Don’t stop me, folks—I’m on my way to Vegas to blow my life savings on the craps table.
If the first week was beginner’s luck, then the second week must have been the work of a scientific genius. The numbers don’t lie, and they haven’t told me otherwise yet—I’ve hooked my horses to the cream of the crop since the start of the playoffs. Rochester may argue, and FC Cincinnati fans may gnash their teeth, but Louisville City FC and New York Red Bulls II have been the two best teams in the USL the past three years. It only makes sense that they get a pivotal rematch this year at Lou City’s home grounds, once again for the privilege to represent the Eastern Conference in the USL Cup.
It doesn’t even matter if Swope Park makes their own return to the championship or if Oklahoma City completes their own Cinderella run to the final. They shouldn’t even show up. Whoever wins this game in the East will win all the marbles. Write it down.
But just to make sure, let’s see what the numbers say this time…
Conference Finals Predictions
#1 Louisville City FC (20-8-6) vs. #7 New York Red Bulls II (15-5-14)
New York leads the overall series (4W-2L-1T), but Lou City beat the Baby Bulls both times this year.
The story so far:
Louisville and New York played a scrapper of a game in last year’s Conference Finals, one that managed to produce almost everything but the kitchen sink, including a relatively sizable crowd of 2,700 at Red Bull Arena. Lou City hit the scoresheet early with a Paco Craig header in the 11th minute and managed to put pressure on the goal for most of the first half. However, things went bizarrely wrong for Lou City in the second half—after goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh was subbed off in the 51st minute from a groin injury, New York managed to build up their momentum. A set-piece in the 74th minute resulted in a header from Florian Valot to tie the game at 1-1.
The 30 minutes of extra time almost felt like a different game, as two players from Lou City and a player from New York were shown the door from red cards. The resulting penalty kicks gave the game to the Baby Bulls, as New York keeper Ryan Meara palmed away two shots, while substitute Lou City goalkeeper Tim Dobrowolski couldn’t save any.
Lou City honestly had a bit of a nail-biter last weekend, as Rochester’s rigid defense bent just enough for Louisville to come away with a 1-0 victory. Surprisingly, it was Rochester who controlled the first half to their liking, outshooting Louisville 7-2 over the first 45 minutes, but the score remained 0-0 at the break. However, Louisville used their substitutes well, bringing on speed and skill at the start of the second half. The gamble worked for Lou City, as substitute Brian Ownby played a long-distance give-and-go to scuttle past the defense and flick a shot over the approaching Rochester keeper in the 77th minute. The rest of the game, despite a late set-piece save by Ranjitsingh, was salted away, sending Louisville to the Conference Finals.
New York Red Bulls II had a much harder time getting this far with a tight road game against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. A deflection in the 26th minute sent the ball inside the New York box, where Tampa Bay feathered it past goalkeeper Evan Louro for a 1-0 Rowdies’ lead. However, the Baby Bulls scrambled around the Rowdies’ goal most of the first 60 minutes, and a foul in the Rowdies’ box resulted in a 58th-minute goal by the Red Bulls’ Stefano Bonomo at the PK spot. Bonomo would give New York the lead early in extra time with a 92nd-minute deflection, and Louro repeatedly denied Tampa Bay for the 2-1 upset win.
Admittedly, the needle is pointing in Louisville’s direction. After losing five straight to New York over the last two years, LCFC has changed the overall momentum with two wins this year—a 3-0 drubbing at New York and a 2-1 squeaker at Slugger Field. While the stats skewed heavily in New York’s favor in the first game, all three of Lou City’s shots on frame went in, while New York’s offense was forced to take too many shots from outside the box. The closer game at Louisville almost resembled the 2016 Conference Final, but a Luke Spencer header was the difference maker in this closely-played game.
On paper, Lou City’s confidence should be at an all-time high. Ranjitsingh is lights-out automatic in the playoffs, as he has not given up a single goal in postseason play (442 minutes). The back line of Craig, Tarek Morad, and Sean Totsch has been steadfast and dependable all season, while Ownby has scored twice in two playoff games so far. This is a balanced, well-disciplined team that should give any team a run for its money.
However, it’s easier to suggest that the first game wasn’t a barometer of New York’s true strength. The Baby Bulls found their wheels spinning from a lack of offensive power the first twenty games of the season, losing half of them, but once the team got Bonomo back from a hernia injury and inserted Jordan Scarlett on defense, the team got immensely better. Check these numbers:
- Without Bonomo: 27 goals scored in 19 games (1.42 gpg)
- With Bonomo: 36 goals scored in 15 games (2.40 gpg)
- Without Scarlett: 38 goals allowed in 16 games (2.38 gpg)
- With Scarlett: 23 goals allowed in 18 games (1.28 gpg)
Both players can affect the game by a whole goal. With either Bonomo or Scarlett missing from the lineup, New York has a goal differential of -9. With both in the lineup, the goal differential is +11. That’s startling.
That’s also a statistic that is hard to ignore, even with the home-pitch advantage in Louisville’s favor. While the last matchup at Slugger produced a win and over 10,000 spectators, LCFC will need a packed and energetic house to rattle New York, but the talent that has returned to the Baby Bulls will be too good to deny. I’m predicting the Red Bulls II team to return to the USL Cup. New York 2, Louisville 1.
If you’ll excuse me, I need to catch that flight. Papa needs a down payment on a condo.
So what are your predictions for this final week of the Eastern Conference playoffs? Let us know!
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