Cascarones are crashing on children’s heads – and maybe a few adults. Medals are jingling as you walk by. And the unmistakable scent of chicken-on-a-stick is in the air. This can only mean one thing – it’s Fiesta time in San Antonio. For San Antonio FC this means it’s time for the annual “Fiesta Road Trip.”
A shorter version of the Spurs Rodeo Road Trip, but no less traditional. This year, that means two straight matches against brand new USL teams in Fresno and Las Vegas. And aside from the poor playing surfaces that will come with these two matches – they both play in baseball stadiums – maybe it’s a good thing for this team to get out of town for a little while. Struggling teams have been known to take on a strong bond when they’re on the road and they can adopt that whole “Us vs the World” mentality. They might need some of that. After a 3-0 thrashing at Toyota Field on Saturday night, this team is definitely struggling in the early going.
SAFC’s parent club, the Spurs, have just started their 21st straight playoff campaign. They too had a rough night on Saturday, but that’s another story. Meanwhile, a young San Antonio FC squad is merely looking to make it two years straight in the USL playoffs. 2018 has not gotten off to the start that many anticipated. Looking at the results, it’s a far cry from the red-hot start we saw in 2017 where SAFC roared out to 14 straight unbeaten matches, including 10 wins. In fact, it looks a lot more like 2016 all over again. The first five results of the year were exactly the same in the end, just shake up the order a little bit. One win, two losses, two draws. If you can believe it, they’re actually scoring at an even slower pace than that season. Five goals in 2016 vs four in 2018. Just like in 2016, the goal scoring leader after five games had two goals. Jason Johnson in 2016 and Mikey Lopez this season. Let’s hope the parallels end there.
No one finished 2016 with more than five goals and SAFC struggled to score all season long. San Antonio scored multiple goals in less than half of their matches, and the team fell just one win shy of making the playoffs.
To put their 2018 struggles into another perspective, two USL players, Kharlton Belmar and Thomas Enevoldsen – both of whom have scored on SAFC this season, ironically enough – each have five goals to their name. By themselves, each of them has outpaced SAFC as a team. That’s not a good statistic from the San Antonio side of things. Certainly, goal scoring has not been something SAFC has been known for. Even last year with Billy Forbes’ productive season – league-wide his finish was only good for a tie in 20th place among USL goalscorers. San Antonio has never had a dominant offensive player.
The team is well aware of their goal-scoring struggles and are feeling the pressure of it. After the scoreless draw in LA a couple of weeks ago, SAFC Captain Ryan Roushandel said the club felt they could do better.
“We all feel like we could’ve gotten more out of the game,” he said. “None of us are satisfied with the result of the game, but we’ll take the positives out of it and build on that.”
So what has gone wrong on offense? You have to start with Ever Guzman. He just hasn’t lived up to what we saw from him at the end of 2017 where he scored five goals in the final five games of the season. And then he added another five in pre-season and looked ready to pick up exactly where he left off. Five games into 2018, and he’s still looking for the breakout. He’s had some good opportunities. The one that comes immediately to mind is the second half against Swope where a pass in the eighteen had him squared up perfectly to the goal – but the ball was blasted over the bar. It happens. But it has been happening too much to start this season. He had another great opportunity against Orange County, but still, no goals.
Newcomer Sonny Guadarrama hasn’t linked up with Guzman the way the club had hoped either. He finally got his first start in the LA2 match, but curiously he was positioned out on the wing. He seems to be better suited to play right up against the middle. In his second start, that’s where he lined up, and although it didn’t produce a goal, the movement looked a lot better. We’ll see if their chemistry can get off the ground with some more opportunities together.
Another big factor has been the early absence of Cesar Elizondo. Elizondo was third in goals and tied for second in assists in 2017. That’s a big amount of production that has been sitting on the sidelines. Thankfully, Elizondo finally made his season debut this past Saturday, coming on as a second-half sub. The main question surrounding Elizondo until he can prove otherwise will be, can he stay healthy? He missed 10 matches last season and he’s already missed four this year. He turned 30 back in February. It might be time to start asking the question of whether he can be counted on to fill a vital role in this offense. If the answer is still yes – the timing is right on the money for SAFC. They need all the help they can get at the moment, so we’ll take his return as great news for the time being.
