It’s halfway through the 2016 USL regular season, and this week saw a return to form for the top teams around the league. In addition to the regular roundup, we’ll take a look at some of the leaders in both of the Conference playoff races.
San Antonio FC 3, Orange County Blues FC 2
In as close to a must-win as a midseason matchup can get, these two squads battled to earn a top-8 spot and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
San Antonio came out on the front foot and pressed well up the pitch. The first goal for SAFC came in the 17th minute off of an incisive pass from Jacques Francois that found Michael Reed who slotted it past Brandon Miller to take the lead at home. San Antonio continued to hold the advantage in possession and got several chances to double the lead. That didn’t matter when OC Blues equalized 5 minutes from the break off of a corner against the run of play via a great half-volley from Roy Meeus. SAFC came out strong in the second half, but that didn’t matter to OCB who picked the ball up at midfield and launched the counter quickly. OCB midfielder Didier Crettenand found himself with the ball 20 yards from goal, and launched a shot that found the back of the net via the underside of Miller’s crossbar to put OCB in front on the road.
Both teams looked strong and traded chances for the next 20 minutes. Then, SAFC put together a great string of passes that lead to a cross from Jacques Francois to Franck Tayou tap-in to put the home side level. SAFC claimed the third and final lead change in the 80th minute when a stupendous 30-yard pass from Carlos Alvarez found a running from Milton Palacios who slotted it near-post to claim all 3 points.
Harrisburg City Islanders 1, Charlotte Independence 3
If there was ever a goal that could represent the Harrisburg City franchise, it was the opener from last Saturday in an empty AA baseball field in Central PA. it was the 11th minute, the Islanders dispossessed the Independence at midfield, got it forward to Craig Foster who bundle-nutmegged it through a defender’s legs and bounced off the goalie, and found himself with an open goal. Charlotte started to get a hold of the game and held an edge in the play, but not on the scoreboard heading into the half. Charlotte was awarded a penalty under rather dubious circumstances in the 53rd minute when a cross was headed by Caleb Calvert and hit the upper arm/shoulder of Islanders Defender Shawn McLaws in the box. The spot kick was converted and the momentum was firmly with the visiting Independence. Charlotte doubled the lead as the game ticked over the hour mark as a cross into the box lead to a scramble and a toe-poked finish by David Estrada.
The Independence put the game beyond all doubt in the final moments of the match when Brain Brown found Lewis Hilton whose side-footed finish punctuated a match to forget for the Islanders. The whole game screamed Busch League. The innumerable garbage first touches, the terrible goals, the refereeing. All of it. The Independence took a good 3 points and got outta there, to put that 5 game winless streak well in their rearview mirror. They sit 4th, level on points with the Battery. The Islanders are 4th bottom in the East. The attendance barely broke 400, which can only add fuel to the speculation that Harrisburg may not be long for this league.
OKC Energy 1, Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 1
The Whitecaps 2 had another slightly disappointing performance on Saturday night in Oklahoma City when they dropped points from a winning position. The Caps took the lead in the 26th minute when a Deybi Flores ball found Fatawu Saifu in the box, who got around the keeper and slotted it home from a narrow angle. The Energy gained the upper hand in possession and dictated the game as the two sides headed to the break. The Energy leveled in first half stoppage when sub Coy Craft maneuvered around a VWFC2 defender in the box to go 5-hole on the Caps goalie from 3 yards out. The second half saw each teams earn some half-chances and trade possession, but nothing of real consequence or note. VWFC2 are still top of the West, but have shown a little inconsistency lately.
St Louis FC 1, Portland Timbers 2 0
It was a back-and-forth game that was decided by an unfortunate and debatable penalty call in the 57th minute that gave St Louis the edge in this match. I don’t want to dignify StLFC with much more analysis, but if I were to hypothetically say something about it, I’d say that the teams each traded half-chances, and if anything T2 had the edge in possession and legitimate chances. All in all, each side deserved a draw on the night but the PK separated them, as does 5 points and 3 spots in the Western conference.
Arizona United SC 1, Sacramento Republic FC 1
The opening 40 minutes from Scottsdale AZ was a decidedly cagey one, but as It was a great goal clearing header on the part of the Arizona D that broke up the play, as SRFC forward Cameron Iwasa managed to get by the goalie with his head-on run, but fortunately for AZU goal-minder Jordan Stagmiller, Tyler Blackwood chased his man back to head it off the goal line to preserve the clean sheet. Arizona broke the deadlock 10 minutes into the second half as the man who kept his team in the game in the first half, Tyler Blackwood, netted the go-ahead goal thanks to a good long cross from Peter Kelley that switched the field and gave Blackwood the space he needed to get around a defender and finish.
Before the goal Arizona looked to have the edge in the competition department, but conceding the goal lit a fire under the Republic. They worked the ball around well and came as close as ever to leveling in the 69th minute when Mackenzie Pridham got the ball only 10 yards from the goal, forcing Stagmiller into a great reaction save in traffic. They continued to wear down the AZ defense, unlocking the exasperated United in injury time when Pridham got on the end of a cross to head the ball past a charging Stagmiller in traffic to take a point. SRFC go third in the West, just a point behind LA II and 2 games in hand.
New York Red Bulls II 4, Wilmington Hammerheads 0
Clinical. Dominant. Smothering. Call it what you want, NYRBII outmanned, outplayed, out-everythinged the ‘Heads at Red Bull Arena in front of a reported 453 lost souls. They had goals from the run of play (including a great back-heeled assist) from a free kick and from the penalty spot. Wilmington nearly had a goal almost in the first half though. A mess in the box saw a cross found the head of a Hammerheads player from a yard out, with the goal agape but alas, they ran out of talent and found a way to head it high. With a game at home against in state rivals Rhinos looming next Saturday, the Baby Bulls can positon themselves to take top spot in the East.
