All images: Darren Abate, USL
Halfway through their 2018 USL season and currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, San Antonio FC is perfectly perched to go either way in the race for a postseason berth – and based on their form, or lack thereof, things really could go either way.
SAFC currently sits in 11th place out of 17 teams in the USL Western Conference, from which the top eight teams make the playoffs, having won and lost five matches apiece while drawing seven. Working in their favor, they are one of just two teams in the USL West to have played a league-low 17 matches, which is four fewer than both the eighth- and ninth-place teams just above them. What SAFC makes of those matches in hand is a complete tossup though.
“The one thing that we need to make sure we do week in and week out is look to be consistent in our performances, especially heading into the second half of the season,” said SAFC Head Coach Darren Powell. “We’ve got a couple of games in hand on the opposition, but at the same time you still have to earn the points from those games.”
Putting their patchy form aside, SAFC could draw level on points and wins with eighth-place Fresno FC if they won two of their four extra matches, though they have ground to make up in terms of goal difference as Fresno is currently ahead by 12 in that respect. In that case though, it’s as easy as just getting even a draw in addition to those two wins, right?
For SAFC, their patchy form makes that seem like quite a tall order – they’ve failed to string together more than a handful of results in the league this season, and their inability to do so is why they sit below the playoff line.
“That’s one of the things we need to be a little bit better about, cognizant about, is just putting performances together game by game, not a good one and a bad one and a mediocre one but try to keep it going,” said midfielder/defender and captain Ryan Roushandel. “We have the team and the quality to get results.”
Especially in hindsight, it’s definitely about stringing matches together and SAFC has failed to do that. Their best unbeaten streak this season was five matches in the end of April and beginning of May, and since then they’ve only gone two matches unbeaten, twice. On two occasions, they’ve put together back-to-back wins, showing signs they might be able to get some momentum, then they stumble and lose momentum.
The other way of analyzing the form surrounding their wins is they have won and drawn two matches and lost only once following each of their five wins this season, so they’re decent at short-term bursts. They’ve also done well bouncing back from losses, winning and drawing twice apiece. In the end though, those measures have only kept them afloat, not really propelled them forward.
So why can’t they push on and turn two wins or at least results into three, four or more again? As Roushandel said, the quality is there in the squad, particularly when you look at the experience brought in both in terms of years playing professionally and at what level.
The squad doesn’t seem settled though; while the SAFC of 2017 had a good degree of consistency in their lineup, it’s hard to think of a consistent core of starters and a few regular subs for 2018. SAFC has praised the depth of their squad, but perhaps greater rotation has led to lesser chemistry.
There’s been a lot of squad rotation in SAFC’s defense, particularly with the center backs, and it has shown in their lack of defensive solidity. Whereas defense and clean sheets were SAFC’s foundation in 2017, they’ve only managed to hold their opponent scoreless four times in league play.
When SAFC was getting clean sheets more consistently, they always spoke about how it gave the team a better chance of getting the result – it just took one goal…well, SAFC hasn’t been taking those chances in 2018 as three of the four matches they’ve held opponents scoreless in, they’ve also been shut out themselves. The exception was a 1-0 win over Sacramento in which they defended for their lives.
One way SAFC managed to put together good runs of results in 2017 actually had to do with sub-streaks, if you will. Midfielder Billy Forbes scored in six of SAFC’s first seven matches and they ended up winning those six. When that streak fizzled out, SAFC didn’t concede a goal for over a month and a half in league play and, obviously, they went unbeaten in that stretch. Forward Ever Guzman scored in SAFC’s last three regular season matches and their first playoff match, giving them a bump at the business end of the season.
There hasn’t been an uplifting sub-streak like that in 2018. Omar Gordon scoring in three straight USL matches in May is basically the closest SAFC has gotten, and that didn’t translate into any semblance of form as the team won, drew and lost one match apiece. Perhaps you could also make a case for goalkeeper Diego Restrepo dragging SAFC along in late April and May, but it was more a case of him bailing SAFC out as they struggled to get anything going otherwise.
In the SAFC camp, there’s nothing besides consistency they can point to as the key to pushing into the playoffs when the season comes to a close.
“It’s confidence, it’s leadership from the players – all of the above, we need to ratchet down on all these little aspects,” said defender Stephen McCarthy.
Looking ahead to the second half of the season, SAFC’s schedule is pretty similar to the first half – similar numbers of home and away matches, similar numbers of matches against teams above and below them and so on. And while having games in hand means more points up for grabs, it also means a denser schedule than almost every other team.
It feels too early to be saying you have to treat every match like a cup final if you want to sneak into the playoffs, but the longer you wait to give each match in front of you that level of importance, the truer it becomes.