SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Scoring the winning goal on Saturday night to hand Sacramento Republic FC the series victory in the inaugural Highway 99 Derby against Fresno FC at Papa Murphy’s Park was one thing for Villyan Bijev but given his upbringing in Fresno it certainly felt like it meant a little bit more to the standout playmaker.
“It’s always exciting to score,” said Bijev. “I love Fresno because that’s where I grew up and that’s where my family is and where my roots are. But when we come on the pitch, I play for the crest that I wear. It felt great to score a goal and luckily it was a fantastic goal and one that we needed to get the three points, which is what’s most important to me.”
Bijev’s goal wasn’t only big in terms of the burgeoning rivalry between the two Northern California clubs, both of which had hit the woodwork prior to the only goal of the game on Saturday night in another compelling contest, but also served as a big boost for Sacramento in its pursuit of a top-four place in the Western Conference standings.
Now undefeated in five games since it fell to the Foxes on June 30, Republic FC is now in a position to continue its rise with its next three games all coming against sides currently sitting outside the playoff positions. For Head Coach Simon Elliott, the victory against Fresno saw the side regain an edge he though had been lacking.
"I thought we were grittier,” said Elliott. “There was a little more of an edge to us; we were a little bit grittier than we have been lately. We’d been dropping points at home when we shouldn’t have, so I’m pleased we were able to grind out the win. I was pleased with the mentality.”
BACK UP THE MOUNTAIN: There was major pressure on Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC to find all three points at home on Saturday night against OKC Energy FC with both sides fighting to remain in contention for a place in the USL Cup Playoffs.
All of which made Tobenna Uzo’s first goal this season moments after coming on as a second-half substitute that much more meaningful to the former PDL standout and his side as the hosts took a 2-0 victory at Weidner Field that kept Colorado Springs in the middle of the hunt for a return to the postseason.
“It was emotional,” said Uzo. “This was a very emotional goal. Of the games this year, if I did come in and score, I wouldn't have felt the way I did today. It was so emotional because I've been wanting this chance. This goal was much needed, and the team needs to go on a run to make the playoffs at the end of the year.”
The Switchbacks still have plenty of work to do to earn a postseason berth and will likely need others to falter along the way as well, but on Saturday night at least there was cause for excitement in the club’s locker room after the game.
“I'm proud of Toby because he hasn't had a lot of time but he keeps working hard in training and so I was glad he translated it into the game from training,” said Switchbacks Head Coach Steve Trittschuh. “It was good Shane [Malcolm] got a goal too. We had chances in the first half and we just need to put those away. A win is a win and we needed that. And now we move on to the next game."
VEGAS’ FERRINO SHINES BRIGHT: Las Vegas Lights FC has still got work to do if it’s to reach the USL Cup Playoffs in its inaugural season, but the side has certainly given its home fans at Cashman Field plenty to feel positive about recently as the club moves toward the end of the season.
Lights FC got a stellar display from goalkeeper Ricardo Ferriño on Saturday with a seven-save shutout as it claimed a fourth consecutive victory on home turf with a 1-0 win against Rio Grande Valley FC, a win the side knew it had to have for its push for the playoffs.
“It's very important [to protect home turf],” Ferriño said. “These fans deserve it, we deserve it and we need to make our home a strong place where we take points and take advantage like we did today.”
Las Vegas has seven home games in its remaining 13 contests in the regular season as it looks to chase down a seven-point gap to the seventh-place Swope Park Rangers and eighth-place Portland Timbers 2 in the Western Conference standings, but its next game on the road against Saint Louis FC looks set to be one of the biggest the side will face in pursuit of a playoff position with STLFC also targeting a move up the standings down the stretch as well.
With the club having struggled of late on the road, Lights FC Head Coach Isidro Sanchez is hoping his side can rise to the challenge in the manner it has at home of late next Saturday night.
“In stressful games, we have had very good games, and our best performances,” Sánchez said. “In order to be a big team, we need to be consistent.”
AROUND THE WEST: Saint Louis FC put together a tale of two halves against Seattle Sounders FC 2 on Saturday but was still able to emerge with a 2-0 victory for back-to-back wins on home turf. “First half I thought we were outstanding,” said STLFC Head Coach Anthony Pulis. “We moved the football really quickly, our positional play was excellent, and we could have had more goals, yet the second half was a real disappointment to be honest. I thought we took our foot off the pedal and credit to Seattle they made a couple changes and they were a lot better while we were nowhere we needed to be. It’s a lesson for us that we can’t allow complacency to set in.” … San Antonio FC’s Darnell King is more used to laying on goals for his teammates, but on Saturday night the fullback’s resounding opening goal was a fine way to open his account in that category this season. “I try to contribute as much as I can offensively,” said King. “My first job is defense but if I can get a chance anytime to score a goal, it’s great to do. I’m glad I could contribute to the team.”