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10 Top Storylines to Watch in the USL Championship this weekend | Talking Points

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 04/19/24, 1:30PM EDT


How might the extra rest benefit teams awaiting their Open Cup kickoff, plus why Republic FC needs to tighten its hold on points

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and Maalique Foster could get a first win of the season as they host an Indy Eleven side coming off short rest from its midweek Open Cup contest. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

The first full Saturday slate of the 2024 USL Championship season arrives on Saturday with all 24 teams in action throughout the early evening and night. With 16 teams coming off midweek outings in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup to varying degrees of success, there’s a lot to keep an eye on throughout the night’s action.

Here are the top 10 storylines we’ll be following. Here’s a guide to where you can follow all the action on national and local outlets.


Given the tiered entry-points between the eight USL Championship clubs that were seeded and those that entered in this past week’s Third Round of the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, it will be worth watching closely at the potential knock-on effect that could have this weekend.

While four of the teams that received byes will square off against each other – more on Orange County SC vs. Sacramento Republic FC and Phoenix Rising FC vs. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in a moment – there are four games that pit sides that were in action in midweek against those that got a full week of preparation under their belts.

The side that could benefit most from this is Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, which has yet to earn a point this season after five consecutive defeats. The Switchbacks are at home to an Indy Eleven side that advanced 1-0 against the Chicago Fire II on Wednesday night but was put under consistent pressure over the 90 minutes as Yannik Oettl recorded 11 saves to preserve the shutout. With two days rest and travel to Colorado to factor in, the Switchbacks must take advantage of any potential fatigue Indy shows.

FC Tulsa shouldn’t be in too bad shape as it faces up to the challenge of hosting the Charleston Battery on Saturday after its rotated lineup got through a 2-1 win against Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC on Wednesday. With the likes of goalkeeper Joey Roggeveen, defender Patrick Seagrist and former Battery standout Justin Portillo all given the night off, the side can call upon some fresh regular starters, even while Phillip Goodrum is expected to be sidelined due to a calf injury.

For Hartford Athletic and El Paso Locomotive FC, however, there are big challenges ahead. Hartford’s Open Cup ended with a thud as it couldn’t take its chances or hold a lead against New York City FC II and had to go 120 minutes before the visit of San Antonio FC. For El Paso, meanwhile, the disappointment of a penalty shootout defeat against Union Omaha after playing a full 120 minutes doesn’t bode well for another long road trip to face the Tampa Bay Rowdies.


Sacramento Republic FC is the only side in the Championship this season that has yet to trail in any contest, but the side’s undefeated start hasn’t been as positive as it could have been after three occasions in which it let leads slip away after last week’s 1-1 draw against a 10-player FC Tulsa side.

Sacramento was one of the best teams in the league a season ago at making its advantages count. It dropped only six points from winning positions, second fewest in the league to eventual Players’ Shield winner Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. It has matched that mark already this campaign with only El Paso Locomotive FC (8) having dropped more points after leading. It’s trend Republic FC needs to change to maintain its bid for a second consecutive first-place finish in the West and the Players’ Shield at the end of the season.

As it heads to face Orange County SC on Saturday night – a rematch from the opening weekend of the season in which OCSC stole a 2-2 draw thanks to Colin Shutler’s dramatic late equalizer – Republic FC will want to make any lead it holds stick to end the weekend in sole possession of first place in the standings.


Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC's Robbie Mertz and his teammates have been creating but not finishing chances so far this season. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

It’s the most basic element in soccer – putting the ball in the back of the opposition’s net – and unfortunately for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC it’s just not happening at the moment. As detailed in depth by Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s John Krysinsky, the Hounds have probably created enough chances to claim their first win of the season at this point, but after consecutive scoreless draws against the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Rhode Island FC they are still looking for a first three points of the season.

To add another metric to Krysinsky’s Big Chances Created, the Hounds simply haven’t been finishing sharply overall. While the side has a 4.51 Expected Goals mark through five games, its Expected Goals on Target mark – ie. a post-shot evaluation dependent on where the shot was placed, on or off target – sits at 2.88xG. Only Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC has been more wayward in its finishing (2.38xGoT), a big reason why the Switchbacks have also struggled to start the season.

The good news is these things tend to level out over time as long as the chances keep coming. Last season Monterey Bay F.C.’s blazing start regressed as the season went on as its underlying numbers indicated it would, while the teams that finished in the top three in Expected Goals were also the top three in the scoring chart. For the Hounds, however, getting their finishing up to speed with their chance creation in Saturday’s visit to Phoenix Rising FC might be imperative so it doesn’t lose more ground.


The buzz around Detroit City FC’s perfect start to the season has been about the club’s new-look attack, which has shown a marked improvement with seven goals in its opening four games of the campaign under new Head Coach Danny Dichio after finishing with a league-fewest 30 goals in the regular season last year.

The attack’s success not only in front of goal but in its pressing style has had a knock-on effect elsewhere in the team, however, with Le Rouge’s defense sitting among the best in the Championship this season. Goalkeeper Nate Steinwascher is still being called on to make key saves, of course – that was an essential ingredient in the club’s comeback victory against Indy Eleven on March 30 – but so far this campaign DCFC is allowing fewer shots per game (9.9 compared to 12.6 a season ago) and shots on target per game (2.75 compared to 4.2 a season ago).

As the side takes aim at continuing its perfect start to the season against Oakland Roots SC at Keyworth Stadium on Saturday afternoon, and record its longest winning streak since joining the USL Championship two years ago, that balance should be a key part to picking up another three points at home.


