Louisville City FC and Nashville SC square off on Saturday night in this weekend's biggest Eastern Conference matchup. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
After another exciting edition of Wednesday Night Soccer, USL Championship action continues on Thursday as part of an action-packed holiday weekend slate of 15 games.
Four of those will fittingly take place on the Fourth of July, with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC playing on the holiday for the seventh straight season when it hosts Keystone State rival Bethlehem Steel FC at Highmark Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+), before the fireworks continue out West with Las Vegas Lights FC taking on the LA Galaxy II at Cashman Field (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
A pair of games will follow on Friday night with the third-place New York Red Bulls II looking to get back in the win column against Ottawa Fury FC at MSU Soccer Park (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+) before ATL UTD 2 tries to end its four-game losing streak against the Charleston Battery at Fifth Third Bank Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
Seven more matches will take place on Saturday, with Cameron Lancaster’s return to Slugger Field taking center stage in the early evening when his Nashville SC side visits Louisville City FC (7 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+). The night will wrap up late on the West Coast when the Portland Timbers 2 try to quickly move past their two-loss week against a struggling Tulsa Roughnecks FC squad at Providence Park (10:30 p.m. ET | Match Center | ESPN+).
The weekend’s slate finally concludes on Sunday with a clash of two of the top form sides in the Eastern Conference as the Charlotte Independence hosts Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC at Sportsplex at Matthews (7 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 18:
Since I’ve had this game circled on my calendar since December – alright, you caught me, I don’t use a calendar – it was always going to be the headliner of this week’s action. After winning back-to-back titles and the 2018 Golden Boot with LouCity, Cameron Lancaster makes his long-awaited return to Slugger Field as a member of Eastern Conference rival Nashville SC. While the forward did make his NSC club debut against Louisville as a second-half substitute in preseason, this game will have a whole different feel to it with the two sides currently separated by just four points in the standings. After an injury-hit start to the season, Lancaster has found the back of the net three times in his last four games to bring his total up to five on the year. Given the circumstances, there’s no doubt in my mind that Nashville Head Coach Gary Smith gives him a start and therefore I’m sticking to my March prediction that the former Tottenham Hotspur product finds the back of the net against his former club.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Bethlehem Steel FC square off at Highmark Stadium on the Fourth of July in a rematch of last season's postseason thriller. | Photo courtesy Delaney Hoolahan / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
It’s always an entertaining contest when the Keystone State rivals square off and this Fourth of July special at Highmark Stadium should be no different. The two sides shared the spoils in a 2-2 draw earlier this season, which matched the same scoreline as their 2018 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal (after 120 minutes) before Steel FC advanced on penalty kicks. Pittsburgh will still be looking to exact a measure of revenge for that home defeat on Thursday and is in good form to do so, having outscored its opposition 12-1 over its current three-game winning streak. Bethlehem has won two of three and can move level on points with the Hounds in the East if it secures a road victory, which should give Head Coach Brendan Burke’s squad a little extra motivation as it makes the trip West.
On paper, this probably isn’t a matchup you would normally see highlighted here but I’m very intrigued to see how both these teams respond to adversity. The Switchbacks parted ways with Head Coach Steve Trittschuh on Monday after their 5-0 defeat at Austin Bold FC last weekend, which extended the side’s losing streak to three games and further sank its hopes of a return to the postseason. Orange County also suffered its third consecutive setback last weekend as Frank Lopez’s late goal led the LA Galaxy II to a 2-1 victory at Championship Soccer Stadium at OC Great Park. With both teams desperate for a win, this has all the makings of an old-fashioned six-pointer.
Just like Colorado Springs, the Monarchs are heading into this weekend’s matchup with a new Head Coach on the sidelines as Jamison Olave has taken over on an interim basis after Monday’s departure of Martin Vasquez. However, the former Major League Soccer defender steps into a solid situation as the Monarchs have won three straight games – albeit all against teams currently outside of the top 10 – to move within touching distance of a playoff place. Real will certainly get a good litmus test on Saturday when it hosts a rested New Mexico United side, which will be looking to find its form ahead of its Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal against Minnesota United FC next Wednesday.
