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USL’s Week Ahead – FCC Approaches Regular Season Championship, Historic Marks

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 09/26/18, 9:56AM EDT

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Busy 22-game slate of action across Eastern and Western Conference feature numerous key contests in playoff race


FC Cincinnati squares off with Indy Eleven this Saturday in its regular-season home finale, by which time it could have claimed the 2018 USL Regular Season Championship. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven

TAMPA, Fla. – The first piece of silverware in the 2018 USL season can be claimed in Week 29 of the regular season with FC Cincinnati within range of winning the 2018 USL Regular Season Championship on Wednesday night as it visits the Richmond Kickers for the USL Game of the Week on ESPN3, part of a packed week that will see 22 games overall as multiple teams take aim at securing a place in the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs over the next five days. FCC would not only claim its first trophy with victory against Richmond, but also set new USL modern-era single-season records for wins and points and tie the league’s modern-era record for consecutive victories as it enters on an eight-game winning streak. Wednesday night also brings key games in the Eastern Conference playoff race as sixth-place Indy Eleven hosts the 10th-place Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Charleston Battery host North Carolina FC in the penultimate Southern Derby clash of the regular season. Then on Saturday attention switches to the Western Conference as second-place Phoenix Rising FC hosts seventh-place Saint Louis FC in a potential playoff preview, while fourth-place Sacramento Republic FC welcomes the fifth-place Portland Timbers 2 in a clash that could determine which side opens the playoffs on home turf and which may have to travel to kick off its postseason.

All 561 regular-season games, the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs and the 2018 USL Cup can be accessed via USLSoccer.com’s Match Center

USL UNVEILS NEW STRUCTURE: ONE CENTRAL BRAND, THREE LEAGUES, EVOLVING FOR THE FUTURE

On a historic day for the evolution of soccer in North America, the United Soccer League has unveiled a new structure and brand identity for each of its top three leagues ahead of the 2019 season.

“Today’s announcement comes at the dawn of an exciting new era for our sport,” said USL CEO Alec Papadakis. “The USL has spent the past eight years transforming our league to meet the evolving needs of our team owners, players, coaches, fans and partners. We have established our place in the U.S. soccer landscape while blazing the trail for professional soccer’s future by introducing a new third division, completing the nation’s professional soccer structure.

“We are bringing three leagues under one central brand that will uniquely represent the USL’s vision for the future and give rise to local passion in new cities currently without professional soccer. The new brand and logos are inspiring and convey a new direction. They are innovative and modern and tell a story but more importantly, refuse to let others define us. The USL will now be modeled after a tried and respected international structure. One central brand, three leagues: USL Championship – the pinnacle of competition; USL League One– the foundation of professional soccer; and, USL League Two – the Path to Pro.

“We are repositioning the competition under MLS with a new strategy, new names and logos,” concluded Papadakis. “As we look to the future, the USL is ready to put its fingerprints on U.S. Soccer’s drive toward becoming the best in the world, and its pursuit of winning a FIFA Men’s World Cup.”

The new structure and branding will go into effect in advance of the 2019 season, at which point the USL will also unveil a modernized league website in order to showcase new, engaging digital content and help to better tell the organization’s story as it continues to push the limits of what is possible for professional soccer in North America.

USL RACE FOR THE PLAYOFFS

The race for the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs has entered its final stage with nine berths still available across the Eastern and Western Conferences with three weeks to go. Get an inside look at where each team stands, who is in line for homefield advantage and a high seeding in the playoff field with projections from fivethirtyeight.com and find out which teams fans think will be left standing at the end in our interactive poll

USL NEWS & FEATURES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED

BUZZING ON SOCIAL

USL REGULAR SEASON SPOTLIGHT | RAPID-FIRE PREVIEWS


Fourth-place Sacramento Republic FC takes on the fifth-place Portland Timbers 2 on Saturday night in a big Western Conference showdown. | Photo courtesy Sam Ortega / Portland Timbers 2

Wednesday, Sept. 26
Toronto FC II vs. Ottawa Fury FC

Lamport Stadium, Toronto, Ontario | 6 p.m. ET
Ottawa Fury FC (12-14-5, 41pts) will renew its bid to reach the USL Cup Playoffs when it visits Ontario rival Toronto FC II (3-22-4, 13pts) with both sides coming off heavy defeats in their most recent outings. Fury FC dropped to eighth place in the Eastern Conference on Saturday night as it suffered a 4-0 defeat against Louisville City FC in a contest that saw both Nana Attakora and Kevin Oliveira sent off at Slugger Field. With the three sides sitting directly below it in the Eastern Conference – North Carolina FC, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Nashville SC – all holding games in hand on Ottawa, a win for Fury FC against a TFC II side that also suffered a 4-0 loss in its last outing against Bethlehem Steel FC is likely essential if the side from Canada’s capital is going to reach the postseason for the first time in the USL.