FC Tulsa midfielder Justin Portillo will be center stage as his current side squares off with the Charleston Battery, where he made more than 100 appearances at the start of his career. | Photo courtesy Victor Schwanke / FC Tulsa

For current FC Tulsa veteran Justin Portillo, the Charleston Battery was the launching point for a career that now spans a decade after making his debut for the Lowcountry club in the 2014 USL Championship season. The New Orleans native’s 109 regular season and playoff appearances for the Battery across four seasons remain the most he has made for a single club, while 18 of his career 36 goals came for the Battery as his qualities in central midfield eventually saw him move into Major League Soccer with Real Salt Lake.

The 31-year-old is now set to face the present midfield maestro of the Battery with the duel between Portillo and Charleston’s Aaron Molloy arguably the most important as the sides square off at ONEOK Field on Saturday evening. Molloy has made an immediate impact since his arrival at the Battery this offseason, helping lead the side to a seven-game undefeated start. With Portillo having been on the wrong side of the result last season against the Battery when he was at New Mexico United, he should be looking for a big performance here to help Tulsa continue a solid start to the campaign.


There haven’t been many holes to pick at in Louisville City FC’s start to the season, but where the side is still looking for improvement is in the defensive end of the field where the blemish of last week’s 3-2 defeat to the Charleston Battery remains fresh in the memory as the side returns to league action against Loudoun United FC.

The second-half response LouCity produced in Charleston – which saw the side push strongly for an equalizer before succumbing – was pleasing for Head Coach Danny Cruz, but there were still elements on display this past Tuesday night in a 3-1 win against Greenville Triumph SC in the Third Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup that from Cruz’s perspective could have been better, and in turn set up the side for success in the opposing half.

“Especially when you think about last year and where we are now, we’re really happy with the chances we’re creating, no question,” said Cruz after his side’s contest with Greenville. “I still think there are areas we need to be better defensively, and that’s pretty obvious over the last couple of weeks. Tonight, in the first half, I didn’t think defensively we were great. I thought in the second half it was really well done, and the reason I say that is when we get the defensive side right, we create more opportunities.”

Louisville has won six out of seven games against Loudoun, including a dramatic 2-1 win last September in its last visit to Segra Field that saw Wilson Harris provided the winner in second-half stoppage time. The visitors will be hoping for the same result with a little less stress this time around.


The Tampa Bay Rowdies have been among the most difficult places to visit in the Championship over the past three regular seasons, with the club’s 37 wins in 52 home games at Al Lang Stadium a central pillar of the club’s sustained success.

That record will come into even greater focus between now and the end of May. Saturday night’s clash with El Paso Locomotive FC marks the first of five home games in the next six in the league for Tampa Bay, a section of the schedule the side wants to make the most of with eyes on claiming the Players’ Shield at the end of the campaign.

“I think the home games are really important,” said Rowdies Head Coach Robbie Neilson. “It’s different for me. I’m used to more home, away, home, away. But because of the weather here you’ve got a lot of home games now and then more away in the second half of the season, so it’s really important we pick up points now.”


United States U-19 international Nighte Pickering scored twice as Memphis 901 FC picked up a confidence-boosting win in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday night. | Photo courtesy Eric Glemser / Memphis 901 FC

It’s fair to say things hadn’t been going to plan for Memphis 901 FC in the build-up to its midweek Open Cup contest against Miami United FC. After the side came away with a 2-0 victory behind a pair of goals by United States U-19 international Nighte Pickering against the local qualifiers at AutoZone Park, however, there’s a positive feeling in the squad that they’re aiming to carry into Saturday night’s meeting with Monterey Bay F.C.

“It’s a big relief,” said Pickering. “In these last four games I think we’ve played well. We’ve just made little mistakes and lapses of focus that put us off of our game and gave us some bad results. So, winning [on Wednesday] will hopefully get us back on track and get our minds together because I think at the end of the day, we’re a really good team. We can get a lot of results in the league this year.”

Getting into a better attacking rhythm is key for Memphis, which had scored only four times in five league contests before Wednesday night. While Pickering is aiming to take the next step in his progression this season, that’s a burden the 19-year-old will need help to carry from his more experienced colleagues against a Monterey Bay defense that has been solid so far.


New Mexico United will square off with North Carolina FC for the first time in its history on Saturday night, but it should have one player who’s more than familiar with WakeMed Soccer Park as goalkeeper Alex Tambakis makes his potential return to a venue where he starred for across three seasons.

The Greek shot-stopper made 225 saves across 76 appearances in the Championship’s regular season for NCFC that included arguably his best campaign in the league to date in 2019. That year Tambakis posted a save percentage of 72.5 percent on 91 saves and a Goals Prevented mark of -7.31 in leading North Carolina to the postseason.

The veteran has made a strong start to this campaign as well, posting an 83.3 percent save percentage on 15 saves in four appearances while sitting at -0.99 Goals Prevented mark. If New Mexico is going to break NCFC’s current nine-game home undefeated streak, chances are Tambakis will have a big role to play.


Coming into its inaugural season, Rhode Island was pretty meticulous with its roster build, starting with a major splash for its first signing in Koke Vegas last November and then adding numerous pieces that for some added up to a potential playoff squad.

For Las Vegas Lights FC after its acquisition in January by six-time MLB All-Star José Bautista, the drive to add players to a blank roster was much more rapid with the side aiming to find what it could in out-of-contract veterans and available young talents that could potentially mesh together in short order. So far, remarkably, Las Vegas is the side that has come out with the better early-season results with three wins in the league and advancement in the Open Cup on Wednesday night after extra time compared to Rhode Island remaining in search of a first win in club history.

That sets a fascinating narrative for Saturday night’s first meeting between the clubs at Cashman Field on Saturday evening where a win for the Lights could carry them into a top-three position by the end of the night and leave Rhode Island still seeking answers.

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