North Carolina FC and the Charleston Battery will battle for Southern Derby supremacy on Sunday at MUSC Health Stadium. | Photo courtesy Rob Kinnan / North Carolina FC
After Nashville SC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies joined the field for the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs on Wednesday night, Week 29 of the 2019 USL Championship campaign continues Friday to kick off a 17-game weekend slate full of postseason implications.
On Friday night, Indy Eleven will try to take advantage of the New York Red Bulls II’s defeat to Saint Louis FC and go top of the Eastern Conference standings when they visit Birmingham Legion FC at BBVA Field (8 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), before New Mexico United tries to give its playoff hopes a massive boost when it hosts third-place Reno 1868 FC at Isotopes Park (9:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Nine more matches will follow on Saturday, with a rematch of the past three Eastern Conference Finals taking center stage in the early evening when Louisville City FC hosts the New York Red Bulls II at Slugger Field (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before Fresno FC tries to snap Phoenix Rising FC’s 20-game winning streak in a top-two clash at Chukchansi Park (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Sunday’s slate offers the final game of the Southern Derby as North Carolina FC looks to claim the regional rivalry for the second straight season when it visits the Charleston Battery at MUSC Health Stadium (2 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before the weekend wraps up at Taft Stadium where OKC Energy FC will look to give its fading playoff hopes a boost when it hosts Sacramento Republic FC (7 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 29:
Two teams that always seem to peak at this time of year collide on Saturday at Slugger Field when Louisville City FC hosts the New York Red Bulls II in a rematch of the three most-recent Eastern Conference Finals. Louisville won the previous two of those occasions at Slugger Field – including last year’s 5-1 romp over New York – on its path to back-to-back titles. Things are looking a little bit different this season for Louisville, however, as the side enters the weekend in seventh place despite its current seven-game unbeaten run. Taking a win over a New York side that dropped a road contest in Saint Louis on Wednesday but still has a good chance at a top-two finish would go a long way toward keeping Louisville out of the play-in round and show us all that this team is still a playoff contender.
Nashville SC clinched its spot in the postseason for the second consecutive year on Wednesday night thanks to ATL UTD 2’s 3-1 victory over Charleston, but that doesn’t mean Saturday’s contest against Pittsburgh has lost meaning. Nashville enters the weekend just two points behind the first-place New York Red Bulls II and can move into the top two with a win and a Louisville home win over New York. There’s plenty of incentive for the visitors, too, with the Hounds having the chance to seal their playoff spot with victory on the road. With victories in three of its past four games, Pittsburgh could also put itself in prime position for a home game in the postseason with a positive result, but Nashville will certainly be riding high at First Tennessee Park after its dramatic late win on Tuesday night over Birmingham.
Fresno FC held Phoenix Rising FC to a scoreless draw in their first meeting of the season at Casino Arizona Field on April 6. | Photo courtesy Arianna Grainey / Phoenix Rising FC
If there’s one game you need to watch this weekend, I’d pick this one as Phoenix Rising FC puts its 20-game winning streak on the line against Fresno FC at Chukchansi Park in what some expect to be a Western Conference Final preview. Of course, that game would be played at Casino Arizona Field but the opportunity to see how the top two teams in the Western Conference stack up with a month remaining in the season is too good to pass up. Fresno should be flying high after its 5-0 victory on Wednesday night over Rio Grande Valley FC and will certainly be looking to make a statement by ending the streak, while Phoenix will be looking to score its first win against the second-year Foxes, who are 1-0-2 all-time against Rising FC after earning a 0-0 draw on the road earlier this season.
OKC Energy FC enters the weekend level on points with 10th-place San Antonio FC but currently sits outside the playoff picture on the total wins tiebreaker with just five games remaining on its schedule. That lack of opportunity to amass points in a congested Western Conference makes every match even more vital as we reach the business end of the campaign. Taking three points on home turf against a Sacramento Republic FC side that seems to have figured things out lately, winning three straight games to put itself in pole position to finish fourth, is likely going to be a necessity if OKC wants to return to the postseason.