Penn FC vs. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
FNB Field, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania | 6:30 p.m. ET
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (14-4-11, 53pts) can lock up its place in the USL Cup Playoffs with victory against Keystone Derby Cup rival Penn FC (9-13-8, 35pts), with the season series also set to be decided in the third and final meeting between the clubs this season. The teams previously played to a pair of scoreless draws earlier this season, meaning the winner would take home the rivalry trophy this season, but for the Hounds victory would also book a trip to the postseason for the first time since 2015 and push the side back into second place in the Eastern Conference. Penn, meanwhile, desperately needs victory to keep its slim playoff hopes alive after surrendering a halftime lead in a 2-1 loss to FC Cincinnati last Saturday for its third consecutive loss overall, which put the side six points out of the playoff positions with only four games remaining.

ATL UTD 2 vs. Nashville SC
Coolray Field, Gwinnett, Georgia | 7 p.m. ET
Nashville SC (10-9-10, 40pts) will try to snap a four-game winless streak that has thwarted its attempts to move into the top eight in the Eastern Conference when it visits ATL UTD 2 (5-15-8, 23pts). Nashville was held to a 1-1 draw on Saturday night by the Charleston Battery on its home turf at First Tennessee Park despite having a man-advantage for the final 30 minutes of the contest. That result saw NSC drop to 11th place in the Eastern Conference, but the side is still in position to earn a postseason berth with five games remaining in its regular season should it take advantage of its games in hand on the seventh-place New York Red Bulls II and eighth-place Ottawa Fury FC. Atlanta will be hoping for a much better display than last Friday’s 6-1 loss to North Carolina FC that saw the side concede five first-half goals, the most any side has conceded in a first half in the league this season.

Charleston Battery vs. North Carolina FC
MUSC Health Stadium, Charleston, South Carolina | 7 p.m. ET
North Carolina FC (11-10-8, 41pts) will try to claim the Southern Derby trophy when it visits the Charleston Battery (12-4-14, 50pts) in the final regular-season contest between the sides this season. North Carolina holds the edge in the three-way rivalry series that also includes the Charlotte Independence thanks to its win against Charlotte last month and would put itself out of reach of its two rivals with victory against the Battery. A win would also be another major boost to ninth-place NCFC’s playoff hopes after it romped to a 6-1 victory last Friday night against ATL UTD 2 in a game that saw Donovan Ewolo become the second player this season to record a four-goal game. Fourth-place Charleston figures to be a tougher proposition, however, as it is coming in on a five-game undefeated streak and could clinch a playoff place on Wednesday night should it take victory and ATL UTD 2 defeat Nashville SC.

Indy Eleven vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies
Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Indiana | 7 p.m. ET
Sixth-place Indy Eleven (12-9-9, 45pts) and the 10th-place Tampa Bay Rowdies (11-12-7, 40pts) square off in one of the week’s key games in the Eastern Conference playoff race with the Eleven looking to snap a two-game losing streak and the Rowdies hoping to add to a three-game winning streak that has pushed the side back into playoff contention. The Rowdies took a 3-1 victory when the teams met for the first time this season and are coming off a week in which they took wins against both Nashville SC and the Richmond Kickers to move within a point of the playoff positions. Indy, meanwhile, suffered a 3-2 defeat to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC last Saturday night that it will want to bounce back from to avoid being drawn into a battle for a playoff position it appeared well on the way to securing before its recent downturn in form.