Kris Tyrpak continues to be up and down. He is more than capable of big nights, like the home opener against St Louis where he had an assist on the equalizer and then followed that up later with the game winner. However, he can go relatively quiet for a couple games at a time as well. In a way, that’s football in a nutshell, but more than that, it’s pretty much who Tyrpak is. He’ll put together a very solid, respectable, productive season for you, but he won’t be an every week threat. The three goals in the six-match stretch he had at one point last season was more the exception than the rule, and it’s three matches and counting since his last goal, currently.
So where else can goal-scoring production come from? Perhaps Rafa Castillo is on your mind? It would be understandable after the spark that he seemed to provide to the offense on Saturday night; his first start of 2018. He rattled the woodwork on Saturday, so he was that close to opening his 2018 account. But he’s also never scored more than five goals in a single season for SAFC. It doesn’t seem likely they will rely on the soon-to-be 38-year-old to carry that load throughout the bulk of the season. Of the 2017 goal scorers for SAFC still on this roster, the ones we haven’t mentioned are Stephen McCarthy, Ryan Roushandel, and Omar Gordon – all with one goal each in 2017. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say none of those guys are going to turn into goal scoring sensations anytime soon.
That leaves the new guys. Mikey Lopez got off to a hot start, and he remains the goal scoring leader after five games with two goals. The problem? He’s had a card happy beginning. If he’s going to continue to be effective, he’s going to have to play with a touch more discipline. He’s definitely the most likely candidate to lead the way for this team after five games of returns. He could be the guy.
It could also be Connor Presley. He’s shown some good flashes and much progress in the early stages of this season. But alas, no goals. It could be Jose Escalante. Like Rafa, he finally got his first start of the year on Saturday, and the attack did seem much improved, despite no goals. And we’ve seen all too well what he is capable of in USL play. Will he be counted on as a super sub this season, as he began the year, or is this the first signal that he’s beginning to carve out his place more permanently in the first eleven? Time will tell, but there’s no doubt that Castillo and Escalante coming in together gave this group a big boost over the weekend.
For my money, I’d like to see it come from the natural Forward position. We have yet to really see Mike Seth in a Forward role for this team. He’s had a lot of playing time, but he’s been helping to maintain the back line while they work through early season injuries, a la Shawn Chin last season. This seems like a good place to remind everyone that two seasons ago he was leading the Colorado Switchbacks in goals (8) and assists (5) so it would be nice to see him finally get that opportunity here. And that leaves Alex Bruce, who had an exciting pre-season. He made his debut late on opening night in Sacramento and was inches away from heading in the equalizer. And then, poof – he disappeared, and we haven’t seen him since. Yes, he’s young. Yes, he’s very inexperienced. But it’s not hard to see the talent he has. It would probably be a mistake to build the offense around him for the season, but I’d really like to see more of him. When your only goal in a three-match span has come from a defensive turnover, and from a player who scored his first goal in two seasons with the team – really, what does Coach Darren Powell have to lose?
The good news? San Antonio was more aggressive on Saturday night than we’ve seen in other games, and they really should have scored at least one goal. They finished with 17 shots and 13 chances – both season highs. And let’s give credit where credit is due. Orange County Goal Keeper Andre Rawls was excellent. OC leads the league in goals conceded with only two and Rawls is all alone in USL with the most saves (18) and the most clean-sheets (4). So that was not just any ordinary defense that San Antonio had on the ropes several times throughout the night. If there’s a positive sign that the offense is moving in the right direction, that was it.
Up to this point, the shining part of the season for SAFC had been the defense. Check out this heads-up play from Darnell King to clear a ball off his line on Saturday night, as one example.
— San Antonio FC (@SanAntonioFC) April 15, 2018
But even with some great performances over this five-game stretch, SAFC took a big hit on Saturday night ultimately conceding three. SAFC now finds themselves fairly middle-of-the-road in terms of goals allowed, and the goal differential for the team has dipped down to negative three. Considering all the new faces back there, they’ve still had a fairly promising start for the season as a whole. This group still has a chance to live up to the defense-first reputation of a Darren Powell club. Take away Saturday night, and SAFC had been one of the top defenses in the league.
