By AARON CRANFORD
Week 23 was tense in USL Pro, producing nine red cards and featuring a massive altercation between the Wilmington Hammerheads and the Orange County Blues.
Expect this week to have more of the same.
The regular season is winding down, and playoff positions are on the line. The Richmond Kickers and Sacramento Republic are both looking to seize first place from Orlando, which recently have been in a minor slump.
All eyes will be on the Republic as they play the Hammerheads on Saturday night. Both sides are in good form, and both currently are playoff bound, so the game will be crucial for both as the regular season ends in less than 10 days.
Here is a look at the upcoming games this weekend:
Pittsburgh Riverhounds vs. Charlotte Eagles (Friday, 7:00 p.m.)
Both the 11th-place Riverhounds and the ninth-place Eagles won their matches in Week 23. The Eagles shocked first-place Orlando City SC 2-0, and the Riverhounds controlled most of the match against the FC Dallas Reserves, beating them 3-1. On Tuesday, Charlotte’s forward, Wells Thompson, was named Player of the Week for his outstanding play and brace against Orlando.
Both sides have three games remaining in the regular season, and the Riverhounds will play two of those remaining three games this weekend. With playoffs spots on the line, expect this matchup to be just as physical as the ones in Week 23.
Rochester Rhinos vs. Harrisburg City Islanders (Saturday, 7 p.m.)
The sixth-place Harrisburg City Islanders should be ready for this rematch. With both sides currently resting in playoff positions, this affair should be as exciting as their 2-2 draw on Saturday in Rochester.
This will be Rochester’s penultimate game of the regular season, so they will want to shock the home side, which has not lost at the Skyline Sports Complex since May 31. This rematch will be the Islanders’ last home match of the season, so the points are crucial before they play their final two regular season games on the road. The Rhinos currently sit in eighth place on the table.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds vs. Charleston Battery (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.)
The fifth-place Charleston Battery’s unbeaten streak ended Wednesday night against second-place Sacramento Republic FC, and with only two games remaining, they need to win both of their home games to secure a spot in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the 11th-place Pittsburgh Riverhounds currently are not in the playoff picture, but this two-game weekend will either improve their chances or leave them sitting on the outside. With three games remaining against teams in the middle of the table, the Riverhounds will want to win and surge into September.
Sacramento Republic FC vs. Wilmington Hammerheads FC (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.)
With their 3-1 win against the Charleston Battery, the Republic are on a six-game winning streak. Rodrigo Lopez scored a brace on Wednesday, which makes him Sacramento’s second-highest scorer this season behind Thomas Stewart.
The Hammerheads equally have been in good form. They beat Orlando 3-1 Thursday night, and even without some of their starters, who are suspended due to their involvement with the altercation against the Orange County Blues, the Hammerheads are trying to maintain their position on the table.
Richmond Kickers vs. Orange County Blues (Saturday, 10 p.m.)
The second-place Kickers suffered a disappointing 3-2 loss against first-place Orlando City SC Saturday evening, but with three games remaining and one of those three being against Orlando, the Kickers will believe they still can finish first this regular season.
The Kickers will play the Blues, who suffered a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Wilmington, and some of their players will be suspended for this match. The 13th-place Blues are not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but a loss or a draw certainly would see them joining the Dayton Dutch Lions, the first team eliminated from the USL Pro playoffs.
Dayton Dutch Lions vs. Orlando City SC (Sunday, 7:30 p.m.)
The Dutch Lions cannot qualify for the playoffs, but a result against Orlando on Sunday could significantly alter the mindset of the top three teams on the table.
The Richmond Kickers will want the Dutch Lions to shock Orlando, who suffered a stunning result on Saturday against the Charlotte Eagles and also suffered a 3-1 loss against the Wilmington Hammerheads Thursday night.
SEATTLE RESERVES STEAMROLL ARIZONA
Monday’s match did not help Arizona United SC’s playoff desires. Seattle scored four goals before Arizona’s London Woodberry scored a header from a Sam Garza cross. Homegrown Player Sean Okoli earned a brace for Seattle, while Lamar Neagle and Tristan Bowen also picked up goals for the MLS side.
Kenny Cooper scored in the 90th minute to end the match with a score of 5-1.
LOPEZ BRACE SEES REPUBLIC TOP BATTERY
In just the 12th minute, Sacramento’s Rodrigo Lopez volleyed a headed clearance into the bottom-left corner of the net to score the first of his two goals in the Republic’s 3-1 victory over the Charleston Battery on Wednesday.
The Battery’s Colin Falvey equalized just four minutes later, but Sacramento quickly replied. Lopez blasted the ball from the top of the box in the 25th minute, beating the goalkeeper once again.
Sacramento’s Steven Evans scored in the 82nd minute to assure the Republic gained all three points.
LOS DOS WIN, EYEING SECOND OR THIRD PLACE
The LA Galaxy II defeated the Real Salt Lake Reserves 1-0 on Wednesday. The lone goal was scored by Charlie Rugg, who nicked a cross from Andre Auras with his head in the 20th minute of play.
The Galaxy have two games left in the regular season, and both opponents, Sacramento Republic FC and Richmond Kickers, sit above them on the table, so wins in both matches could see them jump into second place.
HAMMERHEADS BEAT ORLANDO AND CLIMB TABLE
The Wilmington Hammerheads continue to produce strong results. In the third minute, Corbin Boone pounced on a turnover in the middle of the field, charged toward goal, and easily slotted it past the onrushing keeper.
Orlando’s Austin Da Luz scored in the 41st minute to tie the game, but two goals, one by Hammerheads’ Mark-Anthony Kaye and the other by Sammy Ochoa, helped Wilmington climb to seventh place on the USL Pro table with a 3-1 win.
What do you think of this week’s matchups? Will Orlando break their slump? Will Wilmington finish the season in the playoffs?
Share your thoughts below.