New Mexico United moved above the playoff line in the Western Conference with its first win at Phoenix Rising FC in club history on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy JJ Digos / Phoenix Rising FC
The penultimate weekend of the 2023 USL Championship season saw Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC claim the first silverware of the season, Birmingham Legion FC earn its return to the postseason, and New Mexico United take control of its playoff destiny in the Western Conference.
Here are seven top storylines we took away from the action, plus some additional thoughts on what we saw play out.
Officially, prior to Saturday night, New Mexico United had never earned an away victory against Phoenix Rising FC.
Yes, you could technically include the 2019 penalty shootout victory in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, but until this past Saturday night and the club’s 2-1 victory at Phoenix Rising Stadium, United hadn’t ended 90 minutes with the upper hand.
And the visitors could hardly have picked a better moment to do so.
On a weekend when everyone else in the lower half of the Western Conference lost, second-half goals by Amando Moreno and Justin Portillo sent New Mexico back above the playoff line and in control of its fate going to the final weekend of the season.
There wasn’t a great deal to choose between the sides in the first half, but when Moreno capitalized on a major error by Mohamed Traore, intercepting his errant pass and finishing calmly, it tilted the game in United’s favor. A penalty kick with seven minutes to go by the ever-reliable Portillo, the result of a lung-busting run by Greg Hurst against his former team that ended when he was brought down in the penalty area, sealed the deal as Phoenix couldn’t complete a late comeback.
“Amando picks them off and hits a great goal,” Quill told the Albuquerque Journal’s Ken Sickenger. “Then Greg Hurst just made an amazing run, even though he was exhausted, and got the penalty and the insurance goal we needed. Just really great efforts by our guys.”
New Mexico will still have plenty to do on Friday night as Memphis 901 FC comes to Isotopes Park off the back of a dominant victory against El Paso Locomotive FC. Knowing a win gets the side in before anyone else plays, though, should be a major motivator for New Mexico and its passionate fanbase.
“Coming home to our crowd with that, it’s going to be electric Friday night,” Quill told Sickenger. “I thought we played really well tonight, the guys are excited and if we can just get in, I think we’re going to be a nightmare to face in the playoffs.”
As New Mexico soared, everyone else around them in the Western Conference playoff race floundered.
There was Rio Grande Valley FC, which at least showed some fight in twice taking the lead against Sacramento Republic FC, only to concede goals at inopportune moments to keep the conference leader in touch before Luther Archimede’s second-half winner at H-E-B Park, a result that sealed the No. 1 seed in the West.
There was Oakland Roots SC, which once again pulled off its current party trick of scoring an early goal to provide some home that this outing would be different, only for its defense to quickly capitulate and offer too many Grade A chances to teams that are going to capitalize. Roots SC has now dropped 22 points from winning positions this season after allowing seven goals to Orange County SC and San Diego Loyal SC over the past seven days, and is now finally below the playoff line.
Maybe most disappointing of all was El Paso Locomotive FC, which had a chance to clinch a playoff berth with a result against Memphis 901 FC but ended up with only two shots overall, neither of which was on target, in a 4-0 defeat at AutoZone Park. Locomotive FC still has control over its playoff fate, but who knows what sort of game we’ll get from them at Oakland next Saturday?
And then there’s Monterey Bay F.C., which lost 2-0 on Sunday evening to Birmingham Legion FC as it just couldn’t quite find its scoring touch. Sam Gleadle’s chance to level midway through the second half summed up the evening for the visitors after a well-manufactured move had sprung him through on goal. The shot went wide, a cruel moment for an incredibly likeable player, but one that could end up defining the season if it can’t secure a playoff berth next weekend.
By contrast, the battle for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference provided one of the best performances of the weekend.
