Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
The third week of the 2017 USL regular season brought us remarkable goals, remarkable endings and potentially the start of something big in Arizona. Here are 11 things we took away from the action.
1. FROM THE FLAMES: There was arguably no home side under more pressure to produce this weekend than Phoenix Rising FC. There had been no wins, and no goals, in the first two games of the club’s new era, but a second consecutive packed house of 6,330 sat eager at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex for the side to live up to its new moniker. Head Coach Frank Yallop’s team delivered, and then some. A blistering first-half performance that somehow remained scoreless thanks to some heroics by LA Galaxy II goalkeeper Jon Kempin gave way to a potential sinking feeling when Los Dos took the lead off a defensive error. Phoenix showed it was made of sterner stuff, though, battling through to first level the score on a penalty kick, and then earn its first win as Luke Rooney’s second goal of the game resulted in a 2-1 victory. While the players and Yallop acknowledged after the game there’s still plenty of distance to go overall for the side, earning that first win and giving the fans a night to remember for all the right reasons was a potential turning point early in the season.
2. HOMETOWN HERO: Saint Louis FC was feeling a different kind of pressure in the second half of its game against the New York Red Bulls II, having given up its early lead and almost seen its visitors earn a two-goal advantage when Vincent Bezecourt’s shot slammed off the right post in a strong start to the second half by the defending USL champions. But after getting back on level terms through Jose Angulo’s penalty kick with 16 minutes to go, STLFC Head Coach Preki played what proved to be his trump card on the night. Given 11 minutes to make an impact, St. Louis-area native Seth Rudolph needed only five to score an outstanding finish that gave the hosts a second consecutive 3-2 victory. One of few holdovers from last season’s squad, Rudolph’s first goal since last June against Tulsa pulled a remarkable win out of the fire for Saint Louis and kept the side undefeated in three games.
3. STUNNING STRIKES: Rudolph’s goal from Angulo’s assist was one of the top finishes of a weekend that saw a number of outstanding strikes. Arguably standing above them all, though, were the long-range efforts of San Antonio FC’s Kris Tyrpak and Orange County SC’s Victor Pineda. Tyrpak’s finish brought back memories – at least here – of Liam Brady’s iconic goal for Arsenal against Tottenham in 1978, with the left-footed curling shot into the right corner a thing of absolute beauty. Pineda’s, meanwhile, was about as sweetly a struck finish as you could hope to see. Both are clear contenders to be in the USL Goal of the Year contest at the end of 2017.
4. STAYING SOLID: Tyrpak’s goal for SAFC not only captured plaudits from around the league and elsewhere; it also earned an important point as San Antonio remained undefeated this season with a 1-1 draw against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC to delight the crowd of 6,217 at Toyota Field. The Switchbacks looked a far different proposition than in their Week 1 performance, and were tough to break down all night with the back line appearing to have regained its structure. The visitors almost grabbed all three points, too, a low shot by Kevaughn Frater hitting the post in stoppage time, another sign that Head Coach Steve Trittschuh’s side is getting close to where he’d want it.
5. STILL PERFECT, JUST: San Antonio’s draw left Sacramento Republic FC and Real Monarchs SLC as the only teams in the Western Conference to reach the 3-0-0 mark so far this season, although both teams had to work hard to get there. The Monarchs fought out a wild 5-3 victory against Reno on Thursday night, seemingly in control when up 4-1 at the break before a late comeback almost saw 1868 FC spoil their night. Republic FC also appeared to be in control on the road against Tulsa Roughnecks FC until a massive surge by the hosts at ONEOK Field. A goal by Joey Calistri with 10 minutes to go set up a grandstand finish, but the Roughnecks couldn’t find the final finish in an absorbing close to the game. Sacramento’s fans likely breathed a sigh of relief when Cristian Mata’s stoppage-time shot went just wide of the left post, allowing their side to hold on for the victory.
