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11 Storylines to watch in the USL Championship this weekend | Talking Points

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/22/24, 11:55AM EDT


Phoenix looks to get attack on track, North Carolina, Tampa Bay renew rivalry, Indy set for Sacramento test

Phoenix Rising FC's Edgardo Rito is among the players that could face former club Oakland Roots SC on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Phoenix Rising FC

The third weekend of the USL Championship season brings us a full day of action on Saturday from early afternoon to late night on CBS Sports Golazo Network and ESPN+ and then an intriguing Sunday showdown to close out the weekend.

Here’s where you can watch all the action, and here are 11 storylines we’re paying close attention to across the weekend slate.


Even if Phoenix Rising FC wasn’t the defending USL Championship title holder, there would be a level of expectation around the club as the new season began. With the club’s two leading scorers a season ago in Danny Trejo and Manuel Arteaga having departed this offseason – and having already found the net for their new clubs – and Rising without a goal in its opening two games of the season, there’s a measure of trust being required that this will come good soon.

“We'll continue to work at this,” said Rising Head Coach Danny Stone after his side was outshot and outplayed in defeat to Monterey Bay F.C. last weekend. “This is not specific to certain players, it's team collective. For the fans, I ask that they trust the process.”

Saturday night’s return home to Oakland Roots SC is the next opportunity for Phoenix as it faces a side that had to weather illness a week ago but still emerged with a 1-1 draw against the Charleston Battery. With the undercurrent of former Roots players Edgardo Rito, Juan Carlos Azocar and Alejandro Fuenmayor all potentially facing their former club, Phoenix will want to deliver.


North Carolina FC’s return to the USL Championship this season rekindled one of the league’s historic rivalry series in the Southern Derby against the Charleston Battery. This weekend, however, brings another familiar foe to WakeMed Soccer Park in the form of the Tampa Bay Rowdies. NCFC and Tampa Bay have had some great battles over the years, including the Rowdies winning a semifinal series 5-4 over two legs on the way to their last league title in the 2012 North American Soccer League season.

The hosts are smarting after their 3-1 defeat on the road to Loudoun United FC last weekend, however, and with the expectations the side had to come in and contend after its offseason additions to the 2023 League One title winning squad, there may be a little more pressure to deliver in front of the home fans against the Rowdies. With Tampa Bay also looking to put its late draw with San Antonio FC in the rear-view mirror, this rivalry’s renewal should be worth watching.


Indy Eleven's Jack Blake (left) has been one of the standout performers over the first two weeks of the 2024 USL Championship season. | Photo courtesy Eric Glemser / Memphis 901 FC

It’s a small sample, but over the first two games of the season no side has put up a higher Expected Goals mark than Indy Eleven’s 3.39xG, a sign of the promise and quality that could be coming together under new Head Coach Sean McAuley. Those attacking credentials are going to get a serious test in the side’s home opener on Saturday night as Sacramento Republic FC comes to visit looking to build on its own momentum to start the season.

Indy’s form has been driven principally by Jack Blake, who has two goals in two games and has been aggressive in the final third with six shots so far, tied for the league lead. How Indy’s midfield – which should also feature Cam Lindley and Tyler Gibson – fares against Sacramento’s group could be decisive in the outcome of the contest. A home victory would certainly add to the belief the Boys in Blue are a team that can seriously challenge this season.


It remains one of the quirks in Louisville City FC’s otherwise formidable home record – which includes a 46-14-9 mark at Lynn Family Stadium across the regular season and playoffs since its opening – that in 10 prior visits of Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC to both Slugger Field and Lynn Family Stadium, the Hounds have won five times. That’s more more than double the victories of any other visiting team in Louisville, none of which have claimed more than two victories.

Pittsburgh’s record includes a 2-2-1 mark since the opening of Lynn Family Stadium, where the Hounds were the first visitor in 2020 and spoiled LouCity’s inaugural game at the venue with a 3-1 win. Last season the Hounds took a 1-0 victory in their trip to Louisville as Albert Dikwa scored the only goal. After two defeats and no goals to start the season – despite a brighter performance in their home opener last weekend against Orange County – more of that same road magic would be very welcome for Head Coach Bob Lilley’s squad.


Our first look at what Rhode Island FC had to offer this season gave major reason for optimism as its late equalizer against New Mexico was certainly deserved before a sellout crowd at Beirne Stadium. RIFC Head Coach Khano Smith now takes his side on the road for the first time on Sunday and will be hoping for a similarly aggressive display against a Monterey Bay F.C. side that has also jumped out early in this campaign.

Monterey Bay jumped Phoenix Rising FC with its pressure, which resulted in the lone goal in its 1-0 victory at Cardinale Stadium last Saturday. With Rhode Island’s desire to play out of the back, that could set up an interesting tactical battle and force potential tweaks for both sides depending on the momentum of the game. With the first goal in club history and first victory still up for grabs for Rhode Island, the energy should be high on both sides.


Hartford Athletic is hoping to give its fans something to cheer about in its home opener against Birmingham Legion FC on Saturday afternoon at Trinity Health Stadium. | Photo courtesy Hartford Athletic

Both Hartford Athletic and Birmingham Legion FC made impressive road starts to their new seasons in Week 1 of the regular season, taking victories at El Paso Locomotive FC and Phoenix Rising FC respectively to pick up three points. After having last weekend off, the sides will meet in the opening game of Saturday’s slate at Trinity Health Stadium in Hartford where the hosts will try to open the campaign with consecutive wins for the first time since the 2021 season.

