Image: Steve Aibel, Pitch Black News/Little Orca Sports
For San Antonio FC, a rival can’t get more local than the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, at least in the USL, where the two teams meet four times this season – and soon, three of those meetings will be in the books. The four-hour drive between San Antonio and the Valley is the shortest trip the two teams will make in league play.
The two matches in the series so far have included no shortage of excitement. A scoreless first half in the first competitive game between the two teams on May 7 was only the prelude to a five-goal second half where RGVFC emerged winners by a 3-2 scoreline after a Rob Lovejoy game-winning goal in stoppage time.
The rivalry’s next installment took place on Wednesday in stereotypically stifling Texas heat – fitting for a matchup between the only two Texan teams in the USL – which was bad enough to make organized hydration breaks a possibility. After another scoreless first half, the second half also ended without a goal for either side.
There was no lack of excitement in Wednesday’s game though, despite the scoreline. While SAFC coach Darren Powell said he considers every game this season a rivalry game, it would be hard to deny that players, staff and fans of both SAFC and RGVFC are already viewing this matchup as a legitimate rivalry.
So far, we’ve seen five goals in this rivalry. In honor of that, let’s look at five dimensions of the SAFC-RGVFC rivalry as it’s played out so far.
In the rather young rivalry between the two teams, there has been no shortage of goalkeeper rotation. On May 7, regular SAFC goalkeeper Josh Ford was out with an illness, giving Matt Cardone his first and only playing time of the season. In the same game, Devin Perales got the nod in goal for RGVFC, who has primarily switched between him and Calle Brown this season.
In the second fixture on Wednesday though, it was Brown who got the nod for RGVFC. In the opposite goal, SAFC’s Josh Ford got his first taste of the rivalry after returning from the illness that kept him out of the first matchup.
Given both teams put up roughly the same number of shots, both on goal and overall, between the two games, the lack of goals in Wednesday’s scoreless draw can be looked at as quite a positive defensively. The result gave both teams their first clean sheet in over a month.
It wouldn’t be hard to argue that all five goals from May 7 could have been prevented by the goalkeepers. From an SAFC standpoint, while the defensive line was the shakiest it has been all season, Matt Cardone didn’t have the most difficult saves to make. That said, he failed to keep the ball out of the net on multiple occasions where perhaps he ought to have done. The two goals conceded by Perales weren’t the most spectacular of strikes either.
Ford’s clean sheet for SAFC on Wednesday was the team’s first since the 3-0 win over Seattle Sounders FC 2 on April 3. RGVFC continually tested Ford though and drew some phenomenal saves out of him – in other words, Ford was made to earn the clean sheet, and then some.
“I think he was man of the match – if he wasn’t, I don’t know who’s picking it,” Powell said after Wednesday’s contest. “He did a good job tonight, made some big saves in big moments.”
Ford has been excellent, but the fact that he’s had to come up big so often should be worrying. #SAvRGV
— J. Check (@checkjfooty) May 26, 2016
For RGVFC, Brown saved everything that came his way, but he wasn’t forced into saves as show-stopping as Ford’s. Most of what was sent toward his goal paved the way for routine saves.
SAFC has failed to sell out all but their opening home game this year. For some, that raises questions about SAFC’s MLS aspirations. We know the club wants it, but do soccer fans in the San Antonio area want it badly enough?
The two matches against RGVFC have yielded the two lowest league attendances for SAFC home games this year: 5,885 on May 7 and 4,650 on Wednesday. It’s worth noting the first game occurred at a time when the city of San Antonio was focused on the Spurs’ playoff run (though May 7 was an off day in that series) and the second was a midweek game, but the fact still stands: the RGV games have provided the worst league attendances so far this season for SAFC.
You wouldn’t guess those two games have had such low attendances (at least relative to the rest) though, based on the noise and passion present at Toyota Field. Despite the timing of the game, SAFC’s main supporters groups, the Crocketteers and Mission City Firm in particular, were very vocal and helped create quite a home atmosphere for SAFC on Wednesday.
30 minutes in & I’ve heard 5x as many different chants as I’ve ever heard from Chicago or San Jose supporters.
— Rebecca Cohen (@GynoStar) May 26, 2016
At the same time, due to the proximity of the two clubs, there was also some support traveling from the Rio Grande Valley. This matchup has given Toyota Field its first notable taste of away supporters after three years of NASL soccer, in which the closest opponents were nearly 1,000 miles away.
— RGVFC (@RGVFC) May 26, 2016
“To be honest, the majority of us didn’t realize there were away supporters until late (in the) second half,” said Lee Ochoa, co-founder and president of Mission City Firm, in a Facebook message. “On the other end though, it’s great that we now have the opportunity to travel to away matches more.”
Ochoa said a contingent of Mission City Firm members will be traveling to Edinburg for the third SAFC-RGVFC match on June 4. The Crocketteers are also planning on sending supporters to spoil the home atmosphere that will be present in Toros territory.
Supporters will continue to travel back and forth to games between both teams for years to come. Though San Antonio seems to have the larger, louder fanbase for now, RGVFC’s supporters will continue to grow in number and voice. Remember, San Antonio had a four-year head start on supporting professional soccer.