6. SACRAMENTO STRIKEFORCE: That Republic FC had been in such a strong position to start with can be laid at the feet of Sammy Ochoa, who excelled in his return to Tulsa to face his former side. The veteran forward played a role in both goals for Sacramento on the night as his partnership with Wilson Kneeshaw continued to bloom. Ochoa in particular, though, has slotted right into Republic FC’s lineup and made an impact in every game. Completing passes at an 80-percent success rate, his hold-up play has allowed the quicker Kneeshaw and fellow new addition Tyler Blackwood to thrive so far. After scoring 20 goals in the past two seasons in Tulsa, the 30-year-old looks set for another big year ahead.
7. PASSING THE TEST: While Sacramento was extending its perfect start to three games in the West, the Tampa Bay Rowdies were doing the same in the Eastern Conference as they came through their biggest test of the season so far against Ottawa Fury FC. A third goal in as many games by Tampa Bay’s veteran striker, Georgi Hristov, proved enough in front of 5,310 fans at Al Lang Stadium to give the Rowdies a 1-0 victory against Fury FC as the side also recorded a third consecutive shutout. Rowdies goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald had to work harder for his clean sheet than in the two prior games, but with Damion Lowe and Neill Collins proving a strong central tandem, Tampa Bay goes into a massive game with Louisville next Saturday full of confidence.
8. FINDING THEIR BARK: The Charleston Battery looked to be on the way to joining the Rowdies with three consecutive wins to start the season when they led the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at halftime at MUSC Health Stadium. In a remarkable turnaround, though, the Riverhounds earned not only their first win of the season, but also their first victory against the Battery since 2011. Pittsburgh found a beautiful combination to set up Marshall Hollingsworth for their first, and the Battery paid the price in stoppage time for leaving Corey Hertzog unmarked in the penalty area as his third goal of the season gave the Riverhounds a massive boost of confidence ahead of a midweek clash with Saint Louis.
9. MANY HAPPY RETURNS: Both George Davis IV and Brian Ownby made the switch from the Richmond Kickers to Louisville City FC over the past two offseasons, and on Saturday they not only led their current club to a 1-0 victory against their former one in front of 7,603 fans at City Stadium, but also highlighted what Richmond has been missing since their departure. Davis scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot, but throughout the game both he and Ownby showed the type of attacking edge that has been missing so far for the Kickers. The duo completed more than 80 percent of their passes in the Kickers’ half, both recorded a pair of shots on goal, while Davis created two goal-scoring chances – the same number as the Kickers did as a whole.
10. ENERGY JOLT: The Kickers’ struggles in front of goal have been mirrored by those of OKC Energy FC, which fell 1-0 to Rio Grande Valley FC on Saturday night in its home opener in front of 5,899 fans at Taft Stadium. Adding to the headaches for Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen were a pair of red cards, with Richard Dixon being sent off after his second yellow card and Jose Barril earning a second red already this season with a lunging challenge late on. Energy FC has never gone winless in its first three games of the season before, and with Sacramento visiting on Tuesday night for the USL Game of the Week on ESPN3 looking to make it four, OKC needs to find something fast before it falls too far behind in the standings.
11. ROAD WEARY: If there’s anyone thinking “there’s no place like home” in the USL right now, it’s got to be FC Cincinnati. The club will prepare for its home opener on Saturday against Saint Louis FC coming off two losses in its opening three games, with Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to Bethlehem Steel FC feeling like a case of almost everything that could go wrong doing so. From an early injury to new signing Justin Hoyte to Paul Nicholson’s red card that left the side down to 10 men, FCC couldn’t find any rhythm as Steel FC’s midfield led by Adam Najem – who completed a remarkable 91 percent of 69 passes – dictated the game. FCC has been hyping its opening week, which sees not only STLFC but fellow also undefeated sides Tampa Bay and Louisville visit Nippert Stadium. Head Coach Alan Koch has to be hoping his side’s fortunes will turn quickly with that gauntlet ahead.