Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel / Saint Louis FC
The second weekend of the 2017 USL regular season gave us a new era kicking off in Saint Louis, a new home for the defending champions, and a familiar duo making it happen in the Carolinas. Here are 11 things we took away from the weekend.
1. NEW DAY IN SAINT LOUIS: The words on the pregame tifo for Saint Louis FC created by the St. Louligans said “Dawn of a New Day,” with the imposing-looking face of new Head Coach Preki looking down on the field. By the end of a pulsating home opener in front of a sellout crowd of 5,566 at Toyota Stadium – Saint Louis, the host had grabbed what looked only five minutes earlier an improbable victory thanks to Christian Volesky’s final major act on a stellar home debut. The swings in the contest led Preki himself to say it was “one of the weirdest games” he’d been part of, but the victory beckoned in a positive start to his tenure at the club.
2. GOTTA BE JOCHEN: Another side that grabbed a victory in the closing stages was the Rochester Rhinos, who opened their season with a 3-2 win against Bethlehem Steel FC that saw Jochen Graf score the winner on his professional debut for the side. The final score was certainly out of the norm for the Rhinos since Head Coach Bob Lilley’s return to the club. With Darius Madison finding the net before Wal Fall’s penalty kick gave the visitors a 2-0 lead at Goodman Stadium against an experienced Steel FC lineup that included former U.S. international Charlie Davies, it assuaged the attacking concerns the departures of Christian Volesky and Steevan Dos Santos had caused this offseason.
3. PICKING UP THE PIECES: Also providing late-game scoring was Sacramento Republic FC, but by the time Harry Williams’ finish found the net in stoppage time against Orange County SC it was merely the icing on the cake of a 4-0 victory in front of 11,569 fans at Papa Murphy’s Park. That Republic FC had already wrapped up a victory was thanks to the attacking duo of Sammy Ochoa and Wilson Kneeshaw, who combined for the opening three goals. Kneeshaw’s speed created opportunities for Ochoa to capitalize as his veteran knack for being in the right place at the right time gave him a pair of goals. Ochoa now has 29 goals since arriving in the USL in 2014, and is well on pace to exceed his 11 goals a year ago for Tulsa and provide Sacramento with the consistent attacking threat it needs to remain at the top of the West.
4. FORBES ON FIRE: San Antonio FC joined Sacramento Republic FC in taking two wins from two to start the season, and SAFC also did so in impressive fashion with a 3-0 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 8,081 at Toyota Field. Leading the way was Billy Forbes, who scored his second goal in as many games and also added the assist on Rafael Castillo’s opening goal of the game. While the Galaxy II controlled the majority of possession, the speed of San Antonio breaking forward – led by Forbes – proved fruitful as the USL Experience weekend ended on a high note with San Antonio looking poised for a strong 2017.
5. PACKING A PUNCH: The Tampa Bay Rowdies also earned a second consecutive win to start the season as they proved clinical in front of goal to earn a 4-0 victory against a Toronto FC II side that never managed to get going at Al Lang Stadium. After squeaking out a victory through a penalty kick in Week 1, Tampa Bay improved in front of goal against the Reds as Michael Nanchoff’s sharp passing in the final third was rewarded with clinical finishing. Joe Cole and Deshorn Brown both scored their first goals of the season as the Rowdies continued a strong start to their inaugural USL campaign.
6. FAMILIAR FACES: The club sitting alongside the Rowdies at the top of the Eastern Conference in the early going is the Charleston Battery, who used what’s becoming a familiar combination to earn a victory against the Charlotte Independence on Saturday. While in the past it was Shawn Ferguson, then Taylor Mueller, now it’s Forrest Lasso who is becoming a major threat from Justin Portillo’s accurate set pieces. The 6-foot-5 center back scored his second goal in as many games to start the season, and has also become a reliable piece at the back for Mike Anhaeuser’s side, winning seven of 10 aerial duals and sitting tied for the club-lead alongside Mueller with 17 clearances in two games.
7. ROYAL FLUSH: Real Monarchs SLC took seven points from its first three games a season ago, but after two wins from two to start the new season things feel a little bit different for the side this season after its 2-0 win against Phoenix Rising FC. The added experience in the Monarchs’ attack, for example, is already paying dividends with the likes of offseason signings Chase Minter, Chandler Hoffman and Sebastien Velasquez. They are already appearing to mesh well with returnees Andrew Brody and Charlie Adams, and with the manner Real is trying to push the ball quickly when it gains possession, it could pose challenges for opposing defenses throughout the season.
8. STARTING POINT: The Monarchs’ next opponent on Thursday night will be Reno 1868 FC, which both notched its first goal in club history on Saturday thanks to Brenton Griffiths, and also claimed its first point in a 1-1 draw with Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 at Greater Nevada Field. The result was likely a fair one in a pretty evenly contested game as Reno goalkeeper Matt Bersano came through with six saves to preserves a point for the hosts. Now 1868 FC will go in search of its first win on the road, with Real and San Antonio FC lying in wait over the next two weeks.
Photo courtesy David Calvert / Reno 1868 FC
9. FALLING FORWARD: While it may have come playing against 10 men for the entirety of the second half, FC Cincinnati will be happy to have earned its first win of the season as the side bounced back with a 1-0 victory against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at Highmark Stadium. Djiby Fall’s second goal in as many games allowed the side to bounce back from its loss to Charleston, but FCC’s inability to add to its advantage despite holding a man-advantage might be of slight concern as the Riverhounds matched the visitors in shots on goal, 4-4, in the encounter. Finding a sharper edge in the final third should be a focus ahead of Sunday’s visit to Bethlehem Steel FC.
10. SLOW START STINGS: During the second half of its inaugural contest in the USL, Ottawa Fury FC showed what it was capable of as it outshot its host Saint Louis FC 12-6 and carried much of the play. It did, however, beg the question of where that type of play was in the first half when it conceded 71 percent of possession to Saint Louis and produced half as many shots while going down 2-0 inside the opening 10 minutes. Ottawa showed it has what it takes to succeed in the USL on Saturday, but its performances will have to be far more consistent going forward if it’s to do so.
11. MONTCLAIR IS RED: The New York Red Bulls II made a winning start at their new home at MSU Soccer Park on the campus of Montclair State University, and did so by defeating a side in the Richmond Kickers that has typically given them problems in their brief history squaring off. Things were starting to feel a little familiar on Saturday evening as New York controlled the flow of the game, but it wasn’t until a nice slice of good fortune saw the ball fall to Zeiko Lewis for his first professional goal that the Red Bulls II found the net, and were able to christen their new home with a victory. The win is what matters most, though, and now they will square off with Harrisburg on Wednesday night with a good spring in their step.