Depth and consistent quality throughout a lineup are typically the traits sought for a side that is going to end up a title contender but every so often it certainly helps to be able to count on an individual who can produce something special. That was certainly the case across the USL this past weekend as individual performances and moments elevated teams to important results as the race for the USL Cup Playoffs continued to take shape before a record week of attendance across the league that saw almost 140,000 fans take in action over the past seven days.
1. MR. INCREDIBLE: There were moments on Saturday night as San Antonio FC’s rearguard action against Sacramento Republic FC continued that you found yourself thinking, “well, surely there’s going to be a breakthrough before the final whistle?” But as save after save piled up for SAFC goalkeeper Diego Restrepo, say nothing of unyielding work by the likes of Cyprian Hedrick, who collected five blocked shots, the breakthrough never arrived for the visitors as San Antonio pocketed three points after a 1-0 victory and gave its pursuit of a return to the postseason a major boost. After his selection as USL Goalkeeper of the Year last season, most were aware of what Restrepo was capable of, but in a season where he’s already saved points for his side through remarkable late stops, Saturday’s performance was arguably the veteran at the peak of his powers in his best performance of 2018.
2. CUTTING IT UP: Last Wednesday night, Phoenix Rising FC’s Jason Johnson submitted a perfectly good candidate for USL Fans’ Choice Goal of the Week as his great individual run and finish helped lead Phoenix to victory against Las Vegas Lights FC. What no-one was prepared for was his encore on Saturday night, when he pulled off a scissor kick that must go down as one of the best finishes in the USL’s modern era. Reminiscent of Sean Okoli’s wondrous strike for FC Cincinnati two seasons ago in FCC’s first game at Nippert Stadium, or the sort of thing Mark Hughes used to produce when at the height of his fame, Johnson’s amazing strike lit the internet on fire in reactions from both fans and current and former teammates. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, given that Johnson hasn’t exactly been scoring simple goals the rest of this season, but now he’s in the middle of the Golden Boot race with his 20th USL goal for Rising FC the finest of the lot so far.
3. TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS: While Johnson’s remarkable goal took the spotlight in the 24 hours that followed it, what Phoenix Rising FC did for itself in the five days following the departure of now former Head Coach Patrice Carteron might have the longer-lasting impact for the club overall. Two victories with a combined 7-0 scoreline against two teams the side certainly should have been favored to handle easily got Rick Schantz’s second stint as the sideline leader for the club off to a roaring start, and still in hot pursuit of Real Monarchs SLC in the Western Conference. There will be bigger challenges to come, but right now Phoenix is driving full steam ahead as its attack continues to look among the most potent in the league.
4. DIGGING THE DIRT: There are wins a team claims that come from the types of performances we saw from Phoenix in the past week, but arguably at least as important when it comes to achieving the goals a club sets for itself in a season are those resembling the 1-0 win produced by Real Monarchs SLC on the road against Saint Louis FC on Saturday night. An early penalty kick by Chandler Hoffman – who doubled his goal total in the past week to six – was enough as Connor Sparrow almost matched SAFC’s Diego Restrepo save for save to end his shutout with eight on a night that ended up frustrating the hosts as they looked for a third consecutive win. All wins count the same in the end, of course, but in once again rebounding from defeat the Monarchs made sure they’re still the team to beat in the Western Conference, and for the USL Regular Season Championship.
5. MANU-AL LABOR: There are a whole lot of notable names you can pick out of FC Cincinnati’s lineup right now, but the spotlight continues to shine brightest on Emmanuel Ledesma after another scintillating strike that was part of a 4-0 victory against the Richmond Kickers before a season-high crowd of 28,026 at Nippert Stadium. With seven goals and seven assists on the season, Ledesma is the only player in the league in the top four in both categories and is a clear candidate for Most Valuable Player as the season nears its halfway point. Ledesma’s performance against Richmond was part of what FCC Head Coach Alan Koch believed was the club’s most complete display of the season. After some rocky moments so far, FCC’s fans must be hoping this is the side they’ll see for much of the rest of the year.
6. WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Saturday night was a big one for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, with the club welcoming its largest crowd of the season – including some who were making the trip to Highmark Stadium for the first time – for Mister Rogers Night. In putting up an impressive 3-0 victory against the New York Red Bulls II, the Hounds showed why they’ve been one of the bigger on-field stories in the USL this season as the Jamaican connection of Neco Brett and Romeo Parkes produced a dazzling display that was capped by Parkes’ second-half backflip. With two games in hand on Cincinnati, the Hounds are in range of the Eastern Conference’s leader, and their back-to-back visits to the Charleston Battery and Louisville City FC now loom large on the schedule for what continues to look like a serious contender.
7. SLIP-SLIDING AWAY: While both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh produced impressive victories, Louisville City FC was part of arguably the most surprising result of the weekend as it squandered a two-goal lead in a 3-3 draw against Penn FC that ended the club’s perfect start to the season at Slugger Field and put a dent in its pursuit of FCC at the top of the conference standings. The draw marked the first time Louisville had conceded three goals in a game since its 3-0 defeat to Orlando City B on August 26, 2017 as defensive errors allowed Penn back into the game in dramatic fashion. “I think we thought the game was won already,” said Louisville forward Ilija Ilic. “We dropped too deep and they had chances to play more and then that’s when you get frustrated.”
8. LUCKY NUMBERS: For its part, Penn had already laid out a warning on Lucky Mkosana’s goal after 14 seconds that gave the visitors a shock early lead, but the manner in which the visitors took the game to Louisville in the second half earned them a valuable point that built on the two home victories that preceded Saturday’s contest. Penn outshot Louisville 12-2 in the second half of the contest, with the hosts failing to produce a shot on goal as its first effort after the break arrived with 17 minutes to go. The question now for Penn is whether this is the sort of false dawn that arrived a season ago – the club had a midseason stretch where it went 4-1-1 with victories against Louisville and New York last season before falling back out of playoff contention – or the start of a serious move toward a first USL Cup Playoffs trip since 2014.
9. BIG PAPA: There’s a moment in every inaugural season that might not end up being the biggest by the time the year is complete but is the one that fans point to as the moment when a club truly arrived in its city. Ropapa Mensah’s 94th-minute game-winner certainly felt like it was that moment in Nashville SC’s history on Saturday night as the hosts maintained their perfect record at First Tennessee Park this season in a 1-0 victory that saw the side finally knock down the wall that North Carolina FC had built for much of the game. Mensah has had big moments before, both for Penn FC a season ago and this year in Nashville, but Saturday night’s goal that lifted the club into the top four in the Eastern Conference for the first time is one that’s going to be hard to top for the 20-year-old and for the more-than 9,000 fans that were on hand.
10. CHIPS AND DIPS: With all of the great goals that happened over the past weekend, there was one that went slightly overlooked in that of the Charlotte Independence’s Mutaya Mwape, but the rookie’s exquisite chip that earned a 1-1 draw with the Charleston Battery in the second Southern Derby this season also had a greater significance as it kept Charlotte ahead of its regional rival in the Eastern Conference. After what had been a frustrating night for the Independence attack against the Battery’s resolute defense, Mwape’s deft chip from the right side of the penalty area made the Battery pay for its missed chances to add to their lead. As for if there was any question as to his intent? “When I saw he was off his line I just tried to chip it over him and it worked,” Mwape said after the game, providing the answer to the question you certainly might have asked.
11. FOXES' JEWEL: When it comes to individual efforts, it’s been hard to top the moments that Jemal Johnson has provided for Fresno FC in its inaugural season, but on Sunday night his latest brilliant finish was part of a performance that might have signaled the Foxes’ emergence as a side that could have turned a corner toward becoming a playoff contender. Johnson’s volleyed effort capped off an opening spell that saw the Foxes score three excellent goals in a 4-1 victory against a Swope Park Rangers side that fell flat after its victory against Real Monarchs SLC on Wednesday night, with the passing and movement the hosts showed off at Chukchanski Park that of a side that has finally clicked into place. It’s going to be an uphill battle for Fresno to make the top eight in the West, not least because its rivals have played fewer games so far this season. That means the stakes are going to be raised for Saturday’s visit to Colorado Springs in what will be one of the most important games of the season for both the Foxes and the Switchbacks.