It took two more weeks than last year, but the 2017 USL regular season is finally in the books. While only three of the eight qualifying teams in the Western Conference have returned from last year’s playoffs, the Eastern Conference saw quite a bit of parity. Six of last year’s eight teams in the East are back to try again, including New York Red Bulls II, the 2016 USL Cup Champions.
Considering the lack of turnover in the East, familiarity should breed contempt. Louisville City is finally the #1 seed after two years as the bridesmaid and gets to host the Eastern Conference finals if they get that far. However, considering how Charlotte, Charleston, and Tampa Bay also spent time at the top of the table, nothing appears to be a guarantee.
So how will the first-round matchups shake out? Let’s look into the crystal ball…
First Round Predictions
#1 Louisville City FC (18-8-6) vs. #8 Bethlehem Steel FC (12-8-12)
Last playoffs performance:
Louisville – Lost 1-1 (3-4 in penalties) to New York in the 2016 Conference Finals.
Bethlehem – First appearance.
Over the past three years, Louisville City has played superior soccer at Slugger Field, losing only seven times in 48 home matches since their 2015 debut. However, having never been the #1 seed, Lou City has failed to get past the Eastern Conference finals, losing to the champion Red Bulls II squad in penalties last year. Finally the “Big Men on Conference” this year, Lou City has avoided the Baby Bulls in the first round and is the favorite to march to the USL Finals.
The reality is harsh for opponents—Coach James O’Connor’s squad has improved in wins, points, and goal differential since 2015 and, on paper, has the edge in every game from now on. While the team hasn’t had a go-to goal-scorer this year like a Matt Fondy back in 2015, forward Luke Spencer has had a stellar season, leading the team with 10 goals.
Bethlehem Steel FC walks into their first playoffs as one of the most improved squads from the past year, seeing vast improvement in goal production (from 32 to 46) from more consistent pressure. Forwards Seku Conneh and Corey Burke have been given the keys to the souped-up offense, enjoying healthy and complete seasons that made Bethlehem surprising challengers this year. As FC Cincinnati has learned three times this season, the Steel will try to beat you with pressure, but their defense hasn’t seen a big improvement, giving up around the same amount of goals as 2016.
Prediction: Louisville City 2, Bethlehem 1.
Neither of the games played between Lou City and Bethlehem this year had a clean sheet, so Lou City goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh is going to have to return to his 2016 postseason form. Ranjitsingh performed well in a terrific 3-1 win at Bethlehem, but had a shaky game at home in a 2-2 tie. Considering Lou City has had three shutouts in three home playoff games since 2015, Bethlehem getting a goal would be a moral victory, but expect Louisville to press hard and hammer shots on net all night.
#2 Charleston Battery (15-9-8) vs. #7 New York Red Bulls II (13-5-14)
Last playoffs performance:
Charleston – Lost 1-0 to Louisville in the 2016 Conference Semifinals.
New York – Defeated Swope Park Rangers 5-2 in the 2016 USL Championship.
Typically, the defending champion should be a dangerous team to play, but the New York Red Bulls II this year seem to lack the horns that carried them to a record-setting championship last year. Yes, their offense is still high-caliber—even though the 57 goals is surprisingly a drop in production from the 61 they scored last year, the Baby Bulls were still second in scoring in the conference. Forward Stefano Bonomo led the team in goals, scoring 10 goals despite playing only the last 13 games of the season, and forward Florian Valot has kept pace, scoring 8 goals over his past 8 games. However, on the other side of the coin, New York’s rotating goalkeeper position has given up 60 goals this season, the worst in the conference.
Charleston, on the other hand, has proven their mettle in the USL Playoffs ever since their championship run in 2012. The Battery enjoyed the second-highest goal differential in the conference with the balance of solid goalkeeping from mainstay Odisnel Cooper (10 clean sheets) and potent offense from Jamaican striker Romario Williams (15 goals over 22 games) and super-sub forward Heviel Cordovés (8 goals over the past 8 games). Charleston lost a lot of their firepower in midseason when Williams was either on international duty or serving suspensions, but the team has proven to be strong at home, giving up only 11 goals at MUSC Health Stadium and losing only once.
Prediction: New York 3, Charleston 2.
