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8 Top Storylines we took away from the ninth weekend in the USL Championship

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 05/06/24, 11:20AM EDT


Marlon Santos gets a chance to shine in Memphis; Phoenix, Sacramento each take silver linings from draw

Given the chance to be Memphis 901 FC's center forward, Marlon Santos has shone over the past two victories for the side with two goals and three assists. | Photo courtesy Memphis 901 FC

The USL Championship’s regular season is effectively one-quarter of the way through after this weekend’s action. We’ve got two teams still sitting undefeated at the top of each conference, but this weekend gave us plenty else to talk about as another team fell from the ranks of the undefeated while two of the Western Conference’s top sides played out a tense encounter to wrap up the night.

Here are eight key storylines we took away from the action, and some additional thoughts on what transpired.


The use of Marlon Santos by Memphis 901 FC as a center forward with license to roam in the club’s victory in Week 8 against Birmingham Legion FC appeared to unlock the approach the side’s attacking potential. On Saturday as the Brazilian’s speed and timing once again proved pivotal in handing the Tampa Bay Rowdies their first defeat of the season, it only cemented that view.

As we noted it could prior to the weekend’s action, Marlon’s speed proved a handful for the Rowdies’ high defensive line. Whether or not Forrest Lasso deserved a red card for denial of a goalscoring opportunity it was the first warning Memphis offered the visitors. While 901 FC couldn’t capitalize on the ensuing free kick, Marlon first powered home a finish in the 19th minute and then returned four minutes later to get in behind Tampa Bay’s and set up Luiz Fernando for a simple finish.

“We were probably a bit unfair on him when we had no fullbacks at the start of the season,” said Memphis Head Coach Stephen Glass. “We were a little light and he ends up playing right back and left back for us, so he’s been given an opportunity to showcase himself in a real positive light.

“Then he starts playing on the wing and there were openings where we felt like he could really help us playing center forward or a No. 9. He’s proved we were right to move him. He’s dangerous, he’s quick, he works hard and he’s everything we thought he would give us when we put him up there. I think being a focal point on the team suits him well.”

Memphis was searching for something in its five-game league losing streak over which it scored only three times. This attacking set-up appears to have provided it.


The rematch of last year’s Western Conference Final between Phoenix Rising FC and Sacramento Republic FC was a tense as you might have expected with Sacramento aiming to give away as little as it could in defense of its undefeated start to the season.

That meant the penalty kick Rising was awarded midway through the first half ended up being the pivot point for the contest, with Panos Armenakas’ shot wide of the right post after he’d managed to get Sacramento goalkeeper Danny Vitiello to commit the other way with his stuttering run-up.

It would have made for a fascinating remainder of the game, putting Sacramento behind for the first time this season. Instead, Republic FC remained the only side in the Championship that has yet to trail in a game this season with Rodrigo Lopez’s spectacular free kick giving the side the lead before Phoenix hit back and earned a deserved point through Remi Cabral in the second half.

For both Republic FC and Rising, there was some frustration tinged with positives to take away from the game.

“I thought defensively we worked hard and we shut down the spaces that Phoenix wanted to get into,” said Sacramento Head Coach Mark Briggs. “I thought we were sloppy in possession of the ball, but from a defensive standpoint, I was really happy with the work rate everyone was willing to put in at a really difficult place to come and play.”

“Listen, we want to win games at home,” countered Phoenix Head Coach Danny Stone. “Don’t get me wrong here, we want to win games at home, and that’s why I say there’s an element of frustration, but I feel if we attack games and play like we did in the second half, we start winning games. That’s a tough team to break down, we know that’s a very defensively resolute team, and I was pleased with the way that we played overall.”


For most of his career in the USL Championship, Junior Etou had served as a solid defensive midfielder for the Charlotte Independence and Tampa Bay Rowdies.

His move to the left side since Danny Griffin’s return to the Hounds last season, however, has proven a revelation and provided the difference in Pittsburgh’s 1-0 victory against Miami FC at Highmark Stadium.

“When Danny Griffin was coming [back from Huntsville], coach [Bob Lilley] had the conversation with me and said, ‘I’d like to try you at left wing back,’” said Etou. “I said, ‘Why not?’ So we tried it the end of last year, the last 10 games, maybe. I like to play this way, and whatever position I play, I try to help the team and give my best.”

Etou’s smart nutmeg of a Miami defender and precise cross to give Kazaiah Sterling his second goal for the club was the highlight of a performance that Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley wasn’t overly happy about in terms of intensity level from his side but was still enough to earn a third consecutive victory and fourth shutout in the past five games.

“Junior has impacted every game,” said Lilley. “He can get better, though. He is fast. He is a problem. The one, even with a mishit with his right foot, he causes panic in defenders. He’s a weapon and has done a good job learning and adjusting to what we want.”


If you’re putting together a winning streak – whatever league you play in – it’s not always going to be Champagne soccer all the time.

After the high of the club’s first six-goal performance since 2017 in Week 8, the Charleston Battery got some sparkle from Nick Markanich’s incredible finish against Hartford Athletic but then had battle their way through to allow that to stand as the winner in a 1-0 victory at Patriots Point.

“We probably should have scored, but every team in this league is good,” said Battery Head Coach Ben Pirmann. “They're talented, they're well coached. They increased their pressure in the second half, but we gained the space. It was a good game for us, it wasn't a great game. But, three points in this league is tough enough. You just take it.”

The result, in the end, is the thing. While Markanich’s five-game scoring streak continued, Charleston has now won five consecutive league games for the first time since the 2013 season and is off to its longest undefeated start to a campaign in the USL Championship era. That’s put Charleston on firm footing at the top of the Eastern Conference.


