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U.S. Open Cup, Chicago Fire vs. St. Louis FC

St. Louis FC midfielder Austin Martz, right, and Lewis Hilton celebrate after Martz scored in the first half during a U.S. Open Cup game against the Chicago Fire and STLFC on Tuesday, June 11, 2019  at Lindenwood University in St. Charles. St. Louis won 2-1. (Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com)

Two of the hottest teams in the United Soccer League Championship square off Friday when St. Louis FC travels to Alabama to take on Birmingham Legion FC at BBVA Field. Game time is 7 p.m.

Thanks to three wins on home turf last week, including a pair against teams in playoff position, STLFC is 9-9-8 and holds the 10th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. One point ahead of STLFC is Birmingham (10-10-6), which enters Friday’s match on a 7-0-2 streak.

Tied with STLFC and currently outside of playoff position is the 11th-place Charlotte Battery (8-7-11).

“I’m extremely proud of the team and the way we responded last week,” STLFC coach Anthony Pulis said. “We needed and got some outstanding efforts from everybody on the roster. It was a tough and challenging week, but we did what we needed to do. We gave the guys some time off early this week, but now it’s time to get back to work. We need to forget about those three wins and shift the focus to our next challenge: this weekend’s game in Birmingham. They’re a team that’s changed a great deal since we saw them last and a team that’s really been playing well.

“It’ll be a great test for both teams.”

STLFC and Birmingham last met back on April 13 at Soccer Park, with the visitors coming away with a 3-2 win. It was the lone loss suffered at home this season by STLFC, which is 7-1-5 in league play in Fenton this season.

But STLFC is just 2-8-3 in USL Championship action on the road this season.

Birmingham has shown incredible balance in 2019, going 5-5-2 at home and 5-5-4 on the road. In its current streak, Birmingham has seven shutouts and has outscored opponents 17-3.

After getting off to a fast start this season — STLFC went 5-1-4 to open the USL season — Pulis’ squad struggled in league play over the next three months, going 1-7-4 through June, July and August before last week’s three-game win streak.

“We went through a difficult stretch, but like the three wins last week, that’s now in the past and we have to move on,” said Pulis, whose club’s league struggles coincided with an impressive run to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup that included wins over a pair of Major League Soccer clubs, the Chicago Fire and FC Cincinnati. “We have eight games to play in the regular season, but right now the focus has to be on Friday’s game in Birmingham and nothing else.”

Pulis said that injured midfield leader Lewis Hilton, who missed the second half of last week’s 1-0 victory over Ottawa and wasn’t dressed for the 1-0 win over Nashville, is questionable for Friday’s contest.

“Whether or not he can go will be decided closer to game time,” the coach said. “Obviously, we’d love to have him back, but we’re not going to force it.”

STLFC’s strength this season has been its balance. Leading scorers in league play include forward Kyle Greig (seven goals, three assists), defender Sam Fink (six goals), forward Russell Cicerone (five goals, two assists) and forward Kadeem Dacres (four goals). Hilton leads the club with four assists.

In goal, Jake Fenlason had seven shutouts and Tomas Gomez has three.

Birmingham FC is a similarly balanced squad. J.J. Williams and Prosper Kasim lead the way with six goals apiece. Anderson Asiedu has five assists. In goal, Matt Van Oekel has nine of the team’s 10 shutouts.

“The three wins last week put us back where we needed to be,” Pulis said. “Now, it’s important to move on and do what we need to do to finish the season strong.”

After Friday, STLFC’s remaining schedule includes four home games _ Sept. 18 against the first-place New York Red Bulls II; Sept. 28 against 16th-place Atlanta United 2; Oct. 5 against seventh-place Louisville FC and Oct. 12 against the fifth-place Pittsburgh Riverhounds — and three on the road — Sept. 21 at 14th-place Memphis 901; Oct. 8 at 15th-place Loudoun United; and Oct. 19 at sixth-place North Carolina FC.

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