Second-place Fresno FC visits third-place Reno 1868 FC on Saturday night in a crucial contest in the race for a top-two finish in the Western Conference. | Photo courtesy Kiel Maddox / Fresno FC
After five games on Wednesday night that included three key victories at both ends of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, Week 27 of the 2019 USL Championship campaign continues Saturday to kick off a busy weekend slate that features 17 matches over two days.
Fifteen matches will take place on Saturday, with expansion sides Hartford Athletic and Loudoun United FC starting things off in the afternoon at Dillon Stadium (4 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before a pair of crunch clashes for playoff positioning take place later in the evening with Louisville City FC putting its five-game unbeaten run on the line against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC at Highmark Stadium (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) and Fresno FC looking to keep hold of second place out West against third-place Reno 1868 FC at Greater Nevada Field (10 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Sunday’s slate offers two more important Western Conference contests between playoff contenders the Portland Timbers 2 and Orange County SC at Providence Park (5 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before the weekend wraps up at Taft Stadium where OKC Energy FC will look to improve its chances for a top-six finish against a desperate New Mexico United (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 27:
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC's Kenardo Forbes and Louisville City FC's Niall McCabe will be key figures as the Hounds host LouCity on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Louisville City FC will bring its five-game unbeaten run to Pittsburgh this weekend with the hopes of boosting its chances of a top-four finish with a victory over the Hounds at Highmark Stadium. While the visitors come in with plenty of momentum, the Hounds will certainly pose a challenge on their home turf where they have yet to lose a game this season (8-0-5). Pittsburgh has also had the upper hand in recent head-to-head matchups with Louisville, defeating the side 1-0 in each of its previous two trips to Slugger Field – the most recent of which came on April 6 courtesy of a 74th-minute penalty from Neco Brett – and earning a 2-2 tie at home last season. The Hounds have their own top-four aspirations and a third straight win would go a long way in helping that cause.
Saint Louis got a much-needed win last Sunday against Hartford and followed it up with a second consecutive victory against Ottawa Fury FC on Wednesday night thanks to Tyler Blackwood's first goal since his arrival at the club. The challenge now will be to finish this three-game homestand on a positive note ahead of next weekend’s crucial visit to fellow playoff contender Birmingham Legion FC. Defeating a Nashville side that earned a 2-1 victory against the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium last weekend won’t be easy, but STLFC will have some confidence after sneaking out a 1-0 victory over NSC at First Tennessee Park back in March.
The battle for second place in the Western Conference could be decided on Saturday night as Fresno makes the trip to Reno with a three-point advantage and a game in hand over 1868 FC. If the Foxes can manage a road point, they should be in pole position to clinch the second spot behind Rising FC and guarantee home-field advantage up until the Western Conference Final. But if 1868 FC can improve on the 1-1 draw it earned at Chukchansi Park back in March, the race is back on and will be determined down the stretch. Neither side comes into this meeting with a lot of confidence as Reno has dropped three straight games and Fresno suffered a shock defeat last weekend in Tulsa. Whichever side picks itself back up in time for kickoff will have the edge.
Energy FC entered the week in fifth place out West, but with only seven games remaining the side doesn’t have a lot of room for error and is currently projected to finish outside of the playoff places by fivethirtyeight.com. In order to avoid missing out on the postseason for a second straight year, OKC will need to do some damage to a fellow playoff contender in New Mexico United when the expansion side visits Taft Stadium for the first time on Sunday. The two sides battled to a 1-1 draw in their first meeting of the season, but a point won’t do a lot of good for either team at this point as they look to make a move up the crowded Western Conference standings. NMU’s defense has conceded 14 goals in its last five games (0-3-2) and will have to get organized to keep out standout OKC striker Deshorn Brown.
Brandon Allen has fond memories of lining up against the Swope Park Rangers. The 901 FC forward, who scored a hat trick against the Rangers for the New York Red Bulls II in the 2016 USL Cup, will get another chance on Saturday when Memphis hosts Swope Park at AutoZone Park. Although Allen hasn’t found the back of the net since August 10, I’m going to go out on a limb and say he bags a brace this time around.
The greatest promotion in the Championship – sorry, $1 Beer Night – returns this weekend in Las Vegas as Lights FC will drop $5,000 in cash and $5,000 in prizes from a helicopter onto the field at halftime of its contest against El Paso Locomotive FC. While the crowd at Cashman Field will certainly be energized for the occasion and Head Coach Eric Wynalda’s side is 7-1-4 at home this campaign, I have a feeling that Lights FC will drop two points and settle for a draw with fellow playoff contender Locomotive FC.
Orange County SC has won three consecutive games as it heads to face the Portland Timbers 2 on Sunday afternoon at Providence Park. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
One team I don’t have dropping points this weekend is Orange County SC, which has won three straight games and has a lot of momentum heading into Providence Park to take on the Portland Timbers 2. T2 has been inconsistent of late and could be in line for a let-down performance after last weekend’s 3-1 victory in Reno. While OCSC has won just two of its 12 road games this season, I’m riding with the hot hand against an average home team in Portland (4-4-4).
Part of the reason I may not be completely buying Portland’s win over Reno as a sign of more is because I’m not sure how much I can actually trust 1868 FC right now. Head Coach Ian Russell’s side has dropped its last three games and conceded 11 goals over that stretch. The Foxes, whose loss to the Roughnecks feels more like a one-off in what has been a consistently strong campaign, certainly have enough weapons to pose some problems to the Reno back line and earn at least a point.
Austin entered the week with an 18-percent chance to finish fourth in the Western Conference according to fivethirtyeight.com, making the most of its home-field advantage at Bold Stadium to record nine of its 11 wins. However, Bold FC is just 2-7-3 away from home this season and has recorded just 11 goals in those 12 contests. More than one-third of those tallies have come from Tyrpak, who leads Bold FC with four goals on the road this season. The forward found the back of the net on the club’s last road trip – a 4-2 loss to OKC Energy FC – and will be looking to add to his tally on Saturday against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC at Weidner Field.
North Carolina FC Head Coach Dave Sarachan is used to having selection headaches over international breaks as the former interim boss of the United States Men’s National Team, but he’ll be dealing with it in a different way this weekend when his side hosts Bethlehem Steel FC. With Yamikani Chester, Dre Fortune and Nazmi Albadawi all on international duty, someone will have to step up in the NCFC midfield. Miller seems like a prime candidate, despite not being in the gameday 18 last weekend, as he looks to add to his team-leading nine goals and six assists.
After scoring five goals and two assists in August, Cristian Parano will need to be at his best if he's to help San Antonio FC earn a result on the road against Western Conference leader Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Kiel Maddox /
Twice voted the USL Championship’s Player of the Week during the month of August, Parano has been a key figure in San Antonio’s run towards the playoff positions. The 20-year-old scored five goals and added two assists in four appearances over the past month and will look to carry that form into Saturday’s trip to Casino Arizona Field. It will likely take an outstanding performance from Parano to put an end to Phoenix Rising FC’s 17-game winning streak, but the youngster has shown lately he has the quality to produce at this level.
Another player that will have to step up this weekend with teammates away on international duty is Ian Svantesson, who will have to lead the line against a stingy Indy Eleven defense without the help of leading scorer and Bermuda international Zeiko Lewis. This won’t be new to Svantesson, though, who scored a road equalizer against the Tampa Bay Rowdies back in June when Lewis was away for the Concacaf Gold Cup. Replicating that against an Indy side that is coming off a good victory Wednesday but that now has to travel to MUSC Health Stadium would be welcome in Charleston.