Week 23 Preview: what you need to know

The league leaders come to town

Calling Wednesday evening anything other than a disaster would be sugarcoating in the extreme. 3 very necessary points were thrown away and the losing streak extends to 3. Tomorrow evening could make it even worse…

The most important part

It’s a little over a year since the Legion and Sacramento played for the first time. That was a 1-0 Legion win in California on the back of a Juan Agudelo goal just 63 seconds in and an epic defensive game after that. Somehow I doubt that is going to repeat tomorrow.

Describing Sacramento Republic as the best team in the league is hardly a questionable claim. They share the league lead on 44 points with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds but have played one less game and are of course in the Western Conference, which is arguably the stronger. They have lost just three games all year: 0-1 to Orange County, 0-1 to Monterey Bay Union and most recently 0-3 to New Mexico United. Oddly, all three of those teams were not especially strong at the time of the games, which is reason for  some hope I suppose.

Also  a little strange is the fact that they are not the highest-scoring team in the league. Their 38 goals (1.65 per game) ranks behind San Antonio (44) and San Diego Loyal (39). However, their 16 goals allowed (0.70 per game) is easily the best in the league. They don’t spread the scoring around much, though: Russell Cicerone accounts for 13 of them (second behind Tani Oluwaseyi’s 14). Luis Felipe and Jack Gurr are next on the squad with 5 each. Cicerone joined SacRep this season from Pittsburgh, with whom he scored 30 goals over 2 seasons, so he’s easily on track to match that average this year.

Cicerone isn’t a striker, though. He’s a left winger. Which means that Jake Rufe or Collin Smith is going to have his hands full. The current regular striker is Zeiko Lewis, who has just 2 goals on the season. Luis Felipe has been injured and hasn’t played in a few weeks, so likely won’t be a problem. Jack Gurr had also been injured but is back. He plays at right wingback. He’ll be familiar to the Legion as he was with Atlanta United 2 back in 2020 and 2021.

Injuries have been a big issue for Sacramento lately, although that hasn’t exactly slowed them down. In addition to Felipe, Rodrigo Lopez, Sebastian Herrera and Dami Viader, all regular starters, have missed time. Viader played 18 minutes last week against Monterey Bay but the others are still out as far as I can tell.

The Republic play an unusual formation. Over the past 3 weeks they have used a 3-4-2-1. That’s a slightly adapted 3-4-3 and they’ve used other slight variations before as well or a 3-5-2. The Legion has had all sorts of difficulties with 3-man back lines, so that is going to be tough. Others before them have had obvious problems with that too. Goalkeeper Danny Vitiello – who is no slouch – has 8 clean sheets on the season but has only had to make 53 saves (2.30 per game). That back line, which can be almost any combination of Jared Timmer, Shane Wiedt, Conor Donovan and Lee Desmond is about as strong a defense as the league has. Getting by them is going to be a very tough proposition.

Prediction: If this one is anything other than a road win, I will be shocked. SacRep is an 800-pound gorilla right now and the Legion are reeling already.

Best of the rest

There are 9 other games on Saturday, with FC Tulsa, Oakland Roots, Orange County and the Colorado Springs Switchbacks all idle. Colorado and Tulsa played to a 1-1 draw on Wednesday, which was about the best thing that happened to the Legion all night. Tulsa are now even on points with the Three Sparks  but trail on tiebreakers.

First up will be Pittsburgh v. Hartford Athletic (6:00pm). Top v. bottom in the East, but Hartford have shown some life of late, with 2 wins in the past 3 games; this may not be the pushover it looks like. At the same time is a key game: The™ Miami FC v. Indy Eleven. Miami have won 3 straight, including a 1-0 defeat of San Antonio and a 4-0 crushing of El Paso Locomotive last week. They are behind Indy by 2 points and are just below the playoff line. A Legion loss and any points for Indy puts them ahead of our boys, so we are on the side of the other Magic City (Tulsa also thinks it’s the Magic City, by the way).

Detroit City have also had some good results lately but face a difficult opponent in the Charleston Battery (6:30pm). The Battery have slipped a tad the past 2 weeks, so this one is also more competitive thank might expect. The Tampa Bay Rowdies play the unpredictable Rio Valley Toros at 6:30pm as well, and at 7:00pm will be Louisville City v. Monterey Bay. Monterey Bay have just 1 point in the last 7 games; Tampa will likely solidify their place in the East’s top 3.

The final game of importance in the East will be San Diego Loyal v. Memphis 901 (9:00pm). Memphis ended their 7-game winless streak last week, 2-1 in Indy; they’ll probably start another one tomorrow. They lead the Legion by 5 points on the same number of games, so we definitely need the help here.

Other games out West aren’t very appealing. The most competitive of them theoretically will be Phoenix Rising v. El Paso Locomotive (10:00pm). They are 8th and 7th respectively, separated by 3 points. However, they have combined for just 5 points in the last 5 weeks. That’ll come down to who wants to lose least.

The Women’s World Cup

Despite their best performance The US were unable to get past Sweden, thanks largely to a massive performance by goalkeeper Zecira Musovic, for their earliest exist ever. Today Sweden won their quarterfinal against Japan 2-1 and will face Spain in the semis (Tuesday, 3:00am), who beat the Netherlands 2-1 yesterday. The remaining quarterfinals will be played early tomorrow: Australia v. France (2:00am) and England v. Colombia (3:00am), with the resulting semifinal to be played Wednesday (5:00am).

Back in the Old Country

The Blues had a decent start to the 2023-24 season, leading but eventually drawing 1-1 at Swansea last week. They followed that up with a comfortable 2-0 EFL Cup road win at Cheltenham Town of League One. That earned them a berth in the next round, playing at home against fellow Championship team Cardiff City on August 29th. This weekend is the league home opener against Leeds United (9:00am, no ESPN+). Leeds were relegated from the Premier League last season after 3 years in the top flight after a long absence. They likewise drew last week (2-2 against Cardiff) and won in the EFL Cup (2-1 over Shrewsbury Town). And just as Birmingham City has American ownership, so does Leeds: 49ers Enterprises, who are exactly who you think.

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