The Charleston Battery completed the biggest year-on-year improvement in regular season points in USL Championship history with their victory against Birmingham Legion FC on Saturday. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery
The field for the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs was set just before midnight on Saturday after a final weekend of the season that provided some big individual and team performances that set the stage for the postseason.
Here are seven key storylines we took away from the action, and some additional thoughts on what we saw across the two nights.
There were high expectations for the Charleston Battery going into the 2023 season after the changes the club had undergone after its worst regular season in club history.
Even then, the most optimistic prognosticator could hardly have predicted the turnaround that Head Coach Ben Pirmann and his squad produced over the past seven months.
The Battery’s 1-0 win against Birmingham Legion FC was a clinical display from start to finish as the hosts held a strong visiting attack in check, with Nick Markanich’s goal proving the different at Patriots Point. In turn, Charleston capped the biggest single-season improvement in points in the USL Championship’s history, with the club’s 59 points this season marking a 34-point improvement on a season ago.
“I think that shows the ambitions of our club owners, the presidents, the executives, the front office, the backroom staff, the coaches, the players,” said Pirmann. “Everybody wants this club to do well. It's not about individuals. It's just about doing the best we can for the Lowcountry. I'm proud of it, very proud. We can put ourselves in the history books in the league, but now the focus is the playoffs, one day at a time.”
The Battery will host their first playoff game since 2018 next Sunday evening at Patriots Point. If the side makes a run, it could become only the third team to win multiple USL Championship titles after Orlando City SC and Louisville City FC.
Considering where this club was 12 months ago, that’s a remarkable landmark to be aiming at.
“It’s a long season for coaches, players, front office, [the fans], the media, everybody,” said Pirmann. “Our supporters have never wavered. We’ve been up, we’ve been down, we’ve done a lot of great things. Obviously, it’s a historic season, but I’m just so appreciative of this club. I’m appreciative of our supporters. That's why we do it. I know our players, first and foremost, are proud to put on that jersey and fight every weekend for our supporters.
“Now we get to do it in front of them again in a week’s time [in the playoffs] and hopefully, we're going to get this place rocking, because we need them to help to try to advance.”
The impact that JJ Williams and Cal Jennings have had since arriving at the Tampa Bay Rowdies has been a key factor in the club’s sustained attacking success despite major turnover from a season ago.
When the duo combined for Williams to open the scoring after just 27 seconds against Louisville City FC on Saturday night to open a 3-2 victory at Lynn Family Stadium, it was another example of how the work the duo has put in this campaign has paid off.
“That start was everything we asked from the players,” said Rowdies Head Coach Nicky Law. “We didn’t think it would pay off that quickly, but it was great to see those two get their rewards so early on with the work they did on that particular play. Really, they did that all night for us. Cal and JJ’s work rate was sensational tonight, as was the effort from all the guys. It was a great response to last week’s result.”
It didn’t go completely the way of Williams and Jennings, with the former’s penalty miss after he was fouled in the box a rare miscue for the powerful center forward. It barely mattered, however, as within 10 minutes the pair had combined on two more goals – both for Jennings to take his season total to 19 and Williams’ assists total to nine – that set up a confidence-boosting win ahead of this weekend’s playoff opener.
Williams and Jennings have now combined to produce 31 goals and 12 assists this season and seem ready to be a formidable threat in the postseason.
It’s probably a story as old as the game itself.
A former player faces his former club in a crucial situation and comes out on top.
This past weekend it was El Paso Locomotive FC’s Benny Díaz who got the play the hero.
In a do-or-die clash against former club Oakland Roots SC – for which Díaz made 13 appearances spelling Paul Blanchette a season ago – the 24-year-old goalkeeper came up with a five-save performance to help Locomotive FC hold onto its early lead in a 2-1 victory at Pioneer Stadium, sealing a return to the playoffs for El Paso.
Díaz’s night was highlighted by a stellar penalty kick denial late in the first half as he stopped former teammate Johnny Rodriguez from the spot with a low save to his right. Coming five minutes before the halftime break, it arrived at a key moment where Oakland’s momentum could have carried into the second half.
Roots SC found its breakthrough shortly after the break on Anuar Pelaez’s spectacular bicycle kick, but Díaz and Locomotive FC’s defense was able to hold firm from there. In an up-and-down season of performances for the club and goalkeeper – whose first full season as a starter saw him log at 64.6 save percentage – they saved one of the best for last.
After its frenetic comeback victory against Rio Grande Valley FC in Week 31, Sacramento Republic FC Head Coach was looking for a more composed and controlled display to close out the regular season at home to Miami FC this past Saturday night at Heart Health Park.
Republic FC’s 1-0 victory fit the bill for multiple reasons. First, there was a second consecutive game with a goal for Russell Cicerone, who set a club single-season record with his 15th goal of the regular season campaign.
There was also an 11th shutout for goalkeeper Danny Vitiello, who was rarely troubled with one save on the night his back line locked down Miami’s attack for most of the evening. The clean sheet earned Vitiello the Championship’s Golden Glove for the second time, with his Goals-Against Average ending on 0.83 while Sacramento conceded the fewest goals in the regular season overall.
“Anytime your goalkeeper wins an award, it’s a team award,” said Vitiello. “Credit to the guys in front of me battling week in and week out, to get clean sheets and to battle every game no matter who we play. We've got bigger things on our mind with a bigger trophy – this is a stepping-stone in the right direction. But obviously we have four more games left that we want town.”