My first draft actually had Charleston taking this game, but there’s something about New York that has me thinking they’re not finished. While New York has not performed well on the road with its only road clean sheet being a midseason win over Richmond, I find a wounded animal to be the most dangerous. It may be a coin flip to some, but if New York’s back duo of Hassan Ndam and Jordan Scarlett can do just enough to counter Charleston’s attack while New York maintains a constant barrage of shots on Cooper, I think an upset is in the making.
#3 Tampa Bay Rowdies (14-11-7) vs. #6 FC Cincinnati (12-10-10)
Last playoffs performance:
Tampa Bay – Won the 2012 NASL Championship over the Minnesota Stars.
Cincinnati – Lost 2-1 to Charleston in the 2016 Conference First Round.
After failing to get to the second round as the #3 seed last year, FC Cincinnati has the chance to come in and defeat their own #3 seed to move on in the 2017 playoffs. Say what you will about the team’s inefficiency away from Nippert Stadium and the seven shutouts suffered on the road—Cincinnati went 4-3-1 in the last eight games of the season, so general momentum is still on their side. Midfielders Kenney Walker and Corben Bone are playing their best soccer of the season down the stretch, and the front line was solid on offense in the finale. The defense has been threadbare though, giving up 48 goals on 152 shots—only the Red Bulls are worse.
Tampa Bay’s first year in the USL has been relatively successful compared to their flat 2016 NASL campaign where they finished 9th out of 12 teams. Over the same number of games, the team’s goal differential improved from -1 to +15, and the squad has given up only 9 goals in 16 home games. The discipline in the defense has led to 12 shutouts this season, while the offense has been led by Georgi Hristov’s 13 goals and Joe Cole‘s solid midfield play. Surprisingly, while the team has led the Eastern Conference in yellow cards (78), Tampa Bay has had only one red card all season.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 2, FC Cincinnati 1.
Random play has diverted the Orange & Blue from having to face Charleston again, but let’s not forget that Tampa Bay also has the experience of eliminating FCC from U.S. Open Cup play in 2016. While Hristov has been the productive scorer and Cole has been the bane of Cincinnati’s existence at Al Lang Stadium, Tampa Bay’s X-factor is likely forward Martin Paterson. The journeyman’s play helped the Rowdies escape their 7-game winless funk at home against FCC the last time the teams met, so they’ll need him to do the same sort of voodoo on Cincinnati’s defense. It’s hard to envision FCC infiltrating Tampa Bay’s home fortress, but do you remember the last time Cincinnati went to Florida?
#4 Rochester Rhinos (14-11-7) vs. #5 Charlotte Independence (13-9-10)
Last playoffs performance:
Rochester – Lost 3-3 (4-5 pen.) to New York in the 2016 Conference Semi-Finals.
Charlotte – Lost 3-1 to Rochester in the 2016 Conference First Round.
It’s practically deja-vu all over again for the Rhinos and Independence, as both teams are near their levels from 2016 and faced each other as the #4 and #5 seed last year. Rochester has turned on their defensive prowess again in 2017, giving up a conference-low 28 goals over the entire season. That’s a far cry from the 15 goals they gave up during their 2015 championship season. But the team’s goaltender Tomas Gomez has continued his lock-down numbers from 2016, collecting 11 clean sheets in 22 appearances, while the defense allowed the fewest shots on goal in the conference (94). However, the team’s offense has only scored 36 goals this year, the fewest of the Eastern Conference playoff teams.
Charlotte has demonstrated some of their worst soccer down the stretch of the season, losing their last five games (albeit all to playoff teams). However, let’s also not ignore the fact they’ve enjoyed the longest undefeated stretch in the Eastern Conference this year (a +18 differential over 12 games) and have a high-impact scoring tandem in forwards Enzo Martinez (16 goals) and Jorge Herrera (12 goals). The duo combined for 17 goals during Charlotte’s unbeaten run, but both have been shut out over the last five games.
Prediction: Rochester 1, Charlotte 0.
Considering Charlotte’s recent woes and Rochester’s season-long stinginess, it’s hard to expect the Independence to break their recent scoring drought, but Rochester also needs to prove they can score as well. While midfielder Wal Fall and forward Jochen Graf have been the muscle for Rochester, they’ll need the resurgence of winger Christiano Francois to get the ball to them. Despite missing half the season due to injury, Francois led the team with six assists, collecting two in the massive 4-0 win over Charlotte at home earlier this season. It may go to penalties in this expected low-scoring affair, but Rochester likely dooms Charlotte again in the playoffs.
So what are your predictions for this first week of the Eastern Conference playoffs? Let us know!
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