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11 Things – Paying the Penalty

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 07/23/18, 10:44AM EDT

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Goals change games, but missed opportunities told a bigger tale this weekend

All points count equal, whether in the first game of a regular season or the last, but after this past weekend of action the feeling of pressure that builds to accumulate those points certainly feels more acute currently than it did over the first few weeks of the season. As numerous games balanced on a knife-edge, those that came through likely felt an equal measure of excitement and relief, while those that came up short will have to have short memories to get back on track quickly.

1. ON THE SPOT: There’s a saying that goals change games, and while that’s certainly the case over the past weekend a pair of instances showed how individual moments that don’t result in a goal can have just as big an effect in the direction of a game to the cost of both Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Nashville SC. Both had chances to take the lead from the penalty spot, but both were squandered, which left the door open for the Charleston Battery and Ottawa Fury FC to take advantage late in two dramatic endings on Saturday night. For Fury FC, the 2-0 victory against Nashville that came after its reprieve with less than 10 minutes to go could prove a massive turning point in the season. Now sitting in seventh place after victory in three of its last four contests, Ottawa will now aim to avoid the fate of the like suffered by Penn FC and Bethlehem Steel FC, both of which failed to build on their recent drives into the playoff positions to leave the door open for the club from Canada’s capital.

2. TURNING POINT: As for the Charleston Battery, there was certainly an element of good fortune to their 1-0 victory against Riverhounds SC as the hosts struck the woodwork twice in a first half that saw Charleston’s defense and goalkeeper Joe Kuzminsky put under the gun consistently. But the game certainly seemed to turn after Kuzminsky denied Neco Brett’s penalty kick in the 52nd minute, which appeared to take the wind out of Pittsburgh’s sails. The hosts recorded only three shots overall after that moment, with only one on target, and while Charleston was similarly limited in its attacking opportunities over the final half-hour with the form Ataulla Guerra has been in this season it didn’t come as a surprise when the Trinidad & Tobago international provided a twist in the tale with his 88th minute header to earn the Battery a third consecutive victory and a move into second place in the East.

3. BACK ON THE HORSE: There was nothing fortunate about Louisville City FC’s victory 4-1 victory against the Charlotte Independence on Saturday night, which after the club’s midweek exit in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup seemed to turn a page and get things back to where they should be in a comprehensive display that saw four different players find the net. Maybe the most noticeable thing about the performance aside from the final score, though, was the heightened level of discipline shown by the hosts at Slugger Field, who committed only seven fouls and saw no yellow cards. Player-Coach Luke Spencer called for the side to “get back to respecting each other, being disciplined” after the loss to the Chicago Fire had seen the side lose focus late and receive a pair of red cards in the process, and those words definitely seemed to resonate on Saturday night.

4. LEADER OF THE PACK: While the race for second place in the Eastern Conference continued to build with Saturday night’s results, there seems to be no question at this point that FC Cincinnati isn’t just the team to catch in the Eastern Conference, but also is now the favorite to win the USL Regular Season Championship as well. While there were some heart-stopping moments in FCC’s 2-1 victory against the New York Red Bulls II on Saturday night at Nippert Stadium – a win that capped an eight-day spell of three consecutive victories – Cincinnati is now nine points clear of the pack with the highest points-per-game average in the conference. With the rumor mill putting the club in the mix for an addition of Justin Meram from Orlando City SC – who would by default become FCC’s first MLS signing should a deal be made – the club is going to enjoy a well-earned bye this week knowing before refocusing on claiming the club’s first silverware.

5. HITTING THE SKIDS: FC Cincinnati is now the presumptive favorite for the USL Regular Season Championship as once again Real Monarchs SLC suffered a defensive disappointment in a 4-2 defeat to San Antonio FC – a game that now accounts for 20 percent of San Antonio’s goals in the league this season. With two defeats in their past four games, Real not only trails FC Cincinnati on points, but is going to come up under more pressure in the upcoming weeks as it plays host to both Phoenix Rising FC and Reno 1868 FC in its next two games, both teams that are gunning for the Monarchs’ current position on top of the Western Conference. With 10 shutouts this season, there’s no question when the Monarchs’ defense is on form it can stand with the best in the league, but this is now the sixth time this season the side has given up multiple goals in a game, a number that’s likely much too high for interim Head Coach Jamison Olave’s liking.