As much credit as he pays forward, Vitiello deserves plenty himself. His save percentage of 76.2 percent was the highest he had posted in a full season – the 27-year-old posted a 77.8 percent mark in the abbreviated 2020 season – and was the best among goalkeepers eligible for the Golden Glove.
As the playoffs begin, Vitiello will have a key role to play as Sacramento looks for its second league title, but it seems one he’s more than ready to take on.
If there’s something to be said for finding your best form at the right moment of the season, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC could be a serious threat to make another postseason run.
The hosts wrapped up a seven-game undefeated streak to wrap up the regular season and the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference on Saturday night at Weidner Field with a 2-0 victory against Phoenix Rising FC that had Head Coach Stephen Hogan enthused about what he’d seen from his side.
“Very good performance,” said Hogan “I think in the first 20, 30 minutes we deserved two [goals], maybe three. Very good team [Phoenix Rising FC] we played against. I love how Juan [Tejada] sets up. Very creative, but sometimes the team slows down at times. If we picked the ball speed up, which we did all week in training, we knew we could move the ball around and we did. I think it was a deserved two-nil. Fantastic performance from the guys. Fantastic momentum the last seven, eight weeks.”
The Switchbacks made their best postseason run in club history a season ago when they advanced to the Western Conference Final for the first time. Now they’ll face a rematch from that contest in visiting San Antonio FC, a side they haven’t defeated in 10 consecutive meetings between the clubs.
That’s a major bridge to cross, but one Colorado Springs’ squad is ready to work to achieve.
“We've got to be humble,” said Switchbacks goalkeeper Christian Herrera, who posted his 10th shutout of the season. “We didn't get here by just being lazy. There is a week of work in front of us. There is another challenge in front of us. We have to learn from this game and approach the next game with the same mindset, one step at a time.”
Whatever happened on Saturday evening at Keyworth Stadium, there was one certainty.
It was going to be the final time Trevor James would stand on the sidelines as Detroit City FC’s Head Coach.
After Le Rouge claimed a 0-0 draw against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC to wrap up their campaign in a performance James saw as one of their best of the season, Sacramento Republic FC ensured it wouldn’t be the gregarious Englishman’s last game at the helm overall.
Republic FC’s 1-0 win against Miami FC later in the night sent Detroit City FC back to the playoffs for a second consecutive season in the USL Championship, setting up a rematch with the Hounds at Highmark Stadium next Saturday night in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
“There were a lot of emotions from the drive in today,” said James. “You realize it’s the last [time] for a game. I’m sure I’ll be coming to the stadium plenty more times, but not to coach the team, so it’s emotional. I’m sure it’ll sink in a little bit more once we play Pittsburgh next week, and hopefully whoever we play after that. Once we finish, it’ll sink in a lot more, but at the moment I’m just enjoying the performance.”
Detroit might be the biggest underdog of any team in the opening round of the postseason, but that’s probably just how this team likes it. James and his crew will try to spring a few more surprises before he heads to the front office for the club as Sporting Director this offseason.
Disappointingly for FC Tulsa, there wasn’t much at stake in its final game of the season on Friday night at Hartford Athletic having been eliminated from playoff contention the prior weekend.
While that meant numerous changes to the lineup – including leading scorer Phillip Goodrum taking in the game from the sidelines – there was still something to be gained for the side as it looks toward the 2024 season.
Running away to a 5-2 victory that included standout performances by 18-year-old right back Angel Bernal and 16-year-old midfielder Nate Worth – both of whom bagged their first professional goals in the result – the visitors took plenty of positives into the offseason and what should be a concerted playoff bid next year.
“I think this last game showed what we are trying to build for next season,” said Worth. “There were many parts of our game tonight that were very good, and obviously parts we still need to work on. But, all in all, I think this last game showed a lot of the team we are trying to become.”
For his part, Worth’s performance was a strong final audition for a place in the United States U-17s squad that will compete at the FIFA Men’s U-17 World Cup in Indonesia next month. That could be a great next port of call for one of the USL Championship’s top teenage talents.
And now some additional thoughts on what we saw in the final weekend of the regular season...
- New Mexico United jumped on top early and held on strongly against Memphis 901 FC to clinch a postseason spot. Here’s more on the odds-defying run that set United up for the playoffs.
- San Antonio FC is one of the hardest teams to beat in the Western Conference. San Antonio FC took the fewest points of any playoff team over its last eight outings. What does that mean for the playoffs?
- Indy Eleven will be disappointed to have let that lead slip away in San Antonio, but it won in Charleston earlier this season. The No. 6 seed might be a blessing in disguise.
- San Diego Loyal SC looked imperious in victory against Las Vegas Lights FC. If it’s got four more performances in it like that, everyone should be on notice.
- On the other hand, Phoenix Rising FC is winless in its last five games going into the playoffs and the goals have dried up for Danny Trejo and Manuel Arteaga. That’s not ideal.
- Memphis 901 FC looks to have everything you could want in a team that can make a playoff run, but it cannot afford to come out as flat as it did against New Mexico. Shake it off, time to work.
- Louisville City FC had never had more than eight defeats in a regular season before this campaign. We’re not going to write off the club’s Eastern Conference Final streak yet, but it’s looking like a steep climb.
- Back to the drawing board for Hartford Athletic. Nick Sakiewicz has got a lot to get on with this offseason.