Photo courtesy FC Cincinnati
As it began, Week 4 of the 2017 USL season looked like it would be an important one. It certainly lived up to – and might even have exceeded – the expectations. Here are 11 things we learned from a frenetic week.
1. NO PLACE LIKE HOME: FC Cincinnati set attendance records throughout the 2016 USL season, and on Saturday night added another to the list as a crowd of 23,144 became the highest attendance for a USL home opener in the league’s history. The attendance not only bested Sacramento Republic FC’s 20,231 attendance at Hughes Stadium for its inaugural game in 2014, but was also the second-highest attended game of the weekend in the United States and Canada as a whole, with only former USL club Orlando City SC’s crowd of 25,527 exceeding that total to see a thrilling 2-1 victory against the LA Galaxy. With two more big games coming up this week against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and in particular its River Cities Cup rival Louisville City FC, Cincinnati could play a leading role in a record week in attendance for the USL.
2. THE FOUR TOPS: The crowd in Cincinnati was certainly impressive, but it was topped by the performance produced by the team itself. A 4-0 victory against previously undefeated Saint Louis FC saw a reformatted lineup click into gear fully for the first time this season, with Djiby Fall the main recipient. Fall’s four-goal game – which marked the first hat trick in FCC’s history – showed off the Senegalese’s opportunism and good off-the-ball movement, but was facilitated by a display that saw Cincinnati make the most of its opportunities to make a major statement to the rest of the league.
3. MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME: The strains of Stephen Foster’s iconic song echoed around Slugger Field on Saturday night as Louisville City FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies took the field. Then Louisville showed why its home has been one of the toughest for opponents to visit over the past two seasons, earning a 2-1 victory in front of 9,074 fans to knock the Rowdies from the ranks of the unbeaten. The game wasn’t the cleanest. Both teams will have been disappointed at how cheaply they gave possession away, but the commitment both sides showed meant it was an enthralling contest for all those present and otherwise observing. George Davis IV and Cameron Lancaster’s goals proved enough to cap an outstanding week for Louisville on and off the field.
4. STANDING ALONE: The Rowdies’ defeat left the Swope Park Rangers as the last team standing with a perfect record so far this season as they edged another of the weekend’s high-profile contests 1-0 against Sacramento Republic FC. The Rangers, now 3-0-0, again produced a crisp performance on their way to a victory, recording almost 200 more passes than their visitors at Children’s Mercy Victory Field and completing them at an 87 percent clip. It took the bump of energy that 2015 USL Rookie of the Year Kharlton Belmar provided off the bench to secure the game-winner, with Canada U23 international Mark Anthony Gonzalez the beneficiary for his first goal of the season. With seven consecutive regular-season victories dating back to last season, Swope Park is now on the verge of a piece of USL history of its own, one win short of the longest streak set by Orlando City SC in 2014.
5. BIG AND BRIGHT: Only three games into their season, the Rangers aren’t the side sitting at the top of the Western Conference as the new week kicks off. That distinction goes to San Antonio FC, which remained undefeated and looked remarkably impressive in a 4-0 victory in front of 6,407 fans at Toyota Field that saw the right finishes arrive at the right time against a game Reno 1868 FC. The game was, in reality, a much closer one than the final score might indicate, but SAFC was clinical with its chances as Cesar Elizondo scored twice and Billy Forbes added a goal and assist. Reno couldn’t find a way past Matt Cardone – who recorded a five-save shutout – that allowed the host to take the victory. “We scored the goals at the right times,” said SAFC Head Coach Darren Powell, an accurate summation of his side’s win.
6. CANNON BALL: While both San Antonio and Cincinnati put together big wins, the biggest win of the weekend came from a surprising source as the Charleston Battery knocked five goals past the Rochester Rhinos to reassert their credentials near the top of the Eastern Conference. On Superhero Night at MUSC Health Stadium, Romario Williams was part Superman, and part the Brazilian legend he was reputedly named after, notching a 12-minute hat trick that the Rhinos seemed powerless to stop. After suffering a gut-wrenching loss to Pittsburgh the previous weekend, the Battery got right back on top, and will next visit Tampa Bay on Saturday night in one of this weekend’s must-see games.
7. MOON SHOT: While Romario Williams and Djiby Fall both produced goals in bulk over the weekend, Ottawa Fury FC’s Steevan Dos Santos added his name to the early list of contenders for USL Goal of the Year with a remarkable finish from the halfway line against the Richmond Kickers. One of Fury FC’s big offseason acquisitions as the club entered the USL, Dos Santos’ volleyed strike provided a second magical goal in Week 4 after OKC Energy FC’s Miguel Gonzalez last Tuesday night, which secured the No. 1 position on ESPN’s SportsCenter. It also provided Ottawa with a much-needed first victory as the club returns to TD Place for its home opener this Saturday.
8. TIKI TORCHED: The winner for the weekend’s most exciting conclusion goes to the Harrisburg City Islanders, who had let a two-goal lead slip against in-state rival Bethlehem Steel FC before Cardel Benbow pulled a 3-2 win out of the fire at FNB Field with his 90th-minute winner. With back-to-back victories, and the chance to close the gap on the leaders on Tuesday night when they host Orlando City B, the City Islanders are starting to look like the sort of team that was a playoff contender in the USL’s first four seasons. Whether the side can find the consistency it needs to confirm that as the case is yet to be determined, but with the side having racked up 20 shots, including 13 from inside the penalty area, despite holding less possession than Steel FC on Saturday night, it should definitely be worth watching to find out.
9. FLICK THE SWITCH: After a dispiriting performance in midweek that saw Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC fall on the road, the side knew it had to produce better to earn a result back at Weidner Field against its Rocky Mountain rival Real Monarchs SLC. Two goals in four minutes by Masta Kacher and Aaron King gave the Switchbacks the win they needed, knocking the Monarchs from the ranks of the undefeated, but the overall performance showed there’s still much work to be done if Colorado Springs is going to be the type of contender it has been over the past two seasons. The Monarchs more than doubled the number of passes for the Switchbacks, and held almost 70 percent of the game’s possession, only for a resolute defensive display to allow the hosts to hold out. “Our style of play is hard work, and we work hard for each other,” said midfielder Rony Argueta after the game, but more quality is going to be needed moving forward.
10. FINAL THIRD BLUES: A plurality of the numbers in Saturday’s game between the Charlotte Independence and Pittsburgh Riverhounds were in the host Independence’s favor, but once again the side was unable to emerge with its first win of the season, held to a 1-1 draw at Eagle Field. Charlotte had more than 70 percent possession, and had 662 passes to Pittsburgh’s 270, but both sides ended with three shots on goal as the Independence were unable to make their control of the game count in the final third. “We’ve had two home games, and we’ve averaged, what, about 70 percent possession, but the reality is we’re not creating chances,” said Independence Head Coach Mike Jeffries following the game. That’s going to need to change, quickly, if Charlotte’s to get back into the playoff picture in the near future.
11. FRENCH CONNECTION: The defending champion New York Red Bulls II have had an up-and-down start to their title defense, but the one constant has been the play of Vincent Bezecourt. The attacking midfielder was again at the forefront on Friday night as he recorded a goal and two assists to lead his side to a 3-1 victory against Orlando City B. Very briefly taking the USL goal-scoring lead before Djiby Fall’s attacking explosion on Saturday, Bezecourt still sits with four goals and two assists this season, while also leading the Red Bulls II with nine chances created. There are still aspects of his game that need work (a 65 percent passing percentage could be higher), but as long as he’s producing in the manner he has so far that won’t be high on the list of concerns for Head Coach John Wolyniec.