Two of the top form sides in the Western Conference will meet on Saturday when Reno 1868 FC hosts San Antonio FC at Greater Nevada Field. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
After Nashville SC earned its fourth straight shutout victory on Wednesday night, Week 23 of the USL Championship continues on Friday to kick off a busy weekend of 16 matches.
Loudoun United FC will take center stage early Friday evening as the Eastern Conference expansion side will open the doors to its new home at Segra Field for the first time when it hosts the Charlotte Independence (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), before Orange County SC looks to boost its playoff hopes when it visits Tacoma Defiance at Cheney Stadium (10 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Twelve matches will follow on Saturday, with Hartford Athletic and the New York Red Bulls II kicking things off early in the afternoon at Dillon Stadium (1 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before the rest of the action follows later in the evening.
The weekend will wrap up a pair of contests on Sunday that will see Louisville City FC continue its chase for a top-six spot when it hosts ATL UTD 2 at Slugger Field (3 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before the Portland Timbers 2 look to build on a midweek draw when they host New Mexico United at Providence Park (9 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 23:
The Tampa Bay Rowdies may enter Saturday’s match with double the points as Birmingham Legion FC (46 to 23) but the two Eastern Conference sides share the same form having collected 10 points from their last five games. Legion FC has used its four-game unbeaten run – during which it has not conceded a goal – to push up to 12th place in the standings, just two points adrift of 10th-place Saint Louis FC. While Birmingham’s back line has been great in recent weeks, it will be tested at Al Lang Stadium by a Rowdies side that is coming off a 5-0 road victory over Charleston last weekend and earned a 2-0 win over Legion FC at BBVA Field on June 1.
Speaking of the Battery, Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser’s side won’t be the only one looking for a positive response when it travels to West Community Stadium on Saturday to take on Saint Louis FC. The hosts were held to a scoreless draw on Tuesday night against a Memphis 901 FC side that played more than an hour with 10 men after Cameron Lindley’s 27th-minute red card. Despite maintaining nearly 65 percent of possession, STLFC managed just two shots on target over the 90 minutes and couldn’t break down a resolute Memphis defense, much to the chagrin of Head Coach Anthony Pulis.
“I’m furious, it’s probably the angriest I’ve been to be honest,” Pulis said after the match. “It’s a number of things: the lack of urgency, the decision-making, the execution was nowhere near the level we need.”
Saint Louis has now one just one of its last 12 games in league play, a span that includes a 0-0 draw against the Battery at MUSC Health Stadium on May 11. Both sides will be hoping for more this time around.
The Foxes make the trip to Oklahoma having won six of their last seven games and sitting comfortably in third place out West, seven points clear of Austin Bold FC with a game in hand. While this certainly isn’t a must-win for Fresno, Head Coach Adam Smith will want to see his side continue to play well in an attempt to keep pace with Phoenix Rising FC and Reno 1868 FC in the race for a top-two finish and in preparation for the postseason. On the Energy FC side, this game represents a massive chance to start to separate itself from the chasing pack in the West. With the 11 teams behind the top three separated by just seven points, a win could vault OKC up to fourth while a loss could put it below the playoff line. Head Coach Steve Cooke’s side enters the match on a two-game unbeaten run and should take some confidence from its 1-1 draw in Fresno on June 8 in which Deshorn Brown scored a late equalizer. Look for Energy FC’s leading scorer to try to make his impact felt once more.
While Phoenix Rising FC gets a lot of the headlines, Reno – like Fresno – has done well to keep itself within touching distance of the Western Conference leader. Head Coach Ian Russell’s squad, which currently sits three points off the top spot while having played two additional games, has won seven of its last eight games and kept it rolling since the departure of the club’s all-time leading scorer, Brian Brown, to Albanian club FK Partizani. 1868 FC should get a tough test on Saturday from a San Antonio side that has lost just once in its last six outings, with that result coming last weekend in a 3-2 defeat to Sacramento Republic FC. While SAFC hasn’t been good on the road this season (1-7-2), it has looked a different team of late and will look to improve on that mark as it hopes to continue its climb into the playoff race.
