Photo courtesy FC Cincinnati
The USL had a banner weekend both on and off the field, with the league as a whole reaching an attendance landmark faster than ever in any prior season as more than 65,000 fans attended games across the past three days. San Antonio and Real Monarchs SLC continued to set the pace on the field, meanwhile, with the Monarchs’ attack is starting to move into overdrive as it pursues the USL’s frontrunner.
1. RISING UP: The USL surpassed the 500,000 total attendance mark this past weekend as the league’s continued rise in the stands with impressive crowds in Cincinnati, Sacramento, Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio. That the league has reached half-a-million fans in attendance at its games faster than in any prior season speaks volumes to the work being put in around the league. Places like Cincinnati and Sacramento continue to lead lower division attendance in North America, but there have been major gains by the likes of Phoenix and Rio Grande Valley who have illustrated what the establishment of a soccer-specific stadium can do for a club as both have boosted their local and national profiles.
2. REAL DEAL: Real Monarchs SLC is still in second place in the Western Conference after this weekend’s action, but with five consecutive victories now seems like the in-form team in the USL after Saturday’s 5-2 demolition of Rocky Mountain rival Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. Two goals apiece for Chandler Hoffman and Sebastian Velasquez were the tip of a remarkable performance that not only avenged the side’s only loss of the season so far, but also gave Real 25 goals in just nine games this season. That pace of almost three goals per game probably isn’t sustainable, but even if it isn’t, the Monarchs are looking a decent bet to break the New York Red Bulls II’s 61 goals mark of a season ago.
3. DEFENSIVE STEP-UP: Why there’s reason to believe that Real Monarchs SLC may come down from their current scoring pace can be seen in San Antonio, which continued its undefeated start to the season, but got another 1-0 victory to do so against Phoenix Rising FC in front of 7,414 fans on Saturday night at Toyota Field. That the side has been overtaken by the Monarchs for the league’s scoring lead is likely of little concern for now, since SAFC’s excellent defense is continuing to carry the side forward. As long as SAFC remains water-tight at the back, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t, San Antonio is going to prove a tough nut to crack for any opponent.
4. KINGS OF STEEL CITY: Louisville City FC wanted to get things back on track after a three-game winless streak that included the club’s first defeat of the season in Tampa Bay. In its visit to Pittsburgh over the past week it achieved just that with a big win in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and a narrower, but just as effective, victory against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on Saturday night in league action. Louisville is still looking for greater consistency in front of goal. Luke Spencer’s early strike against the Hounds was only City’s eighth goal in the league this season, but the side is now well-poised ahead of a massive trip to face the Charleston Battery on June 3.
5. BATTERY BUSTED: The Battery themselves appeared to have overcome being both down a goal and down a man in their visit to the Harrisburg City Islanders on Saturday night at FNB Field, but a dramatic late equalizer handed Charleston a disappointing draw as the hosts’ persistence late on paid off. The Battery are still well set at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but as they make their way through the northeast for games against Bethlehem on Thursday – where both Tah Brian Anunga (red card) and Forrest Lasso (accumulation) are set to be absent through suspension – and the New York Red Bulls II on Sunday, the group’s depth will get its first big test of the year.
6. LETTING THINGS SLIP: A year ago, if the New York Red Bulls II held a lead in the second half, the odds were they were going to add to it, and they certainly wouldn’t lose it. This year, though, the club’s defense hasn’t been able to reorganize itself after the departure of center backs Aaron Long, Konrad Plewa and Zach Carroll, with a late collapse against Ottawa Fury FC seeing the side now having lost more games and conceded more goals just 10 games into its title defense than it did in the entire 2017 season. The win was a big one for Ottawa, which now heads into Tuesday night’s Canadian Championship game with Toronto FC at TD Place with a confidence boost, but New York will have work to do to get things righted at the back for its upcoming game with Charleston.
7. KELLY’S GANG: Reno 1868 FC forward Dane Kelly already held a prominent place in the USL Record Book as the league’s all-time leading scorer, but on Saturday night he achieved something that had never been accomplished before in USL history. Kelly’s second consecutive game with a hat trick in 1868 FC’s rout of Seattle Sounders FC 2 to lead Reno to its first home win at Greater Nevada Field followed his hat trick against Phoenix two weeks ago, making the Jamaican the first player to accomplish that feat in the league’s seven seasons. Kelly is now not only the USL’s all-time leading scorer with 56 tallies; he’s also the leader in the race for the Golden Boot with eight strikes this season.
Photo courtesy David Calvert / Reno 1868 FC
8. RETURN OF THE KING: When FC Cincinnati traded for 2015 USL Golden Boot runner-up Danni König two weeks ago, a performance like Saturday’s against Bethlehem Steel FC was exactly what the club would have been envisioning. The great Dane’s brace in Cincinnati’s 2-1 win against Steel FC showed König at his best, with his diving header to guide home Jimmy McLaughlin’s cross a vintage finish where König has done his best work in the USL, and his second-half tally a well-taken game-winner. Cincinnati was in need of a boost after a recent dip in form. Thanks to König, things were looking to a lot brighter for the 18,441 in attendance at Nippert Stadium at the final whistle.
9. BREAKING THE SLUMP: In the same vein as FC Cincinnati, Sacramento Republic FC was looking to get things back on track after a six-game skid that had marked the worst run of form in the club’s impressive history. The omens weren’t good when Tulsa Roughnecks FC took an early lead in front of 11,569 fans at Papa Murphy’s Park, but Republic FC dug in and earned not only its first goals since a win against Tulsa on April 9, but also its first win since that meeting as Chris Christian’s header gave the hosts a 3-2 victory. Head Coach Paul Buckle wasn’t completely satisfied after the final whistle as there is still work to be done, but every turnaround needs a win like this to get a season back on the rails.
10. BACK HOME: OKC Energy FC entered Saturday night’s game having not seen action at Taft Stadium in more than a month, but it proved a happy homecoming in front of 6,039 fans as Alex Dixon’s goal proved enough in a 1-0 win against Orange County SC. The margin of victory certainly could have been wider, Orange County’s Charlie Lyon put in a big performance with eight saves, and Energy FC will need to be more clinical in front of goal moving forward. On the same night their former player revived FC Cincinnati’s attack, though, Energy FC took an important step forward toward the pack in the Western Conference.
Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC
11. SUPER SLATE: After last week’s midweek was dominated by the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – which saw 16 USL clubs advance to the Third Round on May 31 – this week gears up for a lot of action across the league. With 18 games between now and next Monday, including a key USL Game of the Week that sees the Tampa Bay Rowdies visit the Rochester Rhinos, and Friday night’s clash between the Swope Park Rangers and San Antonio FC, there could be plenty of movement up and down the standings over the next seven days. As the regular season reaches one-third complete, the pressure is going to start to ratchet up as we find out which clubs are contenders, and which are pretenders.