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Saint. Louis FC V New York Red Bulls II

After scoring on a penalty kick, Saint Louis FC defender Sam Fink (4) runs to the corner to celebrate with his teammates in second half action in a game against the New York Red Bulls II on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, at Soccer Park in Fenton. (Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com)

Nothing comes easy these days for St. Louis FC.

In a heated battle for one of two remaining playoff spots in United Soccer League Championship play, STLFC dropped a 4-3 decision Wednesday night in Virginia to Loudoun United FC, a team that has been eliminated from the playoff race.

The home team scored the deciding goal in stoppage time.

“As you can imagine, it was a very quiet trip home,'' STLFC coach Anthony Pulis said. “We've watched the tape and there are definitely some things about the game that need to be addressed. . . . We can't pretend like Wednesday didn't happen; guys need to be held accountable — but after that discussion, we need to move on.

“As bad as it was, we're still in playoff position and still have a chance to control how our season plays out. And that's what we need to focus on right now.”

With two games left in its USL Championship season, STLFC is 11-12-9 and in ninth place. The top 10 teams advance to the playoffs.

STLFC will close its home schedule at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, at Soccer Park in Fenton, against the Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (17-11-4). The local squad's regular-season finale is Oct. 19 at North Carolina FC (15-9-8), which enters this weekend in seventh place.

“With all due respect to the teams we're facing, I don't think the schedule is a factor,'' Pulis said. “Throughout the season, we've played some of our better games against teams at or near the top of the table. And we've played well at home over the last two seasons. We know Pittsburgh and North Carolina are solid teams, but when we play the way we're capable, play the kind of 'futbol' we know we can play, we're a good team, too.

“At this point, it's just a matter of going out and doing the job and doing what needs to be done.”

In earlier meetings this season, STLFC played to a scoreless draw at Pittsburgh on April 20 and played to a 2-2 tie against North Carolina FC on June 22 at Soccer Park.

Looking to reach the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, STLFC has had a crazy season. The local club opened 4-0-1 and was 5-1-4 in league play entering June.

At that same time, STLFC was enjoying a run to the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup that included one-goal victories over the Chicago Fire and FC Cincinnati of Major League Soccer. The Open Cup run ended in a 2-0 loss to the MLS' Atlanta United, which went on to defeat the MLS' Minnesota United 2-1 in the Open Cup final in late August.

Mixed in with its success in the Cup, however, STLFC struggled in league play, going through a 1-8-4 stretch through June, July and August.

STLFC righted itself to win five straight to open September to move back into playoff position. But the team now is on an 0-3-1 skid.

“It's definitely the strangest season I've been a part of, as a player or as a coach,'' Pulis said. “But again, we're still in a position where we can control our own fate by finishing strong and winning a couple of games. And that starts with Saturday night.”

STLFC is 8-2-6 in league play at Soccer Park this season but just 3-10-3 on the road.

“You expect to play better at home, but those are numbers that I cannot begin to explain,'' Pulis said.

In USL Championship play, STLFC has been led offensively by Kyle Greig, Sam Fink and Tyler Blackwood, who have seven goals each. Russell Cicerone has five goals. The team's playmaking leader is midfielder Lewis Hilton, who has four goals and five assists.

Tomas Gomez is the squad's main goalkeeper.

Pittsburgh, which is 6-0-3 since mid-August, is in a battle with Nashville SC (18-7-7) and Indy Eleven (18-9-5) for the top spot on the Eastern Conference. The Riverhounds, coached by Bob Lilley, are led offensively by Neco Brett (13 goals, five assists), Steevan Dos Santos (nine goals, four assists) and Kenardo Forbes (four goals, nine assists). The Pittsburgh roster includes former STLFC player Christian Volesky, who starred at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Goalkeeper Kyle Morton has 11 shutouts.

With 42 points, STLFC enters the weekend with a slim lead over Birmingham Legion FC (11-14-7, 40 points) and the Charlotte Battery (9-9-13, 40 points) in the battle for the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots.

Birmingham closes its season with home games against New York Red Bulls II (17-9-6) on Oct. 16 and Pittsburgh (17-4-11) on Oct. 20. Charleston has three home games remaining — Sunday against Loudoun United (9-17-6), Oct. 16 against Memphis 901 FC (9-15-7) and Oct. 19 against Bethlehem Steel FC (8-18-6).

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