Photo courtesy Matt Zambonin / Freestyle Photography / Ottawa Fury FC
As the league marked a milestone moment at the earliest point in the league’s history, surpassing 500,000 in attendance on Saturday night two weeks earlier than a year ago, the action on the field led by Kenney Walker’s magical moment that landed the No. 1 spot on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 that night gave us plenty to think about as the season closes its first quarter this week.
1. BLOCKBUSTER MOMENT: After opening its second half against Ottawa Fury FC in full flow, FC Cincinnati had already been denied four times from 12 yards-and-in by opposing goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau as it sought a breakthrough on the road at TD Place. But with Crepeau playing higher off his line as FCC took a goal kick in the 68th minute, Kenney Walker saw his opportunity and immediately pounced.
Forty-nine-and-a-half yards later – according to the track placed on it by ESPN’s SportsCenter – the central midfielder produced the goal that burst the dam in what turned into a 3-0 victory for the visitors that also saw Corben Bone and Emmanuel Ledesman produced excellent finishes of their own. There are still going to be some questions about FCC’s second consecutive slow first-half performance, but the quality the side produced in the second 45 minutes on Saturday showed just what this side could be capable of when it puts it all together.
2. HIT EARLY, HIT OFTEN: The standard everyone remains looking to emulate, of course, is that of Louisville City FC, which produced a stellar first-half display to quickly dispatch Bethlehem Steel FC in a 3-1 victory that saw the Eastern Conference leaders stretch their lead to four points with its fifth victory out of six games to start the season. A pair of goals for Cameron Lancaster, who now sits in the logjam of players tied for third in the league, highlighted an overwhelming start to the game by the hosts that saw Louisville score three times in the opening 22 minutes to put Bethlehem into a hole it proved unable to emerge from, and continue to mark the side as the team to beat arguably in either conference.
3. HITTING THE TURN: The Charleston Battery’s offseason changes it personnel seemed to play a part in the up and down start to the season the side experienced, but after back-to-back wins in the past seven days the pieces appear to have fallen into place for Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser after Saturday’s 1-0 victory against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The Battery shifted to a three-man back line against Penn FC on April 21, dropping Neveal Hackshaw back from midfield, and the new shape has paid almost immediate dividends with Tah Anunga playing as the central workhorse in midfield and both Jay Bolt and Jarad van Schaik getting the chance to play more aggressively on the flanks. With Ataulla Guerra continuing to step forward in attack, scoring his third goal of the season against Tampa Bay, the Battery are cementing their new identity and seem poised to kick on with four more home games to come in their current homestand.
4. ROAD BLUES: The Tampa Bay Rowdies wanted to avoid falling into the same trap as they struggled with a season ago when the side was almost unbeatable at home, and seemingly unable to find a way to win on the road throughout 2017. With Saturday’s loss in Charleston, though, Tampa Bay has now lost three games in a row on the road since its victory at North Carolina FC to open the season which has allowed Louisville to open its advantage at the top of the conference standings. For the firepower the side appears to possess, too, Saturday’s display was surprisingly lacking in bite in the final third as the Rowdies registered only two shots on goal over the 90 minutes. There’s still plenty of quality within Head Coach Stuart Campbell’s squad, and its losses have been to three sides with stellar home records themselves, but Tampa Bay is going to have to figure out how to replicate its home form on the road if it’s going to end up in contention for a high finish at the end of the season.
5. DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN: Last season it took until the sixth game of the year for Reno 1868 FC to claim its first regular-season victory as a club, but once that moment arrived the side took off in a manner that produced a record haul of goals and a top-three finish in the Western Conference. By that standard, 1868 FC is now ahead of last season’s pace, and it has two Nevada standouts to thank for it. After Danny Musovski’s late heroics on April 21 lifted the side to victory against the Portland Timbers 2, this past Saturday it was his former UNLV teammate Kevin Partida’s turn.
Partida’s first goal in the professional ranks was exactly the moment that Reno needed in a 2-0 victory against the struggling OKC Energy FC at Greater Nevada Field, and while there’s still work to be done to climb the standings things now seem to be right on track for the goals Head Coach Ian Russell and his crew set at the start of the season.
