For the past two years, the USL regular season has been fortunate enough to have a meeting between the club that sat with the best record in the league and the team that sported the league’s longest undefeated streak of the season in the final third of the campaign, with the ensuing implications in the standings that those meetings traditionally bring. But while Tuesday night’s game between two teams that fit those categories might not have the same immediate impact as San Antonio FC’s dramatic comeback victory against Real Monarchs SLC that extended the race for the USL Regular Season championship a year ago or the New York Red Bulls II effectively sealing its first silverware with a narrow victory against Louisville City FC in 2016, there’s the potential for something special to be at hand at Greater Nevada Field on the eve of the Fourth of July.
1. ALL THE RIGHT MOVES: Out-possessed and out-shot by its visitors, Reno 1868 FC still managed to find a way to extend its league-best undefeated streak to 13 games in a 1-0 victory against the Portland Timbers 2 at Greater Nevada Field on Saturday night, leaving open once again the question of how good this side is now, or how good it could be when what looks like another trip to the postseason arrives. If there’s one thing for sure, though, it’s that Head Coach Ian Russell continues to press the right buttons when it comes to his substitution patterns as for a fourth consecutive game Reno got a goal from one of its second-half substitutes, with Danny Musovski filling in for Brian Brown this time around to once again sink T2’s hopes with his goal nine minutes from the end.
2. RACKING THEM UP: Reno’s victory meant that since the start of Week 6 back in April there has been no side that has accumulated more points than 1868 FC with its 7-0-6 record, which alongside FC Cincinnati (8-2-3) has claimed 27 points over the past 11 weeks of the regular season. On Tuesday night, though, it will take on one of the sides that has almost matched that mark in Western Conference-leader Real Monarchs SLC, which has racked up 25 points (8-1-3) in that span in its pursuit of a second consecutive USL Regular Season Championship. With Real having recorded the second-most away wins of the season so far with a 5-3-0 record on the road, Reno will get the biggest test of its undefeated run yet in one of this week’s must-see contests.
3. WORKING FOR THE CLAMPDOWN: The team making the strongest pursuit of the Monarchs so far this season in the West, Phoenix Rising FC, is also the club that became the second in the league this season after Ottawa Fury FC to go through a calendar month without conceding a goal after a fierce rearguard action on Friday night that produced a 1-0 victory against fellow playoff contender Orange County SC. Now with a shutout streak at 466 minutes after goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski’s seven-save shutout – a total that doubled the number of saves he’d had to make in the club’s four previous clean sheets – Phoenix will be hoping for help from the likes of Reno to ensure the Monarchs don’t take advantage too much of their two games in hand as they get a well-earned week’s break.
4. END OF AN ERA: Phoenix is one of the USL clubs to have seen a change on the sideline this season with Rick Schantz having picked up the baton from Patrice Carteron to maintain a seamless transition for the Western Conference contenders. Louisville City FC will be hoping its post-James O’Connor era begins as well as Phoenix’s has after a contest in the Irish Head Coach’s final game before joining Orlando City SC in Major League Soccer that showed off the club’s features and flaws. From the magic that flowed in Cameron Lancaster’s astounding 45-yard finish to the defensive collapse that saw the hosts concede three goals at Slugger Field for the second time in its last four outings, some kind of coming together is needed under the coaching triumvirate of Luke Spencer, Paolo DelPiccolo and George Davis IV ahead of Saturday’s trip to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, with Louisville’s last victory in league action now more than a month ago.
5. TRIPLE TROUBLE: Louisville’s slowdown has opened the door for River Cities Cup rival FC Cincinnati, and while last Wednesday night’s draw against Toronto FC II was far from ideal in building a lead at the top of the Eastern Conference the response FCC produced in its 2-0 victory against Ottawa Fury FC was ideal in front of more than 27,000 fans at Nippert Stadium. Cincinnati is now the only side in the league to have three goals-scorers with at least seven goals so far this season with Emmanuel Ledesma, Danni Konig and Nazmi Albadawi making a formidable trio up front, and with others dropping points FCC’s lead is a comfortable one as it prepares for its next big showdown.
