Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven
An already-crowded cluster in the middle of the Eastern Conference got a new addition over the past seven days that saw clear tiers within the league emerge and the top, the middle and the bottom as the regular season approaches one-third complete. At the top, there’s now a clear team to beat in the race for the USL Regular Season Championship, and at the bottom there are those that are looking to break upward in the manner Bethlehem Steel FC did in the past week as consecutive wins catapulted last season’s USL Cup Playoffs side firmly into the race for a return trip to the postseason.
1. STATEMENT WEEK: The feeling around the Bethlehem Steel FC camp in recent weeks had been that the side had been playing well enough to get results but hadn’t been rewarded. After claiming back-to-back victories over the past seven days, including Saturday’s impressive 2-1 victory on the road against Indy Eleven before a crowd of 9 384 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium that served as its first away win of the season, Steel FC has now pushed itself firmly into the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race that sees four sides level on 14 points sitting just above the cutoff line. With 10 different players already having found the net this season, including five different goal-scorers in the past week, Bethlehem is getting the reward it believes it has deserved.
2. ALBA-CADABRA: When the lineups came out for Saturday’s game between FC Cincinnati and North Carolina FC, it was almost inevitable that what followed in the first half as Nazmi Albadawi scored twice against his former club would arrive. That they were two high-quality strikes with either foot wouldn’t have come as a surprise for fans of either side as the 26-year-old picked out the top corner with each as FCC rebounded from its second loss of the season with an emphatic 4-1 victory in front of 22,884 fans at Nippert Stadium. With a big week ahead, which sees Cincinnati visit Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on Wednesday night in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup before returning home for the second River Cities Cup clash of the season against Louisville City FC this Saturday night, FCC will have taken a major boost in confidence from a display that had everything but a clean sheet to feel positive about.
3. TURNING THE TABLES: When Louisville City FC visited ATL UTD 2 for the first meeting between the clubs in April, Louisville got stung by a late penalty kick that ended its perfect start to the regular season. On Saturday night, City FC got a measure of payback as a stoppage-time penalty kick of its own by Ilija Ilic earned a 2-1 victory before a crowd of 8,683 at Slugger Field. In both breaking the club’s two-game losing streak and allowing the side to keep pace with Cincinnati at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, Louisville will still feel there is room for improvement as it looked far more potent in attack but still managed only six shots on goal from 26 shots overall against Atlanta. The stage is set now for a double-rivalry week for the club, with a Kings’ Cup clash against Saint Louis FC on Wednesday night in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup arriving before the second and final trip to Nippert Stadium to face FC Cincinnati this season in the league on Saturday.
4. REPUBLIC MARCHES ON: After the deflating manner of his side’s loss the previous Saturday, Sacramento Republic FC Head Coach Simon Elliott was certainly looking for a positive response from his side as it headed for a top-three matchup that had plenty of hype surrounding it against Phoenix Rising FC. With two first-half goals – both beautifully taken by Cameron Iwasa and Villyan Bijev – and an outstanding goalkeeping display by Josh Cohen in his return to face his former club, Sacramento came up big in a big-time setting for its second road win of the season. Now level on points with Rising FC, Sacramento will certainly be up for a measure of revenge as it heads to Reno in midweek for the Open Cup clash between the clubs after affirming its credentials as a serious contender.
5. EVERYTHING BUT THE GOAL: It was set up to be a memorable night for Phoenix Rising FC, with Didier Drogba celebrating his 500th club appearance and the side flying high coming in on a three-game winning streak in the league. And then, in the opening 25 minutes against Sacramento Republic FC, nothing would quite go right for the hosts as the visitors took a two-goal lead it wouldn’t relinquish as chance after chance for Phoenix was either turned away brilliantly by Sacramento goalkeeper Josh Cohen or failed to find the target. Cohen even had the temerity to spoil Drogba’s day with a penalty kick save that ensured the visitors would head to halftime with its two-goal advantage intact. In the long-run, the things that ailed Phoenix on Saturday are easily fixable on what was an off-night defensively overall, but the result put a damper on the celebration.
