Solomon Asante (left) and Aodhan Quinn (right) will look to pull the strings for their respective sides when Phoenix Rising FC hosts Orange County SC on Saturday at Casino Arizona Field. | Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
After New Mexico United and Saint Louis FC advanced to the Round of 16 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in midweek, USL Championship action returns on Saturday to kick off a weekend slate of 17 games.
Fourteen of those matches will be played on Saturday, starting in the early evening when North Carolina FC looks to back up its impressive road victory over the Tampa Bay Rowdies when it hosts the Swope Park Rangers at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park (5 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). The night will wrap up late on the West Coast with a trio of games including a 2018 Western Conference Final rematch between Phoenix Rising FC and Orange County SC at Casino Arizona Field (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). Elsewhere, New Mexico United will try to get back in the win column in league play when it visits Las Vegas Lights FC at Cashman Field (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) and Reno 1868 FC will try to remain unbeaten on its home turf when it hosts the LA Galaxy II at Greater Nevada Field (10:30 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 15:
The Rowdies saw their 13-game unbeaten start come to an end last weekend in a 3-1 defeat to North Carolina FC and will be hoping to get back in the win column when they host the Charleston Battery in the inaugural edition of the No Quarter Derby at Al Lang Stadium. Meanwhile, the Battery earned a much-needed 3-1 win of their own last weekend over Birmingham Legion FC but enter Saturday’s contest at a major disadvantage after their Open Cup match against Atlanta United FC was postponed until Thursday night. Charleston, which was already missing its leading scorer Zeiko Lewis to international duty, will now have to overcome a motivated Rowdies squad with less than 48 hours of rest. That’s going to be a tough ask.
After seeing their 13-game unbeaten start to the season end last weekend, the Tampa Bay Rowdies will look to get back on track Saturday against the Charleston Battery. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Four days after their scoreless draw against the Swope Park Rangers, the Independence announced that the club had parted ways with first-year Head Coach Jim McGuinness. General Manager Mike Jefferies, who led Charlotte to a 52-44-39 record across all competitions and a pair of playoff appearances over four seasons in charge, will take over on the touchline once again starting with Saturday’s contest against Legion FC. Now the question is, will a coaching change be enough to get the Independence back on track after a 1-7-6 start to the season? Birmingham has lost four of its last five games, so the opportunity to kickstart a turnaround is certainly there for the taking.
The hottest team in the Championship resides in the desert as Rising FC has climbed up to second place in the West on the back of four straight victories while outscoring their opponents 16-3 over that stretch. Head Coach Rick Schantz’s squad has clearly found its groove offensively but will have to keep it going without last weekend’s two-goal scorer Junior Flemmings, who has linked up with Rising FC and Jamaica teammate Kevon Lambert at the Concacaf Gold Cup. Phoenix puts its unbeaten mark (4-0-3) at Casino Arizona Field on the line against an Orange County side that is unbeaten in its last seven games and already earned a 2-1 victory over Rising FC back on May 4 in a rematch of the 2018 Western Conference Final. While this isn’t necessarily a revenge game anymore, expect this one to be just as fiery.
After battling back to earn a point from two goals down last weekend in Austin, Portland will hope to get back to its winning ways at home in a top-five clash with Fresno FC. T2 are unbeaten in their last four games overall (2-0-2) and have shown off a devastating attack this season that averages more than two goals per game. That firepower could meet some resistance on Saturday as Fresno owns the second-best defensive record in the West, having conceded just 13 goals in its 13 games thus far. Fresno, which has struggled a bit over the past three weeks (0-1-2), can take some confidence in knowing that it earned a 4-2 victory last season at Merlo Field and this year’s squad seems to be an improvement on that one.
