. It’s inconsistency is still a worry, but its ability to rebound and the memory of the club’s Open Cup run earlier this season still figure to make it a dangerous dark horse this postseason.
What’s more, it’s now been 756 days since Memphis 901 FC defeated its biggest rival, a fact that Birmingham’s fans were more than happy to point out after the game.
“The locker room feels good, everybody is buzzing right now, but we know that we have unfinished business and we’re still trying to secure playoffs so it’s really onto the next,” said Nwegbo. “We’re going to be back at home next Sunday trying to fight and get the W.”
In truth, the Tampa Bay Rowdies probably could have dispatched Loudoun United FC by a wider margin than the 1-0 win the side took at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night.
The hosts hit the woodwork twice, one of which led to the only goal of the game by Cal Jennings, while JJ Williams put in fine all-around display.
At the same time, the Rowdies got the job done in earning a second consecutive victory and shutout – Connor Sparrow’s 40th in the Championship’s regular season – and set up a clash with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC next Saturday night on their home turf for first place in the standings.
“We got the six points, but we’ll definitely have to be better next week, there’s no doubt about that,” said Law of Tampa Bay’s wins in the past week against Hartford and Loudou. “When you go up against an in-form team that’s top of the table, we’re going to have to raise our game. We have a big week ahead on the training ground to get the guys ready mentally and physically. We’re relishing the challenge.”
We’ve seen notable late-season battles for top spot in the USL Championship’s history, some of which have produced remarkable contests. Here’s hoping the Hounds and Rowdies deliver their ‘A’ games next week.
Saturday night might have been the most un-San Antonio FC first-half performance we’ve seen in a very long time.
The level of defensive blundering that allowed Oakland Roots SC to score twice in the opening 10 minutes was simply unfathomable for a side that prides itself on focus and execution, and Roots SC gleefully took advantage. It could easily have been a three-goal deficit the visitors had to pull themselves out of if not for a brilliant quick reaction and save by Nick Marsman to deny Johnny Rodriguez his second goal of the game on a back-pass that never had a hope of reaching the goalkeeper.
And yet, it was a game that San Antonio didn’t lose. The defending USL Championship title holders rallied to take a 2-2 draw thanks to a stoppage-time equalizer by Tani Oluwaseyi.
So, how’s your glass looking? Half-full, or half-empty?
“I’m proud of the guys’ resilience, it’s not easy to go down two goals within the first 10 minutes of play, so this team has shown me that they never give up, they fight to the very end, so for that I’m very, very proud,” said SAFC Head Coach Alen Marcina. “At the same time, I’m disappointed. Two individual errors, and until we clean up these individual errors, we put ourselves in these positions to draw games.”
San Antonio has conceded six goals via errors this season, tied for the most of any team in the league alongside Indy Eleven, Hartford Athletic and Loudoun United FC. In the past two years, it had only allowed one such goal.
The postseason will likely not be as forgiving, but the side’s ability to keep getting results is something to behold.
The most glaring deficiency in his side’s loss against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in the mind of New Mexico United Head Coach Eric Quill was his side’s willingness to battle the Eastern Conference leader.
United was overpowered at set pieces, comfortably lost the majority of its duels and aerial duels and won only three tackles all night at Highmark Stadium.
Coming into Saturday night’s contest against another Eastern Conference contender in Louisville City FC, it was that area that Quill wanted to see improvement in, and his side certainly delivered. New Mexico took a pair of chances well as Harry Swartz and Nicky Hernandez provided the goals in a 2-0 victory at Isotopes Park, but the hosts also gave little room for LouCity to navigate in a victory New Mexico had to have to keep its playoff chances alive.
“I thought our mentality, which is what we talked about most after the last performance, was excellent tonight,” said Quill. “We battled. We got into blocks, slide tackles, aerial duels. We competed. All the scrappy parts of the game were there for us to help us kind of get on our front foot. And I thought we played some good stuff, and the goals were great, but I’m just really proud of this group, you know? The mentality was great.”
It's still going to be an uphill battle for New Mexico to reach the playoffs. Aside from likely having to win against both Phoenix Rising FC and Memphis 901 FC in its final two games of the season, it will need help from elsewhere. As a pillar to build around for Quill’s first full season in charge, though, Saturday’s victory was one the side can now draw on to push forward from this offseason.
“I think if we’re (who we were) tonight, it gives us a real boost and confidence and that’s what you want,” said Quill. “I’m just proud of these guys and want them to get their bodies rested and their minds rested and come ready to go.”
By contrast, Louisville City FC Head Coach Danny Cruz had just one word for his side’s display.
