Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
There’s often talk at the end of games of the fine margins and moments that decide a contest. This past weekend those moments served more to leave teams level than provide some of the dramatic victories we’ve already seen in 2018 as eight of the 11 games played out on Saturday and Sunday ended all square. Arguably the biggest game of the weekend ended with a decisive result, however, and a historic moment for all who saw it.
1. MARKING A MILESONE: The Tampa Bay Rowdies have had numerous players become fan favorites and iconic figures in their modern era, but it’s hard to think of one that has both endeared himself to the club’s faithful and etched his way into the club’s record book in the way that Georgi Hristov has. The Bulgarian forward began his sixth season at the club this spring and on Saturday night reached another milestone, tying original Rowdies great Derek Smethurst for the all-time lead in goals with his 57th tally in a Rowdies uniform. That it helped produce a 2-0 victory for the Rowdies against the previously perfect Real Monarchs SLC only added to the sense of occasion at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night as a crowd of 6,027 fans paid tribute to the 33-year-old veteran, who seems in fine fettle with four goals in six games already this season.
2. ROYALS DETHRONED: Real Monarchs SLC’s perfect start to the season came at the hands of the Rowdies, but there was still a good amount to be pleased about in the performance on the road as the visitors carried good portions of the game against a fired-up Tampa Bay side and fanbase eager to put its road defeat in New York in the rear-view mirror. The Monarchs finished the game with more shots overall than their hosts but were unable to capitalize on a strong spell midway through the first half that came prior to Joe Cole’s opening goal of the night for Tampa Bay, which brought the only clear disappointing moment of the night for the visitors in Michael Gallagher’s error to allow the former England international an invitation to score the crucial opening goal. With the opening of Zion’s Bank Stadium next on the docket for Head Coach Mark Briggs and his side, there’s plenty to look forward to in what should be a memorable night for the club.
3. BOOST OFF THE BENCH: Given last season’s encounters between Phoenix Rising FC and the Swope Park Rangers, Saturday night’s meeting before 6,300 fans at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex played out in a manner that shouldn’t have been too unfamiliar to start off, and once again produced late fireworks in a thrilling 2-2 draw that left those watching in person or digitally rewarded. Rising FC seemed happy to cede possession for much of the contest and try to use its speed on the counterattack, but it was the second-half introduction of Jason Johnson that proved a difference-maker as the Jamaican first played a key role in the build-up on Billy Forbes’ opening goal and offered a better outlet on the right side that helped create more chances for the hosts. Solomon Asante provided the magical moment to grab a point for Rising FC, but Johnson helped initially turn the game in Phoenix’s favor.
4. MAN OF STEEL: It’s been understood for a while now the Swope Park Rangers have a game-changing force in forward Kharlton Belmar, but the response the 25-year-old led to almost lead the visitors to victory on the road was another moment that should draw attention from a wider audience. Belmar’s league-leading seventh goal of the regular season was a show-stopper, powering his way to goal after gaining possession 40 yards from goal before producing a perfect finish, and was worthy of being the game-winner in a great back-and-forth contest. The Rangers will be disappointed to leave Arizona with only a point, but in Belmar they have someone you can count on when the stakes are high.
5. BEST LAID PLANS: Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC might also be disappointed to only have walked away with a point on Saturday night after twice taking the lead against FC Cincinnati in another compelling 2-2 draw that played out before a crowd of 24,505 at Nippert Stadium. The Hounds twice took the lead, and on another night that might have been good enough to stand given the defensive prowess the side had shown going into Cincinnati, but the hosts produced enough of a response on each occasion to get another point. Until the second half of Saturday’s game, though, it still didn’t seem that FCC has figured out what kind of side it is, which three months after starting preseason should be concerning, as should Head Coach Alan Koch’s postgame comments that the side “literally took the script and threw it out the window at halftime.” Cincinnati has still suffered only one defeat, but it feels like there should have been more on show five games into the season.
