Week 18 Preview: what you need to know
Into the dog days of summer
Well, last week didn’t go quite as we all would have hoped, but 3 points from the last two road games really isn’t bad. The Three Sparks have a chance to improve on that this week.
The most important part
The Legion is on a twofer this week, playing Atlanta United 2 tonight (6:30pm) and the Charleston Battery Saturday (7:00pm) before finishing up the road stretch all the way west in Sacramento next Saturday. Good points from these two games are essential.
Tonight will be the team’s last trip to Kennesaw (barring any potential Open Cup games against Atlanta United) as Twonited will be joining MLS Next Pro after this season. They do so missing Mikey Lopez and Tommy Soehn, both due to red card suspension, as well as Jake Rufe who euphemistically “picked up a knock” in the Louisville game. However, Prosper Kasim is no longer on the injury list and both Anderson Asiedu and Bruno Lapa look good to go after outings last weekend. Expect Ryan James to move back into the left fullback role for at least this game.
As for Atlanta, predicting their lineup has become near impossible due to the staggering injury problems at the MLS parent team. Most likely not to be with the team tonight are goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo and allrounder Aiden McFadden who have both been serving regular loan spells with the MLS team1These can be either long or short term, as few as 3 days and as long as a full season.. But that does not mean Twonited are without threats. The most obvious is newcomer striker Tristan Trager. He was picked up by the club as the 47th pick of the 2022 MLS SuperDraft but finished out his senior year with the Air Force Academy before signing with Twonited last month. Since then he has 7 appearances and 5 goals and is the current Player of the Week. Trager’s strike partner Jackson Conway is also no slouch at 6 goals in 12 appearances. Earlier this year he scored the Championship’s 100th hat-trick, interestingly enough against the Battery. But the team’s real strength is probably midfielder Robbie Mertz (also on the Team of the Week).
Twonited’s record is not exactly great so far this year, but the results are somewhat mercurial. The last 5 games include wins over Loudoun United and the Battery, losses to Hartford Athletic and Oakland Roots, and most recently a 2-2 home draw with El Paso Locomotive. In that game they were probably the better team and only gave up the win to a free kick in second half stoppage time. And therein lies their biggest weakness. In 18 games they have allowed a massive 44 goals, 6 more than any other team and 2.444 per game. Simply put they have no defense. The Legion, in contrast is allowing 0.875 goals per game, 4th best in the league.
One last issue: the playing surface at the Fraction (Fifth Third Bank Stadium) looks to be in horrible condition and could be a factor.
That brings us to the Battery. Who are just plain bad. Their record is 2-12-3. Which makes them the worst non-MLS related team in the league. However, the two wins were in Week 1 against FC Tulsa and then a shocking 3-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on June 11th. The Hounds have been struggling lately, but that defies the odds. That game was followed by a 1-1 draw in Tampa. Other than that, they have been terrible, including a 3-4 loss to Twonited a week ago. Their primary scoring threat is striker Augustine Williams, who has 7 goals in 16 appearances. That’s not bad at all, but he can be mistake-prone and can be easily shut down. And like Atlanta, the Battery defense leaks like a sieve (36 goals allowed in 17 games).
Prediction: This should be 6 points for the Three Sparks. Anything less would be a blow to the team’s chances of getting a home playoff game. On the other hand, if they finish this horrendous road stretch with at least 9 points, that would be excellent.
Best of the rest
There are games tonight and Saturday only this week. All 8 teams in the 4 games being played tonight play again at the weekend (and 2 of them play each other twice this week), so there could be some shuffling in the standings come Sunday.
2 of the other 3 games tonight impact the Legion. At 6:00pm Pittsburgh hosts Indy Eleven. Both teams have been on a poor run of form lately, but the Hounds are 2 points ahead of the Legion, so an Indy win could mean a jump back to 5th place. Also ahead of the Three Sparks is Detroit City who play Hartford Athletic (6:30pm). The Athletic, who have been experiencing more than their share of problems on and off the field, are coming off a huge 2-0 win over Colorado Springs so could help the Birmingham cause tonight. The final game tonight is New Mexico United v. Rio Grande Valley Toros (8:00pm) in the game that will be repeated Saturday (8:00pm).
On to Saturday, and in the heat of summer there are no games earlier than 6:00pm. At that hour Hartford has a second chance to give the good guys an assist as they take on the Tampa Bay Rowdies. As does Indy, who host Detroit. The third game at 6:00pm is Pittsburgh v. The™ Miami FC. Louisville City kicks off at the same time as the Legion, but they are playing the Baby Bulls, so should keep a grip on their position at the top of the table. Memphis 901, though, need to tread just a bit carefully. At 7:30pm they play Phoenix Rising. The Rising have been a shadow of their normal selves lately, but remain dangerous.
All told, come Sunday the Eastern Conference could look like a much tighter race.
Over in the West, probably the most interesting game is El Paso v. Colorado Springs (8:30pm). Both teams need to get back on the winning track after unexpected results last week as they attempt to close the gap on league-leading San Antonio (who are idle this week). Otherwise, not much of interest; it’s the East this week that should be grabbing everyone’s attention.