In last week’s first ever two-for-one special, I predicted that expansion sides Hartford Athletic and Loudoun United FC would sweep to victories last Friday night. Loudoun came through for me, but Hartford didn’t as the Athletic suffered a 3-0 home defeat against Bethlehem Steel FC. Potentially against my better judgment, I’m going back to the well with Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen’s side this weekend when it travels to Memphis to take on an offensively-challenged 901 FC. I expect the hosts to break their goal drought, but Harry Swartz bags the winner for Hartford in a 2-1 victory.
Saint Louis FC's Kyle Greig is one goal away from becoming the eighth player in the Championship's history to record 50 regular-season goals. | Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel / Saint Louis FC
One player that could use to break his current goal drought is Saint Louis FC forward Kyle Greig, who hasn’t found the back of the net in league play since April 27. That date also marks STLFC’s last league victory – a 3-1 win over the Swope Park Rangers – as Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ side has struggled to pick up points while balancing its run to the Open Cup Quarterfinals. I think that both of those streaks come to an end on Saturday as Greig gets back on track by finding his 50th regular-season Championship goal in a Saint Louis win over Loudoun United FC at World Wide Technology Soccer Park.
Sticking with the theme of goalscorers reaching round numbers, I’m backing OKC Energy FC forward Deshorn Brown to notch his 10th tally of the season in Saturday’s home date with El Paso Locomotive FC. The Jamaican forward scored the game-winner late in his side’s vital 1-0 victory at Las Vegas Lights FC last weekend and honestly probably should have put away at least one or two more after working his way into some threatening positions. Despite its impressive defensive record on the season, Locomotive FC’s back line has been a little all over the place in recent weeks and may be short of chemistry after Wednesday’s acquisition of Moses Makinde from Tulsa Roughnecks FC.
What’s the Fourth of July without some fireworks? This may end up being one of my least substantiated predictions to date, but I’m going with it anyway. Fury FC has played some high-scoring contests over the past month and the Red Bulls II are always good for a couple of goals at home, so I’m backing Friday night’s matchup between the two to be the highest-scoring game of the weekend. If these two sides combine for any less than five goals, I’m going to be disappointed.
North Carolina FC's Steven Miller has been one of the club's key performers this season and should take a leading role in Thursday night's Southern Derby clash with the Charlotte Independence. | Photo courtesy Daniel Neal / North Carolina FC
Miller has quietly been the engine of North Carolina FC’s midfield this season, recording five goals and a team-high four assists to help Head Coach Dave Sarachan’s side into the top four of the Eastern Conference at the halfway mark. The 29-year-old will certainly like to continue making his influence felt on Thursday night when NCFC hosts the Charlotte Independence in a Southern Derby rematch at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park. Miller recorded an assist in his side’s 3-0 victory in Charlotte back on April 20 and could help put his side in pole position to keep bragging rights over its regional rivals with another big performance.
Lopez found the back of the net twice last weekend to the help the Galaxy II to a huge road victory over Southern California rival Orange County SC. The forward now leads Los Dos with five goals on the season, three of which have come over his past three games. With the Galaxy II still on the outside of the playoff positions, Lopez will look to lead the line once again on Thursday night when his side takes a tough trip to Las Vegas Lights FC.
Ketterer has been superb between the posts this season for the expansion side – rightly earning his nomination in the Goalkeeper of the Year category of our most recent Awards Watch – but has been playing behind a back line that “has been down to the bare bones this last couple of weeks,” per Locomotive FC Head Coach Mark Lowry. That was evident in last weekend’s 3-0 defeat at Fresno FC and the goalkeeper may have to come up big for his side again on Saturday against OKC Energy FC if El Paso is to get back to its winning ways.
A Defender of the Year candidate in our most recent Awards Watch, Diakite also had a bit of an off week last weekend against Ottawa Fury FC. The 6-foot-4 center back had his pocket picked by Fury FC forward Christiano Francois in the build-up to Ottawa’s only goal of the contest and will be looking to rebound on Sunday on the Rowdies’ trip to the Swope Park Rangers. Diakite has struggled at times to deal with speed in behind him this season – as was evident as he tried to mark Nicque Daley in Tampa Bay’s 1-1 draw with the Charleston Battery last month – but will like his chances against Rangers forward Ethan Vanacore-Decker with leading scorer Felipe Hernandez suspended.