Louisville City FC will put its nine-game unbeaten run on the line against Saint Louis FC in the Kings' Cup decider on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy EM Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
After El Paso Locomotive FC and Ottawa Fury FC inched closer to the postseason with victories on Wednesday night, Week 31 of the 2019 USL Championship campaign continues Friday to kick off a 16-game weekend slate full of postseason implications.
On Friday night, the Tampa Bay Rowdies will look to put the pressure on the top half of the Eastern Conference when they visit expansion side Loudoun United FC with the hopes of boosting their chances of a top-four finish (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Fourteen matches will follow on Saturday, with a pair of Eastern Conference clashes kicking off the evening when Indy Eleven looks to stem the tide against Memphis 901 FC at Lucas Oil Stadium (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) and the New York Red Bulls II look to avenge an early-season loss to North Carolina FC at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). The night will wrap up late on the West Coast with a high-stakes contest in Sin City between playoff hopefuls Las Vegas Lights FC and San Antonio FC at Cashman Field (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
The weekend will wrap up on Sunday night with the Charlotte Independence looking to make it back-to-back wins when they visit Bethlehem Steel FC at Talen Energy Stadium (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 31:
The most important game of the weekend – and the first of my top 10 games to watch in October – pits two sides fighting for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference against each other at BBVA Field. Legion FC and the Battery enter the match level on 39 points – with Birmingham currently occupying 10th place ahead of Charleston on the total-wins tiebreaker – but the two sides seem to be heading in opposite directions at the moment. The Battery have closed the gap with last-gasp results against North Carolina FC and at the New York Red Bulls II while Legion FC has dropped three of its past four matches, including a potentially costly 3-1 defeat at the 17th-place Swope Park Rangers on Monday night. A victory on home turf could go a long way to helping Birmingham move past that and might be a necessity now given Charleston ends its season with a three-game homestand against non-playoff sides.
There’s more than just playoff positioning on the line when Saint Louis FC hosts Louisville City FC on Saturday night at West Community Stadium. The winner – if there is one – will also claim bragging rights in the Kings’ Cup Derby as the yearly regional rivalry is delicately poised after the two sides played out a scoreless draw at Slugger Field back in May. LouCity leads the all-time series 4-1-4 and has outscored STLCFC 18-8 in league play, but the hosts will be confident that they can finally edge the back-to-back defending champions this time around. Saint Louis logged impressive home wins over Ottawa Fury FC, Nashville SC and the New York Red Bulls II in September and should feel good about its chances of ending Louisville’s nine-game unbeaten run with the home crowd at its back.
El Paso Locomotive FC earned a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Reno 1868 FC in the first ever meeting between the two sides. | Photo courtesy El Paso Locomotive FC
The race for fourth place in the Western Conference seems to take a different turn every week and just when you think you can count a team out; it finds a way back into the race. Well, after Wednesday night’s 2-1 victory over Fresno FC, El Paso Locomotive FC has thrown its hat back into the ring as the expansion side now sits just a point behind fourth-place Real Monarchs SLC with the same number of games played. The schedule doesn’t get any easier for El Paso as it now heads to Greater Nevada Field to take on third-place Reno on Saturday night, but the visitors will bring the experience of a 1-0 victory over 1868 FC with them from their first meeting back in April. Combine that with the fact that Reno has lost three of its past four games on home turf and there’s a real chance that Locomotive FC could continue to roll through its late-season gauntlet.
Irvin Parra’s two-goal, one-assist performance in last weekend’s 3-1 victory at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC saved Las Vegas’ season for another week, but Lights FC still has plenty of work to do to get back into the playoff places. A great opportunity arrives this weekend, however, as 10th-place San Antonio FC travels to Cashman Field with a three-point gap currently separating the two sides. A win for Las Vegas – coupled ideally with 11th-place New Mexico United dropping points – would be massive for Head Coach Eric Wynalda’s side as it looks to chase down those teams in front of it and get into the playoff places. San Antonio enters the match with confidence after a 2-1 home victory over Fresno last weekend, but its struggles away from Toyota Field (2-10-3) will make getting three more points a tough task against a Lights FC side that boasts an 8-3-4 record on home turf. A draw won’t do either side any good, so expect both teams to go for it from the off.
If you want the definition of a trap game, look no further than Birmingham Legion FC’s visit to the Swope Park Rangers on Monday night ahead of this weekend’s massive playoff six-pointer with the Charleston Battery. And while that disappointing 3-1 defeat will have frustrated Legion FC Head Coach Tom Soehn, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll get a strong response out of his squad on Saturday night. Even without suspended forward Brian Wright, I’m backing Legion FC to get the result it needs in front of its home crowd to create a little distance between itself and the Battery heading into the final stretch.