Anyone who has seen a true rivalry in soccer knows that play can get more physical than normal at times. Between the players who understand the enormity of the match and fans fanning the flames, feisty rivalries such as SAFC-RGVFC can boil over in an instant.
On paper, the rivalry has been relatively clean so far though. Through the first three halves of play, there were only three yellow cards between the teams. That relative cleanliness went out the window in the second half Wednesday though, with two yellow cards handed out to each team.
Shred the scoresheets though and watch the games themselves; this rivalry has had no shortage of aggression and heatedness, as should be expected. Both games have seen strong tackles put in, some of which were questionably waived away by the referee, as is often the case in rivalry matches.
The second yellow card in the series, to TJ Casner in the 87th minute of the May 7 meeting, goes to show how the numbers on paper don’t tell the whole story of this matchup’s intensity. That Casner yellow card was the only by-product of what is perhaps the most fiery moment so far in the rivalry.
In the 87th minute on May 7, SAFC’s Greg Cochrane fell to the ground while trying to challenge Casner for a ball. Cochrane appeared to have ultimately won the ball in the challenge, but the referee hadn’t blown his whistle and Casner tried to regain possession by kicking at the ball while Cochrane was lying on the ground. Another player from each side, trying to join the small melee for possession, both fell to the ground momentarily as well and the referee finally whistled play dead.
Unfortunately for him, his whistle came too late. With Casner having taken a few dangerous swipes near Cochrane, SAFC’s Stephen McCarthy ran up to the RGVFC aggressor and confronted him about his dangerous actions. In a matter of moments, players from both sides neared the fiery melee and the referee could easily have lost control of the match in that very moment.
“The referee’s blowing his whistle like a traffic cop,” Tom Traxler, a commentator for the match, said.
After all that, all we had to show for it on paper was the one yellow card, but you just have to re-watch the incident to know this rivalry has the potential to boil over and intensify at the drop of a hat. You have to witness one of these games to truly understand the established intensity of this rivalry.
4. Defensive Lapses
One element of the rivalry that has struck SAFC particularly hard is the tendency to have uncharacteristic defensive lapses against RGVFC. SAFC’s defense has been solid and gotten the job done with relative ease for most of the season so far, allowing on average exactly one goal per game.
When RGVFC show up though, SAFC bucks that trend and almost gifts them goals. While some might blame Matt Cardone for all three of the goals conceded by SAFC on May 7, he also deserves thanks for keeping the tally at only three.
Twice early in this half, SAFC’s defense has dangerously gifted possession to RGV and Cardone has had to come up big. #SAvRGV
— J. Check (@checkjfooty) May 8, 2016
SAFC’s defense has given possession away critically – and now fatally – on multiple occasions tonight…what’s going on!? #SAvRGV
— J. Check (@checkjfooty) May 8, 2016
Shocking giveaway from Biko, luckily the RGV shot is just wide. #SAvRGV
— J. Check (@checkjfooty) May 26, 2016
RGV have stepped up their pressure these last few minutes, forcing more SAFC mistakes and giveaways. #SAvRGV
— J. Check (@checkjfooty) May 26, 2016
I’d like to think I live-tweet games pretty accurately, so the fact that SAFC’s defensive lapses came up repeatedly says a fair bit. There’s just something about RGVFC that seems to throw SAFC’s defense off its usual game.
Biko Bradnock-Brennan’s only two USL starts this year have come against RGVFC, so he’s gotten a good feel for what the rivals from down south have done to shake things up.
“When they’re shifting us side to side, you have to stay focused,” Bradnock-Brennan said after Wednesday’s game. “In the first game, they punished our lapses in concentration; this game, we’ve done well to stay focused, pick up runners and stop any clear chances. Josh (Ford) was outstanding and helped us out big-time.”
Bradnock-Brennan’s analysis rings true. Some of SAFC’s more high-profile defensive blunders this season have come when RGVFC pulls them out of position and drags them out to the wings.
A clear example of this is seen in RGVFC’s second goal on May 7, by Mauro Manotas. Leo Ayala, defended by Milton Palacios, chased a long ball down the left side and as soon as Stephen McCarthy went over to help Palacios, Ayala simply had to cut the ball back to a wide-open Manotas, who finished between the legs of Matt Cardone. Despite Bradnock-Brennan’s best efforts, he wasn’t able to shift over and cover for McCarthy in time.
Earlier in the second half of that game, Bradnock-Brennan getting caught in possession and a miscued clearance by Bobby Moseley presented RGVFC with two good chances. If not for the poor placement of the shots, right at Cardone, RGVFC could have run away with the game.
A similar lapse of concentration in defense reared its ugly head again on Wednesday in just the 4th minute. A backpass from Bradnock-Brennan, unaware of Jose Escalante right behind him, was played too lightly and casually to Josh Ford and the onrushing Escalante nearly capitalized. He shot narrowly wide of the far post, but it was a clear warning sign for SAFC that, if they weren’t careful, RGVFC could run all over their defense again.
