Kickers head coach and sporting director Darren Sawatzky is trying to keep his team focused on the task at hand — beating South Georgia Tormenta FC on Saturday night at City Stadium.
But with only a week of regular-season action left at the tail end of what has proven a turbulent campaign, it’s difficult to ignore the context of what lies ahead for Richmond (7-2-4).
The Kickers sit tied with Union Omaha for second place in USL League One with 23 points. Omaha has played 14 matches, while Richmond has played 13 of the 16-match slate. And in a year where the League One playoffs consist of just one title match between the top two seeds, securing that second spot is more important than ever.
What’s more, Richmond has already beaten league-leading Greenville 2-1 on Aug. 29. In a potential championship matchup, the Kickers would go in knowing they’ve got what it takes to hoist the hardware.
But thinking that far ahead is not what’s gotten his team to this point, Sawatzky said Friday.
“We’re concentrated on Tormenta first and foremost. We don’t take anything for granted. When you get your points in the season isn’t necessarily relevant to getting them. You want to get them whenever you can get them,” Sawatzky said.
“We want to be flying and playing well, but what really matters is wins and losses. So we’re looking to beat Tormenta, after that we’ll worry about the rest of the year.”
Richmond and South Georgia (3-4-6) played to a scoreless draw July 28, just one of two games this season the Kickers have been held off the scoresheet. That match feels like “eons ago,” Sawatzky said, because of everything his side has endured this season in terms of coronavirus postponements — Richmond has had three matches moved after a member of the opposing organization tested positive for the virus.
South Georgia has long been out of the playoff picture, and Sawatzky expects another rugged, defensive performance from a team with nothing to lose.
“I expect more of the same, that team will work incredibly hard behind the ball,” he said. “They’ve got nothing to lose now, so they’ll throw it against the wall because they’re working for contracts so we expect a hard, fast game.”
After Saturday’s match, Richmond travels to Florida for an 11 a.m. kickoff Wednesday with Orlando City B, a team the Kickers beat 2-1 earlier this month. Then the season wraps up Saturday, Oct. 24 when Chattanooga Red Wolves SC visit City Stadium. Richmond lost 2-1 at Chattanooga on Sept. 12.
A few key factors could prove vital during a week that, for better or worse, will define the Kickers season.
The first is the environment at City Stadium — though capacity is still limited well below normal, some teams in USL League One don’t have any fans in their stadiums. And two of the three matches in this all-important week will be played on Maplewood Ave. just south of Carytown.
“Fans are everything. They sharpen your focus, they get you wound up, give us good motivation,” Sawatzky said. “And we’re a community-based team, we want to be here and perform for our fans. We’re super excited to be back at City, particularly tomorrow night.”
Another factor in Richmond’s favor is the emergence of two relatively new faces — rookie midfielder Jonathan Bolanos and forward Oalex Anderson, a new signing.
Bolanos was named to last week’s USL League One Team of the Week after scoring a pair of goals against Orlando City B, and he has contributed more and more as the season wears on.
Sawatzky said the young midfielder has “unlimited talent.”
“He’s worked incredibly hard to get stronger and get his speed of thought up,” he said. “So we just want more of the same from him.”
Anderson made his first start last week against North Texas and drew the penalty which set up Richmond’s lone goal in a 2-1 loss.
Sawatzky called Anderson, who came from the Seattle Sounders organization, a “proven professional,” and lauded his “lightening-quick pace.”
“Having a late-season signing helps us in the attack, it’s definitely a boost,” Sawatzky said of Anderson, who was signed in August but kept out of game action while the native of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines acquired a travel visa.
“We’re happy to have him here, we’ve just got to keep getting him involved.”
Kickoff Saturday at City Stadium is set for 6:30 p.m., and gates open at 5:30.