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC 0, Real Monarchs SLC 1
Colorado Springs dropped their first home decision of the season Sunday against a hot-and-cold Real Monarchs side that is fighting for their playoff lives. There were several half-chances exchanged in the opening minutes, and the first and only goal came in the 24th minute when a failed headed clearance by COS left Elder Torres with just enough space to get off a sidefooted finish. Monarchs keeper Eduardo Fernandez was called into action a several times in the second half, and he was up to the challenge, to the tune of 8 saves. An injury time penalty gave COS a lifeline, but Luke Veracollone squandered his teams chance to steal a point when he skied the effort.
The result is more of a testament to the Monarch’s resolve than COS’ volatility, but it should be noted that the result sees the Switchbacks’ winless run slide to 3 (0-2-1). Due to the curious way the West’s schedule is set up, the Monarchs and Switchbacks will square off again in scenic Colorado Springs again this Wednesday. Colorado Springs still sit 4th in the West, by the way- 2 points behind and a game in hand on Sacramento.
Mid-season Team Report
I have selected a few teams from the first half of the season that I think will be factors come playoff time in October.
New York Red Bulls II
They’re good. They are the only team to beat the odds-on USL champs and I think they match up a little too well against LCFC, and just about any other team they come across. They lead the league in goals allowed (8 in 14 games), they’re tied with LouCity atop the league on goal difference and have a serviceable offense. That’s the recipe for a championship, although the nature of the organization may prove to be their folly come playoff-time as players could be called up to the senior squad. Manager John Wolyniec has embraced the plug-and-play structure as the team has seen 32 field players make an appearance and 4 keepers suit up for the NYRB Backup Brigade. 17 assists on 22 goals attest to the teamwork cultivated in the reserves.
Their only loss on the season came on May 1 against Charlotte Independence which saw a heavily rotated side shell shocked by a surging Independence team that scored early to keep NYRBII from gaining a foothold on the game. A pair of games against FC Cincinnati, an important fixture August 19th against Louisville at Red Bull Arena and a regular season finale against Charleston Battery away from home punctuate the remaining schedule for the squad. Prediction: Conference Finals
They’re not a particular deep team, with 11 players with over 750 minutes so far in 14 games. They’ve found their stride in the League after dropping 2 of their first 4 games, they’ve gone 6-0-4. They have an above average offense, netting 1.5 goals per game, but their defense needs a bit of shoring up if they want to take the next step, they allow a mediocre .93 goals in per game and have just 3 clean sheets on the season. Okoli leads the team with 7 goals on the year, and is in the top 3 in minutes played for the squad. Speaking of Okoli, it should be noted that he is, empirically speaking, a bit of a prima donna number nine. He throws fits when he doesn’t get the ball and goes down a bit too easy for someone who fills out a 6-foot-1 frame. Look at that, I managed to talk about FCC without mentioning the 18,000 people that turn up for $2 tickets and an exercise in corporate indoctrination. Prediction: Conference Semis
Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2
They score a lot, they concede a lot. 28 goals for, 20 against, not exactly a picture of dominance. Despite a 4 game streak which saw them pick up a measly 2 points, their 8 wins lead the conference, but an average of 1.81 points/game is only good for 4th in the League, all behind FCC, NYRBII and most Importantly Louisville City and their dominant 2.18 points per game. Forward Kyle Grieg is tied for second in the league (with Chandler Hoffman) for goals scored, netting 10 times in 13 games. They’re 3 points up on second place LA Galaxy II, with a game in hand to boot. Prediction: Conference Semis
LA Galaxy II
They’re a goal scoring machine. They lead the league in goals scored, 31 in 16 matches, shut out just twice on the year and have 11 multi-goal games. Jack McBean leads the league in goals scored with 12 in 14 appearances. Their performances are similar to Vancouver in that they score and concede in spades, in stark contrast to the other two Western Conference teams included here. The potent offensive production will put them in games, the serviceable defense will keep them in it. Prediction: Conference Finals
Sacramento Republic FC
They have Conference best goals against record, conceding 10 goals in 14 matches. Their lack of offensive production was troubling for the first month of the season, but they have since strapped on their shooting boots, getting 14 in their 8 games since their last loss on April 30 to Orange County Blues, after just 2 goals in the first 6 competitions of the season. They have found the answer to the one thing holding them back, the offense is now there to pair with a staunch defense. A force to be reckoned with. Prediction: USL Finals.
The Independence don’t have the out-and-out attacking talent of the top-tier teams, but they take care of business and can spring a surprise here or there. They have 7 players that have more than 1000 minutes, and none of them are goalkeepers. Prediction: Conference Quarters.
They can score 2 on Rochester and lose, beat FC Cincinnati and also draw with the Riverhounds it can be hard to draw a bead on the Battery. The only bad performances they can be pegged with is giving up 3 to the Independence letting 3 in to the very offensively challenged Rhinos. The lack of offensive production will prove their downfall. Predictions: Conference Semis
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
They jumped out to a good start in the league, taking care of business against the lesser competition but not quite getting the results against the top teams in the league. Their losses to Sounders 2, San Antonio and Real Monarchs SLC may come back to haunt them when it comes to playoff time. Their offense can be a bit temperamental and they have a tendency to play down to their competition. Prediction: Conference Semis
Real Monarchs SLC
When you beat and draw against the top teams in the Conference (draw against LAII, draw and win against Vancouver) you can’t ignore the Monarchs. Although the disappointing losses to OKC and Arizona United may be holding them back. They ought to get into the playoffs and can make some serious noise once there. Prediction: Conference Quarters.