Image: Jesus Miguel Garcia, Pitch Black News
After San Antonio FC spent over a month and a half in the top spot of the United Soccer League Western Conference standings, Real Monarchs SLC finally usurped them on Saturday after being hot on their heels the whole time.
Early on in the season, it was evident there would be a two-horse race for the USL West pedestal. Both clubs now sit on 30 points, 13 ahead of both Seattle Sounders FC 2 and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, who sit in third and fourth place, respectively. Real Monarchs own the top spot by virtue of having more wins, while SAFC is still undefeated.
That the two clubs are neck-and-neck at the top is fitting given a number of similarities in their schedules so far.
Both clubs started off their seasons with two wins. They also swapped opponents in the third and fourth weeks of the season, finding similar results against each. Real Monarchs downed Reno on April 6 in a 5-3 goalfest, while SAFC routed them 4-0 on April 15, earning their best win ever in the process.
The other opponent they each had a crack at around the same time was the Switchbacks, against whom both SAFC and Real Monarchs dropped their first points of the season. SAFC salvaged a 1-1 draw via a late goal on April 7, while Real Monarchs went down 2-0 within 20 minutes and could only muster a single, futile goal in response on April 15. That was the day SAFC grabbed the top spot in the standings, which they held onto for awhile.
Both clubs were made to work for their wins on road trips to the Cascadia region on April 22 but ultimately triumphed, SAFC 2-1 over Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2, Real Monarchs 3-1 over Seattle. SAFC continued their road trip in the region with a midweek 3-2 win over Seattle, giving them some breathing space at the top.
SAFC capped off that road trip with another 4-0 victory on April 28 against Portland Timbers 2, while Real Monarchs kept the pace with a 2-1 win against Swope Park Rangers a day later.
SAFC hasn’t been the same since that road trip though. They scored four goals in the match against Timbers 2, but only three in the five games since. SAFC makes a big deal about how they haven’t conceded in that span either, but keeping a clean sheet guarantees only one point – it’s up to the offense to earn the other two.
In the same span, Real Monarchs has conceded three goals, the same number SAFC has scored, but bagged a whopping 13 themselves. Overall this season, Real Monarchs has scored an average of 2.55 goals and conceded exactly one on average, while the last five games have seen a slight improvement in goals scored, 2.6 per game, and a defense now holding opponents to only 0.6.
Looking at the same metrics for SAFC, the decline is evident. Overall this season, they’ve conceded 0.33 goals per game, which has gone down to a perfect zero in the last five matches thanks to the team’s defensive efforts. In terms of goals scored though, they’ve nosedived, scoring just 0.6 per game in the last five compared to 1.75 for the whole of the season so far.
Blame that decline in offensive output on whatever you want – the pitch conditions at Toyota Field slowing down their slick attacks, the absence of Cesar Elizondo for almost a month, etc – SAFC’s struggling to find the net now, and it’s hurting them.
SAFC hadn’t been held scoreless in their first eight matches of the season, but that’s now happened twice in the last four USL matches. On both occasions, their defense managed to hold firm and secure draws, but the parallel fixture for Real Monarchs were a 2-0 and 1-0 win – nothing resounding, but enough for all three points both times.
Those draws allowed Real Monarchs to come within two points and then draw level with SAFC. Real Monarchs also have a game in hand and are riding a seven-match winning streak. Additionally, at least to boost their psyche and exorcise any demons from the 2-1 loss against the Switchbacks on April 15, Real Monarchs clobbered them 5-2 at home on May 20.
Even after dropping to second place, SAFC is still far ahead of the pack and there’s still plenty of the season left. Also, the playoffs, not the regular season, are what crown the USL champion.
“We’re focused on getting points (and) we’re focused on making the playoffs.” SAFC goalkeeper Diego Restrepo said. “The table’s going to vary week by week…we’ve just got to focus and worry about ourselves.”
One factor which may’ve hindered SAFC in recent weeks was participation in the US Open Cup, with matches on May 17 and 31. With them now eliminated, the shoe will be on the other foot as Real Salt Lake enters the competition’s fourth round on June 14 and will likely draw from Real Monarchs, somewhat disrupting their squad and rhythm, or so SAFC will hope.
Not much is likely to change this weekend as SAFC faces the Oklahoma City Energy FC and Real Monarchs is up against Portland Timbers 2 – both clubs are currently outside the USL Western Conference playoff picture.
For SAFC though, their matchup could be the perfect chance to rediscover their scoring touch. Energy FC has kept only two clean sheets so far this season. Then again, the same could be said about Swope Park Rangers before they blanked SAFC this past weekend.