Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
The resumption of one of the biggest rivalries in the USL brought two historic moments – one on the field and one in the stands – to highlight the conclusion of Week 17 in the 2017 season, with Louisville City FC and FC Cincinnati playing out another fascinating meeting between the clubs. The weekend also brought comebacks, late equalizers, and the extension of two winning streaks that have made the duels at the top of both sets of standings into three-way battles, all of which is setting up the final run toward the playoffs perfectly.
1. BREAKING THROUGH: In preseason, given the squad it had assembled, FC Cincinnati looked a clear favorite to push on from its third-place finish in the Eastern Conference a season ago. On Saturday night, the side seemed to finally put it all together as FCC took its first ever victory at Slugger Field in a 3-2 win against Louisville City FC in the second edition of this season’s River Cities Cup. A game that provided compelling action from both sides saw the visitors capitalize on their chances better to earn the three points, with both Djiby Fall and Danni König finding the net. FCC might still be sixth in the standings, but with only an eight-point gap to conference-leader the Charleston Battery, the potential for a run is certainly present.
2. CITY CULPABILITY: Louisville City FC Head Coach James O’Connor was blunt in his assessment of his side’s performance, which saw the host squander its early lead. “I think we shot ourselves in the right foot, then turned around and shot ourselves in the left foot,” O’Connor said postgame, with maybe the biggest moment of the match the buildup to Cincinnati’s quick response. A cross that you normally would expect to have been claimed by Louisville goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh ended up going to ground, and the quick reactions of Djiby Fall saw it deposited into the open net. While there couldn’t be much fault assigned to FCC’s second and third goals of the game, allowing Cincinnati back on level terms while failing to capitalize on opportunities of their own saw the hosts fall at Slugger Field for the first time in almost a year, and left a bitter taste in the locker room afterward.
3. RIVER CITY REVELRY: The rivalry between Louisville City FC and FC Cincinnati has quickly risen into one of the best in the USL, and Saturday’s record attendance of 11,632 at Slugger Field added another chapter to the burgeoning history of the River Cities Cup. The travelling support in both directions over the past two seasons has been the perfect illustration of the USL’s bigger-picture plans for regional rivalry and structure, but what might have been best to see on Saturday was the camaraderie between the two sets of rival supporters. From the fan’s game held earlier in the day – claimed by the Louisville Coopers – to pregame tailgates and bar-hopping, as fierce as the rivalry is on the field, the fans are making it one of the most collegial anywhere in North America.
4. SIX OF THE BEST: Louisville’s loss to Cincinnati resulted in a change in the top two for the first time in the Eastern Conference in quite a while, as the Charlotte Independence became the side closest in pursuit of the Battery thanks to their sixth consecutive win. Extending the club-record streak, the Independence had to fight off a late comeback by the New York Red Bulls II at MSU Soccer Park, but another goal and assist by Jorge Herrera meant the work the visitors had put in over the opening hour was just enough for three points. Notably, Herrera’s goal was his 50th in the USL regular season, and continued his outstanding recent form that has seen him score six goals in the past three games. Having matched his season-high for goals with 10, the 36-year-old Colombian is showing no signs of slowing.
5. SWOPE SWEEP: The Independence’s six-game winning streak was matched by their current counterpart in the Western Conference, the Swope Park Rangers, whose ascent didn’t quite reach the top two yet, but certainly put the side in the conversation. A fourth consecutive shutout earned a 1-0 win against the Portland Timbers 2 on Sunday – with the inevitable goal by former T2 player Kharlton Belmar the difference – and the Rangers can go for a clean sweep in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday night when they take on Seattle Sounders FC 2 at Starfire Stadium. A win there would move SPR into second place, and ramp up expectations even more for Week 18’s biggest game.
6. FEELING THE HEAT: It’s probably odd to consider a three-game winless spell a downturn, but given what San Antonio FC had previously accomplished this season, Friday night’s 1-1 draw that saw OKC Energy FC grab an equalizer in the fourth minute of stoppage time was a downer for a crowd of 8,131, which was the second-highest in Toyota Field history. San Antonio needed a win to close the gap to Real Monarchs SLC at the top of the Western Conference ahead of its massive game this Saturday night – which should see another packed house – but instead, San Antonio is looking over its shoulder at Swope Park, now only a point behind.
