LIPAFC rivals Louisville City FC and Indy Eleven will meet for the second time this season after battling to a 1-1 draw at Lucas Oil Stadium on June 29. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven
After Birmingham Legion FC extended its unbeaten run to eight games on Wednesday night, Week 26 of the 2019 USL Championship campaign continues Friday to kick off a busy Labor Day Weekend with 16 matches.
Friday’s five-game slate features a pair of top-eight clashes in the Eastern Conference with seventh-place Louisville City FC hosting fourth-place Indy Eleven in the Louisville Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest at Slugger Field in a special Friday Night Edition of Wednesday Night Soccer (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN3) while sixth-place Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC travels north of the border to face eighth-place Ottawa Fury FC at TD Place (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Six matches will follow on Saturday, with the Tampa Bay Rowdies looking to complete a season sweep of Nashville SC at Al Lang Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before a crunch clash for playoff positioning takes place in the Western Conference between the LA Galaxy II and Sacramento Republic FC at Dignity Health Sports Park (10 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Sunday’s four-game slate offers another important Western Conference contest between New Mexico United and Orange County SC at Isotopes Park (6 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before the holiday weekend wraps up on Monday with the Charleston Battery looking to get back on track against Wednesday night’s lone winner Memphis 901 FC (6 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
With plenty of storylines to keep track of across the Championship this weekend, here are a few games and players that I’ll be paying close attention to, as well as some bold predictions I expect to play out over the course of Week 26:
This season’s second edition of the Louisville Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest comes at an important moment for both teams as Louisville looks to bridge the gap to the East’s top six, while Indy tries to make use of its games in hand to push on for the top spot. Both teams enter on solid runs of form, having won four of their past five games, but there are still some major questions for both as we head into the stretch run. Louisville, despite its four-game winning streak, hasn’t been convincing in attack and will face the league’s stingiest defense (17 goals conceded) without leading scorer Magnus Rasmussen (suspension) and likely without forward Brian Ownby (injury). Meanwhile, the Eleven could use to get Dane Kelly firing again up front after relying on goals from their midfield for much of the season and seeing Thomas Enevoldsen depart for Sacramento Republic FC. After a 1-1 draw between the sides on June 29 at Lucas Oil Stadium, bragging rights are totally up for grabs.
Back-to-back 4-2 victories against the Portland Timbers 2 and Austin Bold FC have shot Energy FC up to fifth place in a crowded Western Conference and the visitors to Zions Bank Stadium on Friday night can give their playoff hopes another significant boost with a result. That won’t come easy though as the sixth-place Monarchs have been a dominant side at home over the past two years, boasting a record of 21-4-3 (8-2-1 this season) and winning their last five game on home turf. Real has outscored its opponents 16-4 and kept three clean sheets over that recent stretch, making a return from a two-game road trip that saw the side pick up just one point should be a welcome one. After Tate Schmitt earned the Monarchs a point with a 93rd-minute equalizer in the teams’ first meeting of the season on May 18, expect OKC to come out aggressively in what should be a playoff-like atmosphere.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies will look to complete a season-sweep of Nashville – and all of Tennessee for that matter after beating Memphis last weekend – on Saturday night at Al Lang Stadium after taking a 1-0 victory at First Tennessee Park on May 8. As my colleague Nicholas Murray points out, plenty of things that have changed for both sides over the last three-plus months, but one thing that hasn’t is the magnitude of a game between these two sides. With the second-place Rowdies and third-place NSC both chasing the New York Red Bulls II, this could be a turning point for either side in the race for home-field advantage come October.
New Mexico and Orange County enter Sunday’s match at Isotopes Park separated by just a point in the Western Conference standings and sit narrowly above the playoff line. They also come into the contest on differing runs of form, with Orange County having swept aside Las Vegas Lights FC and the Monarchs over a two-game homestand while New Mexico is winless in its last four games (0-2-2) and was trounced 5-0 last weekend in San Antonio. While that is slightly ominous for United, a return home should help as the expansion side as it has lost just once this season on its own turf while OCSC has managed just one road win in 11 tries. We should learn plenty about the playoff credentials of each team based on how this plays out.
