Call it beginner’s luck.
It was easy to predict Louisville’s machine-gun mauling of Bethlehem at home and Rochester’s smothering defense taking the last breath of air out of a wounded Charlotte team. Perhaps even the mugging that FC Cincinnati received at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rowdies wasn’t that hard to see.
But the Red Bulls II marching into Charleston and dropping a four-spot on the Battery? The same Baby Bulls, who gave up 60 goals all season, held Charleston scoreless? While the prediction of a New York win was there, even I didn’t see that absolute demolition coming.
That leaves the USL Eastern Conference with two teams who have won the USL Cup and two teams who have demonstrated balanced squads all season. Considering the Western Conference has been left in a bloodbath from two stinging upsets, it’s not out-of-the-question to see any of these four teams left holding the Cup.
Still, two of these teams have to lose this round, so how will the conference semi-finals shake out? Let’s look into the crystal ball…
Conference Semi-Finals Predictions
#1 Louisville City FC (19-8-6) vs. #4 Rochester Rhinos (15-11-7)
The teams are level in the seven matches they have faced each other (2W-2L-3T).
Louisville and Rochester have been arguably the two best teams in the Eastern Conference since the beginning of 2015. Both have advanced past the first round the past three years. But while Rochester tasted gold in 2015, Lou City has yet to get to the USL Cup finals. The last time Rochester beat Lou City was in the 2015 USL Cup semifinals, but since then Lou City has won twice and drawn twice with the Rhinos.
Louisville rolled to a 4-0 whitewashing of Bethlehem Steel FC last week, hammering 12 shots on goal at the helpless Bethlehem goalkeeper. Defender Tarek Morad surprised the crowd with two goals in the first half, tripling his 2017 output. Then Luke Spencer and Brian Ownby put the game away in the second half. Considering Lou City led the conference in goals and had 17 players score them this year, the level of offense against Bethlehem is unsurprising.
Meanwhile, Rochester needed extra time to dispose of Charlotte 2-1. While the Rhinos stacked their back line with 5 defensemen to keep Charlotte’s attack at bay, a goal by Jochen Graf had the hosts up early, only for Enzo Martinez to knot it at 1-1 after 90 minutes. A deflection in extra time from Rochester’s Stefan Defregger and a late Charlotte red card spelled doom for the Independence, who lost their final six games of the season to crash out of the playoffs.
Prediction: Louisville City 2, Rochester 0.
There have not been many goals scored in this rivalry. Both teams played to a 0-0 draw at Rochester, but a late Luke Spencer penalty kick gave Lou City a 2-1 victory in the Derby City. While the match in Rochester was primarily one where both teams played not to get injured, the stats were mostly in favor of Lou City. They played disciplined and controlled soccer, while the Rhinos racked up 5 yellow cards in the contest.
If Rochester wishes to win this game, they’ll have to control the ball as much as possible. The longer the score can remain at 0-0, the better for the Rhinos. Goalkeeper Tomás Gómez must depend on his defensive line to keep the shot count as low as possible. But that’s been hard against a Louisville team that has taken 519 shots in 33 games, the most in the USL this year. In the matchup against Bethlehem alone, eight Lou City players took shots on target, which should speak volumes about their distributed talent. While Spencer has provided the scoring punch, the game should revolve around Oscar Jimenez, who led the Eastern Conference in chances created (73).
It might pain the Orange & Blue fans to say it, but expect Louisville to take their next step to the Cup.
#3 Tampa Bay Rowdies (15-11-7) vs. #7 New York Red Bulls II (14-5-14)
The teams are level in the two matches they have faced each other (1W-1L-0T).
While the rivalry between Tampa Bay and the New York Red Bulls’ USL affiliate has not been very deep, the Ghosts of Leagues Past may resurface. Tampa Bay’s stint in the modern-day version of the NASL had been haunted by the team’s inability to figure out the New York Cosmos. Not only did the Rowdies manage to win only twice in 11 games versus the Cosmos, but the Cosmos had won three NASL titles in that span to Tampa Bay’s one.
As FC Cincinnati fans can attest, Tampa Bay is a well-oiled machine at home, losing only once at Al Lang Stadium all year. Despite the overall numbers being close to even, Tampa Bay’s edge came from their ruthless efficiency on net—eight of the Rowdies’ 12 shots were on goal, with all three goals coming from the keeper’s right. Midfielder Marcel Schäfer pocketed a brace, and ace Georgi Hristov scored a banger off the crossbar to ice the game.
New York, however, seems more dangerous than advertised. Unsatisfied with simply handing over their 2016 championship stake, the Baby Bulls marched into Charleston and torched the Battery for a 4-0 beat-down. Forward Stefano Bonomo and midfielder Florian Valot were again amongst those who scored, and goalkeeper Evan Louro got his third clean sheet of the season. Considering that Charleston had a +23 goal differential at home this year, it could be safe to say that the Baby Bulls aren’t afraid of defenses on the road.
Prediction: New York 3, Tampa Bay 2.
It’s quite possible that New York’s offense is hitting its stride at the right time, as the team has not been shut out since July. The Red Bulls laid out the Rowdies 4-2 at home with three players picking up a goal and an assist, while Tampa Bay had arguably its worst passing game of the season (yet still scored twice).
The Rowdies hung on for a 3-2 win later in the season at home, scoring all three goals in the first half. Schäfer scored two smoking goals with his red-hot left foot. However, there is one glaring factor in the second game that might have given the Rowdies the win—New York picked up a debilitating red card in the second half. Had New York managed a full team for the final thirty minutes, could the game have been different?
That is just one reason why this game could turn into a potential upset. New York sports one of the youngest squads in the USL with their oldest player at the age of 28. Meanwhile, ten players on the Rowdies’ squad are over the age of 30. The average age gap is striking between these two teams, and still a bit of that 2016 Red Bulls II championship team is in place, so experience isn’t something they lack. Expect Junior Flemmings to be the thorn in Tampa Bay’s side—the forward scored in both games against the Rowdies this year.
So what are your predictions for this second week of the Eastern Conference playoffs? Let us know!
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