Richmond Kickers vs. FC Cincinnati
City Stadium, Richmond, Virginia | 7 p.m. ET (ESPN3)
The USL Game of the Week on ESPN3 could see history made as FC Cincinnati (21-3-6, 69pts) looks to not only clinch the 2018 USL Regular Season Championship, but also set USL modern-era single-season records for victories and points in the process. An eight-game winning streak that continued in a 2-1 comeback victory against Penn FC this past Saturday has seen FCC equal the win and points total of the 2016 New York Red Bulls II and would surpass both with victory against the Kickers, as well as tie the record for consecutive wins currently held by Real Monarchs SLC at nine. By contrast, the Kickers are on a three-game losing streak after a 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies this past Saturday but should have some added motivation for victory on Wednesday night as they try to derail Cincinnati’s bid to surpass its USL modern-era record of 22 consecutive games without defeat, set in the 2013 season.

Reno 1868 FC vs. Rio Grande Valley FC
Greater Nevada Field, Reno, Nevada | 10 p.m. ET
Reno 1868 FC (12-7-10, 46pts) will try to move closer to a second consecutive trip to the USL Cup Playoffs when it continues its homestand against Rio Grande Valley FC (6-11-13, 31pts). Reno narrowly missed out on a second consecutive victory this past Saturday as it played to a 3-3 draw with in-state rival Las Vegas Lights FC, but that was still enough to claim the Silver State Cup’s inaugural edition as the side from Northern Nevada took home the rivalry silverware. Now the focus shifts to clinching a playoff place, which Reno could do as early as Saturday should it take a pair of victories this week and have San Antonio FC fail to take victory at home to Seattle Sounders FC 2. Earning a win against the Toros could be a trickier proposition than the visitor’s record would indicate, however, with RGVFC entering on a three-game undefeated streak after a 3-0 win against S2 this past Saturday.

Las Vegas Lights FC vs. Orange County SC
Cashman Field, Las Vegas, Nevada | 11 p.m. ET
Orange County SC (18-7-6, 60pts) will try to continue to put pressure on its rival for top spot in the Western Conference, Phoenix Rising FC, when it heads to face Las Vegas Lights FC (7-15-7, 28pts). Orange County took a 5-2 victory against Real Monarchs SLC last Wednesday night to remain a point ahead of Phoenix at the end of the week’s action, but with Rising FC holding a game in hand it is important Orange County maximizes its point total as it tries to hold onto first place in the standings. OCSC took a 3-1 victory when it last encountered Lights FC on August 15, but Las Vegas is coming off a morale-boosting 3-3 draw with in-state rival Reno 1868 FC this past Saturday that saw Raul Mendiola score twice, including a 90th-minute equalizer. Despite the postseason now being officially out of reach, Las Vegas is going to want to put on a show with this the first of three remaining home games in its inaugural season.

Saturday, Sept. 29
ATL UTD 2 vs. Louisville City FC

Coolray Field, Gwinnett, Georgia | 7 p.m. ET
Louisville City FC (15-6-9, 54pts) will look to bolster its bid for a fourth consecutive top-two finish in the Eastern Conference as it visits ATL UTD 2, which returns to action for the second time in Week 29. Louisville showed a strong return to form over the past week, recording victories against Penn FC and Ottawa Fury FC by a combined score of 7-0 that moved the side into second place and clinched its place in the postseason. The victory against Ottawa was marked by Cameron Lancaster’s fifth two-goal outing of the season which moved the English forward to 21 goals this season, just one back of the USL’s modern-era single-season record held by former Louisville standout Matt Fondy, who recorded 22 goals in the 2015 campaign. Lancaster has four games to try to set a new mark and with a four-goal advantage on the rest of the field, he appears close to having settled the race for this season’s USL Golden Boot.

Charleston Battery vs. Toronto FC II
MUSC Health Stadium, Charleston, South Carolina | 7 p.m. ET
The Charleston Battery will likely have a chance to clinch its eighth consecutive trip to the USL Cup Playoffs as it hosts Toronto FC II in the second game for both sides in Week 29. The Battery are the only side to have reached the postseason in every year of the USL’s modern era – which began in 2011 – and will be hoping to replicate the 4-0 victory it took at BMO Field earlier this season as Toronto visits the Low Country.