6. FINDING A WAY: As the closest challenger to the Monarchs, and their next opponent in one of the biggest games of the regular-season this Saturday night, Phoenix Rising FC wasn’t at its best early on last Friday night, but the side still did enough in its second-half performance to come away with a 1-0 victory against Seattle Sounders FC 2 in front of a club-record crowd of 7,381 at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex. With Seattle continuing to struggle for both form and goals, Phoenix was likely fortunate to produce a below-par display against S2 when a side like the Monarchs or Reno would likely have made life much more difficult for the hosts, but thanks to Chris Cortez’s second-half finish Rising FC got the victory it needed to bounce back from its defeat to Fresno a week before and set up a contest that could see it pull level on points with Real in the Western Conference.

7. FIRED UP AND READY: As tough as things have been for San Antonio FC’s attack this season, the club couldn’t have picked a better moment to break out of its slump than on Saturday night when its playoff hopes seemed to get further rejuvenated as each goal found the back of the net. What’s going to matter as much as the result against the Monarchs, though, is how San Antonio builds on this result with a crucial midweek game coming next at Toyota Field against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC in the USL Game of the Week on ESPNU. With the confidence that can come from the manner of finishes of the quality that Ever Guzman and Charlie Ward both produced, the path to the playoffs would open very wide indeed with a victory. The question is whether San Antonio can sustain the momentum from Saturday night to produce the performance it will need? 

8. MUST-WIN WON: As big as Wednesday night’s game might be for San Antonio, it’s inarguably bigger for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC as it looks to hold onto eighth place in the Western Conference from those in the chasing pack who hold numerous games in hand. The Switchbacks entered Saturday’s game with Tulsa Roughnecks FC knowing the game was essentially a must-win because of that, and thanks to Marty Maybin’s two goals the hosts got what they needed in a 4-2 victory. It’s going to be essential the Switchbacks produce in a similar manner offensively on Wednesday night, however, or else this most recent win will mean very little in the bigger picture.

9. BRIGHT LIGHTS SHINING: Another team that was in serious need of a win for its playoff hopes was Las Vegas Lights FC, and in a 2-1 victory against the Portland Timbers 2 there were signs that there’s still plenty of life left in the side as its recent additions continued to make an impact as they integrate into the squad. Omar Salgado – who arrived recently on loan after being unveiled as El Paso USL’s first official signing – was the game-winner for Lights FC on Sunday afternoon with his first goal for the club and with the solid contributions from Raul Mendiola adding to the consistent quality brought by Carlos Alvarez, Lights FC had more than enough to defeat T2. There’s still ground to be made up, but with the club’s next two games coming against two of the bottom three in the conference standings the door cracked open just a little wider for Las Vegas this weekend.

10. FEELING THE DRAG: Las Vegas’ victory against the Portland Timbers 2 was doubly significant as it allowed Lights FC to gain ground on one of the teams it is chasing for a place in the postseason. For T2, on the other hand, it marked another regression after victory in its last outing had snapped a four-game losing streak. Both Portland and the Swope Park Rangers – who were lucky to get away with a 0-0 draw against Rio Grande Valley FC on Sunday as Christian Herrera recorded a seven-save shutout – are still sitting in the playoff positions, but things are starting to look tenuous for both. For the Rangers, now winless in their last three home games and last four overall, the next week is going to be important to regroup ahead of what’s going to be a testing trip to Southern California to kick off August.

11. FALLING INTO PLACE: When you’re looking to make up ground in the race for the playoffs, when you’re taking care of business yourself it certainly doesn’t hurt to have things fall your way elsewhere as well. For the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Saturday night couldn’t have gone much better as the side not only took a 3-1 victory against Indy Eleven behind Junior Flemmings’ goal and two assists, but also saw almost every other result go the way it would have liked as well. With the New York Red Bulls II coming to Al Lang Stadium this Saturday night the road is still uphill for the Rowdies, but with the playoff positions now only two points away there could be a feeling that things are finally turning in Tampa Bay’s favor as the side prepares for another crucial contest.

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