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11 (Other) Storylines to follow in the USL Championship this weekend

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 04/05/24, 10:20AM EDT


El Paso addition Amando Moreno returns to New Mexico, Hounds face challenge as Rowdies visit

El Salvador international Amando Moreno will return to Isotopes Park on Saturday with El Paso Locomotive FC after his offseason move from New Mexico United. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC

While all eyes will be on Louisville City FC plays host to Indy Eleven on Saturday afternoon in the first game in USL history to be broadcast on network television (CBS | 4 p.m. ET), there’s plenty more to follow in the first weekend of the campaign that sees all 24 teams in action across the USL Championship.

Here are 11 storylines we’ll be watching closely aside from the LIPAFC over the next three days.


El Paso Locomotive FC and New Mexico United have shared a fierce rivalry over their first five seasons in the USL Championship, with the Derby del Camino Real becoming one of the best in the league. When the sides meet on Saturday night at Isotopes Park, however, the return of former United forward Amando Moreno as a member of Locomotive’s squad should add even more heat to the series.

“Obviously, it was like a second home,” said Moreno this week. “I was there four years, I went through a huge recovery after tearing my ACL there, coming back, getting accepted by the fans, I’m never going to forget that, but on Saturday that’s our enemy. Those are our rivals, and I’m going to do the best that I can. Obviously, I’ve played there many times before, so it’ll be nice to go back, but I’m with El Paso now and I know we’re going to get the three points.”

For Locomotive, the game is a critical one given the start the side has made to the campaign. With only one point from its opening four games – and only one goal – the visitors will need Moreno and the rest of its attacking corps to step up. If the El Salvador international finds the net and sends his side to victory against a New Mexico side that stepped up to the mark against its other main rival in Phoenix Rising FC last week, it would be another major moment in the rivalry’s history.


Without a point from its first three games of the campaign, 2023 Championship Players’ Shield winner Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has looked to regroup during its bye week. With the Tampa Bay Rowdies coming to Highmark Stadium on Saturday night, Head Coach Bob Lilley believes the contest against the side that finished second in the Eastern Conference a season ago – and that is coming off a morale-boosting 4-1 victory against Rhode Island FC last Saturday – is a character test for his side.

“We’re at our strongest, right now,” said Lilley. “It’s going to be big challenge for us. Guys are going to have to feel the heat. It’s a good character check for us to have a good performance. There is a sense of urgency and it will be important to have good performance. It’s important to win. All of these things, we addressed with the team. We have to put out good performance. Wins will take care of themselves if we do our job better.”

After his absence while paperwork was completed, the Hounds could see Kazaiah Sterling make his first start to the season after coming on as a second-half substitute against Louisville City FC in the side’s last outing. After starring in USL League One over the past two seasons for South Georgia, the former Tottenham Hotspur striker will be aiming to make a big first impression in his home debut for the Hounds.


Offseason arrival Ali Coote has quickly fit into Detroit City FC's lineup, and scored his first goal for the club in its victory against Indy Eleven last weekend. | Photo courtesy Jon DeBoer / Detroit City FC

Detroit City FC is one of two sides with perfect records entering this weekend’s action with three wins of three to start the season. If Le Rouge add another victory on Saturday when North Carolina FC visits Keyworth Stadium, it would match the longest winning streak the side has earned since joining the USL Championship two years ago – earned early in the 2022 campaign – and cement the side’s place as one of the serious challengers in the Eastern Conference this season.

Key to that run has been the attacking prowess the side has shown in contrast to a season ago with newcomers Ali Coote and Elvis Amoh having quickly created a positive chemistry with returning standout Maxi Rodriguez, who provided the assist on Coote’s first goal of the club last weekend against Indy Eleven. For both Rodriguez and goalkeeper Nate Steinwascher, the atmosphere within the club has been key in helping the new faces settle in and find success under new Head Coach Danny Dichio.

“We’re just all locked in together from the start, so it’s fun group to work with,” said Steinwascher. “We have a lot of good guys. We’ve brought in a lot of new guys that have a good mentality day-in and day-out. It’s shown early, obviously, a 3-0 start, it’s good, but we know we have a lot of work left to do.”


With one win in its first four games, Phoenix Rising FC hasn’t made the start it was looking for in the defense of its USL Championship title. That doesn’t make Friday night’s visit to FC Tulsa a must-win, but Rising certainly needs to deliver a more consistent performance than the one it delivered last week against New Mexico United.

There have been challenges in different parts of the field, but the up-and-down nature of the side’s performances over its first four games have been striking. While there are new elements coming together, the spirit the side showed during its run in the postseason last year hasn’t quite come together. What should be worth watching is whether this is the chance for newcomer Guilio Doratiotto to make his first start for the season. The Juventus product showed some positive touches in the center of midfield after coming on for his debut against New Mexico, as well as some late fieriness. Which buttons Head Coach Danny Stone elects to push will be interesting to see.


Monterey Bay F.C. saw its early-season momentum hit a bump in the road, but despite its loss away against San Antonio FC last Saturday night it still felt like there were positives for the side to take from the experience. Head Coach Frank Yallop’s side will try to carry that into this weekend’s action as it visits NorCal rival Oakland Roots SC with a chance to pick up a second victory this season.