6. FLIPPING THE SCRIPT: There had been little go right for Ottawa Fury FC in the final 15 minutes of games so far this season, but in its home opener against North Carolina FC that ended in a 1-1 draw on Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 6,137 at TD Place things seemed like they might have hit a small turnaround thanks to captain Carl Haworth. The Canadian winger’s introduction midway through the second half began to tilt the game in Fury FC’s favor as his energy and willingness to run at the opposition sparked the rest of the side to life as it looked to answer North Carolina’s well-worked opener. Cristian Portilla’s wickedly bending corner kick from the right with four minutes to go that whipped into the near post and caused a handling error by NCFC goalkeeper Alex Tambakis proved Ottawa’s reward, and while there’s still a lot of work to be done for Head Coach Nikola Popovic it will have felt good to be on the right end of the late dramatics for a day.
7. UGLY IS BEAUTIFUL: Saint Louis FC’s 1-0 victory against OKC Energy FC was about as beautiful as the conditions that welcomed the clubs to a rainy and windswept Taft Stadium on Saturday night, but with his side now sitting with 11 points from its opening six games of the season that likely wasn’t much of an immediate concern to STLFC Head Coach Anthony Pulis. The visitors managed the only two shots on goal in the game, with the first by Christian Volesky making the difference on the night as he produced a fine finish after being handed the opportunity to get in behind the defense near the halfway line. Saint Louis is now undefeated in four, with three of those having been 1-0 victories as the side grinds its way up the standings.
8. TURNING THE TIDE: After the nature of their past two defeats, it could have been easy for Reno 1868 FC’s frustration levels to have risen after an avoidable error led to the opening goal for the Portland Timbers 2 on Saturday night. Instead, the visitors produced arguably their best half of the season to emerge with a 2-1 victory at Merlo Field for their first win of the season that should help calm some nerves ahead of a key stretch of five games in 15 days that kicks off next Saturday in Oklahoma City. Reno outshot its hosts 11-1 after the halftime break and ended up putting enough pressure on the T2 defense for it to crack as Danny Musovski scored his second and third goals of the season off assists by Antoine Hoppenot, with the late winner a potentially major turning point in the direction of the club’s season.
9. REDEMPTION SONG: Making his debut for ATL UTD 2 on Saturday night, the spotlight was firmly fixed on U.S. U20 international Andrew Carleton on Saturday night, and the 17-year-old produced some memorable moments in the 1-1 draw as the club hosted defending USL Cup champion Louisville City FC. The first gave Atlanta the chance to take the lead as his clever back-heeled pass found a surging Devon Sandoval, who was brought down for a penalty kick, but Carleton skied the shot from the spot with the chance to give the hosts the lead. That miss appeared it might prove costly as the defending USL Cup champion took the lead through a great low finish by Cameron Lancaster in the 66th minute, but in the final minute Carleton earned a second penalty kick on a counterattack and buried his chance at redemption low to the left corner for his first professional goal to keep Atlanta’s undefeated start to the season intact.
10. CAPTAIN KEN: Penn FC also needed some late drama in its home opener to secure a point in a 1-1 draw against the Charleston Battery, but Ken Tribbett’s bicycle kick-finish provided a major high to end the club’s home opener at FNB Field on as it earned a third consecutive point. A former standout at the club in 2015, when Tribbett shone to earn nomination for USL Rookie of the Year before spending two seasons with the Philadelphia Union, the experience he brings is going to be invaluable this year as Penn looks to put together a side that can contend for a first playoff appearance since 2014. Taking all Saturday’s performance into account this side isn’t at that point yet – the Battery held a solid advantage in most facets of the game and will be kicking themselves for the lack of marking on Penn’s equalizer – but moments like Tribbett’s goal could have a galvanizing effect ahead of a quick turnaround to face Nashville SC on Tuesday night.
11. FOXES LEFT FORLORN: Fresno FC did almost everything right on Sunday night, but after a 0-0 draw with San Antonio FC that saw the side end up with two points from two winnable home games in the past week there was a sense of disappointment at Chukchansi Park. “I got to go in the locker room and cheer them up because they felt like they lost again,” said Foxes Head Coach Adam Smith after the game, which saw the hosts create a majority of the chances and hold SAFC to only two shots on goal. If there is a silver lining it’s that Fresno is now six games undefeated and putting itself in the right positions to find success, but that wasn’t much consolation after another game where the club felt it left points on the table.