Even for most perennial playoff contenders there are going to be bumps in the road to a trip to the postseason. What separates those that end up with a chance to claim the USL Cup at the end of the season is the reaction their sides produce to those challenges, and almost as importantly how quickly they can pull out of a downward spiral. For both the Charleston Battery and Sacramento Republic, the past seven days showed the mark of clubs that know how to overcome those tests and come out stronger on the other side.
1. BATTERY RE-ENERGIZED: The Charleston Battery had won only once in their past eight games going into Week 18 of the regular season, and while the side seemed to be treading water well enough with a handful of draws sprinkled into that run there was still a hint of nervousness that the side was getting stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference’s playoff-hunting pack. Back-to-back 2-1 victories against Indy Eleven and Louisville City FC, though, have pushed Charleston above the fray and into third place. The Battery’s victory against Louisville on Saturday was a lesson in efficiency as Charleston first got an early lead on Ataulla Guerra’s 10th goal of the season, added to it from a customary set piece – Neveal Hackshaw the finisher – and then let its defense do the rest. Louisville had more than 70 percent of possession but finished with only three shots on goal as the hosts battened down the hatches impressively.
2. GLORY ROAD: On a four-game winless streak going into the past week of action, Sacramento Republic FC found itself in a similar position to the Battery; solidly in the playoff positions, but not necessarily feeling that comfortable all the same. In taking a pair of road victories against the Swope Park Rangers on Wednesday night – SPR’s first home defeat since last July – and then against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on Saturday, any nervousness as to Republic FC’s position in the Western Conference quickly dissipated. What stood out as particularly impressive in Colorado Springs was the way in which Republic FC controlled the game, winning the battle for possession, duels and overall shots against a Switchbacks side that is always a challenge to visit regardless of position.
3. BUSINESS AS USUAL: A tough road trip the week before illustrated how even the most consistent teams in the league can have a bad few days, but Real Monarchs SLC made sure its hold on first place in the Western Conference and at the front of the pack seeking the USL Regular Season Championship with a 2-0 victory against Seattle Sounders FC 2 that played out in the manner you might have expected. Two sharply-taken goals by Charlie Adams and Sebastian Velasquez made the difference in a game where the Monarchs also recorded their 10th shutout of the season and generally controlled the flow of the game, getting things pointed back in the right direction overall after the recent bump in the road. With Real now 8-0-1 at home this season, the importance of maintaining its position on top of the Western Conference is paramount as it heads on the road next week.
4. CALM AND COLLECTED: Just like the Monarchs, there wasn’t much flashy about the victory for FC Cincinnati, their counterpart at the top of the Eastern Conference, on Saturday night as they downed a Tampa Bay Rowdies side that continued to drift further away from the postseason places after a 2-0 result at Nippert Stadium. Once the opening goal by Emmanuel Ledesma found the net nine minutes into the second half the result felt somewhat inevitable as Tampa Bay’s efforts to try and play directly and use the pace of Junior Flemmings were for the most-part well dealt with by FCC’s defense. Danni König’s goal – ensuring he remained level with Ledesma for the team-lead on nine for the season – provided the final touch on a no-fuss performance that Head Coach Alan Koch will have been very pleased with.
5. HAT TRICKS, BOTH: It’s debatable which performance was better in terms of flat out fun for the New York Red Bulls II on Friday night; on one hand you have Jared Stroud’s first three professional goals ending up in a hat trick in a 5-1 victory against the Richmond Kickers, and on the other you have Brian White becoming the first player in the league’s modern era to record a goal, an assist and a save in the same game after he was forced into the net when goalkeeper Evan Louro was sent off with New York having used all of its substitutes. Either way, with 11 goals scored in their past two games the Red Bulls II are looking much more like their early-season selves, and with games coming up this week against Bethlehem Steel FC and FC Cincinnati, there’s no better time for that moment to have arrived.
6. HITTING THE BRAKES: Having moved into the playoff positions after a six-game undefeated streak, Penn FC reached what could be a pivotal moment in its season over the past week as it suffered back-to-back defeats for the first time this season after letting a second-half lead slip against Ottawa Fury FC this past Saturday in a 2-1 defeat at TD Place. Previously, Penn had reacted positively to setbacks this season going 3-0-1 in the games following its first four losses of the season, but this is now going to be a serious test of the club’s playoff credentials as it gets a week off before heading to face fellow contenders the Charlotte Independence and New York Red Bulls II in its next two outings.
7. STALLING OUT: While Penn has reached a key moment of its season in the Eastern Conference, that time is feeling past due for San Antonio FC after its 3-0 defeat to Orange County SC on Saturday night saw the side once again lose ground in its bid for a return trip to the postseason. SAFC is now winless in its last four league games, and while there’s still the hope provided by the four games in hand the side has on new eight-placed side Fresno FC after this weekend’s action there wasn’t much to inspire optimism that those games will be taken advantage of. San Antonio hasn’t held a lead once in its current four-game run, rallying to equalize in the two draws in that span, and with Real Monarchs SLC the next visitor to Toyota Field next Saturday the road doesn’t get any easier from here.
8. FEELING THE JUICE: For Orange County SC, on the other hand, Saturday’s win provided exactly the rebound display the side needed after what could have been a demoralizing defeat to the LA Galaxy II the previous weekend. Michael Seaton’s ability to cruise past the San Antonio back line almost on command was a standout aspect of the team’s performance, as was another strong display by Aodhan Quinn in midfield as he picked up a pair of assists. There are still questions for Orange County as to how high its ceiling is, the side has still yet to beat any of the four teams sitting above it in the Western Conference standings (0-4-2), but it is winning the games it should to ensure that a playoff berth will be waiting at the end of the season.
9. FIRED UP FOXES: Sitting tied for the most games played in the league, Fresno FC continued to put the pressure on the sides sitting below it like San Antonio with a third consecutive victory that moved the Foxes ahead of Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and into the eighth and final playoff place in the Western Conference. Each of Fresno’s victories in this three-game run have come against sides sitting above it in the conference standings, too, an indicator of a side that is hitting its stride at the ideal moment. Back-to-back four-goal outings certainly don’t hurt, especially when they’re making the margin of error for the chasing pack that much narrower.
10. FEELING THE JINX: Call it the jinx of the Coach of the Month award – in the days following the announcement of the previous two recipients a defeat for their side inevitably followed – or the rust of a week off but Phoenix Rising FC’s defeat in Fresno saw the side produce an uncharacteristic display that saw it concede four goals for the first time this season. The cause wasn’t helped by Kevon Lambert’s red card late in the first half, but it was still surprising to see the manner which both Pedro Ribeiro and Jemal Johnson found space for their second-half goals for the Foxes. A return home this Friday to take on last-placed Seattle should help Phoenix rebound, but then there’s the prospect of a showdown the following week with Real Monarchs that now has the makings of a must-win for Rising FC if it’s going to challenge for top spot in the West after Saturday’s defeat.
11. RAY OF LIGHT: No side had been in worse form than the Portland Timbers 2 going into the weekend with its four consecutive defeats seeing the side slide down to seventh place in the Western Conference. T2’s still in that same spot after this weekend, but with a 2-1 victory against the Swope Park Rangers under its belt the pressure has been somewhat lessened as it now holds a four-point lead on the sides sitting below the playoff line in the Western Conference. As well as Portland has played throughout the first third of the season the past month had provided a serious test of the side mentally. If it can use Saturday’s win to come through that rough patch stronger, there should be more to come from this side.