6. START THE BANDWAGON: For the second time in as many games, Phoenix Rising FC needed some last-gasp heroics to salvage a draw on Saturday night, and once again it was the club’s smallest player who came up big. Solomon Asante’s perfectly-played ball to release Alessandro Riggi for a 90th-minute equalizer in a 1-1 draw against Fresno FC at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex added to the Ghanaian’s sweetly-struck finish against the Swope Park Rangers the previous week and added to the reputation Asante is quickly building for Rising FC. With four goals and two assists already, and 22 key passes that place him second in the league in that category, Asante has played a direct role in six of Phoenix’s 10 goals this season. After earning nomination for USL Player of the Month in March, the technical ability and vision the 27-year-old brings has made him one of the most entertaining newcomers to arrive in the league this season.
7. OUTFOXED AGAIN: On the other side of the coin, Fresno FC walked away from Phoenix in the knowledge that given the way the game had played out prior to Riggi’s equalizer the Foxes should have walked away with all three points. But up a man for more than an hour after a reckless challenge by Rising FC’s Amadou Dia on Juan Pablo Caffa in the 26th minute saw Dia sent off, Fresno didn’t take full advantage with only an early second-half goal by Jemal Johnson to show for their efforts. The Foxes’ late lapse was reminiscent of another recent ending that saw Tulsa Roughnecks FC score a stoppage-time equalizer at Chukchansi Park, and Fresno will have to hope moments like this that saw the side drop important points early in the season won’t come back to haunt them later in the year.
8. PRESSURE POINTS: There was plenty of anticipation for what Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC could be this season after its offseason overhaul, but with the club off to its best start in its 19-year history – a start that was added to with a 1-0 win against ATL UTD 2 on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium – the transformation of the Hounds into what looks like a serious contender in the Eastern Conference has come about even more quickly than might have been anticipated. And while Riverhounds SC’s foundation is that of a side that’s always going to be difficult to break down defensively there’s also a willingness to press and attack that has allowed the side to get onto the front foot against its opponents and rarely let off the gas pedal.
9. HIT THE GAS: It’s rare that a game this early in the season feels key to a club’s season, but with the pressure that was starting to build on San Antonio FC’s attack after recording only four goals in its first six games of the year the club’s 3-1 victory against Las Vegas Lights FC on Friday night ended up feeling like the sort of result that SAFC needed, not only to make sure the gap to the Western Conference’s front-runners didn’t get too wide but also to boost the club’s collective confidence. That the side produced first-half goals that were textbook examples of the ways SAFC found success a season ago was a bonus, with Ever Guzman and Jose Escalante’s first goals of the season coming through two well-executed moves that saw the side spring forward at speed to leave Las Vegas’ defense scrambling. San Antonio will need more of the same going forward, especially given Kris Tyrpak’s departure, but this sure felt like a turning point for Head Coach Darren Powell’s side.
10. SHAPED TO FIT: North Carolina FC first few weeks in the USL weren’t pretty, but after Saturday’s 3-0 victory against Penn FC the side looks much more like the one we anticipated prior to the season’s start as Kyle Bekker stole the show at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park. With the side now on a four-game undefeated streak (2-0-2) that has pushed it to the fringes of the Eastern Conference’s playoff positions thanks to three goals in an eight-minute span against Penn, the side appears to have found the right shape and the right pieces to produce results. A quirk of the schedule means NCFC won’t see action again until May 19 when it visits FC Cincinnati, but that contest should provide a litmus test of how far the side has come since its slow start.
11. GRAND REVEAL: There are fewer nights more special to a club than the opening of a new venue, and after Los Angeles FC’s remarkable show on Sunday night at Banc of California Stadium in the grand opening of Major League Soccer’s newest stadium, Monday night will bring a similar feeling for defending USL Regular Season champion Real Monarch SLC as Zions Bank Stadium hosts its first game. With the work that has gone into the project by all within the club, the level of anticipation for the game against Las Vegas Lights FC (9 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) is palpable. The Monarchs may not want to leave it as late as LAFC did to christen its new home with a victory, but the side is certainly going to be keyed up for arguably the biggest night in the club’s short history.