Week 16 Preview: what you need to know
A busy week in the USL Championship
Since we are on vacation across the pond right now, this preview was written a week ago, so some comments may have been overtaken by last week’s games. But hye, everyone needs a break now and then.
The most important part
Finally the Legion get back into action. 17 days is a long time for a mid-season rest of that length. It’s as if the league expected the entire roster to be playing Nations League games all over the globe…
Anyway, the 6-game road trip starts Saturday evening (8:00pm) in the very attractive but blisteringly hot city of Albuquerque. The game of course brings the team back together with old friend Neco Brett. Neco has been having a fair amount of fun in New Mexico, having scored 5 goals in league play (and 1 more in the Open Cup against Phoenix Rising). That makes him best on the team with Harry Swartz and Justin Portillo right behind him on 4 (who are tied with the Legion’s own scoring leader Prosper Kasim). But it also means he is far from their only scoring threat.
United have in fact been doing a lot of scoring lately, including a 7-0 pounding of a COVID and injury depleted Phoenix Rising team in league play (they actually lost that Open Cup game 1-2). As a result they are on a league-high 5-game win streak and a league-high 7-game unbeaten streak. With the Wednesday game against Rio Grande Valley those could extend to 6 and 8. They are also top of the Forge’s Power Rankings for the third straight week. And yet they are only 3rd in the Western Conference on 25 points from 13 games.
Well, that 5-game win streak may be a tad misleading. Granted, 4 of those games were on the road (the Phoenix game being the exception) against the Charleston Battery, Indy Eleven, Orange County and the Oakland Roots. That’s not exactly powerhouse opposition. And the most recent win, 2-1 over the Roots, was a fairly close affair with United having to come from behind. And the only two of the wins were by more than 1 goal (the other being 2-0 over the Battery). That they are riding so high is because of that Phoenix game, which is a big outlier in both team’s results. Moreover, that Phoenix win is New Mexico’s only win against teams currently above the playoff line. The Toros game won’t change that, so the Legion will come in as a big test.
Let’s adjust the scoring as well: currently they are 6th best in the league at 1.77 goals per game. Take the Phoenix game out and they drop all the way to 17th. Not quite so great. But they are also pretty stingy in defense. In fact, their 10 goals allowed is lowest in the league both on an absolute basis and on a per game basis. The Legion obviously isn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard in attack, but the Three Sparks defense is also very stout. In fact, they have allowed 12 goals in 14 games (1 more than New Mexico) for 3rd best in the league, also both absolute and per game.
Then again, starting goalkeeper Alex Tambakis has only 3 clean sheets compared to Matt van Oekel’s 5. Tambakis is a USL stalwart and is also notable for having been the first player ever signed by Atlanta United back in 2016 (he only ever played 1 game for them in 2017) and may be familiar to Legion fans largely for that game which he entered in replacement of the sent-off Kyle Reynish and allowed 2 goals. Also familiar to Legion fans is his current backup Ford Parker, who of course was the Legion’s #3 keeper for 2 years.
The Legion of course come into this game on long rest and hopefully should be pretty much healthy as a result (that of course includes Prosper Kasim who had to leave the Memphis game with what looked like a hamstring injury) and Bruno Lapa should be back from whatever exile he is currently suffering under. All told, it looks like it should be a fairly evenly matched game.
Prediction: Hmm. Tough one. 3 points from the first game of a long road trip would be marvelous, especially with Louisville City looming immediately after this game and New Mexico being on short rest. That’s definitely achievable, but it’s a long shot. I am assuming that United will beat RGV, so I am going to predict that both win streaks will be snapped with a draw.
Best of the rest
Lots of good reasons to stay inside in the A/C this week. To start there are two big games Wednesday night. There is of course the aforementioned New Mexico-RGV game (8:00pm) but ahead of that is Memphis 901 v. FC Tulsa (6:00pm). Area Code FC followed up its loss in Birmingham with a 1-1 draw at lowly Hartford so there is good opportunity here to revel in some potential continued Schadenfreude.
A huge game Friday evening: Colorado Springs Switchbacks host San Antonio (8:00pm). That’s the top two teams in the league going at it. As of this writing they are tied on 30 points with relatively easy games in Week 15 so not much is likely to change ahead of this one. The late Friday game, Las Vegas Lights v. Phoenix (9:30pm), is not quite as attractive but could worth a look.
On to Saturday. There’s an early game at 12:0pm, Hartford v Louisville, which would be mostly interesting for including the Legion’s next opponent. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Tampa Bay Rowdies look like a good game, although the Hounds have been stumbling lately, and with a 6:00pm kickoff can be squeezed in ahead of the Three Sparks game. One to mark for later viewing: Area Code and Detroit City play at 7:30pm, which has obvious implications for the Legion.
No games on Sunday this week, so that’s it for the lineup this time.