The first full month of the season in the books the narratives for the 2018 USL season are starting to form. From Louisville’s last-gasp victory to maintain its perfect start to the season, to Orange County’s position at the top of the Western Conference, and much more elsewhere, here are 11 talking points and takeaways from the past weekend of action.
1. LAST CHANCE HERO: Louisville City FC had already taken 27 shots against the Richmond Kickers on Saturday, the second-most by any side in a game this season, as it tried to break down its visitors’ resistance with the sides level in the second half at Slugger Field. Eight had been on target, with only Kyle Smith’s penalty kick midway through the second half finding a way past Kickers goalkeeper Trevor Spangenberg, but as the game ticked into stoppage time George Davis IV produced a winner with Louisville’s final shot of the game. That it was Davis to deal the blow added to the moment as he ended his former club’s hopes of taking a point from an enthralling contest, but the overall display – especially when the club could have experienced a letdown after its victory against Cincinnati the previous week – was one that again marked Louisville’s place as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
2. MEN OF THE MOMENT: Orange County SC had only reached a four-game winning streak twice in its history before Saturday night’s 3-0 win against San Antonio FC, and while the final score certainly didn’t reflect the manner which the contest played out the individual excellence produced by the visitors were enough to overcome SAFC’s display. From Andre Rawls’ eight-save shutout – his fourth in a row during the winning streak – to Koji Hashimoto’s magical free kick early in the second half, Orange County came up big in the game’s biggest moments, and now have a chance to create club history when they return to Texas to face Rio Grande Valley FC on April 25. The last time OCSC went on a four-game winning streak in 2015, it finished top of the Western Conference, and while it’s far too early to make that sort of prediction for this squad given the start Real Monarchs SLC has made, the surprise package tag is wearing off fast for Head Coach Braeden Cloutier’s side.
3. OPPORTUNITIES MISSED: It might not seem it thanks to the result, but in many ways San Antonio FC’s loss to Orange County SC was arguably the side’s best attacking display of the season and if not for a remarkable display by OCSC goalkeeper Andre Rawls the hosts wouldn’t be looking at a start that has seen only one win in five games. SAFC created 13 scoring chances, more than one-third of its season total of 35, only for the woodwork and Rawls to stand between it and a positive result. If there was one thing San Antonio lacked on the night it was that the side didn’t create quite enough penetration into the penalty area, with 11 of its 19 shots coming from long range, but SAFC shouldn’t get too down on itself as it looks ahead of Sunday’s visit to Fresno FC.
4. RAY OF HOPE: The game Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC anticipated against Ottawa Fury FC ended up playing out about as differently from anything a neutral could have imagined at Highmark Stadium on Saturday as Fury FC made a massive tactical change, eschewing its previous short passing and movement to instead aim to drive possession upfield quickly while maintaining a strong defensive base. That meant plenty of possession for Riverhounds SC, but also a tricky puzzle to break down as it sent in 30 crosses trying to find an opening. Just as it appeared Pittsburgh was going to come up blank, a great move begun by Ray Lee that went through Joe Holland, Lee again, and Kevin Kerr ended up at the feet of Tobi Adewole, whose close-range finish made it two wins on the spin for the Hounds. Now the only side yet to concede a goal this season, Pittsburgh’s undefeated start will get another strong test when it visits FC Cincinnati next Saturday but after Saturday’s battle it feels as though Head Coach Bob Lilley’s side will be ready for the challenge.
5. SILVER LININGS: The conversation coming out of Sunday afternoon’s 1-1 draw between hosts Bethlehem Steel FC and FC Cincinnati was interesting, with Bethlehem Head Coach Brendan Burke and his players disappointed they didn’t come away with more from a game they led thanks to Cory Burke’s clever first-half redirection and FCC Head Coach Alan Koch and his side appearing happy to rally for a point. In a way it wasn’t that surprising for FCC to be pleased with a point, what with its two trips to Goodman Stadium a season ago having been fruitless endeavors, but for Koch the start to the season is bringing a greater appreciation for his players as to what being part of one of the league’s higher-profile sides brings game-in and game-out. “I definitely think we have a target on our back, and you saw that today because the Steel players were flying in and getting stuck in during the course of the game,” said Koch. “It’s new for some of the players to get used to, playing with that element of pressure on us wherever we go but we’ve played three of our first four games out on the road, seven points out of nine on the road is a very good start in this league.”