7. HEART OF OKC: The reality after OKC Energy FC’s 1-1 draw in San Antonio is that the side remains winless in five games, and is still sitting outside the top eight in the USL Western Conference. The mood expressed in the locker room after the game, though, was that of a side that needed the sort of feeling given to it by Miguel Gonzalez’s dramatic late goal. “That’s exactly what we needed in the situation we’re in right now,” said Energy FC Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen after the game, and while there’s still a lot of work to be done for his side, the boost a point gave after it seemed to have slipped away when Coady Andrews missed from the penalty spot with five minutes to go could be a big one. With rival Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC visiting next Saturday at Taft Stadium, we’re going to find out quickly if this was a blip, or the start of something serious.
8. BREAK THE TREND: The other side to grab a late point over the weekend was Ottawa Fury FC, which got an 89th-minute equalizer from Tucker Hume to earn a 1-1 draw with the Rochester Rhinos in front of 5,525 fans at TD Place. As with Energy FC, the point could provide a boost for Ottawa, which still sits outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference, but as with Energy FC, there needs to be much more from Fury FC in the coming weeks if a playoff place is to materialize. Over the course of the past four-game winless streak, Ottawa has trailed in each. While it managed to rally in similar fashion against the New York Red Bulls II a few weeks ago – Jamar Dixon being the hero then – Fury FC hasn’t put a strong enough imprint on games of late. With three more home games coming next, including two against sides in the East’s top five, the time is now for the side to make a run.
9. MISSION CONTROL: Saint Louis FC had been in freefall since its four-game undefeated start to the season had it on top of the Eastern Conference. That meant Saturday’s contest against current conference-leaders Charleston Battery in front of a sellout crowd of 5,342 fans at Toyota Stadium – Saint Louis wasn’t looking like a great prospect for an upturn in form. Thanks to Octavio Guzman’s 72nd-minute free kick, however, Saint Louis claimed a 1-0 victory, holding the Battery scoreless for the first time this season as it might have revived its hopes at a playoff berth. The performance wasn’t perfect. Goalkeeper Adam Grinwis had to come up with some good saves to thwart the visitors, but it was the type of performance that could lay the foundation for better to come.
Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel / Saint Louis FC
10. ISLAND LIVING: The team Saint Louis, and everyone else, is now chasing in the eighth and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference is the Harrisburg City Islanders, whose renaissance continued with a 1-0 win against the Richmond Kickers at FNB Field, thanks to Ropapa Mensah’s first goal for the club. Harrisburg is going through similar issues that it did a season ago, with leading forwards Aaron Wheeler and Pedro Ribeiro both absent for each of Harrisburg’s wins in the last week. This year, though, there appears to be a stronger willingness to work through the club’s absences and make it happen anyway, as evidenced by Ropapa’s individual display. Guilty of squandering a gilt-edged chance early in the second half, the 19-year-old Ghanaian didn’t let his head drop, and subsequently produced an excellent finish to decide the game. The City Islanders get another big test with the Charlotte Independence’s visit on Tuesday night to wrap up a three-game home stand. A third win would stamp the side as a serious threat to anyone down the stretch.
11. REGGAE THUMP: Phoenix Rising FC Head Coach Patrice Carteron surveyed the field during the first half of his side’s game on Saturday night with Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex and was highly unimpressed with what he saw. “No intensity,” he told reporters after the game. But while he certainly provided his team some strong halftime words, Carteron also made the move that proved the match-winner as Jason Johnson’s halftime introduction saw the Jamaican forward score both goals in a vital 2-1 victory. With four consecutive draws coming into the game, Phoenix had yet to truly catch fire since Carteron’s introduction. Now they head to Tulsa on Saturday night level on points with eighth-place Tulsa Roughnecks FC in one of the bigger games of the upcoming week.