“Everyone saw the first half; it wasn’t that clean and we had some balls that we gave away,” Ford said after Wednesday’s game. “We needed to make sure that we came out in the second half stronger than we did in the first.”
The Toros’ stampeding attack gave SAFC plenty to deal with. Ford and his backline tightened up and worked their socks off for the rest of the night. At times, it wasn’t pretty and only Ford’s man-of-the-match-winning performance kept the clean sheet hanging on by a thread, but in the end, SAFC’s defense got the job done. Regardless of the manner in which it was earned, SAFC had to be at least mildly pleased with the result.
“Things went our way on the defensive side,” Ford said. “I’m proud of the guys and the work that they did.”
Despite the fact that SAFC’s defense, led by Josh Ford, had quite a night on Wednesday, the reality is that key defensive mistakes seem to crop up when RGVFC gets a crack at San Antonio. It’s really not even SAFC’s fault, just a case of RGVFC providing them a special kind of trouble. The club seems to have figured out how to deal with the challenge, even if not in the most convincing or attractive way.
Look for SAFC’s defense to face even tougher tests against RGVFC as the remaining two meetings between the clubs this year will take place in the Rio Grande Valley.
SAFC is in no way shy about their ambitions of playing in MLS. They’re so confident they’ll reach America’s top league that acquiring an MLS franchise is even built into their agreement with the City of San Antonio and Bexar County regarding the lease of Toyota Field. Since SAFC plans on being in MLS sooner rather than later, there’s really not much of a point in them being affiliated with an MLS club.
RGVFC, on the other hand, is affiliated with an MLS club. As the first MLS “hybrid affiliate,” basically everything surrounding the team is run and provided by the Houston Dynamo. Away from the field, business operations for the club are run by a separate group, linked with the NBA Development League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
Because of the connections to the Dynamo, some have seen SAFC-RGVFC matchups as previews of what MLS matches between SAFC and the Dynamo might look like in a few years. Since RGVFC, like other MLS affiliates, looks to give young players from the parent club experience at a lower level, some of the guys playing against SAFC for RGVFC now could be stepping onto the grass at Toyota Field years later for the Dynamo in an MLS game.
The inclusion of talented Dynamo youngsters has proved both a blessing and a curse for RGVFC so far. The SAFC-RGVFC rivalry’s two installments have provided an excellent glimpse at the double-edged sword that is being an MLS affiliate.
On May 7, all three of RGVFC’s goals came from Dynamo loanees. Mauro Manotas, aged only 20, scored the second goal, while Rob Lovejoy, a player with more experience playing for the parent club, grabbed the first and last goals of the contest, including the game-winner in stoppage time.
Those two players were absent entirely on Wednesday though. The reason? Their parent club had a Dynamo Charities Cup game (glorified friendly) in Houston against Real Sociedad the day before, in which Manotas played a little more than the first 60 minutes and Lovejoy played the last 45.
Based on roster last night, priority list goes: Houston Dynamo league games > Dynamo Charity games > @RGVFC league games
— Pitch Black News (@PitchBlackNews) May 25, 2016
That meant RGVFC were without two of the key players who caused SAFC so much trouble on May 7. USL assists leader TJ Casner was still present, but RGVFC’s Lovejoy-less and Manotas-less attack was unable to unlock SAFC’s well-marshalled defense.
SAFC, on the other hand, don’t have to worry about a revolving door of players. As an independent club, the players they have are theirs and theirs alone. While Bobby Moseley is technically on loan from Stoke City, it’s unlikely the Irishman will be recalled anytime soon, since the English Premier League wrapped up a few weeks ago.
The MLS implications have also manifested on social media. For example, whenever RGVFC talk trash to SAFC, the default response for SAFC is to talk about RGVFC’s parent club, who sit in last place in MLS’s western conference and are now searching for a manager after Owen Coyle and the team parted ways Wednesday.
— San Antonio FC (@SanAntonioFC) May 25, 2016
— San Antonio FC (@SanAntonioFC) May 25, 2016
All things considered, the lack of an MLS affiliate is a double-edged sword for SAFC just as the affiliation is both positive and negative for RGVFC. It’ll be much harder to get talented MLS players or prospects on loan, but at least SAFC can truly call every player who wears their shirt theirs and nobody else’s.
It seems a bit strange how much there is to look at with the SAFC-RGVFC rivalry so far, given how young it is. Anyone who has seen both games between the sides so far this season can tell you there’s been no shortage of excitement though.
In addition, whether it’s been fighting from two goals down, scoring a heartbreaking game-winner in stoppage time or pulling off a slew of spectacular saves, these rivalry games have provided no shortage of drama, keeping everyone either on the edge of their seats or, ideally, jumping onto their feet.
Darren Powell is careful not to focus in on any specific team as a rival so early in SAFC’s history, but it may be safe to say he’s already sensing what a good number of people familiar with the matchup might be willing to say at this point: SAFC-RGVFC will quickly become one of the most important fixtures for both teams – a true, heated rivalry that will continue to entertain.
We’re getting familiar with each other and it’s a healthy rivalry.”