North Carolina FC proved that no one is unbeatable after handing the Tampa Bay Rowdies their first loss of the 2019 Championship campaign with a 3-1 victory on Saturday at Al Lang Stadium. | Photo courtesy Mary Holt / Tampa Bay Rowdies
From Jemal Johnson’s stunning long-range strike for Fresno FC to another victory on $1 Beer Night for Phoenix Rising FC, Week 14 of the 2019 USL Championship campaign had a little bit of everything. Here are my winners and losers from the last seven days:
You can make an argument for North Carolina FC or Sacramento Republic FC being the biggest winner of the weekend, but it’s hard to ignore the larger theme at play here. As we saw specifically on Saturday, anybody can beat anybody on any given day. The Tampa Bay Rowdies, previously unbeaten in their opening 13 games, were handed a 3-1 loss by NCFC at Al Lang Stadium and Western Conference leader New Mexico United saw its unbeaten start at Isotopes Park end in a 3-0 defeat to Republic FC. For me, Sacramento’s win was a little less surprising given New Mexico had played in midweek and wasn’t overly convincing in its 1-1 home draw with OKC Energy FC on Wednesday. However, the Rowdies’ loss was an eye-opening one, especially given the way the home side controlled most of the contest. Tampa Bay maintained nearly 60 percent of possession and outshot North Carolina 17-4 (7-3 on target), but the visitors made the most of their opportunities as Dre Fortune bagged a brace and Steven Miller sealed the win with 13 minutes to play. Head Coach Dave Sarachan’s side may sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, but his team is building an impressive resume that now includes away victories over the Rowdies and New York Red Bulls II as well as that opening-weekend demolition of Louisville City FC. North Carolina could be a very trendy dark horse pick come playoff time.
While having the teams atop both conferences lose on the same day says something for parity, it wouldn’t mean much if teams at or near the bottom of the table continued to fall flat. However, that wasn’t the case this weekend as three of the bottom four teams in the Western Conference lit up the scoreboard en route to victory. Douglas Martinez scored two goals and added an assist to help Real Monarchs SLC power past Rio Grande Valley FC 5-3 at Zions Bank Stadium for its first win since defeating San Antonio FC 3-2 on April 20, while Head Coach Darren Powell saw his SAFC side rally from a two-goal deficit to knock off Reno 1868 FC by the same 3-2 scoreline at Toyota Field (more on that later). Elsewhere, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC captain Jordan Burt scored for the second straight week to lead his side to a second straight win, defeating Tacoma Defiance 3-0 to move the 17th-place Switchbacks within five points of the playoff places. Meanwhile in the East, Hartford Athletic’s turnaround continued as Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen’s squad climbed out of the cellar with an impressive 2-1 home victory over Saint Louis FC to extend its unbeaten streak to four games. As we approach the midpoint of the season, it’s hard to argue that anyone is truly out of it at this point, except maybe Tacoma and its goal differential of -30.
On the opposite side of Hartford’s continued turnaround is a Saint Louis squad that is struggling for form at the moment. The visitors to Rentschler Field on Saturday failed to record a shot on target after Matt Bahner’s 16th-minute goal gave his side an early lead and the Athletic responded through Harry Swartz and Philip Rasmussen’s late penalty to extend STLFC’s winless run to three games. While my colleague Nicholas Murray is willing to write off Saturday’s performance on account of rust from a light May schedule, I’m a little bit more skeptical about Saint Louis’ attacking prowess moving forward. STLFC has scored just 13 goals in 11 games so far this season for a 1.18 goals-per-game average that falls in the Championship’s bottom 10, while its 7.45 chances created per game is sixth-worst in the league. That will have to improve in the coming weeks if it wants to be a contender in the crowded Eastern Conference. And while the loss to the Athletic could just be a blip in the road, STLFC will have to be annoyed after 6 of 8 teams ahead of it in the standings all picked up victories over the weekend.
After admitting that I’m losing my faith in Saint Louis’ attack, it’s hard to look back at my prediction of a four-goal outing for Anthony Pulis’ side this weekend with anything less than regret. To make matters worse, my bold picks from the Week 14 Weekend Guide went 0-for-4 and were the subject of ridicule across social media.
However, I feel like I can take a little bit of confidence moving into next week knowing that Tulsa Roughnecks FC should have scored on $1 Beer Night if not for Zac Lubin’s incredible diving save late in Phoenix Rising FC’s 5-0 victory and Loudoun United FC put up a pretty good fight on the road against Louisville City FC. I’m kind of disappointed I didn’t see the NCFC win coming, but I guess it’s back to the drawing board. And to those of you that feel I cursed your teams this week, I’m sorry (but I’m also not going to stop).
While my bold predictions may have in fact been bad, there’s no denying my ability to predict whether El Paso Locomotive FC forward Jerome Kiesewetter will find the back of the net. After accurately predicting the end of his barrage of braces back in Week 12, I have hopped back on the Kiesewetter bandwagon – which I’d like to point out I was on when he signed – to the tune of three goals over the past two weeks. The former United States international netted twice in El Paso’s 3-0 victory over the LA Galaxy II on Saturday at Southwest University Park to help Locomotive FC climb into fourth place in the West and bring his goalscoring total up to nine in nine appearances. That mark puts him in a tie for second in the Championship’s Golden Boot race with New Mexico United’s Santi Moar and just one behind Kevaughn Frater, but having scored a goal every 89.22 minutes this campaign, Kiesewetter boasts the best scoring rate of the three. This crazy train just keeps on chugging.
I told you we’d come back to San Antonio eventually – sorry, I’ll see myself out – as Head Coach Darren Powell’s side picked up a much-needed victory over Reno 1868 FC at Toyota Field. Entering the contest in 16th place in the West and trailing 2-0 in the opening 20 minutes, it looked as though things were going to continue to trend south for SAFC, but Ever Guzman’s goal just before halftime gave the team a much-needed lift before 17-year-olds Ethan Bryant and Jose Gallegos scored 89 seconds apart just after the hour-mark to complete the comeback. The win was San Antonio’s first in over a month and moved the side within four points of 10th-place Orange County SC. Powell will still have to sort out the club’s putrid away record, but this performance should help restore some confidence within his players.
Outside of Hartford, there were a pair of notable comeback victories in the East this weekend with the more impressive of the two belonging to Ottawa Fury FC. Head Coach Nikola Popovic’s side fell behind 2-0 at Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC after Neco Brett’s goal in the 62nd minute, but the visitors to Highmark Stadium were level seven minutes later as Wal Fall converted from the penalty spot and Aidan Daniels benefitted from a goalkeeper error from Austin Pack to net his first goal of the season. All that work looked like it was going to be for nothing as Brett stepped up to the penalty spot in the 91st minute, but Fury FC goalkeeper Callum Irving guessed the right way to keep out the spot kick and help Ottawa’s unbeaten run reach seven games.
Nashville SC didn’t quite complete as impressive a turnaround on Sunday at Bethlehem Steel FC, but it was quicker in response than Fury FC after falling behind to James Chambers’ free kick in the 25th minute. Ken Tribbett’s header from a corner kick two minutes later saw the two teams head to halftime level and the visitors used a three-goal second-half outburst to jump up to third place in the Eastern Conference standings. While a one-goal comeback by a road favorite probably wouldn’t normally be noteworthy, the occasion marked the first time in Nashville history that the club took three points after conceding the opening goal. That’s something worth celebrating.