Sure, picking a team that’s won 20 straight games to win again doesn’t make it seem like I’m going out on much of a limb, but a road trip to second-place Fresno ranks right up there with Rising FC’s trip to Reno in June as one of the toughest matches on its schedule. The Foxes showed just how deadly they can be on home turf in Wednesday night’s thrashing of RGVFC and have lost just once at Chukchansi Park this season (9-1-4). My colleague Nicholas Murray believes this is where Phoenix’s winning streak will end, but I just think Rick Schantz’s side will be more motivated than ever for this big test.
I predicted before the season that first-year Head Coach Dave Sarachan would win the Southern Derby with North Carolina FC, so I’m certainly not backing off that now ahead of Saturday’s clash in Charleston. NCFC and the Battery enter even on five points in rivalry games this season (1-0-2) with a win each coming over the Charlotte Independence, but Sarachan’s side currently holds the edge on goal differential (+3 to +2). That means a draw would be enough to lift the trophy, which seems about right given the poor form that both teams have found themselves in of late.
San Antonio FC's defense kept the Galaxy II from recording a shot on target in their 2-0 victory over LA back on April 13. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
San Antonio FC enters the weekend just above the playoff line in the Western Conference and has the opportunity to do itself a world of good on Friday night as it visits the team above it in the standings, the LA Galaxy II. Separated by just two points, San Antonio can leapfrog LA with a victory but will have to overcome its poor road form to do so. SAFC has won just twice away from Toyota Field this campaign (2-9-2), which could be an issue down the stretch as it plays four of its final six games on the road. I think this SAFC team has enough young talent to not let the venue get in the way of a return to the playoffs, and Cristian Parano will continue his impressive run of form.
Orange County SC has reeled off five straight victories and all of a sudden looks like the team that finished atop the Western Conference standings in 2018. However, I’m still not sure I trust OCSC away from home just yet. The recent wins at New Mexico and a struggling Portland have helped, but Head Coach Braeden Cloutier’s side is just 3-5-5 on the road this season. Meanwhile, the Roughnecks have relished the role of spoiler and are unbeaten in their past four games, including a 2-1 home victory over Fresno FC. I don’t necessarily think Tulsa will pull out all three points, but I can see it giving Orange County more of a game than it might be anticipating.
The arrival of Ockford and center back partner Forrest Lasso on loan have helped Nashville shore up its defense over the past few months. NSC has conceded just three times over its past four games, including posting a clean sheet at home against Birmingham Legion FC on Tuesday night. Ockford has also played a significant role in the side’s dominance from set pieces, scoring once and getting the header that forced Akeem Ward’s late own goal in Tuesday’s 1-0 win. Keeping the Hounds off the scoresheet won’t be easy, but Ockford and co. are up to the task.
Tyler Blackwood has quickly become a fan favorite after scoring four goals and adding an assist in his first seven appearances for Saint Louis FC. | Photo courtesy Saint Louis FC
There has probably not been a better late-season signing in the Championship than Blackwood, who has come in and produced immediately for Saint Louis FC to help rescue its season. The former Sacramento Republic FC forward has scored four goals and registered an assist in seven appearances, giving Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ squad another dimension up front and a much-needed morale boost.
The title of the best in-season signing in the Championship still probably belongs to Kiesewetter, who if not for injury looked likely to challenge Solomon Asante and Daniel Rios for the league’s Golden Boot. Despite playing in just 18 of El Paso’s 27 games to date, Kiesewetter is still Locomotive FC’s leading scorer (11 goals) by a wide margin. If the former United States International can get things going in front of goal again down the stretch, Locomotive FC will be a team that no one wants to see in the postseason, but to do that, 12th-place El Paso needs to start accumulating wins, starting on Saturday night against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.
There’s no doubting that Parra has been Lights FC’s most productive player this season as his team-leading (and franchise single-season record) 11 goals have helped Las Vegas stay in touch with the playoff places. The forward has also added six assists to that total, but each of those and 10 of the goals have come at Cashman Field. If Lights FC is going to make a run down the final stretch, it’s going to need its best player to step up in key road games, starting on Sunday in Austin.