Three consecutive nights of action kickoff on Saturday with plenty of rivalries, and one big postseason rematch that could have an impact on the playoff race for two ambitious outfits.
Among all the twists and turns of the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs, one of the games that stood out came in the Eastern Conference Play-In Round when seed Birmingham Legion FC rallied from two deficits on the road against North Carolina FC and then produced a stoppage-time winner by J.J. Williams to claim victory in its first postseason contest in club history.
In some ways, the drama of that night set the tone for the playoffs overall, which saw three more games decided in extra time and another two in a penalty shootout in an enthralling postseason.
There might be some memories of that clash last October when North Carolina welcomes Legion FC back to Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday night. At the same time, the focus for both sides is on the present, where Birmingham has jumped out to a good start in Group G under the league’s reconstructed format and North Carolina is still looking for a win after picking up a draw in its first game back to action two weeks ago.
NCFC’s point came after an inspired second-half performance on the road against the Tampa Bay Rowdies on July 18, when the rust from more than four months without a competitive game had certainly come to bear. Goals by Dre Fortune and Robbie Kristo pulled NCFC back into the game, and left the side feeling happy enough to head home with something to show for their efforts.
“We went at halftime [and] felt like we weren’t really being ourselves,” Fortune told local media this week. “So, we went back out and tried to play more to our strengths, and I think we did that quite well and showed that we’re a resilient team that’s always gonna fight until the end.”
Finding a playing rhythm has been of noticeable importance for teams coming out of the break. In Birmingham, the duo of Bruno Lapa and Brian Wright have helped Legion FC hit the ground running, with Lapa notching three goals and two assists in his first three professional outings. That’s helped Legion FC to a pair of wins and a draw so far, and six-point advantage over NCFC in the early group standings. The confidence brought on by their success has been noticeable to North Carolina Head Coach Dave Sarachan.
“They’ve had a good restart to the season so they’re coming in with confidence,” he said. “I think their system and our system are somewhat similar. We try to keep the ball on the ground, and they try to keep the ball on the ground, and they are pretty good on the counterattack. They have some speed up top and wide, so we have to be aware of that.”
But while the styles may be similar for the two coaches who worked together at the Chicago Fire almost 20 years ago, after last year’s postseason thriller we certainly can hope for more entertainment on Saturday.
- Fourteen days after the most horrifying moment of their lives, the players of El Paso Fusion stood on a professional soccer pitch. They had gathered in their uniforms – more than a dozen girls, ages 9 to 11 – at Southwest University Park to be honored by El Paso Locomotive FC. ESPN’s Chris Connelly has more on how soccer and friendship helped the team heal, and the role former Locomotive FC player Sebastian Velasquez played in that process.
- There's been no-one hotter in the USL Championship in front of goal that Indy Eleven's Tyler Pasher, whose six goals in six games have helped his side to the most points in the league this season. WISH-TV's Charlie Clifford caught up with the Canadian striker to go in-depth about the 26-year-old's path to finding his place in Indianapolis.
- The Tampa Bay Rowdies' Sebastian Guenzatti celebrated the third anniversary of signing with the club with his third goal of the season, while Malik Johnson also found the net late to lift the hosts to a 2-0 victory against the Charleston Battery at Al Lang Stadium. The Tampa Bay Times' Kyle Wood has more from Friday night's lone game in the Championship.
- Saint Louis FC goalkeeper Kyle Morton was a finalist for the Championship's Goalkeeper of the Year in 2019. He's now leading the league with 20 saves, and with back-to-back shutouts against Louisville City FC and Indy Eleven has put his new club into a strong position for a postseason berth early in the current season.
- Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC is back at home looking to rebound from back-to-back defeats for only the second time under Head Coach Bob Lilley. Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s John Krysinsky has everything you need to know ahead of the match against the Philadelphia Union II at Highmark Stadium.
- San Antonio FC’s undefeated start has put it on top of Group D as it heads to face in-state rival Austin Bold FC on Saturday night. KSAT’s Andrew Cely has more on the first of three meetings between the clubs this season.
- Reno 1868 FC President Eric Edelstein was among the people that helped develop the Championship’s return to play strategy. He spoke with KOLO’s Kurt Schroeder about what 1868 FC and the league are doing to ensure the safety of players and staff as they compete this season.
- New Mexico United fans are making sure their team is well taken care of. Because of the current statewide public health order, United has been forced to play games on the road, including Saturday’s clash with OKC Energy FC. United fans, known as The Curse, have rallied behind the squad, and are organizing individualized care packages to show their support.