Orange County midfielder Aodhan Quinn will hope to be celebrating a playoff berth with his teammates after Saturday's action has concluded. | Photo courtesy Orange County SC
After hanging below the playoff line for most of the first half of the season, Orange County is impressively within reach of returning the postseason this weekend as it gets set to face OKC Energy FC at Championship Soccer Stadium. A home victory over a side fighting for its playoff life, coupled with a Las Vegas Lights FC victory over San Antonio FC and Phoenix Rising FC taking at least a point from its trip to the Portland Timbers 2 would see last year’s top seed cross the line. I’m trusting the home records for both Orange County and Las Vegas to shine through, while Rising FC continues its pursuit of rewriting the Championship’s record book with a result in the Pacific Northwest.
If you want the definition of a let-down spot, there was never one more obvious than Fresno FC heading to San Antonio FC last Saturday on the back of ending Phoenix Rising FC’s 20-game winning streak and clinching its first postseason berth. And as I predicted last week, the Foxes slumped to a defeat in San Antonio. However, I was certainly a little more surprised to see the side suffer a second consecutive 2-1 loss on Wednesday night at El Paso Locomotive FC. Thanks to Reno’s inconsistent form, Fresno is still in good shape to finish second behind Rising FC in the Western Conference as it holds a three-point edge on 1868 FC with three games to play. Head Coach Adam Smith certainly won’t mind seeing basement-dwellers Tacoma Defiance come to California this weekend, as the visitors have conceded a league-high 49 goals in 15 road games this season while netting just seven of their own. That sets the Foxes up nicely to take their frustration of the past two games out on the Defiance and inch that much closer to home-field advantage through the Conference Semifinals.
The Swope Park Rangers’ recent run of form has seen the side overtake its opponent on Saturday night, Hartford Athletic, in the Eastern Conference standings and create a three-point gap over the expansion side. And while the form guide says picking against the Rangers is a bad idea, especially considering the way Wilson Harris has been finding the back of the net of late, I’m going with my gut and backing Hartford to claim a home victory and leapfrog Swope Park into 17th-place on the total-wins tiebreaker. Sure, the Athletic have lost three straight and been outscored 9-1 over that stretch, but they’ve been much more competitive at Dillon Stadium and should be able to eke this one out against a side that travelled and played on Monday night.
New York Red Bulls II's Jared Stroud is going to be a key figure if the side is to earn a result on the road against North Carolina FC on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Sarah Stier / New York Red Bulls II
The Red Bulls II have claimed just one point from their past three games and could use a strong finish to the season to secure at least one – if not two – playoff games at MSU Soccer Park. If New York is going to start that turnaround this weekend in North Carolina against a side that has already beaten it this season, it’s going to need a strong performance from its top player. Stroud was held off the scoresheet and had a penalty saved in last weekend’s 1-1 draw with Charleston, but on the bright side has alternated a goal every other game since August 24. I think a bounce-back is in order.
Evan Newton’s injury late in Wednesday night’s 1-0 loss to Ottawa Fury FC added to what can only be described as a miserable four-game road trip for the Eleven, which dropped all four games by a combined score of 7-1. While Farr can’t help Indy on the offensive end, the Eleven will likely need their backup goalkeeper to come up big in Newton’s stead as it faces a Memphis 901 FC side that has come on strong of late. Farr has seen limited action this season, making four starts but none since a 1-1 draw with Louisville City FC on June 29.
Named the No. 7 player on the USL 20 Under 20 this week, Anguiano is having a strong first season as a professional for a Portland side fighting for a return to the postseason. The 20-year-old midfielder has compiled two goals, four assists and 18 key passes while recording an 88.9 pass accuracy rate over 45.6 passes per 90 minutes. T2 will need a strong performance from the youngster on Saturday night when it hosts Western Conference leader Phoenix Rising FC at Providence Park with victory almost essential to keep pace in the playoff race.
OKC Energy FC’s playoff odds might be hanging on by a thread, but they’re still alive heading into this weekend’s trip to Orange County SC thanks to the attacking efforts of Deshorn Brown. The Jamaican forward has scored five goals over his last six games and now sits on a team-high 14 strikes for the campaign, eight more than his next-closest teammate Rafael Garcia. Brown will certainly be the focal point of Energy FC’s attack once again this weekend and OKC will be counting on him to deliver the goods and keep the side’s playoff hopes alive.