The 2018 USL regular season officially reached its halfway point on Saturday night in a slate of action that produced not only another record week for the USL at the turnstiles but also some familiar favorites taking center stage. From Louisville City FC looking undaunted by the start of its new era to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC carrying forward all the best traits from Bob Lilley’s past, the pictures we have of the majority of the league’s teams are almost fully formed as the march to the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs begins in earnest.
1. SAME OLD, SAME OLD: Saturday night was the first of a new era for Louisville City FC, but in the club’s 2-1 victory on the road against the Tampa Bay Rowdies there seemed little reason to believe this side suffer any meaningful drop in performance or consistency after the departure of Head Coach James O’Connor. That’s in part due to the foundation O’Connor left behind, both in style of play and character of players, who produced some vintage moments throughout the contest, one of which led to Kyle Smith’s opening goal. It also helps to have someone of the caliber of Cameron Lancaster in the side, with the English forward’s ninth goal of the season one that given the location of the free kick you certainly would have backed him to take. Even a team as good as Louisville needs a trump card, and in Lancaster the defending champions have one of the best in the league.
2. STEEL CURTAIN: Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s trump card might not be a player, but instead the club’s defensive organization which saw it take another shutout victory to pull the gap at the top of the Eastern Conference standings to just one point on Sunday afternoon after a 1-0 win against Ottawa Fury FC that continued the Hounds’ best season in club history. With Head Coach Bob Lilley at the helm it shouldn’t come as a major surprise, but some of the numbers the club is putting up are still remarkable, most notably that the club has currently almost double the number of shutouts (12) than goals conceded (7). With half a season to go, Riverhounds SC is well on course to break the Lilley-coached Rochester Rhinos’ record of 17 shutouts in a regular season in 2015, and with the key group of players that make up the spine of the side it’s hard to see this side falling short.
3. ON THE FLY: Riverhounds SC moved within a point of FC Cincinnati at the top of the Eastern Conference as FCC’s run of alternating wins and draws reached six games after a 0-0 result against Nashville SC at Nissan Stadium that saw the visitors make excellent adjustments to first stem the tide from Nashville’s attack and then produce chances to steal all three points late in the game. Cincinnati didn’t officially record its first shot until the 29th minute and were officially outshot 13-5 in the opening 45 minutes, but Head Coach Alan Koch’s halftime adjustments ended up leveling the playing field, while his introductions of Russell Cicerone and Emery Welshman almost brought about a decisive goal. With six consecutive games at Nippert Stadium coming next, there’s a big chance for FCC to pull away from the pack around the corner.
4. MIND THE GAP: For Nashville SC’s part, Saturday ended up a missed opportunity to gain ground on the conference-leaders and ended up costing the side two spots in the Eastern Conference standings as Louisville and Indy Eleven – impressive comeback-victors against the Charlotte Independence in a big bounce-back win – both shifted ahead of NSC and into the top four. There was still plenty to be happy about for Head Coach Gary Smith but finishing without a goal and with only three shots on goal in a first-half the hosts dominated will have been the biggest disappointment as the club welcomed its second-highest attendance of the season.
5. OFF-FIELD FIREWORKS: The strong attendance at Nissan Stadium on Saturday night added to another blockbuster week at the turnstiles for the league as a whole as it welcomed the second-highest weekly attendance in league history and more than 100,000 fans to games for the third time in the past four weeks over Fourth of July week. The national holiday played a major role in another standout week that saw 116,769 fans attend contests, with Indy Eleven welcoming almost 21,000 fans to its two games over the week, and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC recording its highest attendance of the season last Wednesday night. The league is now on the verge of reaching 1.5 million in attendance over the coming week as it continues another record-setting season in the stands.