Charlotte Independence vs. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Sportsplex at Matthews, Matthews, North Carolina | 7 p.m. ET
The Charlotte Independence (9-11-10, 37pts) will try to keep their flagging playoff hopes alive when they play host to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which continues its road trip after a midweek clash with Penn FC. Charlotte played to a 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls II last Saturday that further diminished its playoff chances as it now sits four points out of the playoff places with four games to go, a margin that may have increased after Wednesday night’s action. That means victory against the Hounds will be essential to the club’s playoff hopes, while a repeat of the 0-0 draw the teams played to when they first met this season would be highly detrimental.

North Carolina FC vs. Richmond Kickers
Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary, North Carolina | 7 p.m. ET
North Carolina FC and the Richmond Kickers both return to action for the second time in Week 29 as North Carolina looks to continue its late push for a place in the playoffs with victory against its regional rival. North Carolina took a 3-1 victory at City Stadium when the teams met on June 30 as it overturned a halftime deficit with help from goals by Austin da Luz and Donovan Ewolo. With the playoff race a tight one in the Eastern Conference, NCFC will look at victory as being essential against a Kickers side that has already been eliminated from contention.

FC Cincinnati vs. Indy Eleven
Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio | 7:30 p.m. ET
FC Cincinnati welcomes Indy Eleven for its regular-season home finale at Nippert Stadium as both sides return to action for the second time in Week 29. Cincinnati could have a USL record within its sight should it have taken victory against the Richmond Kickers on Wednesday night, which would offer the chance for the side to claim its 10th consecutive victory when it faces Indy and break the record for consecutive wins held by Real Monarchs SLC. Meanhwhile,the Eleven will be looking for a little revenge on its Ohio rival, having come out on the wrong end of two one-goal games earlier in the season that saw FCC take a 1-0 win on March 31 and a 3-2 win on May 2, both at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Nashville SC vs. New York Red Bulls II
First Tennessee Park, Nashville, Tennessee | 8:30 p.m. ET
Nashville SC returns to action after its midweek trip to play host to the New York Red Bulls II (10-8-12, 42pts), who enter the week in the top eight in the Eastern Conference but could have slid out of the playoff positions by the time kickoff arrives at First Tennessee Park. The Red Bulls II are still looking for their first road win of the season after a 1-1 draw with the Charlotte Independence last Saturday night that kept the side in the top eight but left it precariously placed with four games to go in the regular season. After playing to a 1-1 draw when the teams first met, New York will try to become the third side to take victory at First Tennessee Park since late-August, following Bethlehem Steel FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies before them, but will likely see a familiar face on the opposition with former player 2016 USL Cup Most Valuable Player Brandon Allen now suiting up for Nashville.

Rio Grande Valley FC vs. Fresno FC
H-E-B Park, Edinburg, Texas | 8:30 p.m. ET
Rio Grande Valley FC returns home after its midweek outing in Nevada to host Fresno FC (8-11-12, 36pts), which begins the final stretch of its inaugural season after being officially eliminated from playoff contention last Saturday night. The Foxes took heart from their fightback from a two-goal deficit to earn a 2-2 draw against the Portland Timbers 2 at Chukchansi Park, which saw Christian Chaney score in the fifth minute of stoppage time to earn a point. Fresno will be hoping to end a five-game winless streak as it visits the Toros before returning home for its final two games of the regular season.

San Antonio FC vs. Seattle Sounders FC 2
Toyota Field, San Antonio, Texas | 8:30 p.m. ET
San Antonio FC (12-12-7, 43pts) opens a three-game homestand to close the regular season looking for victory against Seattle Sounders FC 2 (5-19-5, 20pts) that would keep it alive in the race for the USL Cup Playoffs. SAFC lost all three games of its recent road trip, including defeats last week to the Swope Park Rangers and Saint Louis FC that moved the side below the playoff line and needing help to rebound. San Antonio could find that opportunity this week against an S2 side that has lost its last three outings, including a 3-0 defeat to Rio Grande Valley FC when it visited Texas last Saturday night. Should San Antonio fail to take victory, however, its playoff hopes could potentially hang by a thread by the end of the night.