In a similar vein to the Battery, New Mexico United could probably have made life more comfortable for itself on the road at Las Vegas Lights FC after taking an early two-goal lead through a pair of good finishes by Daniel Bruce.

A saved penalty kick by Las Vegas’ Raiko Arozarena from New Mexico’s Mukwelle Akale just after halftime proved key in maintaining the Lights’ momentum at Cashman Field after Gaoussou Samaké had cut into his side’s deficit just before halftime. Despite giving up some solid chances, however, United held on as a run of six away games in eight to start the season ended.

“We’ve gone through the gauntlet,” United Head Coach Eric Quill told the Albuquerque Journal’s Ken Sickenger. “I’m proud of the group for bouncing back from last week. Everyone put in a shift and grinded. That’s what it takes sometimes.”

As noted previously, it’s not always pretty, but New Mexico has found ways to win and is second in the Western Conference as a result. That’s a great platform for the opportunities the side will now have on home turf.


According to Enzo Martinez, his finish that began Birmingham Legion FC’s comeback to earn a 2-2 draw against FC Tulsa at Protective Stadium on Saturday night was almost exactly as the side drew it up.

“[Tyler] Pasher picked out the ball in an excellent spot and was aggressive, Diba (Nwegbo) made an awesome run, picked up his head and knew where I was going to be,” said Martinez. “It was a play that Pasher at halftime talked to the team about. It was a great team goal.”

For Legion Head Coach Tommy Soehn, it was the embodiment of what his side needed to do more of against a Tulsa defense that buckled down after scoring twice in the opening hour and almost held on for an impressive road victory. Birmingham recorded a season-high 30 shots on Saturday night but it wasn’t until the fourth minute of stoppage time that Stefano Pinho’s equalizer materialized.

“[I wanted us to] have more urgency in the attack, especially when they drop in deep,” said Soehn. “It’s tough to break that down, so having urgency before they set is what we talked about. Credit to the guys, they showed some fight, and you can drop points, but you can never not fight. I think that’s been [behind] some of the disappointing things this year. Hopefully tonight was a step in the right direction and something we learn from and bring that every day.”

When Legion is on its game, it has the speed and quality to challenge opponents. Finding a consistent level of intensity is what can take the squad to a higher level.


Having suffered defeats in its first three home games of the season, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC didn’t want another letdown in front of the first sellout crowd of 8,023 fans at Weidner Field on Saturday night.

Thanks to a pair of goals by Ronaldo Damus, the Switchbacks were able to send their fans home happy while continuing to build after their slow start to the season.

“We wanted to give back to the fans who took the time out to come and watch us,” said Switchback Head Coach James Chambers. “We really wanted to give back to them, we were really focused on that. This is what we want to do every week, it was electric! It is honestly what the players fed off of and were really happy that we kept the momentum going.”

Chambers’ sentiment was reflected by players Koa Santos and Speedy Williams, with Santos providing the set-up for Damus’ opening goal of the game as El Paso continued to slide. Colorado Springs gets an intriguing matchup next weekend against former Head Coach Brendan Burke and a collection of the clubs’ former players. It will likely need to raise its level again to get a third consecutive win.

Step by step, though, there’s positive momentum building at last.

“We haven’t been sorry for ourselves, we’ve just been grinding and grinding and doing the simple things,” said Williams. “We’re getting the results, and we just need to keep doing that.”


The manner in which coaches approached the final game before a midweek clash in the Round of 32 of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup was fascinating.

Most elected to go as close to full-strength as they could for their league outings. In his first game as interim Head Coach of Oakland Roots SC, however, Gavin Glinton showed where his priority lay and was rewarded for the trust he put in the club’s youngsters.

Four of the players that were in the starting lineup for Oakland on the road at San Antonio FC were USL Academy signings – defenders Thomas Camier and Ilya Alekseev, midfielder Kieran Bracken Serra, forward Ali Elmasnaouy – and 18-year-old Etsgar Cruz turned pro with the club last offseason. Add in that Project 51O graduate Tim Syrel was selected as goalkeeper for the first time this season in the league, and there was plenty of risk in Glinton’s selection.

Overall, it was a tough outing for the youngsters, but they were game enough to compete and hold San Antonio at bay before Trayvone Reid and Miche-Naider Chery combined to give Roots a lead at Toyota Field. When some of the squad’s more experienced players arrived in the second half, it pushed Oakland over the line with Johnny Rodriguez’s penalty kick securing a 2-2 draw with six minutes to go.

Roots can now turn its focus to its clash with the San Jose Earthquakes with its experienced players ready to go with a great point in its pocket to take home from Texas.

And now some other thoughts from what we saw in this weekend’s action…

- If you had Elliot Collier scoring for the first time for Indy Eleven since a loan spell in 2018 on your bingo card, well done. Hard to say the Boys in Blue didn’t deserve it in the end.

- Rhode Island FC made two marquee signings in attack this offseason in JJ Williams and Albert Dikwa. On Saturday’s showing in North Carolina, it needs one – or preferably both – back very soon.

- It’s uncanny how Nate Steinwascher consistently finds a way to step up when Detroit City FC needs him to. It wasn’t great in Loudoun, but a point is good enough.

- San Antonio FC put a rosy perspective on its draw with Oakland as it pointed toward its overall performance, but the reality is this side just didn’t let these sorts of leads slip at home two years ago. This was a missed opportunity.

- FC Tulsa was much more animated about letting its lead slip in Birmingham, even though that’s probably a point they’d have taken on the road pregame. The energy from this side feels good.

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