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11 Things – Down to the Wire

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 06/25/18, 9:54AM EDT

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Fortunes turned in a blink as late key moments had impact on playoff races

There’s a popular phrase within soccer circles: Goals change Games. In Week 15 of the 2018 USL regular season, however, that phrase could easily be expanded to Goals change seasons, given the impact of some of the late drama that we saw across 12 games in the past weekend. With one-third of those contests producing a result-changing goal in the final five minutes, and another a missed opportunity that could go down as a major moment for the team that received a reprieve, we may have reached the point of the season where every game-changing moment comes under greater scrutiny than before.

1. SILVER STREAK: With all of the above noted, one of the teams that didn’t leave it late to claim a big victory was Reno 1868 FC, which extended its undefeated streak to 12 games with a 2-0 victory against San Antonio FC in one of two big games around the Western Conference playoff line on Saturday night. Two great goals proved the difference for Reno as Jerry van Ewijk landed on SportsCenter’s ESPN Top 10 for his outstanding first-half free kick, while Brian Brown added the insurance goal in the season half for his third tally in as many games after coming on as a substitute. Reno is still in seventh place despite its undefeated run due to having as many draws as wins across the 12 games, but in moving five points clear of 10th-place SAFC, Head Coach Ian Russell’s side is creating a solid gap between itself and the chasing pack below the line.

2. MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE: The other Western Conference game that featured two sides vying for position either side of the playoff cutoff was at Weidner Field, where for a while it appeared neither Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC or Fresno FC had an answer that would unlock the opposing defense. But with four minutes to go the Switchbacks found what could be a season-defining goal thanks to Shane Malcolm, who lifted the 5,000-strong capacity crowd – a club record – with a devastating free kick from 28 yards out that found the top-right corner of the net. Malcolm’s effort stood as the only shot on goal of the game for either side, and while Colorado Springs will have to hope the sides below it in eighth place aren’t able to take advantage of the games in hand they hold on the Switchbacks, Head Coach Steve Trittschuh’s side at least got three points it almost had to have as it reached the midway point of its regular season.

Sights & Sounds – Switchbacks Shine Before Sellout

3. RUNNING ON EMPTY: There have been plenty of spectacular finishes from free kicks this season, but this past weekend produced four absolute pearls that all ended up playing a major role in the games the appeared in. One of those was by Saint Louis FC’s Wal Fall, whose 90th minute strike to the top-right corner earned his side a 2-2 draw against Sacramento Republic FC at Papa Murphy’s Park that over the opening 70 minutes had seemed bottled up and sealed by the hosts. Saint Louis recorded only six shots – none of which forced a save from Republic FC goalkeeper Josh Cohen – as the clock reached the 70th minute, but then produced a turnaround that saw Sacramento appear to run out of gas as the visitors recorded a 7-1 shot edge to close out the game. Republic FC Head Coach Simon Elliott certainly wasn’t happy about it as his side missed out on the opportunity to close the gap on second-place Phoenix. “We dropped off. I have no idea why we dropped off,” said Elliott after the game. “I’m going to ask them that question. There’s no reason to do so.”

4. SQUEEZE PLAY: If there was a reason Sacramento dropped off, it could certainly point to its arduous midweek clash in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against Los Angeles FC as a reason. So potentially could Louisville City FC, which while it came through its meeting with Nashville SC to become the lone USL side still standing in the Quarterfinals of the historic tournament suffered a similar late letdown against North Carolina FC in a 2- 2 draw on Saturday night at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park. Daniel Rios’ second goal of the game – and eighth of the regular season – earned North Carolina a point against the defending USL Cup champion. The pressure the hosts applied over the final half-hour which saw NCFC outshoot Louisville 10-1 came to bear with three minutes to go as Rios tucked away Tiyi Shipalane’s cross and put added pressure on Louisville’s pursuit of FC Cincinnati at the top of the Eastern Conference. Louisville still has two games in hand, and therefore the ability to overtake Cincinnati if it takes victory in both, but as we’re seeing once again having points in your pocket is always better than having to pull them off the tree.

5. NO LUCK HERE: The three draws on Saturday night in the Eastern Conference – which also saw games between the Charleston Battery and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and the Richmond Kickers and Charlotte Independence end deadlocked – only added to the magnitude of Penn FC’s 2-1 victory on Friday night as the visitors ruined Marcel Schäfer’s farewell party for the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium. As in the first meeting between the clubs this season it was a former Rowdies player who did the damage as Lucky Mkosana picked up the baton from Tommy Heinemann in scoring a brace to lift Penn to victory. There’s still margin for wondering how good this Penn side can be – especially with the Rowdies looking out of sorts as they conceded 17 fouls and picked up four yellow cards and one red early in the second half to forward Leon Taylor – but with games against fellow playoff contenders Indy Eleven and Bethlehem Steel FC the next two games on the docket there’s the potential for a big move in the next two weeks.