Real Monarchs SLC vs. Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Zions Bank Stadium, Herriman, Utah | 9 p.m. ET
Real Monarchs SLC (17-11-3, 54pts) will try to revive its hopes of a top-four finish in the Western Conference when it plays host to Rocky Mountain rival Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC (10-16-5, 35pts), which was officially eliminated from playoff contention this past week. The Monarchs are winless in their last six outings after conceding 11 goals in two defeats to Orange County SC and the LA Galaxy II last week, defeats that saw Sacramento Republic FC and the Portland Timbers 2 draw within range of sending Real out of the top four. One of the losses suffered in that six-game span was to the Switchbacks, who will be hoping to add to the Monarchs’ recent struggles despite being out of the playoff picture itself after a 2-1 loss to Phoenix Rising FC last time out.

Reno 1868 FC vs. Tulsa Roughnecks FC
Greater Nevada Field, Reno, Nevada | 10 p.m. ET
Reno 1868 FC returns to action for the second time in Week 29 as it wraps up its four-game homestand with a visit from Tulsa Roughnecks FC (3-15-12, 21pts). The Roughnecks are 1-1-1 in their last three games and have shown some battle of late in rallying for victory against San Antonio FC and for a 1-1 draw with the Swope Park Rangers this past Saturday. El Salvador international Joaquin Rivas scored the equalizer in the contest with the Rangers to move to 11 goals on the season, making him a player Reno will have to pay close attention to.

Phoenix Rising FC vs. Saint Louis FC
Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex, Phoenix, Arizona | 10:30 p.m. ET
A potential playoff preview sees second-place Phoenix Rising FC (18-7-5, 59pts) play host to seventh-place Saint Louis FC (13-8-10, 49pts) with both sides entering off back-to-back victories. Phoenix took a 2-1 victory against Colorado Springs Switchbacks in its last outing, which kept it in position to finish top of the Western Conference with a game in hand on current leader Orange County SC. To retain that advantage, Rising FC will need to find a way past a Saint Louis side that it handed a 3-1 defeat when the sides first met, but is now undefeated in its last four games after a 2-0 victory against San Antonio FC. That win moved Saint Louis close to claiming its first playoff berth in club history, a feat it could achieve with victory on Saturday should SAFC fail to take victory against Seattle Sounders FC 2.

Sacramento Republic FC vs. Portland Timbers 2
Papa Murphy’s Park, Sacramento, California – 10:30 p.m. ET
Fourth-place Sacramento Republic FC (15-7-8, 53pts) plays host to the fifth-place Portland Timbers 2 (16-11-4, 52pts) in a game that will be crucial for positioning in the Western Conference after both clubs clinched their playoff places last weekend. Both teams earned their place in the playoffs with a draw, with Portland narrowly missing out on a fourth consecutive victory as it conceded a stoppage-time goal in a 2-2 draw against Fresno FC that was still enough to book the club’s first trip to the postseason. Sacramento ensured its fifth consecutive trip to the playoffs with a 0-0 draw against OKC Energy FC last Sunday evening and will now want to turn the tables on T2, who took a 2-0 win when the sides first met this season and would jump past Republic FC into the top four with a similar result as it visits Northern California.

Las Vegas Lights FC vs. OKC Energy FC
Cashman Field, Las Vegas, Nevada | 11 p.m. ET
Las Vegas Lights FC plays its second home game of the week when it welcomes OKC Energy FC (11-14-6, 39pts) with the potential that its visitor could have been eliminated from playoff contention by the time the game kicks off. Energy FC would be eliminated should Reno 1868 FC take victory on Wednesday night against Rio Grande Valley FC, which would put every side in the top eight out of reach for OKC. Should 1868 FC fail to take victory, a glimmer of hope would remain, but Energy FC would likely need to win out starting with its game on Saturday and then get major help from all of Reno’s remaining opponents to reach the postseason.

Sunday, Sept. 30
Ottawa Fury FC vs. Bethlehem Steel FC

TD Place, Ottawa, Ontario – 1 p.m. ET
Ottawa Fury FC returns home from its trip across Ontario to play host to Bethlehem Steel FC (13-12-6, 45pts) in one of the biggest games in the Eastern Conference in Week 29. Steel FC is coming off a 4-0 victory against Toronto FC II – Ottawa’s opponent on Wednesday evening – that moved Bethlehem into fifth place in the Eastern Conference with three games remaining. Each side has taken one win on home turf in their previous two meetings this season, with the more recent a 2-0 victory for Steel FC at Goodman Stadium on August 22. A repeat of that display would pull Bethlehem within sight of a playoff berth and be a major blow to Ottawa’s playoff aspirations.

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