6. SETTING THE PACE: The key a season ago to Real Monarchs SLC claiming the USL Regular Season Championship was in part consistency, but in addition to that the way the side always seemed to pick up the victory at the same time as others faltered. Saturday night was another object lesson, with the Monarchs going on the road and having to fight for a 2-0 win against Las Vegas Lights FC after Sebastian Velasquez put the visitors up in just the third minute but doing what they needed to and earning another valuable three points. Real’s lead in the Western Conference is now four points after Phoenix’s defeat on Saturday night, and with games against fellow chasers the Portland Timbers 2 and Sacramento Republic FC up next for the side it could be in very good shape by the end of the month when it comes to defending its title.
7. CHOPPING WOOD: While the Monarchs are on a four-game winning streak, their next opponent – the Portland Timbers 2 – have also put in an impressive run over their past four outings with the club sitting fourth in the Western Conference after its 7-3 victory against the LA Galaxy II on Friday afternoon. While the side’s defense didn’t maintain its solid standard of late – and given the wunderkind they were up against that probably shouldn’t be a surprise – a first hat trick for Foster Langsdorf and late run of goals that ensured a victory that should at this point have been expected to take. After suffering so many near-misses a season ago, the tables appear to have turned in T2’s favor as it now sits in strong position for a first playoff berth at the end of the season.
8. TERRIFIC TRIO: With only one win in its first 10 games, it’s likely the LA Galaxy II will be missing out on a place in the USL Cup Playoffs for a second consecutive season, but there’s still plenty to watch for with Los Dos as the season goes on thanks to the trio of Efrain Alvarez, Alex Mendez and Ulysses Llanez. Alvarez you almost certainly now know about – six goals in three games to propel yourself into the race for the USL Golden Boot will do that for a 15-year-old, let alone the manner in which you’re scoring them – but both Mendez and Llanez are also U.S. youth internationals that are going to be players to know for the future that are going to be well worth watching as this season progresses as they look to make their cases for next year’s FIFA U17 and U20 World Cups.
9. PRESSURE DROP: It’s hard to make a case for the idea that a game in the opening third of the season is a must-win, but OKC Energy FC’s 1-0 victory against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC was about as close as you’d come as the hosts finally broke through for the first time since the opening day of the regular season at Taft Stadium on Saturday night. Callum Ross’ goal with eight minutes to go not only broke a 599-minute scoreless streak for the side, but also likely took a big weight off the shoulders of Energy FC’s players and Head Coach Steve Cooke. A key save by goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel to keep out Marty Maybin’s close-range chance iced the victory for OKC, which now goes into the second Black Gold Derby knowing the road back to the playoff race is still a steep one, but one that is still navigable.
10. REARGUARD ACTION: There’s still much to be done for Ottawa Fury FC to push its way into the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race, but in extending its shutout streak to 377 minutes and its undefeated streak to four games after a 0-0 draw on the road against the Charleston Battery on Saturday night the foundation the side has put in place is clearly putting Fury FC in a place where it should be joining that battle soon. A great double-save by Canadian international Maxime Crepeau to deny the Battery’s Ataulla Guerra and Nico Rittmeyer maintained the shutout streak, and while Charleston was able to generate pressure throughout the contest Fury FC’s defense did well enough to take a valuable point back to Canada’s capital.
11. BOUNCE OF THE BALL: The Tampa Bay Rowdies got something of a “New Head Coach” bounce on Saturday night as Neill Collins took charge of the side for his first game on the sidelines after the week’s moves by the club, and while the early goal by Lance Rozeboom didn’t pave the way to a victory against the still undefeated Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in a 2-2 draw at Al Lang Stadium, breaking the downturn in form with points of any kind is still a small turn in the right direction. The Rowdies have slipped out of the top eight after Saturday’s action, and there’s going to be plenty of work to get to for Collins to bring a cohesive side together after its rough run of form, but a road game against the struggling Toronto FC II followed by three home games against sides that currently sit below it in the Eastern Conference standings offer a glimmer of hope that Tampa Bay can find a turnaround in the near-future.