Louisville City FC will look to replicate last season's 3-0 victory over Ottawa Fury FC at TD Place on Sunday in one of the marquee matches of the weekend. | Photo courtesy Freestyle Photography
After a seven-goal thriller between the New York Red Bulls II and Bethlehem Steel FC on Wednesday night, USL Championship action returns on Friday for a relatively small weekend slate of 13 games.
Real Monarchs SLC and the Tacoma Defiance will take center stage for a special Friday night edition of Wednesday Night Soccer at Zions Bank Stadium with the hosts looking extend their winning streak to five games while the visitors look for their first road win of the season (10 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN3).
Eleven matches will follow on Saturday, with Hartford Athletic kicking off the evening with a landmark occasion as the club opens the doors to historic Dillon Stadium for the first time when it hosts Indy Eleven (5 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). The night will wrap up late on the West Coast with a tasty matchup between Sacramento Republic FC and the Portland Timbers 2 at Papa Murphy’s Park (11 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 19:
In my opinion, the most interesting game of Saturday’s slate features two typically defensive-minded Eastern Conference sides that have also shown a keen eye for goal so far this season. The Hounds, who had the best defense in the Championship last season under Head Coach Bob Lilley, have started to adapt to the times and scored 13 goals over their recent four-game winning streak that was snapped in Charlotte last Sunday. Meanwhile, the Rowdies have conceded just 11 goals in 18 games so far this season and kept nine clean sheets on their way to the top of the table. This contest could be a postseason preview and should have that type of feel as well.
New Mexico United’s fairytale run in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup came to an end on Wednesday night with a 6-1 defeat to Major League Soccer’s Minnesota United FC at Allianz Field. While that performance and result for sure will have been disappointing to Head Coach Troy Lesesne and company, the club now has an immediate opportunity to move past it and get back on track in league play. That won’t come easy against a Fresno side that is unbeaten in its last five games, has won three straight and now sits in the top three in the Western Conference.
Sacramento Republic FC and the Portland Timbers 2 enter this weekend's matchup without a win since June 22. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
The final game of Saturday night’s slate brings together two teams that you associate with success but have struggled to find their form of late. Republic FC was rolling early in June when it won three straight games by a combined score of 11-1, but the club’s form has hit a blip after back-to-back shutout losses against rivals Fresno FC and Reno 1868 FC. Meanwhile, Portland has taken just one point from its last three games and was essentially handed that point last weekend by a Tulsa Roughnecks FC squad that picked up a pair of red cards and conceded the game-tying penalty kick in second-half stoppage time. Sacramento’s Cameron Iwasa and T2’s Eryk Williamson are both having standout campaigns but will have to get back to their best on Saturday to lift their respective teams out of their recent funks.
Louisville City FC spoiled the return of Cameron Lancaster to Slugger Field with a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Nashville SC last weekend and is starting to look a bit more like the championship club we’ve seen over the past two years. However, Head Coach John Hackworth will want to see his side start games faster over the second half of the season. LouCity has picked up five points from its last three games but conceded first in all of them. That could spell trouble against a Fury FC squad that has a +8 goal differential in the first half of league games this season (14 scored, 6 conceded) and is coming off a 3-2 win over HFX Wanderers FC in the Canadian Championship on Wednesday night.
The Charlotte Independence haven’t lost since General Manager Mike Jeffries returned to the touchline and currently sit just one point out of the playoff places after winning one of its first 14 matches to start the season. The team just above Charlotte in the Eastern Conference standings, Saint Louis FC, also happens to be its opponent this weekend but boasts four games in hand over its hosts. With STLFC having exerted plenty of energy in its 2-0 Open Cup Quarterfinal defeat to Atlanta United FC on Wednesday, I believe the Independence will be able to get off to a quick start and continue their unbeaten run with at least a point – but I think a win – on Saturday.
I’ll be a little bit more decisive in picking a result here, as I believe Tulsa Roughnecks FC will finally get back in the win column on Saturday night when it visits Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. The Roughnecks haven’t won since April 24 – when they earned a 2-0 victory over these very same Switchbacks – but Rodrigo da Costa has started to find the back of the net again and the side should have held on last weekend for victory at the Portland Timbers 2. While the 1-5-4 road record is a little bit discouraging, I’m sticking with my gut here.
The typically high-flying New York Red Bulls II attack had gone four consecutive games without scoring multiple goals before Wednesday night’s second-half outburst against Bethlehem Steel FC and I believe that this is a situation where the ketchup is now flowing out of the bottle. That will be especially true if Tom Barlow stays in the Red Bulls II lineup as the forward netted a pair to bring him up to double digits on the campaign at a rate of 58.5 minutes per goal. New York put three goals past Saturday’s opponent ATL UTD 2 on the road earlier this season in a 3-1 victory and scored six in this fixture last season. Four seems like a distinct possibility.
If Orange County SC wants to return to the playoffs in 2019, it’s going to have to start picking up results away from home over the second half of the season. Head Coach Braeden Cloutier’s squad took a big step in the right direction last weekend with a 2-1 win over Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC at Weidner Field and I like OCSC’s chances to keep that momentum going on the road against Austin Bold FC. Three points certainly won’t come as easy as Bold FC has lost just once on its home turf in its inaugural season (5-1-3), but I think Michael Orozco can stabilize this back line in a hostile environment and OCSC has enough attacking playmakers like Aodhan Quinn and Jerry van Ewijk to eke out a result.
After more than doubling his goal total for the season last weekend with a hat trick in Memphis’ 4-1 victory over Hartford Athletic, the big question now is what can Collier do for an encore? 901 FC has struggled mightily to find the back of the net this season, ranking in the bottom five league-wide with 16 goals in 16 games, and needs someone to step up as a consistent scoring threat. If Collier can be that guy and put in another strong shift on Saturday’s visit to the Charleston Battery, Memphis will start climbing the table in the East.
Well, I guess I have to admit to being wrong about Phoenix Rising FC missing Lambert while he joined up with Jamaica for the Concacaf Gold Cup, as the side continued to cruise on its winning streak without their starting defensive midfielder. The interesting thing to watch will now be if Head Coach Rick Schantz goes back to Lambert and Reggae Boyz teammate Junior Flemmings this weekend against Rio Grande Valley FC or sticks with the bunch that has been racking up results without them. Lambert, who only featured once during the Gold Cup, is even more of a question mark given his lack of game action over the past few weeks but told Cronkite News’ Owain Evans this week that he’s “always ready to play 90 minutes.” I guess I’ll take his word for it.
After a slow start to the regular season, the Monarchs are back in the playoff places after reeling off four straight wins and Martinez has played a big part in the turnaround. The forward has scored three goals and contributed three assists over this recent run, spearheading the club’s attack alongside Maikel Chang (two goals, one assist). With a Tacoma defense that has conceded a league-high 44 goals so far this season visiting Zions Bank Stadium on Friday night, Martinez will like his chances to keep his recent form – and the Monarchs’ winning streak – going.
If Hartford wants to take three points in its first outing at the revitalized Dillon Stadium, de Wit will need to have a strong game in the center of the Athletic defense. Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen’s side has conceded 12 goals in its past four games and faces a dangerous Indy Eleven side that boasts the Championship’s all-time leading goalscorer Dane Kelly and 2018 20-goal scorer Thomas Enevoldsen. De Wit, who has played every minute of the season so far, will need to keep a close eye on both of them and marshal his troops, especially since his typical center back partner Kyle Curinga will miss the match after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season last weekend in Memphis.