Where Monterey Bay’s improvement this year has come so far has been in its defensive structure. After leaking opportunities over its first two campaigns – allowing an Expected Goals mark of 96.28xGA across the 2022 and 2023 seasons – MBFC has held opponents to less than 1.00 Expected Goals per game over its first four outings of this season. That’s set the side on solid ground as it heads to face an Oakland side that has lost two in a row. With Roots undefeated in the last three league meetings between the clubs, Monterey Bay has the form to turn that around at Pioneer Stadium.


Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC forward Ronaldo Damus has recorded only three shots in a winless three-game run for the side to start the season. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

Without a point in its opening three games, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC will face a major test as it goes search for its first win of the season as Sacramento Republic FC comes to Weidner Field on Saturday night. For the hosts, the challenges have been two-fold but finding a way to get new forward Ronaldo Damus into for might hold the key to balancing out the defensive challenges the side has faced.

The Haitian forward – who recorded 15 goals a season ago for San Diego Loyal SC – has recorded only three shots so far this season and while he’s notched five key passes, showing a positive connection with his new teammates, that’s not what he’s supposed to be bringing a Switchbacks side that has been known for its attacking prowess over the past three seasons. Getting off the mark against Sacramento’s solid back line will be a challenge, but it should be a priority for the hosts to put Damus in better positions to succeed as the side’s No. 9.


There might be no better avatar for the on-field struggles Hartford Athletic has experienced over recent seasons than its record against Miami FC. Hartford has not only lost five consecutive outings against the South Florida side, but it has failed to score in any of them, being outscored 11-0 in that span.

While Athletic is coming off its first loss of the season last Friday night against North Carolina FC, Saturday’s matinee at Trinity Health Stadium is the place for that run to come to an end. Hartford’s new-look attack has been positive, if not consistent in its finishing so far with Romario Williams, Michee Ngalina and Jay Chapman all putting in strong starts to the season. Against a Miami defense that has both been well organized and also featured strong goalkeeping from Daniel Gagliardi, the hosts will be wanting to make a statement and end an unwanted streak.  


It’s only been three weeks since Rhode Island FC’s home opener in front of a sellout crowd at Beirne Stadium, but for Head Coach Khano Smith the time has flown by.

“That first game, it does seem like a while ago, but it wasn’t,” Smith told the Providence Journal’s Jacob Rousseau this week. “I think when you're enjoying things, it goes fast. And we're certainly enjoying and embracing the experience.”

What RIFC is in need of on Saturday as it returns home is a bounce-back performance, one that could be a challenge against a Charleston Battery side that has made an undefeated start and has won consecutive games as it heads north. Albert Dikwa’s three goals have been a positive, but the defensive pressure the Rowdies put Rhode Island under that led to a 4-1 defeat at Al Lang Stadium last weekend will be mirrored by the Battery’s aggressive forward line and midfield led by Nick Markanich and Aaron Molloy.

Rhode Island likely deserved better from its first game before its home fans against New Mexico United. The hosts will need to match that intensity in what could be a really fierce battle.


Fabien Garcia has made a notable impact for Las Vegas Lights FC in its consecutive victories, and will face former club San Antonio FC on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Lucas Peltier / Las Vegas Lights FC

Fabien Garcia was one of the standouts for San Antonio FC during the club’s run to the 2022 USL Championship title and continued to shine a season ago. Now, however, he’s part of the resurgence at Las Vegas Lights FC and will likely be a key performer as his new club hosts San Antonio on Saturday night at Cashman Field looking for its first three-game winning streak since June, 2022.

Garcia has stepped into the lineup for the past two victories for the Lights after being absent in its first two outings of the campaign and has recorded nine interceptions while helping the side to back-to-back shutouts against El Paso Locomotive FC and Oakland Roots SC. Going up against the physicality of new San Antonio forward Juan Agudelo – who has been impressive so far in leading the line while winning 22 aerial duels at a 61.1 percent success rate – should be a matchup to watch in a game that could tell us a lot about how far Lights has come so far.


Birmingham Legion FC claimed victory in its season opener against Phoenix Rising FC, but even then, the warning signs were there that the side’s defense wasn’t where it needed to be. That got brought to the fore against Louisville City FC last weekend as the side conceded five times at Lynn Family Stadium.

Those challenges should have Loudoun United FC’s attack licking its chops as it prepares to head to Protective Stadium on Sunday evening. The combination of Zach Ryan and Kalil Elmedkhar have built on the chemistry they developed a season ago, while Florian Valot has quickly fit into his new surroundings. With the fluidity Loudoun has shown so far this season, there could be an opportunity for the side to win for the first time on the road in Birmingham after defeats in its three prior visits.


When Memphis 901 FC and Orange County SC last met, it produced one of the wildest games in the USL Championship’s 2023 season. OCSC came out on top with a 4-3 victory at AutoZone Park as Bryce Jamison scored a late second-half winner after the sides had exchanged three goals apiece in the first half and Memphis was reduced to nine men with Jeremy Kelly and Bruno Lapa both being sent off.

It's hard to predict we’ll see similar drama on Saturday afternoon, but with Orange County still undefeated to start the season it’s an opportunity for the visitors to continue a start that has seen seven different players find the net so far. If OCSC can get a positive result, it would be just the second time in club history it has started a season five games undefeated.

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