One defensive player observation; Cyprian Hedrick, in particular, continues to be a big mystery. Even with McCarthy still out injured and Chris Christian getting the night off for rest, he still couldn’t find his way into the 18. It’s hard to explain how he has devolved into the odd man out.
All that being said, Powell definitely expects more from his guys as a whole. He summed up the recent match against Swope pretty perfectly afterward.
“I don’t think either team is thrilled about tonight,” he said. “Sometimes you draw a game and it feels like a win, sometimes you draw a game and it feels like a loss, and tonight I think it’s just that in-between where both teams wish they had gotten more out of tonight’s match.”
And then Powell had this to say following the loss to Orange County on Saturday night:
“We felt the team was very assertive on the front foot tonight. We created chances and hit the crossbar and the post, and their keeper made some great saves. We didn’t capitalize on our chances, which is more than we’ve created all season, so everybody in our locker room is bitterly disappointed.”
In both instances, it was well summed up. The same could really be said for the entire opening month of SAFC’s 2018. Disappointed, bitterly or otherwise. The results just aren’t there. Their only win came against a team outside of current playoff position, against St Louis. In three games against playoff position teams, they’ve only managed one point. They have two losses against the two top four teams they’ve faced. Those trends against the top teams are ones they don’t want to see continue much further.
The other remaining bit of good news is, of course, that it’s still early. There are 29 matches left to play, and fortunes can change. But it would behoove SAFC to get it into gear sooner rather than later. It won’t be “early” for much longer. After the Fiesta Road trip concludes, roughly one-fifth of the schedule will be complete.
The question about when the offense will finally match the expectations looks to be an unanswered one, at least in the early stages of the new year. Maybe a couple games on the road will be just the thing to help the team hunker down and get it kick-started.
If nothing else, we can all enjoy some of that delicious chicken-on-a-stick while we watch these next couple of matches. After all, it’s Fiesta time in San Antonio. The party will go on even as the city’s teams struggle. We wouldn’t have it any other way. And it would be plain wrong to miss out.
US Open Cup
The second round draw for the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S.Open Cup was held last week, and the potential opponents for San Antonio FC were revealed. This year, USL teams will enter the competition in the second round of the tournament. SAFC has been paired with the winner of the Midland-Odessa Sockers FC vs Lakeland Tropics match. If Midland-Odessa wins, SAFC will travel to Midland Texas. If Lakeland wins, SAFC will host the match at Toyota Field.
Needless to say, SAFC fans will be pulling for Lakeland. After having a home match in their very first ever Open Cup match in 2016 vs Corinthians, SAFC has since had to travel for four straight Open Cup matches.
Midland-Odessa plays in the NPSL. Lakeland plays in the PDL. No matter who San Antonio gets as their opponent, it will be the first-ever meeting between the two clubs. The match will be played on Wednesday, May 16th at 7:30 pm CDT.
Should San Antonio FC advance, the third round of the tournament will take place on Wednesday, May 23rd, with those pairings still to be announced. MLS teams do not enter the tournament until the fourth round, on Wednesday, June 6th.
Just in case you’ve been avoiding social media the last few weeks, USL has moved their live match coverage off of YouTube and their Match Center to its new home on ESPN+, the new streaming Network of the mouse house’s major sports arm. ESPN+ will feature, among many other sports offerings, MLS matches, MLB games, NHL games, English Championship Soccer, tons of exclusive ESPN programming like ESPN FC, and of course, it’s the new home to live USL matches. An ESPN+ subscription will cost you $4.99 per month or $49.99 for one full year. We’d love to hear your feedback on the new platform and whether you think it’s a positive change for USL as a league.
Here’s the official announcement from USL if you missed it.
And here are some ESPN+ FAQ’s as provided by USL.
Powell Runs for Parkinson’s
SAFC announced the #RunWithDarren campaign last week leading up to Darren Powell participating in the 5k run this past Saturday morning. Darren’s father, Trevor, was diagnosed with the disease which leads to the Manager wanting to do his part to raise awareness and money for the cause. In addition to the race, Powell encouraged donations towards Parkinson’s Research through the Michael J. Fox Foundation. The race may have ended, but fans can still donate to the foundation right here:
Here are some photos of Darren on race day.
— San Antonio FC (@SanAntonioFC) April 14, 2018