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Players with local connections had major impact in the USL Championship semifinals

Local players contributed to multiple game winning goals and saves on Saturday night

The Philadelphia Union had Saturday night off this week, but there were plenty of players with Union connections in action on Saturday night as the USL Championship playoffs continued. Former Union players and draft picks, along with players from across Southeastern Pennsylvania, played major roles in all four of the matches.

Louisville City FC 2 - Saint Louis FC 0

The match with the most local interest was the last ever Kings’ Cup match between Louisville and Saint Louis. Louisville’s Union connections include Head Coach John Hackworth, assistant Danny Cruz, starters Corben Bone and Antoine Hoppenot, and goalkeeper Ben Lundt, who spent time with Reading United.

Saint Louis’s had a goalkeeper connection of their own with West Chester’s own Kyle Morton getting the start between the posts.

It was Ben Lundt who had the first significant impact on the match as he was forced to face a Saint Louis penalty in just the 12th minute. But he managed to save the team from disaster with the clutch stop of Wal Fall’s powerful penalty.

It wasn’t long after that Cameron Lancaster gave Louisville the lead thanks to some assistance from Hoppenot. Hoppenot had received the ball wide on the left side and dribbled his defender to the top corner of the box. That gave him enough room to chip a perfect cross to Lancaster who chested it down and blasted the ball into the back of the net.

Saint Louis would spend the rest of the match looking for an equalizer, but a heartbreaking own goal in the 83rd minute put an end to the team’s chances. Yardley, Pa. native Jimmy Ockford came on in the 85th minute for the hosts to help close out the game for Louisville, which advanced to a sixth straight Eastern Conference playoff final.

Tampa Bay Rowdies 1 - Charleston Battery 0

The other Eastern Conference playoff match had its share of Philly connections as well. Tampa Bay had former Union and Harrisburg City Islander player Yann Ekra in the starting lineup with Leo Fernandes and Lucky Mkosana making appearances off the bench. Charleston featured former Bethlehem Steel defender AJ Paterson in their starting lineup.

These players would once again play a key role in what would ultimately be the match winner for the Rowdies. Leo Fernandes won a free kick from a dangerous position in the Charleston half. On the resulting set piece, Mkosana was able to find enough space inside the box to knock in what would be the game winning header.

Reno 1868 2 (4) - Phoenix Rising FC 2 (5)

The local influence hasn’t been limited to the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference during the playoffs this year. Reading’s Corey Hertzog has been a goal scoring machine in his second season with Reno and he was helped off the bench by former Union draft pick and Bethlehem Steel player Aidan Apodaca.

Aiden was lining up against a familiar face with Phoenix, his former Bethlehem Steel team mate Santi Moar. And don’t forget that defender Joe Farrell is a Blue Bell native and La Salle grad and defender Damion Lowe previously spent a season with Reading United in 2013.

Phoenix didn’t seem to have their head in the game as the match kicked off, and it was Hertzog who was in a position to make them pay. Phoenix’s goalkeeper Zak Lubin made an inexcusable error in just the 6th minute of the match as he passed the ball right to Hertzog inside his own box. Hertzog easily put it into the the net to give Reno the early lead.

Hertzog opened the scoring, but both offenses would spend the entire match firing on all cylinders. Reno would ultimately record 26 shots (10 on target) while Phoenix managed 31 of their own (8 on target). But the score held at 2-2 after extra time, so this was the first semifinal match to go into penalty kicks on the night.

Lubin was able to redeem himself during the resulting penalty kicks. He couldn’t stop the first four (including one from Hertzog) but he was able to save Apodaca’s fifth penalty kick to secure the win and return Phoenix to the Western Conference final for the first time since 2018.

El Paso Locomotive FC 1 (5) - New Mexico United 1 (3)

The final playoff match of the night didn’t feature as many local connections as the other three. Saaliah Muhammad, formerly of Penn FC, made an appearance for New Mexico United off the bench while former City Islander Matt Bahner made an appearance for El Paso. In addition, El Paso’s starting goalkeeper Logan Ketterer spent some time with the Ocean City Nor’Easters in 2016.

This was the second match of the night to eventually go to penalty kicks. It looked like a goal from Dylan Mares in the 30th minute would be enough to send El Paso to the conference final, but a long Romeo Parkes goal in the fifth minute of added time provided the late equalizer and pushed the match into extra time.

El Paso had already faced penalty kicks against FC Tulsa last week, and they proved to be up to the challenge again. Ketterer was the hero for the Locomotive as he made the save on Parkes’ penalty kick. This allowed Distel Zola to put away the decisive kick and send El Paso to the Western conference finals for the first time.

The USL Championship playoffs will resume next Saturday with Louisville - Tampa Bay kicking off at 7:30 p.m. while Phoenix- El Paso kicks off at 10:30 p.m.