For the last month or so, I’ve been waiting for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC to make a move past ATL UTD 2 and into the playoff places but every weekend it doesn’t happen. The Hounds are winless in their last six games (0-1-5) and just can’t seem to pick up three points, even from winning positions. This weekend, Pittsburgh can push past ATL UTD 2 when it visits the Georgia side on Saturday at Fifth Third Bank Stadium, but I’m not convinced it’ll happen. With the Hounds having exerted plenty of energy in their 1-0 Open Cup defeat to Columbus Crew SC, I see another draw in their future.
I picked Enevoldsen as a player to watch in the Week 14 Weekend Guide and he responded with a goal in Indy’s 3-0 road win against Memphis 901 FC. But if you go back and read that piece again, I pointed out that the Danish forward has found the back of the net on the 15th of every month this season (twice in Championship, once in the Open Cup). With last week’s goal giving him some confidence, I believe the trend continues with a pair of goals on Saturday at Loudoun United FC.
Austin dug itself a hole just too deep to climb out of on Tuesday in its 3-2 Open Cup loss to the Houston Dynamo, but Head Coach Marcelo Serrano will certainly have plenty to build on after his side made things interesting against the historic tournament's defending champion despite trailing by three goals at halftime. With the lowly Tacoma Defiance coming to visit Bold Stadium this weekend, I think Austin bucks its trend of one-goal wins in the Championship and puts four past the Defiance for its highest-scoring league game in its history.
I made this exact prediction back in Week 12 and it didn’t go well as San Antonio fell to a 3-1 defeat at Texas rival Rio Grande Valley FC. But after Head Coach Darren Powell’s squad rallied back from two goals down to beat Reno 1868 FC last Saturday at Toyota Field, I’ve got enough confidence to go back to the well for this weekend’s visit to OKC Energy FC. By no means am I guaranteeing a victory, but I think SAFC has the confidence to go get a draw against an Energy FC squad coming off back-to-back league draws and a 4-0 Open Cup loss to FC Dallas on Wednesday night.
If you’ve been reading this piece over the past couple of weeks, you’ll know that I’ve picked up a knack for knowing whether Kiesewetter will score in the upcoming weekend’s game. Of course, it’s easy when the former U.S. international seemingly scores every week but that’s another discussion. What isn’t a discussion is the incredible impact Kiesewetter has made for Locomotive FC, netting nine goals in nine appearances for the side since signing on in early April. And yes, I’ve got him finding the back of the net again this weekend against Tulsa, which conceded five times last week in Phoenix.
While Frater has shared the scoring responsibility with Santi Moar for much of this season, the Jamaican has seemingly been there every time New Mexico needs a clutch goal. That has been especially true in the Open Cup, having netted United’s extra time winner against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC in the Third Round and scoring its equalizer in the fifth minute of stoppage time in Wednesday’s eventual 2-2 (4-2) penalty shootout victory over the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer.
That has given him the nickname 'Mr. Big Goal', which I think is a solid improvement on Antonio Brown's 'Mr. Big Chest'. Oh, I probably should also mention he leads the Championship in scoring with 10 goals. Expect that tally to grow in this weekend’s trip to Las Vegas Lights FC.
It’s not very often that a defender makes this list, but Craig isn’t your ordinary defender. A two-time finalist for the Championship’s Defender of the Year award, the Louisville stalwart has continued his excellent play into his fourth season with the club as he leads his team in duels won (89), clearances (51) and interceptions (23). With the back-to-back defending champions heading to MSU Soccer Park for a date with the New York Red Bulls II – the side Louisville has met in the past three Eastern Conference Finals – Head Coach John Hackworth will need his talismanic center back to put in a quality shift in his return from suspension to quell New York’s high-powered attack.
Six games into his rookie season, Swartz is starting to make an impact in attack for the Athletic. The 23-year-old forward has scored Hartford’s opening goal in each of its last two games – both coming against teams currently in the playoff positions – and is now just one tally shy of tying Jose Angulo for the team lead. The Athletic, who enter this weekend’s home date with Nashville SC on a four-game unbeaten run, could very well need more offense to keep that streak going and keep pace with NSC’s duo of Daniel Rios and Cameron Lancaster.