All Images: Jesus Miguel Garcia, Pitch Black News

It’s here.

The matchup players on both sides, both head coaches, fans of both teams, neutrals…the match everybody has been looking forward to and had circled on their calendars for awhile is finally here: San Antonio FC versus Real Monarchs SLC, July 22, Toyota Field.

“Our next league game is going to be a big one,” SAFC midfielder Devin Vega said. “We’ve been looking forward to this game, and I know they have too.”

For awhile now, it’s been clear these two clubs would be pushing toward the top of the United Soccer League Western Conference table. Although Swope Park Rangers has crept up on SAFC, who themselves now trail Real by seven points, Real and SAFC are still currently the top two teams in the west.

That another team would be pushing for the top two seemed unlikely when both SAFC and Real sat 13 points above the next closest competitors on June 7. Now though, Swope is just one point behind SAFC and could surpass them on Thursday night with even just a draw against Seattle. Swope has closed the gap largely thanks to six straight wins, whereas SAFC has won a single match, drawn four and lost one of their last six.

Third place is still fine for SAFC, especially since there would be at least a seven-point cushion over fourth place. Plus simply getting in the playoffs gives any team a chance to make a run at the USL Cup. That said, SAFC has let Swope catch up to them now, as far-fetched as it seemed in early June. SAFC has been on a slide recently and if they don’t figure out how to win on a consistent basis again, Swope might not be the only team to catch them.

“We’re focused on getting points,” SAFC goalkeeper Diego Restrepo said after the scoreless draw with Swope on June 3, the night Real leapfrogged them in the standings. “The table’s going to vary week by week…we’ve just got to focus and worry about ourselves.”

When Restrepo said “worry” back then, it probably had a more neutral meaning, something like “take care of”; perhaps there’s now room for a bit of worry in the traditional sense to sneak in.

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To be fair, Real hasn’t been perfect in recent matches either. An Omar Bravo equalizer consigned them to a draw against Phoenix Rising FC on June 24, and Tulsa Roughnecks FC became the first team to keep Real off the scoreboard in their 2-0 win on July 1. Besides those two matches and a 2-1 loss to Colorado Springs on April 15 though, Real has won their other 14 matches – let’s be honest, any team would struggle to keep up with that kind of blistering pace.

A good portion of tastiness regarding Saturday’s matchup comes from the fact the USL’s second-best offense, Real’s, will face the best defense, SAFC’s.

“They’ve had a great start to the year (and) they know how to score goals,” SAFC defender Greg Cochrane said.

Forty goals through 17 games, to be exact. Real trails Reno 1868 FC by just one goal for the title of top-scoring USL team. Despite recent struggles, SAFC’s defense has been even more impressive so far, conceding just eight goals while the next-best team, Swope, has conceded 15 – almost twice as many. Something’s gotta give.

If recent trends are anything to go by though, SAFC won’t keep a clean sheet against Real. As good as their defense still is, they’ve allowed a goal in each of the last four matches, marking half of their goals conceded. On separate occasions since the start of that leaky run, both Cochrane and fellow defender Cyprian Hedrick described their ilk as greedy, not wanting to allow even a single goal.

“Anytime we give up even one, we get pretty upset with ourselves and it just adds fuel that we want to get better,” Cochrane said.

Conceding isn’t a problem if SAFC can score some as well. Their offense is no slouch, scoring 26 goals so far this season, but they’ve only managed to find the net eight times since the start of May. Real concedes fairly often themselves, but their potent offense gives them license to do so and their defense is still tied for fifth-best in the league, conceding exactly one goal per game on average.

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Even for a team as offensively strong as Real though, their attacking may only play into SAFC’s hands. While sitting back even more and “parking the bus” wouldn’t be exciting, especially in front of the home crowd for SAFC, it could keep Real away from their danger area. Real has scored 38 of their 40 goals this year from inside the box, so if SAFC can control that area, Real will be forced to take shots farther out, from less-dangerous distances.

Another factor which benefits and hurts both sides is familiarity from where some players were in 2016, before heading to either SAFC or Real. SAFC defender Ben Newnam and Real forward Chandler Hoffman played together at Louisville City FC last season. Real’s Sebastian Velasquez played at Rayo OKC alongside SAFC midfielders Billy Forbes and Pecka and defender Sebastien Ibeagha.

While Forbes leads SAFC with seven goals and four assists, the other three SAFC players with ties to Real players have been critical to the defensive solidity – Pecka picks passes and protects the backline, Newnam looks to shut down crosses and dribbles inside and Ibeagha works hard to keep the ball from getting too close to Restrepo and the SAFC goal.

As for Real, both of their players are critical cogs in the offense. Hoffman leads the team with 11 goals and adds five assists, while Velasquez leads the team with six assists and has contributed the same number of goals.

Interestingly, Ibeagha is one person who downplays the significance of Saturday’s match. In his eyes, there are other teams with potent offenses like Real’s, and he said the match is a new challenge which requires hard work, just like any other.

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As for what makes somebody like Velasquez so dangerous, Ibeagha said the speed of Velasquez’s movement, with or without the ball, gives him an edge. Ibeagha said SAFC will have to keep close to him, to prevent him from having space to create.

Regardless of how impressive Real has been this season and SAFC’s slight struggles as of late, Head Coach Mark Briggs isn’t letting the team with a growing lead at the top get complacent.

“When you rest on your laurels and you think you’ve made it, (soccer) is a game that’ll slap you in the face straightaway,” Briggs said in the Monarchs Weekly podcast on July 13.

Like some of SAFC’s players, Briggs is aware of the importance and excitement surrounding Saturday’s match. On the other side, SAFC Head Coach Darren Powell acknowledged the same things but was quick to downplay the matchup a bit as well. Powell said it’s just like any other match at its core.

Powell is perhaps taking a bit of pressure off there, but he genuinely doesn’t seem too worried about the result against such a strong team in Real. He steps back to look at the overall picture, in which this match is just a stepping stone, albeit a big and slippery one.

“As long as we keep showing progress, that’s the most important thing this time of year.”

Posted by J. Check

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