Oakland Roots beat El Paso Locomotive in comeback fashion, into 4th again; RootsBlog MOTM, Johnny’s magic continues, Neveal Hackshaw, good adjustments, more

Oakland Roots put itself back into the home playoff draw discussion by returning to 4th place in the Western Conference standings with a huge 3-1 come-from-behind win over El Paso Locomotive on the road by way of three second-half goals. Roots have now won two consecutive games by 3-1 scores, making their scoring output over the last two games higher than the previous seven combined.

The entire Western Conference is getting tighter by the week. After Roots’ six match winless streak from Phoenix on June 11 to Memphis on July 13 which pushed them to 10th, Oakland is just five points back of Sacramento in the top spot. Following Republic’s loss to Miami, the top spot and 8th place are now separated by just seven points, while Phoenix in 11th is nine points and a win gets them to 6th.

It took Oakland a bit to build into the game without any clear opportunities to score until Napo Matsoso’s shot struck the crossbar in the in the 39th minute. Locomotive did well to create chances from balls over the top in the opening 45 minutes, including Aarón Gómez hitting the post in the 5th. Paul Blanchette then had a huge 1-on-1 stop in the 22nd on a longball to Petar Petrovich. Blanchette had another big save in the 41st.

El Paso struck first via an own goal off of Emrah Klimenta in the 48th, where Petrovich wheeled his way into the box for his shot attempt that clipped off Klimenta’s leg and arced in. Blanchette, unfortunately, looked like he was in good position to make the save. Paul had another big save in the 54th, this time leaping to stop a free kick.

But then the tide turned and Roots began making incisive runs to keep El Paso off balanced. Lindo Mfeka’s equalizer came in the 65th on an outrageous flick over former Roots and current Locomotive GK Benny Diaz on a run into the box. In the buildup, Bryan Tamacas played a pass to Jeciel Cedeño, who laid the ball off for Tamacas to regain possession. Tamacas’ run pulled in El Paso’s Erik McCue, leaving Mfeka running through unmarked. With Diaz pressing towards him, the South African executed a perfect flick over the keeper.

Four minutes later, Oakland struck again by way Memo Diaz’s perfect cross from a corner to Johnny Rodriguez right in front of the net. This time, Benny Diaz was caught out of position at the far post, resulting in a failed attempt to punch away the pass.

With five minutes left, Anuar Pelaez put the game away with his second goal of the season. This time, Trayvone Reid played a pass to Wolfgang Prentice making a run into the penalty area, followed by Wolfy sending a left-footed cross to Pelaez standing wide open a couple of yards in front of the net. Anuar put away the pass on his first-touch, making it look easy.

Oakland’s next two games are against teams where Roots will be the big favorites, hosting last-place Las Vegas on Wednesday before welcoming Detroit City on Saturday. Taking advantage of weaker opponents hasn’t been something Oakland’s accomplished this season, making it increasingly important to put teams away and solidify themselves as a top-four team.

RootsBlog Man of the Match – Lindo Mfeka & Memo Diaz

Credit: Oakland Roots SC
Credit: Oakland Roots SC

This was arguably the most difficult Man of the Match decision following a win during my time covering the team. Many players deserve shoutouts–like Paul Blanchette, Danny Barbir, Neveal Hackshaw, Napo Matsoso, Johnny Rodriguez, and Bryan Tamacas–but we’re naming Lindo Mfeka and Memo Diaz our joint RootsBlog Man of the Match recipients for their splendid goal and assist contributions.

Starting with Lindo, his chip over Benny Diaz was a thing of beauty, executed with ease, precision, and decisiveness. Schematically, he might be the most important player in Noah Delgado’s system with his ability to drop centrally into the 10-role and rotate out wide to the wing. His heatmap from today’s match shows how deep he tends to drop.

Mfeka’s stats show just how efficient he was throughout the night, completing 87 percent of his passes (20/23), both shots were on target, has 2/2 successful dribbles, completed 2/3 crosses, and 1/1 long ball.

For Memo, his cross from the corner to Rodriguez couldn’t have been placed more perfectly. It marked just the second goal Roots have scored from a corner this season, while Diaz logged his third assist.

Beating El Paso is also a little bit more special for Memo. It was where Diaz began his career in 2019-2020, but he seldomly played, only accumulating 12 appearances and four starts during his time in the West Texas town. After turning him away, Memo came to Oakland with a chip on his shoulder, which he’s seemingly regained this year after losing the starting job in 2022.

Diaz has already set career highs with two goals and three assists. He’s also 610 minutes away from topping his career high in minutes.

Johnny Rodriguez continues strong play

Johnny Rodriguez continues to prove that he’s Roots’ starting striker and a goal-scoring threat in the USL Championship, now with eight league goals. His header-goal was just about as perfect as you could do it and Roots will need more of that clinical finishing going forward.

It’s easy to forget that Rodriguez, along with Taylor Bailey, are Roots’ longest tenured players. He’s been the definition of a long-term project after being signed out of CSU Northridge in 2020 to his first professional contract. After starting for Oakland in the NISA 2020 Fall Tournament, Johnny stepped into a substitute role in 2021 behind Jeremy Bokila before becoming Ottar Magnus Karlsson’s primary backup in 2022.

This year, Johnny continues to elevate himself as Oakland’s No. 1 option at center forward.

Neveal Hackshaw flat-out makes Roots better

“What about Hackshaw for being the difference between this team being okay and being good?” – Bloom in our Man of the Match discussion.

It is a bit crazy just how better Roots are with center back Neveal Hackshaw in the lineup. Not just defensively, but his distribution is a key factor in Roots success. He completed 91 percent of his passes (43/47), 3/5 long balls, three passes into the final third, along with five recoveries of possession.

Good adjustments

After getting beat by a few long balls in the first half, El Paso’s offensive fluidity fell apart as the match progressed. John Morrissey did a great job of breaking down the flow of play between both sides.

Roots looked more dangerous as the match wore on, recording four shots with two on target in the first half and bumping those numbers up to eight shots with six on target in the second–showing a better ability to find the net, finishing three of four shots on target in the latter 45 minutes.

Roots need to get the job done versus Las Vegas and Detroit City

We’re coming into another portion of the schedule where Roots can do itself a huge favor by taking advantage of weaker teams on its schedule, this time with Las Vegas and Detroit City coming to Pioneer Stadium. Being the heavy favorite hasn’t suited Oakland well this year with losses bottom Eastern sides Hartford and Loudoun, in addition to the disastrous 2-nil loss to RGV Toros.

Roots are currently in fourth but two teams below them hold a game in hand and will overtake them with a win–San Diego in fifth and New Mexico in seventh. Loyal, however, doesn’t play until July 30. New Mexico, meanwhile, has Orange County on July 29. With a win against Las Vegas on Wednesday, Roots will catapult into third for at least a brief moment given El Paso doesn’t play again until July 29.

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