This week starts the countdown to season’s end in the USL, with less than ten rounds remaining in the regular season. It’s still impossible to eliminate at least 22 of 24 clubs in good faith. Say what you will about an expanded playoff field diminishing the glory of making the postseason, but it’s made the USL Championship that much more interesting.
Worried about bloat with 75% of the league making the cut? North Carolina FC’s return to the Championship after three years in League One will tilt things in the other direction. That move was announced this week, showcasing how the broader USL umbrella can allow teams to find their level. North Carolina and expansion side Rhode Island FC will be welcome additions to the second division in 2024.
Still, 2023 is heating up, and plenty of teams made big gains in the playoff hunt this week. What tactical choices got them there? Let’s dig in.
1.) Pittsburgh (+1)
Result: W 2-0 v. Hartford
In his 100th appearance in the black and gold, Dani Rovira showed why he's a consistent favorite for Bob Lilley. The left wing back is a very smart player who picks his moments, sitting back in a flatter defensive line until duty calls upfield. Those occasions came early and often against a Hartford team that tended to drive down Rovira's side through league-best wide man Edgardo Rito, but Rovira was up to the challenge. His influence extended into the attacking half at just the right moment, when the left wing back's high pressure created a turnover against an opposing defender and put in Albert Dikwa for the go-ahead goal.
Of course, as with any player in a Lilley side, Rovira is merely part of a well-crafted unit. Danny Griffin was wonderful as a roving No. 6 that denied the potent central creators on the other side. Juan Obregon, with the ink still fresh on his Pittsburgh contract, got a goal against his former club. In the end, it was a no-nonsense outing for the kings of no-nonsense soccer. Lilley wouldn't have it any other way.