“The entire evening was a disgrace,” said Cruz. “I don’t think it had anything to do with tactics. I think it had everything to do with desire, heart and quality on the ball. There’s no other way to describe it – not representative of the club.
“We learned a lot tonight, that’s for sure, as a staff. For me, there’s no other word to use but disgraceful.”
LouCity had been on a positive run of form to secure its postseason berth, but this was another night in which things just didn’t quite seem to be where they needed. Add in Memphis 901 FC’s defeat at home to Birmingham Legion FC and it was a major missed opportunity in the race for a top-four finish in the Eastern Conference.
Louisville has never finished below fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings in its history. Its past says that come the playoffs, the side will find a way to be formidable – when it finished fourth in 2019, it still won the Eastern Conference by defeating Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Indy Eleven on the road in the postseason, but this side is going to have to show a lot in its final two games to afford itself that level of confidence.
Over the past two weekends, El Paso Locomotive FC had been on the wrong end of late goals that changed the course of a contest. Against Sacramento Republic FC two weeks ago, it was a stoppage-time winner by Luis Felipe Fernandes that proved the difference, while last weekend Phoenix Rising FC’s Dariusz Formella found an equalizer to keep Locomotive FC below the playoff line.
This weekend, El Paso got to experience what it had so often in the past – a crucial late win that tilted the odds in favor of the side’s postseason chances. Eric Calvillo’s 86th-minute winner in a back-and-forth 3-2 victory against the Charleston Battery was a throwback to the sort of results Southwest University Park was used to when the club was riding high in the Western Conference two years ago.
“It’s good to get on the other side of this,” said Locomotive FC Head Coach Brian Clarhaut. “It’s good to get three goals as well. We haven't done that often in the season, the one that comes to mind is Louisville away. So [it’s] positive. The scoreline was positive and the adjustments and how these guys adjusted was super-positive.”
There’s little time to celebrate for Locomotive FC with another key game against San Diego Loyal SC coming on Wednesday night, with the visitors having helped El Paso’s cause with their 4-1 win against Monterey Bay F.C. on Saturday.
With another three points against SD Loyal, however, Locomotive FC could be home and dry when it comes to a postseason berth.
The arrival of Ronaldo Damus on loan with San Diego Loyal SC came with big expectations for what he could bring the side’s attack given his history in the USL Championship and USL League One in prior seasons.
While there were flashes of that throughout this season, there was equally some frustration as the goals didn’t quite flow in the way they had before for most of the year. In Saturday night’s 4-1 victory against Monterey Bay F.C. that clinched SD Loyal’s return to the postseason, however, Damus delivered a performance that could bode well for what’s to come in the playoffs.
Scoring the second hat trick in club history after Rubio Rubin against Phoenix Rising FC in the 2020 campaign, Damus reached double-digit goals for the campaign with exactly the sort of performance that can bring belief and optimism.
“I'm really proud of Ronaldo, because he’s a guy that expects to score,” said SD Loyal Head Coach Nate Miller. “I expect him to score, our team does, but when he wasn’t scoring and he had so many chances, he really turned a corner I think a month ago and just started fighting. He said, ‘if I’m not going to score, I’m going to help the team in different ways.’ That’s how football is, it rewards you, his teammates see that, I see that, and you keep giving him chances. It’s the same thing as a couple a few years ago, he got hot at the end.”
Damus’ run through the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs with four goals in four games paved the way to Orange County SC lifting the trophy. If the 23-year-old can deliver a similar run of form over SD Loyal’s final stretch, there’s no telling how far this side might go.
And now some other thoughts on what we saw this past weekend…
- Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has 13 home wins this season after Saturday’s victory against FC Tulsa, tying a league single-season record. This postseason, the expectations should be very high.
- Welcome back to the playoffs, Indy Eleven, nice solid display you had there against Detroit City FC.
- Taylor Davila keeps finding a way to keep things interesting for Rio Grande Valley FC. There’s no telling where this side is without his contributions this season, but it’s not likely in contention.
- Gabriel Cabral might be the unsung hero of Miami FC’s recent winning streak. The former South Georgia Tormenta FC standout in USL League One is proving strong in the middle of midfield.
- Miami FC might have grabbed the initiative from Detroit City FC and FC Tulsa going to the final two games, but we’re far from done with the drama here. Count on that.
- Phoenix Rising FC is undefeated in its last eight games. It’s also 4-0-4 in that span. Make of it what you want, but it may mean needing to win on the road to get to the serious part of the playoffs.
- Sacramento Republic FC is in good shape, but Russell Cicerone hasn’t scored in nine games. He’ll really want to break that run before the postseason arrives, you’d think.
- Congratulations, Da’vian Kimbrough. We’re all rooting for you.