Less than a month ago, Miami FC had yet to record a comeback victory this season, and was looking on the way out of the playoffs after consecutive defeats to Detroit City FC and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
Since then, the South Florida side rallied for victory against Louisville City FC to begin its turnaround, and then did the same against the Charleston Battery on Saturday night as Joaquin Rivas notched a goal and assist, and Michael Salazar scored the winner with 10 minutes to go at Patriots Point to keep Miami a point ahead of Detroit going to the final game.
“We started the game poorly, and we were below the standards we have set over recent weeks,” said Miami interim Head Coach Lewis Neal. “We had to manage the game to see it out against a very good Charleston, who really tested us defensively, and we were delighted to come away with the three points.”
One of the major reasons Miami’s victory was notable? It was the first time the Battery had lost consecutive league games this season. Going to Sacramento Republic FC next weekend will be far from easy, but Miami seems to have found a formula that could see it hold onto a postseason berth at the death.
At halftime of its contest against Loudoun United FC on Saturday, everything seemed to be falling into place for Detroit City FC. The side held a two-goal lead against Loudoun United FC – which would see it eventually cruise to a 3-0 victory as Maxi Rodriguez and Ben Morris starred in attack – while Miami FC was trailing in Charleston.
That second part of the scenario – which would have left Detroit above the playoff line – obviously didn’t come to fruition, leaving Le Rouge likely in need of a win at home against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC to close out the season this Saturday night.
“Result-wise, it’s obviously fantastic,” said DCFC Head Coach Trevor James. “As important for us, we always look at performance, and the performance was good tonight. Very happy with the performance and obviously getting a 3-0 result.”
Kicking off the opening game of next Saturday’s slate, DCFC has the potential to put pressure on Miami to match its result against the Hounds, which doesn’t kick off until 10 p.m. ET on the west coast against Sacramento Republic FC. For James, as with the side’s victory against Loudoun, Le Rouge will be looking at their game with the Players’ Shield winner as a postseason tilt.
“It’s similar to this week, because we looked at this as – even though it wasn’t – it was like a playoff game,” said James. “We prepared as if it was and we’ll do the same for next week, and hopefully we’ll get the same performance out of the boys. It should be a great Keyworth occasion.”
In all honesty, Orange County SC’s 1-0 victory against San Antonio FC wasn’t a great spectacle.
But then, after the lessons OCSC took away from its defeat two weeks ago at Toyota Field – when SAFC powered its way to a 4-0 result on home turf – it was always going to be a question of whether the 2021 title winners could match up physically with the current defending champions.
According to Opta’s data, the ball was in play for a paltry 47 minutes, 21 seconds, while the combined 43 fouls matched a single-game high – unsurprisingly, the other game to register that number also featured San Antonio in its rivalry clash with Rio Grande Valley FC at H-E-B Park in late August. Another sharp finish by Milan Iloski proved the difference as SAFC center back Trova Boni was slow to step up and nullify the danger, and one late self-inflicted scare aside, the hosts pulled within a point of SAFC with a game to go.
“I think today for us was about after losing the first game down there – where we got absolutely bullied – I think we mended ourselves up for the challenge today, and we matched their intensity,” said OCSC Head Coach Morten Karlsen. “And of course, there were also some tactical elements that we learned from the first game. It’s hard to control in a game like this, but then you just have to go out and fight for it and the boys did that tonight.”
This has become the means by which sides know they have to beat San Antonio this season. If you can match SAFC’s intensity and physicality – and avoid getting baited into poor reactions – then you’ll give yourself a chance to come away with victory.
Having claimed the USL Championship’s Players’ Shield on Saturday night, and its record this season at Highmark Stadium, there’s no question Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC should enter the postseason as the favorite to emerge from the Eastern Conference.
The performances this weekend by Memphis 901 FC and Birmingham Legion FC, however, set down a marker for two clubs that still remain confident of their potential to make a playoff run.
Memphis rebounded from its loss to its biggest rival in Week 30 with an emphatic display, defeating El Paso Locomotive FC 4-0 as four different players found the net at AutoZone Park as the hosts showed off a sharpness in their passing and attacking movement that El Paso found difficult to match.