6. PAYING THE PENALTY: One of the biggest crowds of the week was unsurprisingly at Papa Murphy’s Park, where Sacramento Republic FC celebrated its fifth anniversary season with a visit from Western Conference-leader Real Monarchs SLC before a sellout crowd of 11,569 fans. But, in a case of history repeating itself, Republic FC’s inability to convert from the penalty spot early in the second half proved crucial to the outcome as the contest ended scoreless after Cameron Iwasa struck the left post nine minutes into the second half, mirroring Adam Moffatt’s saved attempt when the two clubs met at Zions Bank Stadium this season. Republic FC has now converted only twice from the penalty spot on six occasions and is now winless in its last four games as a result.
7. UPWARDLY MOBILE: At the other end of the spectrum is Reno 1868 FC, which took its fourth consecutive victory and extended its undefeated streak to 15 games on Sunday despite being both down a goal and a man against Seattle Sounders FC 2. And yet, despite both of those factors it never felt like Reno was truly out of the game and that proved the case as its attacking talent came through to move the side up to third place, only four points back of Real Monarchs SLC in top spot. 1868 FC recorded a 5-1 shot advantage in the opening 25 minutes of the second half despite the dismissal of Lindo Mfeka in the 42nd minute for his second yellow card of the contest, with the run capped by Seth Casiple’s penalty kick that served as the winner, and from there on the visiting defense didn’t allow a shot on goal to close out another impressive victory.
8. DREAMBREAKERS: Remember what we were saying a week ago about the LA Galaxy II being spoilers? It didn’t take long for Los Dos to make its impact felt in the Western Conference playoff race in a remarkable 3-0 victory against Orange County SC that allowed the Galaxy II to avoid being swept in the season-series and put a dent in OCSC’s aspirations to be a challenger to the top spot at the end of the season. What might have been the most remarkable thing about Los Dos’ victory, though, was that it came without the influence of the club’s outstanding youngsters with the likes of Efrain Alvarez, Alex Mendez and Ulysses Llanez all helping the Galaxy’s U19 team claim a place in the U.S. Development Academy final this Tuesday night over the weekend. Reno visits on Wednesday night, and may want to have its guard up.
9. TIME ON THEIR SIDE: There are always major caveats that come when a side has games in hand on its rivals, especially for those that are looking to fight their way back into a playoff race, but the opportunity that lies ahead of Las Vegas Lights FC after its 1-0 victory against fellow challenger Saint Louis FC on Saturday night over the next seven days shouldn’t be underestimated. With four games to make up on both eighth-place Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and ninth-place Fresno FC and a five-point gap to bridge, there’s still a long way to go if Lights FC is going to be a playoff contender this season, but with an attack that contains the creative potential of Carlos Alvarez, Daigo Kobayashi and Saturday’s goal-scorer Raul Mendiola there should be reason for optimism going into Wednesday’s USL Game of the Week against OKC Energy FC on ESPNews.
10. MASTER AT WORK: One of those two teams that Las Vegas is trying to chase down made a statement of its own on Sunday afternoon as Fresno took a 4-2 victory that both boosted its playoff hopes and put another major dent in the season of the Portland Timbers 2, who are now on a four-game losing streak and in danger of seeing their strong first third of the year be squandered. The contest also served as a masterclass for Juan Pablo Caffa, who turned in the sort of display that if repeated will have the Foxes in very good shape as the season moves on. The Argentine veteran was outstanding in linking Fresno’s play throughout the midfield and capped his performance with the sort of free kick that has burnished his reputation as one of the league’s best playmakers since he arrived in the USL last spring.
11. LUCKY AND GOOD: While Fresno is looking to break into the top eight in the Western Conference, across in the East the time is now for Penn FC after a scintillating 3-2 victory against Bethlehem Steel FC on Friday night that put Head Coach Raoul Voss’ side in the top eight and with room to grow in what remains a congested middle section of the standings. Lucky Mkosana’s sixth goal in the past four games continued the Zimbabwean’s hot streak on Friday as the hosts looked sharp against a good Bethlehem side, and now Penn’s sights can be set even higher as it hosts the Richmond Kickers on Monday night with the chance to move into fifth place with another victory. With the side on a six-game undefeated streak – its longest undefeated streak since the 2011 season – Penn’s position definitely appears to be for real.