Putting a game on ESPN2 doesn’t make it important, but the nationally televised Phoenix-Memphis matchup on Saturday night felt like a statement match. One team asserted themselves as a rising force – see what I did there? – while another revealed major questions about their soft underbelly. Between that matchup, a crucial prove-it game for Pittsburgh, and plenty of off-the-field action, Week 17 was full of USL storylines.
What stood out for every team, and whose playoff hopes look stronger for the wear? Let’s dig into the Power Rankings.
1. Pittsburgh (+4)
Result: D 0-0 v. Louisville
Junior Etou is a bit of a journeyman in the USL, a player mostly used as a true defensive midfielder in spot minutes for Charlotte and Tampa Bay over the last few years. But Bob Lilley saw something more. The Congolese international is a key cog for the Riverhounds this year, and he made his sixth start in seven games against Louisville. Straying a bit from his defensive reputation, Etou is excelling on the right side of the 5-1-3-1, getting up and down the flank with surprising panache.
Arturo Ordonez, a leading candidate for defender of the year, also impressed. His ability to carry the ball into the midfield from the left side of the back three forced Louisville to bend out of shape, and he snuffed out chances such that almost all danger came down Pittsburgh's right. Not that there was much; the 'Hounds allowed no shots on net in the run of the nil-nil draw.
2. El Paso (-1)
Result: L 1-0 v. New Mexico
Back in action after a bye, El Paso came out with a steady hand against New Mexico. Despite using a back four, they always kept three players deep in buildout against a 4-3-3 press, allowing left back Eder Borelli or one of their No. 8s to take on that lower role. Still, the Locomotive roster is chock-full of players with an eye for a line-breaking pass. Time and again, they goaded New Mexico too high and broke through, and it was often a center back playing the killer ball to spark entrance into the attacking half.
Still, the payoff never quite came.
Increased verticality in possession and a tendency to elevate defenders like Borelli or center back Bence Pavkovics left El Paso leaky as well, and New Mexico found joy on the counter. One break, with those defenders high and New Mexico pressing hard, led to an 89th minute concession and a loss for the Locomotive off an.
Worrisome result? Not quite. No one extends double-digit unbeaten streaks forever. Still, El Paso seems like they need another wrinkle or two to put their system over the top.