“We’ve suffered a few times defensively because we haven't done the job we should have,” said 901 FC Head Coach Stephen Glass. “But I think you can see the focus not to lose the ball tonight. That team was pretty dangerous, so we had to be on it and the way we started the second half was pretty impressive. We managed to hold on and see it out and we’re hoping to take care of business so we can be back here again.”
Legion FC, meanwhile, picked up a second consecutive victory with a 2-0 result against Monterey Bay F.C. that on balance it deserved. Birmingham could still edge into sixth place pending the results on the final weekend of the season, but the attacking pedigree it possesses – and the experience it gained in reaching the Open Cup Quarterfinals earlier this year – would say this side could be a serious dark horse come postseason time.
“This is the time of year when things have to come together like that,” said Legion FC Head Coach Tom Soehn. “It’s been a trying year, there’s been ups and downs, but this is the time it needs to come together and it’s starting to look like a team that's going to be hard to play against. Like I said, we’re getting guys back, but our attitude on the field, even losing [Phanuel Kavita] at training yesterday, [Jake Rufe] stepped in and did a really good job.”
Sacramento Republic FC battled back twice to claim a 3-2 victory against Rio Grande Valley FC on Saturday night before Luther Archimede’s game-winner in the second half at H-E-B Park, and in turn ensured it would finish on top of the Western Conference.
It could be considered an important show of resilience – Sacramento had yet to claim victory in a game in which it had conceded first previously this season – and given the tests that are likely to come as the playoffs progress finding that resilience at this point of the season would be a nice boost.
At the same time, the sentiment after the game was a good as securing homefield advantage in the Western Conference was, there was still a long way to go.
“It’s the first checkmark we had, the first goal that we had for each other as a team at the beginning of the season,” said Republic FC veteran Rodrigo Lopez. “But we know that this doesn't mean too much. The bigger goal is obviously winning a championship and now we have a chance to host the first round [of the playoffs] at home and go on from there.
“We have to take it one game at a time – we still have Miami to focus on in the last game this season. For us it's an accomplishment because we wanted to get first in the West and be able to host at home, but the job’s not done. We still have work to do.”
There’s good reason for that sentiment. Republic FC has twice finished in the top two in the Western Conference since the league split following its title in 2014, and both times it was knocked out at the first hurdle in the postseason, in a penalty shootout by Orange County SC in 2016 and in a 2-1 defeat by Swope Park Rangers in 2018.
This group will want to avoid a repeat of those postseasons as it looks to end its 10th anniversary campaign with more silverware.
Some additional thoughts on what we saw over the past weekend…
- Want the reaction from Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s locker room after it clinched the Players’ Shield on Saturday night? We’ve got you covered here.
- FC Tulsa’s finishing came back to bite it at the worst possible moment. Below average in conversion rate, and underperforming its Expected Goals all season, and now out of the playoffs as a result.
- Louisville City FC’s third uniforms look really sharp. Unfortunately, the finishing of the players wearing them still isn’t to the standard it needs to be. An 11.7 percent shot conversion rate doesn’t shout “deep playoff run.”
- We could watch Jonas Fjeldberg’s dribble and assist on Jairo Henriquez’s goal for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC against Las Vegas on a loop. Keep an eye on this group.
- It was good to see San Diego Loyal SC back at its best after it sleepwalked through Wednesday night’s game. Those five wins after conceding first this regular season, though, might be a tougher nut to crack in the postseason.
- The Charleston Battery’s Augustine Williams has 48 goals in 96 games since the start of the 2020 regular season. The only player as prolific since that point is the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Cal Jennings.
- Just like San Antonio FC last month, Phoenix Rising FC is finding out how a lengthy undefeated streak can quickly flip to a four-game winless run, and a lower seed than it would have liked.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Birmingham Legion FC Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United Hartford Athletic San Diego Loyal SC Miami FC Oakland Roots SC Detroit City FC Monterey Bay F.C.