Photo courtesy Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati
Every weekend, it seems, there are questions to be answered by teams and individuals as the race to the USL Cup Playoffs ramps up into its final month. For the likes of FC Cincinnati and Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night this was undoubtedly the case. For the answers provided by those two sides – and others – the weekend might have produced more questions. What to make of the fact that all three of the top teams in the Western Conference fell, and all three of the teams sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference failed to earn victory? With four weeks to go in the regular season, and a big slate of games coming up in midweek, where do we stand as the postseason nears?
1. PRIDE OF THE CITY: FC Cincinnati’s clash with the New York Red Bulls in the Semifinals of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup will remain the biggest game the club will play in this season, but Saturday’s game against the Red Bulls II in their home regular-season finale wasn’t that far off in terms of importance given the Eastern Conference standings going into the weekend. That FCC rose to the occasion to earn a 4-2 victory behind a good set-piece header and three spectacular finishes – which accounted for the side’s only four shots on goal of the game – spoke volumes about how serious the club’s predicament had become, and how focused the side was to deal with it. The big question going forward now for FCC is whether it can replicate these performances over the final four games of the season, with consistency having been the key issue throughout 2017.
2. FLAGS UP: One thing that can’t be questioned is the commitment Cincinnati’s fans have continued to show through an up-and-down season that has seen its fair share of disappointment on the field. With a USL-record crowd of 30,417 on hand on Saturday night, FCC’s support brought an exhilarating atmosphere to a high-level contest on the field. The odds are currently against Nippert Stadium hosting another FCC game this season, but the club’s second season has been another resounding success off the field as it prepares to welcome the U.S. Women’s National Team to Cincinnati on Tuesday night.
Photo courtesy Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati
3. JOLTED TO LIFE: The Charleston Battery’s recent travails had seen the side slip out of contention for a top-two finish, and things weren’t looking good for that trend to end on Saturday night as it was reduced to 10 men when Romario Williams was sent off in the first half against the Richmond Kickers. But with their longtime rivals unable to take advantage of being up a player throughout the second half, the introduction of Heviel Cordoves proved the joker in the pack for Battery Head Coach Mike Anhaesuer as the Cuban notched a surprising winner with six minutes to go. Cordoves isn’t a flashy player, his goal on Saturday was only his third of the season, but his consistent energy and work-rate has made him valuable for Charleston during his time with the club. On Saturday, he gave the side the pick-me-up it needed to push back into the top three.
4. KEEPING IT FRESH: Phoenix Rising FC is currently the only side in the USL Western Conference without a defeat in its last five games, and its 2-0 victory against Western Conference-leader Real Monarchs SLC showed off both the depth of the squad that’s now residing at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex, but also how strongly it has bought into Head Coach Patrice Carteron’s way of doing things. As has been a trend over the past couple of years, Rising FC has become a side that is comfortable winning games while not needing to dominate the ball, instead making sure it is watertight defensively and incisive in attack. Now with fifth place in its sights as it begins a three-game trip to the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday night, Rising FC is well on its way to a first playoff berth.
Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
5. HAMMERED HOME: The obvious counterpoint to Rising FC’s way of doing things is that of the Swope Park Rangers, whose desire to possess and control the tempo of the game before finding the incisive pass in the attacking third has been evident throughout this season. On Sunday against a San Antonio side that seemed under par as it concluded a run of four successive road game, the Rangers took full advantage as they out-possessed, outdueled and outshot their visitors to the tune of a 5-2 victory. The result marked the most goals conceded in SAFC’s history, and a high watermark for SPR’s attack this season as it pushed its way back toward the top three in the standings with a standout performance.
6. STRUCK OUT: Reno 1868 FC had plenty in prospect for its first visit to H-E-B Park, but ended up missing on both securing a place in the playoffs and the USL single-season scoring record as Rio Grande Valley FC kept its slim playoff hopes alive with a 1-0 victory. There shouldn’t be much concern that both of those achievements will arrive – potentially as soon as Wednesday night as the side returns to Greater Nevada Field – as a slowdown from the goal-scoring pace the club was setting was bound to happen at some point. Patience on pulling the trigger might even be a virtue with the finishing line in sight.
7. GOING GREEN: Reno’s visitor on Wednesday night for the USL Game of the Week on ESPN3 is OKC Energy FC, which is coming off a big victory of its own that gave Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen’s side back the reins in the race for the eighth and final place in the USL Cup Playoffs. A 2-0 win against Black Gold Derby rival Tulsa Roughnecks FC at Taft Stadium off the back of two early goals by Miguel Gonzalez and Jose Barril ensured the side wouldn’t go winless against its in-state rival this season, but more importantly pushed the side into a place where it again controls its own destiny in search of a playoff place. The road ahead is still a difficult one – not only is third-place Reno the opponent on Wednesday, but then there’s fifth-place Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday night in the back-end of the road trip – but if Energy FC’s best players continue to shine the pathway is there.
Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC
8. SWITCHED OFF: As OKC Energy FC and Orange County SC both took victories on Sunday afternoon, the heads in Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC’s camp probably dropped just a little more. Already holding on for dear life after three defeats in their prior four games, the Switchbacks’ 1-1 draw against Seattle Sounders FC 2 continued the club’s struggles, and put a third consecutive trip to the playoffs further out of reach. Not only does Colorado Springs now sit below both OKC and Orange County in the Western Conference, both also have a game in hand on the Switchbacks. Unless something very dramatic happens in the next four games, it’s going to be a longer offseason than usual at Weidner Field.
9. CRACK THE WINDOW: Saint Louis FC’s hope in March was its season would be longer than usual with the club’s offseason moves, and while there have been more downs than ups in 2017 for the side its 2-0 victory against Orlando City B at Toyota Stadium – Saint Louis ensured those hopes are certainly alive. Facing a team sitting above the red line it was a game STLFC knew it had to win and thanks to an early goal by Ryan Howe and a penalty kick by Christian Volesky the hosts were able to overcome Austin Ledbetter’s second-half sending off. FC Cincinnati arrives next in another six-pointer, and with more questions as to whether STLFC’s playoff push is for real.
10. HOUNDED OUT: At a certain point, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds must have to wonder what it’s going to take for them to earn a victory against the Rochester Rhinos. On Saturday night, the hosts had done almost everything right to earn three points that would have moved the Riverhounds into the top eight in the Eastern Conference at the end of the night thanks to an excellent goal by Kevin Kerr with 19 minutes to go. In the final minute, though, a missed defensive assignment allowed the Rhinos’ Joe Farrell a free header from eight yards out, and left the Riverhounds to wonder what might have been. Pittsburgh’s run without a win against Rochester now stretches more than three years, with Saturday’s result dealing a tough blow to the Riverhounds’ playoff hopes.
Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds
11. DRAWN AND QUARTERED: Pittsburgh does at least still sit within touching distance of the top eight in the Eastern Conference, something that remains out of reach of Ottawa Fury FC after it took a 1-1 draw with the Charlotte Independence on Saturday night. Ordinarily taking a point from the second-place side in the Eastern Conference at the Sportsplex at Matthews would be taken as a solid performance, but for Fury FC it simply continued a run of draws that have left the side needing help to earn a postseason berth in its first season in the USL. With Louisville City FC up next on Sunday at TD Place, the final reckoning might arrive sooner than later.