The Athletic will be without one of their key new arrivals this offseason with forward Romario Williams – who scored the lone goal in El Paso – away with Jamaica at the Concacaf Nations League Finals after its clash with the United States on Thursday night. There should still be plenty of firepower on hand to test Legion’s defense, however, with the speed and creativity of Michee Ngalina, Deshane Beckford and Marcus Epps likely to test the visitors, who needed an eight-save shutout from Matt VanOekel to hold off Phoenix in its opener. Hartford has the chance to deliver another message that it has turned a corner in front of what’s set to be another packed house.


Loudoun United FC sits on top of the Eastern Conference going into Week 3 after the side’s victory against North Carolina FC last Saturday. The big question now for Head Coach Ryan Martin’s side is if it can maintain that momentum as it heads to face Detroit City FC at Keyworth Stadium after Le Rouge produced an equally impressive result in taking victory at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC in its opening game of the season last weekend.

A season ago, Loudoun appeared to be turning a corner as it took 10 points from its opening six games of the season as the club’s newly-found independence saw the arrival of players like Zach Ryan and Kalil ElMedkhar, each of whom had a goal and assist against NCFC last weekend. That didn’t play out over the full campaign, however, as Loudoun won only four times in its final 28 games of the campaign. Squaring off with a Le Rouge side that showed its own new shoots of promise with Elvis Amoh and Ali Coote in attack last week, say nothing of Keyworth’s atmosphere, is a litmus test United will want to pass to further assert its credentials.


It’s remarkable to think that Orange County SC hasn’t made as good a two-game start to a season since the USL Championship’s inaugural campaign when it won three consecutive games to kick off its history. Sitting on four points and on top of the Western Conference after its victory against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, OCSC plays its home opener on Saturday before another sellout crowd at Championship Soccer Stadium against Miami FC and Head Coach Morten Karlsen’s side will likely be wanting to find another gear in attack against an organized Miami defense.

OCSC scored on its only two shots in Pittsburgh as Brian Iloski’s rated the third-fastest on record for the club and allowed the visitors to sit back and counter against the Hounds. While Miami fell last Saturday night at home to Sacramento Republic FC, its organization defensively held off the visitors until the hour-mark, and even after that continued to find a way to withstand one of the more diverse attacking units in the league. That puzzle is going to take some unraveling from OCSC’s attacking group.


The Charleston Battery will look for their first win of the new season on Saturday night when they host their home opener against New Mexico United. | Photo courtesy Ben Clemens / Charleston Battery

There has been plenty to like about the Charleston Battery’s opening two games of the season. The defending Eastern Conference title holders have been solid defensively, allowing only two shots on target and holding opponents to an Expected Goals mark of 0.77, and there’s been enough to indicate that the attacking end of things will get on track soon enough as the side’s new forwards Jackson Conway, Jake LaCava and MD Myers get bedded in.

After two draws to start the season, however, it’s going to be important for the Battery to get a first win on the board sooner rather than later. Saturday night’s home opener against New Mexico United is a chance to earn that as former Battery goalkeeper Alex Tambakis leads the visitors into Patriots Point. New Mexico didn’t hit the heights of its home opener victory in its 1-1 draw against Rhode Island FC last Saturday as Tambakis posted a nine-save performance, but the midfield battle pitting deep-lying playmakers Aaron Molloy of Charleston and Marco Micaletto of New Mexic should be a fascinating one.


Three games into its season, El Paso Locomotive FC has found itself in almost the same position as it did a year ago. This time around Locomotive managed to claim a point from three home games to start the season, but it’s not the opening that was desired with only one goal so far. The good news for El Paso is it turned things around quickly a year ago with a stunning victory on the road at Louisville City FC setting the stage for an 11-game undefeated streak which pushed the side to the top of the Western Conference midway through the season.

The task at hand for Locomotive doesn’t on paper seem as daunting as it did a year ago as it heads to face Las Vegas Lights FC on Saturday night at Cashman Field. The Lights are also winless after the first two games of its new regime under Head Coach Dennis Sanchez and are going to be without the combination that found the net against FC Tulsa last Saturday with Riki Alba and Edison Azcona being called up to the Dominican Republic’s senior and U-23 squads respectively. At the same time, Las Vegas is going to be as desperate to get a result under its belt as El Paso, which could tell us a lot about where both teams are.


There’s no other way to put it – San Antonio FC’s Toyota Field has been a house of horrors for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC over the years. In 10 prior visits, the Switchbacks have taken only two points and scored only four goals while losing eight times, including six consecutive defeats going back to the start of the 2021 season. Even when the Switchbacks have looked like having hope of a result – like their visit a season ago – it’s been wrested away in cruel fashion. Just see Jordan Farr’s stoppage-time penalty save to deny Zach Zandi in second-half stoppage time last March.

With the Switchbacks having suffered consecutive defeats to start the season, this is likely the last venue they’d have chosen to try and rebound. The effort is going to have to be spot-on as they try to avoid falling into a deeper hole.

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