We’ve got some key games in the race for the Championship Playoffs in the next two days, including some intriguing rivalry contests that include the third edition of the Kings’ Cup and the Donner Pass Derby and the second Black Gold Derby this season. We lead off by looking at the first of those matchups, and a stretch run that could provide numerous twists and turns before the final day of the season. Here’s your Morning Tea for Saturday.
Don’t look now, but four weekends from now the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs are scheduled to kick off, and that means for teams in playoff contention around the league it’s crunch time when it comes to finding the ability to push through mentally as well as physically to earn the points needed for a playoff spot.
As we saw on Thursday night as Memphis 901 FC pulled out a victory it simply had to have to keep its hopes alive, that mental drive can produce some remarkable outcomes. It can also be highly taxing, especially for those in the thick of the action.
“Soccer is a mental game,” Louisville City FC’s Oscar Jimenez told the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Jonathan Saxon this week. “It’s battling with your own mind. There’s moments where you get fatigued. ‘Am I tired? Can I push through these next ten minutes?’ Pushing through those things and working on mentally staying tough is something that will get us through to the playoffs.”
LouCity hasn’t missed the postseason since it first arrived in the Championship in 2015, a streak bettered only by Sacramento Republic FC (every season since 2014) and the Charleston Battery (every season in the Championship era). Usually with five games to go, things are well in hand, with the side’s lowest finish in the Eastern Conference standings fourth place a year ago.
This is unlike any previous year, however, and thanks to the compressed schedule and Group format there’s every chance that the trio of LouCity (20pts), current first-place side Indy Eleven (22pts) and third-place Saint Louis FC (18pts) could be fighting it out to the final day of the season. Saturday, October 2 sees LouCity host the group’s fourth-placed side – and still dangerous – Sporting Kansas City II, while Saint Louis hosts Indy, with half-an-hour separating the two kickoffs.
In the opinion of LouCity Head Coach John Hackworth, chances are those two matches could end up de-facto playoff games before the official postseason arrives.
“I don’t think this will get sorted out until the very last game,” Hackworth told Saxon.
If there’s a reason to be confident that LouCity will be one of the two sides to advance, though, its ability to find strong finishes to the regular season is at the top of the list. After the struggles the side experienced following the season resumption, Louisville is undefeated in six games, continuing its annual run of stellar form when the calendar turns to August. Since 2016, the club is 34-6-16 in the Championship’s regular season between August 1 and the end of the regular season. That doesn’t include the numerous playoff wins the club has also racked up over that span, going to four consecutive Eastern Conference Finals and winning the past three.
With a home clash against Saint Louis FC set for Saturday night and then a trip to Indy Eleven next Wednesday up next on the schedule, though, LouCity’s mental strength is going to be tested as it looks to maintain its perfect postseason attendance record.
- Zeiko Lewis scored the only goal as the Charleston Battery took a 1-0 victory against the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Friday night and moved within three points of the Group H leaders. With a game in hand on the Rowdies, the Battery are now in position to make it a race to first place over the final weeks of the regular season.
- Phoenix Rising FC extended its lead to eight points at the top of Group B with a 5-1 victory against Las Vegas Lights FC for its sixth consecutive home win at Casino Arizona Field. The Arizona Republic’s Lorenzino Estrada was on hand as the hosts took victory while welcoming 979 socially-distanced fans to their home venue for the first time since the season resumed.
- New Mexico United can move within range of a place in the 2020 Championship Playoffs if it can take victory on Saturday afternoon against Real Monarchs SLC. The Albuquerque Journal’s Ken Sickenger dug into the numbers ahead of what should be a must-see matinee at Zions Bank Stadium.
- FC Tulsa can gain the upper hand in this year’s edition of the Black Gold Derby and in the race for second place in Group D as it takes on OKC Energy FC at ONEOK Field on Saturday night. The Tulsa World’s Barry Lewis looks ahead to the clash, which sees Tulsa’s Dario Suarez entering on a run of five goals in the past three games.
- Sitting in third place to start the day in Group E, Saint Louis FC faces a crucial visit to Louisville City FC on Saturday night at Lynn Family Stadium. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Joe Lyons looks ahead to the contest between two rivals who have become even more familiar this season.
- El Paso Locomotive FC can take a big step toward the postseason on Saturday night with another victory, but will have to do something no other club has done this season as it hosts undefeated San Antonio FC at Southwest University Park. KTSM’s Andy Morgan looked ahead to the potential postseason preview.
- Hartford Athletic has a busy few weeks ahead with seven games still to play in the regular season. Ahead of Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, the Journal Inquirer’s Adam Betz spoke with defender Sam Strong and Head Coach Radhi Jaidi about coming through in a positive fashion to clinch a place in the postseason.
- Reno 1868 FC will try to overcome the only side to have handed it defeat this season as it visits Sacramento Republic FC for the third Donner Pass Derby of the season on Saturday night. After suffering one-goal defeats and being held scoreless each of the past two meetings, Head Coach Ian Russell believes there’s positive motivation for the side as it looks to clinch a playoff spot.
- Orange County SC will have two new faces available for Sunday’s key game against San Diego Loyal SC after signing Honduras international Alexis Cerritos and 16-year-old Raymond Drai to professional deals this week. OCSC is looking to bounce back from a midweek loss against Sacramento Republic FC and keep San Diego from overtaking it for second place at Torero Stadium.
- Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has a core of veterans in its squad, but its newer arrivals to the professional ranks have also been key to the club’s success this season. Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s John Krysinsky looked at the first- and second-year pros that have made an important impact ahead of Saturday’s game with Hartford Athletic.
- Goalkeepers can tend to have to be patient to get their break, in both college and the professional ranks. That’s the way it turned out for Logan Ketterer, but now as the starter for El Paso Locomotive FC he’s found a solid starting position in the Championship. The Bradley Scout’s Larry Larson went one-on-one with Locomotive FC’s solid shot-stopper.