6. JOLTED TO LIFE: You could make a parallel between the runs being made by Penn FC and OKC Energy FC as they both near the midway point of the season after Energy FC’s dramatic 1-0 victory against the LA Galaxy II on Saturday night earned the side its third consecutive win, but the reality remains that there is far more heavy sledding ahead of OKC than its Eastern Conference counterpart even with their comparative bursts of form. That Energy FC found a way to win a game in which it struggled greatly in the attacking third – being outshot 16-7 by Los Dos, whose playoff chances took a major hit in the defeat – produced a theme in the locker room after the game that the tide was beginning to turn for OKC. That might be the case, certainly, but it’s going to take more than a few kind bounces to get Head Coach Steve Cooke’s side closer to the top eight, a fact Cooke freely acknowledges. “People think now that the tide has turned and things are really going to go forward for them, we operate the same way,” said Cooke. “Get up, come to work and do the best that we can each and every day.”

7. BEST LAID PLANS: With the race for the playoffs now in full swing, the difference between a win and a draw, or a draw and a loss, gets magnified that much more. That was the case for Energy FC and others this weekend, but maybe the best example of that fine line came thanks to the most inconceivable ending to a game we’ve seen this season. Handed a chance to equalize from the penalty spot in stoppage time against the Swope Park Rangers, Las Vegas Lights FC decided it was time to dip into the bag of tricks as Carlos Alvarez tapped the penalty kick laterally for an onrushing Sammy Ochoa, who thumped his finish off the right post, allowing the Rangers’ defense to clear and summon the final whistle. Lights FC Head Coach Isidro Sanchez called the decision to go for the trick play a brave one, which is one way of looking at it, but in allowing the Rangers to secure all three points and jump into the top four of the Western Conference, Lights FC might have self-inflicted a would that could take time to heal.

8. GOLDEN HOUR: In addition to its astounding final act, Swope Park’s victory also saw Kharlton Belmar notch his ninth goal of the regular season as he kept up his pace of a goal per game this season. He’s got company at the top of the race for the USL Golden Boot from Orange County SC’s Thomas Enevoldsen, and if you had to pick between the two you’d probably have to make Enevoldsen the favorite among the two of them to finish with more goals given Belmar’s inconsistent presence in the Rangers’ lineup. Enevoldsen, on the other hand, is one of OCSC Head Coach Braeden Cloutier’s first names on the team sheet every week, and he and his teammates put a 6-1 pummeling on Tulsa Roughnecks FC on Saturday night to continue to bolster their playoff credentials in a 6-1 victory. While that was a stroll in the Great Park for Orange County, it sets up a must-see contest on Friday night when the side visits Phoenix Rising FC in a top-five Western Conference clash.

9. BALL OF FURY: Ottawa Fury FC’s Adonijah Reid isn’t part of the USL Golden Boot discussion, but in scoring the eighth hat trick of the season on Sunday in his side’s 3-0 victory against the New York Red Bulls II he did produce the latest “where did that come from?” moment of the season and gave Fury FC a win it desperately needed as well. The 18-year-old had gone without a goal in his 11 prior appearances this season, so when he struck after just four minutes with a well-taken low finish to the right corner it set things up for Fury FC to play the counterattacking style they’d hoped on the road to an even greater extent, and Reid’s two counterattack goals in the second half resulted from the score pressure rising on the hosts. After a tough start to June after an immaculate May, Fury FC is still alive and kicking ahead of visits to FC Cincinnati and Indy Eleven that will shape what sort of ending their season will hold.

10. ON THE EDGE: On the flip side on Sunday evening, the picture wasn’t a pretty one for the Red Bulls II, who appear to have reached a crossroads in their season after going 0-2-1 and conceding eight goals in three games over a nine-day span. That’s left New York sitting precariously in the eighth and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference as it prepares to face Louisville City FC on the road next Saturday night as Head Coach John Wolyniec looks for answers to some uncharacteristically slack performances. “As a staff, we felt like we’d prepared the team, but we didn’t heed that warning we were given before the game,” Wolyniec said after the contest. “Once we gave up the goal it was hard to get back in even though we had some chances, should have had a tap-in but somehow the play gets stopped, but in the end we kinda deserved to lose. Little unfortunate.” Certainly, New York seemed to draw the short straw on Amando Moreno’s simple finish before the break that would have leveled the score where advantage wasn’t played, but there are problems to be solved here by the Red Bulls II’s talented youngsters.

11. MUSIC CITY MAGIC: With the way the weekend’s results fell in the Eastern Conference, the side that arguably benefitted most was Nashville SC, which will have the chance on Tuesday night to jump into second place in the conference standings as it welcomes Indy Eleven to First Tennessee Park for the first USL Game of the Week on ESPNews this season. With Nashville a perfect 4-0-0 at FTP this season after a dramatic winner of its own in Week 14, and Indy having taken a 2-1 victory when the sides met for the first time this season and looking to boost its playoff prospects, it should definitely be worth tuning in for as the summer peak of the season starts a 21-game match week with a bang.

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