6. CUT ABOVE: The opening game of Saturday’s slate lived up to the expectations that both Indy Eleven and Nashville SC are going to be playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference this season as they produced an entertaining clash before the crowd of 10,188 that huddled into Lucas Oil Stadium. What ended up as the difference, however, was the quality Indy forward Soony Saad brought that produced two excellent goals. The first came off long-range pass that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck would have been pleased with by Ayoze, but Saad’s composure in his control and finish was exemplary to put the hosts ahead early. His second was even better, though, with the vicious bend that left NSC goalkeeper Matt Pickens flat-footed dropping jaws for those on hand and watching online. That 35-yard strike ended up on the ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 later that night, and cemented Saad as a player who’ll fans and opponents will have to keep an eye as the season progresses.
7. FIVE STAR DISPLAY: It’s understandable given their position in the club’s hierarchy why the New York Red Bulls II don’t get more attention from the club’s fans, but it’s arguable that they’re missing out on one of the most entertaining teams playing in North America right now as a result. Head Coach John Wolyniec’s side put up a second five-goal home performance on Saturday against a Tampa Bay Rowdies side that had conceded only twice in four previous games in a display that epitomized why the club has been consistently successful since joining the USL in 2015. The Red Bulls II bring an attitude that reeks of the New York, chip on the shoulder, “you don’t know who we are, and we don’t care, ‘cause here we come” mentality that also saw it rack up a five-goal display against the Charleston Battery two weeks ago. And on top of that, they play an outgoing, attacking style that has produced a league-high 94 shots over five games. The Rowdies, in case you were wondering, are fourth on 71. The Red Bulls II make a three-game road trip next before a May 6 game against Nashville SC. If you’re a Red Bulls fans, it’ll likely be worth your time to be there.
8. BEEN HERE BEFORE: There’s no two ways about it, the opening month of the regular season for Reno 1868 FC has been pretty miserable. From frigid playing conditions at Greater Nevada Field, to conceding two stoppage-time goals to fall to defeat, to seeing that team down south start off four games undefeated, nothing’s quite going right for Head Coach Ian Russell’s side. The club’s attacking numbers give an illustration why. Antoine Hoppenot’s got off to a slow start with only two shots in four games, and overall the club’s chance creation numbers are down from a season ago. Reno is sitting at 1.75 big chances created and 9.25 chances overall per game, compared to 2.63 big chances and 10.8 chances overall a season ago according to Opta. But if there’s any silver lining, it’s that 1868 FC was right here a year ago. Then, it was a 4-0 defeat to San Antonio FC that sunk the side to 0-3-1. Now, it’s a loss by the same margin to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC to arrive at the same record four games in. We all know how the regular season went from there.
9. UP OR DOWN: The biggest reason Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC missed out on the playoffs for the first time in its history last season was the inconsistency the side battled throughout the season. The longest undefeated streaks the Switchbacks put together were of three games, which included two three-game winning streaks, but at other times the side would go on longer runs without a win, which left it with an equal number of wins and losses (12) and sitting in ninth place. Now, six games into the new season, the Switchbacks have three wins and three defeats after Saturday’s victory in Reno, and the question continues to be whether a side that can consistently produce at that level is within Colorado Springs’ squad. With the club sitting third in the league in shots with 73, and tied for fifth with 49 chances created, it suggests there’s a positive, attacking side waiting to break upward in the West. This week’s games on the road against undefeated Sacramento Republic FC on Wednesday night and then at home against Seattle Sounders FC 2 on Saturday could tell us a lot more.
10. OFF AND RUNNING: With consecutive wins against the Charlotte Independence in their two most recent meetings in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, North Carolina FC and its vocal travelling support entered the first league meeting between the clubs at the Sportsplex at Matthews on Saturday looking at it as a chance to end a three-game slide to open the season. The visitors accomplished that in a 2-0 victory that saw NCFC take advantage of a couple of defensive mistakes the Independence will be disappointed to have given up with Bilal Duckett’s ineffective clearance opening the door for Daniel Rio’s opener and a surprising mishandle by goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra opening the door for Marios Lomis to seal the three points late. Those two moments made the difference in a tight game overall, one North Carolina will be hopeful it can build on as it heads north of the border this week.
11. OVER THE HUMP: After Wednesday night’s loss to Real Monarchs SLC, Seattle Sounders FC 2 Head Coach John Hutchinson was clear in his sentiments; “We want to get some results,” said the Australian. “We need to start winning games.” Thanks to a pair of goals by Felix Chenkam and a first tally in the pro ranks by Azriel Gonzalez, S2 got the result it needed in a thrilling 3-2 win against Rio Grande Valley FC on Saturday night to break its four-game losing streak. There’s still a lot of work to be done for Seattle to be a playoff contender – Calle Brown’s howler that allowed the Toros’ Matias Zaldivar to tie the game after Chenkam’s 45th-second opener was another breakdown at the back for the side – but if S2 has one thing going for it it’s that in attack it is creating good opportunities when it all clicks together. Reduce the defensive issues and there could be a very bright season ahead in Tacoma.