6. DRIVING TO SUMMER: That showdown comes this Saturday in the Music City, where Nashville will be hosts at Nissan Stadium for the second time this season looking to try and cut into FCC’s lead with a solid attacking corps of its own. While Brandon Allen, Ropapa Mensah and Lebo Moloto might not have the numbers of their Cincinnati counterparts, they’ll be more than ready to take on a Cincinnati defense that has both allowed the second-most shots (246) and blocked the most shots (66) in the league this season, especially with Allen and Moloto both coming off goal-scoring performances in a 3-0 victory against ATL UTD 2 that ticked numerous boxes positively for Head Coach Gary Smith.
7. FIRE UP THE TANK: While the rivalry between Nashville and Cincinnati will kick off this weekend, the Highway 99 Derby felt like it arrived this past Saturday night as Fresno FC drew blood to even the first regular-season series between itself and Sacramento Republic FC with a 2-0 victory at Chukchanski Park. Franck Tayou’s ridiculously great stoppage-time goal – which overshadowed a cleverly produced and taken finish by Juan Pablo Caffa to open the scoring – earned a victory that wasn’t just important for the Foxes in terms of bragging rights. As other contests over the weekend like that between Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and San Antonio FC ended all square, Fresno picked up valuable additional points to provide its playoff hopes a timely fillip.
8. ACROSS THE GALAXY: A fourth trip to the postseason in five years is probably a longshot for the LA Galaxy II at this stage, but the young talent the side possesses could make it a much trickier proposition in the second half of the season for those sides that are looking to finish in the top eight in the Western Conference. Leading the pack, of course, is 16-year-old phenom Efrain Alvarez, whose goals-per-minute ratio now sits at 60.5 after Sunday’s brace in a 5-3 victory against Seattle Sounders FC 2 moved him to eight goals this season. Alvarez and his cohorts now boast the fourth-highest scoring attack in the league with 28 goals, meaning it would be a mistake to overlook Head Coach Mike Munoz’s side for Western Conference contenders, especially when making the trip to StubHub Center.
9. MOMENT OF TRUTH: Any team that undergoes an offseason transition like that at Penn FC usually sees its season divided up into thirds; the first to figure out where all the pieces fit, the second to get some momentum going, and the third to make a kick for a postseason run. After Saturday night’s 1-1 draw with Indy Eleven, it definitely seems things are moving forward the way they should for Head Coach Raoul Voss’ side, which now sits only a point out of the playoff positions as it approaches the midway point of its second phase. With Lucky Mkosana filling in admirably for the injured Tommy Heinemann, Penn’s next five games – all against sides that currently sit between seventh and 14th in the Eastern Conference – provide the moment for the side to take destiny into its own hands and put itself in position for a first postseason trip since 2014.
10. STEELED FOR BATTLE: The first of those games for Penn comes against another side on a five-game undefeated streak, with Bethlehem Steel FC’s 4-1 victory against the Charlotte Independence on Saturday evening arguably the most impressive display of the season so far for Brendan Burke’s side. With as many shots in the second half (11) as the Independence mustered for the game overall, Steel FC tore out of the blocks thanks to Santi Moar’s goal 41 seconds after the break and didn’t take their foot off the pedal until the final five minutes as Charlotte got a late consolation by Jorge Herrera. With only four points separating third and 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings, the playoff crunch is arriving early for Steel FC and its fellow contenders, meaning the pressure will be on for Friday night’s trip to FNB Field.
11. FIELDS OF GOLD: While the race for the playoffs is competitive in both conferences, it’s got nothing right now on the race for the USL Golden Boot, which had more contenders line up to put themselves in contention over the past weekend. While the Swope Park Rangers’ Kharlton Belmar and Orange County SC’s Thomas Enevoldsen lead the chase with nine goals apiece, the list of those just one goal back continued to grow over the weekend with 10 players now sitting on eight goals in what is already a banner year for the league’s goal-scorers. With 714 goals scored already this season the league is more than halfway to the record total set a season ago of 1,342, and what could be one of the most compelling races for the end-of-season award since the duo of Louisville’s Matt Fondy and OKC’s Danni Konig finished with 22 and 21 goals respectively in the 2015 season.