I mentioned above that Louisville City FC and Indy Eleven played out a 1-1 draw in their first meeting of the season on June 29 and I’m backing the tie again on Friday night. While Louisville has snuck out one-goal wins in three of its past four games, I’m not sure Head Coach John Hackworth’s side will have enough firepower to break down a resolute Eleven defense without suspended midfielder Magnus Rasmussen to pull the strings and push forward. A 0-0 or 1-1 scoreline sounds about right.
The Charlotte Independence and Charleston Battery are set to renew their rivalry in the latest edition of the Southern Derby on Friday night. | Photo courtesy Charleston Battery
Any hopes Charlotte had about a return to the postseason have likely faded during the club’s six-game winless run (0-2-4), but the Independence will have plenty to play for on Friday night when Southern Derby rival the Charleston Battery visits the Sportsplex at Matthews. The goal for Head Coach Mike Jeffries’ squad will be to play spoiler as the 10th-place Battery look to preserve their playoff place and leapfrog North Carolina FC ahead of their Southern Derby decider in late September. The Independence haven’t beaten Charleston since April 2016, but I think they have enough attacking threat to trouble the Battery on home turf.
Speaking of attacking threat, Phoenix Rising FC’s Solomon Asante continues to light the Western Conference ablaze as his one-goal, one-assist performance on Tuesday night against Tacoma Defiance helped his side grab its 16th straight win. It also moved the Ghanaian winger up to 19 goals and 13 assists on the season – most in the Championship in both categories – and just a tally away from becoming the league’s first 20-goal scorer of the campaign. Although Asante was held off the scoresheet in a 2-2 draw against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC back in March, I’m backing him to find the back of the net on Saturday night at Weidner Field.
In Week 25, home teams went 15-3-0 across the Championship with the New York Red Bulls II recording two of the league’s three road victories by beating Nashville SC and the Swope Park Rangers. The lone other road win was Birmingham Legion FC’s 3-2 victory over Bethlehem Steel FC. I expect Steel FC to turn things around on Sunday against the struggling Rangers and the greater trend of home success continuing as New Mexico United, Austin Bold FC and Saint Louis FC also pick up victories.
The addition of Thomas Enevoldsen has helped the Republic FC attack already and it’s not just because the Dane is a potent finisher. He also creates space and provides service for Iwasa, who has now netted in each of Sacramento’s games with Enevoldsen in the lineup. Republic FC’s leading scorer is now up to 12 goals on the season, six of which have come away from home, which could come in handy on Saturday as Sacramento travels to the LA Galaxy II.
Brett won’t have fond memories of Pittsburgh’s first meeting of the season with Ottawa Fury FC on June 8, when his 91st-minute penalty kick was saved by Callum Irving and the hosts were forced to settle for a 2-2 draw at Highmark Stadium. The Hounds’ leading scorer will likely be looking to make amends on Friday’s trip north of the border as Head Coach Bob Lilley’s side looks to continue its chase for a top-four finish.
Reno 1868 FC has conceded eight goals over its past two games – four apiece to San Antonio and Phoenix – and while it hasn’t necessarily been the defense’s fault, I’m sure that Head Coach Ian Russell will be hoping for a standout performance from Carroll on Saturday night against the Portland Timbers 2. The center back has had a strong campaign thus far, leading Reno in clearances (79) and blocks (25) while also winning 24 of 32 tackles and 120 of 181 duels. T2 will pose an attacking threat at Greater Nevada Field, so Carroll and the rest of the back line will have to get back to their best to keep a clean sheet.
Saint Louis is remarkably still in the playoff hunt despite winning just one of its last 15 games in league play (1-8-7) and will need offense from someone to start turning things around after notching just three goals over its past five games. Despite averaging 305 minutes per goal this season, Greig seems as likely as anyone to take advantage of Hartford Athletic’s leaky defense on Sunday night. Hartford has conceded a league-high 64 goals this season in 26 games and should give STLFC’s 2018 leading scorer plenty of chances to add to his tally of five goals this campaign.