The top two teams in the Championship clash on Saturday when the Tampa Bay Rowdies host the New York Red Bulls II at Al Lang Stadium. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
After two nights that were full of drama in the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, USL Championship action returns on Saturday to kick off a jam-packed weekend of 17 games.
Fourteen of those contests will take place on Saturday night with a trio of games getting things underway when Indy Eleven hosts the Charleston Battery at Lucas Oil Stadium (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), Louisville City entertains Saint Louis FC in the Kings’ Cup Derby at Slugger Field (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) and North Carolina FC takes on expansion side Birmingham Legion FC at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). The night will wrap up in the desert where Phoenix Rising FC will look to cool off a red-hot Las Vegas Lights FC at Casino Arizona 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 over the course of Week 11:
When Saint Louis rejoined the Eastern Conference this offseason, it signified the return of the Kings’ Cup Derby against regional rival Louisville. Though the two sides did meet in the Third Round of last year’s Open Cup, 2018 marked the first season in their history that they did not meet in Championship play. That layoff – along with the teams’ positions in the top five of the East standings – should make Saturday’s match a hotly-contested one at Slugger Field. Louisville leads the all-time series 4-1-3 in league play and has outscored STLFC 18-8 over those eight meetings, though STLFC believes that this is finally its year to one-up its rival. After going to a penalty shootout on Wednesday night, Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ men will have to recover quickly if they are going to knock off the champs on the road.
Louisville City FC and Saint Louis FC last met in the Third Round of the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with Louisville emerging as 1-0 winners. | Photo courtesy EM Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Level atop the Eastern Conference with 20 points apiece, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and New York Red Bulls II square off in a clash of the titans at Al Lang Stadium. While New York has amassed that points total in one fewer game, Tampa Bay is the Championship’s last remaining unbeaten team and is looking to extend a club-record 11-game undefeated streak established in Tuesday night’s Open Cup win against League Two’s The Villages SC. The Red Bulls II will certainly pose a threat as Head Coach John Wolyniec will bring down the league’s best offense (2.44 goals per game) to test opposite number Neill Collins’ league-leading defense (0.4 goals conceded per game). What more can you ask for?
After suffering a surprising 3-0 defeat to League One’s Forward Madison FC on Wednesday night in Open Cup action, Locomotive FC will look to get back to the impressive run of form it had managed in league play before that contest. El Paso had been unbeaten in its previous four games and kept clean sheets in three of those contests before falling to the Flamingos. Restoring Jerome Kiesewetter, who has tallied four goals in his previous two league appearances, to the starting lineup should help against a Sacramento side that has struggled to find the back of the net recently. Republic FC has managed just five goals in its last six games across all competitions and won just two of them, including Wednesday night’s Open Cup tie with Reno 1868 FC. The return of Cameron Iwasa should help, but Sacramento will need to be at its best in front of goal to break down a typically resolute El Paso defense.
Rising FC saw its Open Cup run come to an end in a penalty shootout against rivals New Mexico United on Wednesday night and will have to rebound quickly to take on a red-hot Lights FC team that advanced to the Third Round 24 hours earlier. Head Coach Eric Wynalda’s side, buoyed by the impressive Irvin Parra, has won three straight games in all competitions and is unbeaten in four, but has struggled mightily away from Cashman Field. Las Vegas is 0-4-1 on the road in league play but could make a major statement with a result in Phoenix, which will need Adam Jahn (four goals in last three appearances in all comps.) to continue his impressive run of form to help it climb above the playoff line.
After spending most of the opening two months of the season out injured, the 2018 Championship Golden Boot winner has found a run of games and form. Lancaster scored as a substitute late in Nashville’s last league outing – a 5-1 win over the Swope Park Rangers – and netted the game-winner in his side’s 3-2 victory over South Georgia Tormenta FC 2 to send NSC into the Third Round of the Open Cup. He may not get the start this weekend against the Independence, but it will be interesting to see how Head Coach Gary Smith sets his team up with Lancaster rounding into form.
Sandoval came through with his arguably best performance since his opening night goal for New Mexico United in Wednesday night’s Open Cup victory at Phoenix Rising FC. The Albuquerque native came off the bench in the 75th minute and headed home an equalizer four minutes later to send the contest to extra time. Five minutes into the extra session, Sandoval redirected Santi Moar’s long-range strike past Carl Woszczynski to give his side the lead and then went on to convert his penalty kick in the shootout. The forward’s presence will be especially key in this weekend’s potentially tricky visit to Colorado Springs with Moar serving a suspension from his red card in El Paso. Look for Sandoval and Kevaughn Frater to carry the load.
Lima scored the insurance goal in Bold FC’s Open Cup victory over fellow Championship side Tulsa Roughnecks FC on Tuesday night and has been a key figure in Austin’s attack this season. Lima leads the side in shots (13) and ranks second in goals (2) in Championship play. If he can work his way onto the scoresheet again this weekend in Orange County, Bold FC has a chance to pick up its first road victory in club history after managing just a single point from its opening four away days (0-3-1).
After scoring multiple goals in a game just once over its opening nine contests, 901 FC has accomplished that feat in three straight games across all competitions. Muckette has played a big part in that turnaround, finding the back of the net in Memphis’ last two league outings against Birmingham Legion FC and Hartford Athletic. Having enjoyed a 24-minute cameo late in Wednesday’s 3-1 Open Cup win over the New York Red Bulls U23s, Muckette should be well rested for this Saturday’s big test against a traditionally defensive-minded Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
- Tampa Bay Rowdies forward Brandon Allen is the New York Red Bulls II's all-time leading goal scorer with 24 goals and was named the Championship’s Rookie of the Year in 2016, when NYRB II last won the USL Cup.
- "I think it’s tremendous. The fans have deserved this for the better part of two months. We had that in our mind, we knew it. It’s something that we have talked about. We wanted to repay them. They stuck through a weather delay tonight as well. We wanted to give them something unique, which is an Open Cup win. Being able to be the first team to do that in club history is important. There will be many more wins at AutoZone Park, but it’s special to get the first one. We’re just really happy to deliver for the fans. I’m really happy for the boys inside. They have worked really hard in training. They deserve this result.” – Memphis 901 FC Head Coach Tim Mulqueen on picking up the first win in AutoZone Park history in the Open Cup.
- "We're still working on some new things and we still have a lot of work to do, but we did win the ball and I didn't think we got forward quick enough when we won it. We're still fine. Mentally, the guys are fine. It's tough to lose in penalties, it's just a coin toss." – Phoenix Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz on his team’s mindset following its Open Cup loss to New Mexico United.
- "I’ve been on both ends of these Open Cup draws as an amateur player and as a pro. It’s a never say die attitude and they have nothing to lose. Us, being the professional team, had to show a lot of maturity and a lot of poise. We dictated our identity of soccer on them.” – Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder Zach Steinberger after his side’s Open Cup victory against League Two’s The Villages SC.
- "It's a surreal feeling, you know. All the props to them first of all. They played a great game, they kept the ball, and they have great players on the team, so I was very impressed with the players that they have. It felt great playing against some of my friends.” – Las Vegas Lights FC midfielder Pablo Cruz, who helped his current side defeat his former club Cal FC in the Open Cup on Tuesday night.