After ending its stay at Audi Field with a 3-0 victory over Louisville City FC, Loudoun United FC fell flat in a 4-2 defeat to ATL UTD 2 at Fifth Third Bank Stadium last weekend. While that’s not necessarily the momentum the side would like heading into Friday night’s opener at Segra Field, United will certainly get a lift from the home fans as it experiences its permanent home for the first time. With the Charlotte Independence visiting off back-to-back losses, I’ve got United coming through with a home-opening win that will keep its fans dreaming of a late-season run for another week.
The Defiance have occupied the basement in the Western Conference for most of the season but have been known to spring a surprise here and there at Cheney Stadium. All three of Tacoma’s wins this season have come on its home turf, including a resounding 4-1 victory over playoff hopeful Las Vegas Lights FC on July 24. With fellow playoff chaser Orange County SC heading up north on Friday night, I’ll back the Defiance for another three points, even if FiveThirtyEight.com gives the side just a 17-percent chance of victory.
Last weekend, Pittsburgh scored a 4-0 win over Memphis 901 FC to extend its winning streak to three games. The performance also marked the first time the club had scored four goals in back-to-back games since 2013, with Head Coach Bob Lilley’s side having earned a 4-2 win over Hartford Athletic the weekend prior. While it may seem unlikely, I’ve got that streak extending to a third straight week when the Hounds host the Swope Park Rangers at Highmark Stadium. The Rangers, who have given up four or more goals three times this season, have conceded the fifth-most goals in the Championship this season (45) and shipped 12 goals in their past four games.
I hate the possibility of being wrong here, but there are some moments in sports that just seem scripted. And there is no denying the power of sports in the wake of tragedy. Just look at MLB’s Los Angeles Angels, who last month threw a combined no-hitter in their first home game after the sudden passing of teammate Tyler Skaggs. This has all the makings of one of those situations as Locomotive FC enters its contest on Saturday against Phoenix Rising FC playing for the city of El Paso after the tragic shooting that took 22 lives last weekend.
After making the move to Memphis from Tennessee rival Nashville earlier this week, Doyle made a strong debut in the center of defense against Saint Louis FC on Tuesday night. The 27-year-old recorded seven clearances to help 901 FC earn a clean sheet, despite playing more than an hour with 10 men after Cameron Lindley’s red card. While Doyle will be hoping his side doesn’t have its back up against the wall as often on Saturday against North Carolina FC, it’s likely another strong performance will be required.
Nashville SC center backs Jimmy Ockford (left) and Forrest Lasso (center) have made life easier for goalkeeper Matt Pickens since arriving on loan from Major League Soccer. | Photo courtesy John Wilkinson III / Nine12 Creative
Lasso’s arrival on loan from FC Cincinnati was one of the moves that facilitated Doyle’s departure from Nashville and 2018 Championship Defender of the Year has made an instant impact alongside fellow loanee Jimmy Ockford. NSC has yet to concede a goal with the duo on the field and earned its fourth straight shutout victory on Wednesday against Hartford Athletic. Lasso even got into the action on the attacking end, recording an assist on the team’s second goal by Daniel Ríos.
Continuing on the run of defenders, Taylor will likely be charged to step up for Austin this weekend as it deals with the suspension of Sean McFarlane and Amobi Okugo, who both picked up their fifth yellow card of the season in last weekend’s 2-2 draw with New Mexico United. Bold FC’s defense will have to deal with an attacking LA Galaxy II side that ended Phoenix Rising FC’s shutout streak last weekend with a pair of goals that looked like it was going to set it off to victory. Austin has been remarkable defensively at home this season, conceding just 11 goals in 11 home games so far, and Taylor will look to ensure that continues on Saturday without some of his teammates.
Rio Grande Valley still has an outside shot at a playoff place but needs to start scoring if it’s going to make up ground on the chasing pack. The side has found the back of the net just four times in the past seven games, with Small contributing one of those in a 2-1 defeat to Las Vegas Lights FC. As the joint-leading scorer with eight goals, Small will need to lead the line effectively and produce the goods on Saturday’s trip to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC if RGVFC has any hope of reaching the postseason.