The 2018 season is one that might be giving the typical FC Cincinnati fan whiplash.
While the season started slowly with some questioning what the next step might be, the second half of the year has us looking towards the future and the 2019 MLS season. At the same time, the rearview mirror cannot be ignored—Charleston, Pittsburgh, and Louisville are all preparing themselves for rematches.
With all that is occurring around the club, it’s easy to forget that there is another race towards the USL Cup. The USL Western Conference is starting to create similar distance between the hopeful and the hopeless. Considering that FCC will have to acclimate to games in other time zones next year, it’s time to start expanding our field of vision to look at the bigger USL picture.
Let’s also not forget that the USL used to be a league where there was no division between the East and West. Yes, it’s true that only one USL champion in the past seven years came from west of the Mississippi—we see you, Sacramento—but there wasn’t a legitimate Western Conference until 2015. While the league has expanded by leaps and bounds, it would be worthy to see how talented the other conference is, just in case FCC found themselves having to face the West’s best.
So which of the teams in the West could end up facing the East in the USL Cup final? Here are our safest bets, if you haven’t been following…
5. Reno 1868 FC
Record: 10-4-7 (37 pts), 5th in the West
Truth be told, this spot could end up belonging to San Antonio FC (if they can remain hot), but Reno’s recent 16-game unbeaten streak is hard to ignore.
Coach Ian Russell might not have the same team that destroyed the USL single-season goal record last year (75), but Reno pulled themselves out of an early-season hole to go undefeated so far in 11 away games (6-0-5). Ex-FCC midfielder Antoine Hoppenot shares the lead in the West with 8 assists, and forward Brian Brown has also shown to be dependable recently, scoring 6 goals in the last 8 games.
While this team is disciplined (25 yellow cards, lowest in the West) and consistent in getting points each game, the ultimate concern may be Reno’s schedule. While Reno plays most of their remaining games at home, they have only a +1 goal differential at Greater Nevada Field and have to face in-state rival Las Vegas twice. They also must face six teams on the road that all still have shots at making the playoffs, including three with a +10 goal differential at home (Fresno, Phoenix, Real Monarchs). That’s not good for a team with only 6 clean sheets total.
4. Sacramento Republic FC
Record: 11-5-7 (40 pts), 4th in the West
Last year may have been an anomaly on the radar for Sacramento, but the upset of Real Monarchs in the first round of the playoffs last year was no illusion.
The team promoted head coach Simon Elliot from the Republic’s academy system and re-signed forward Cameron Iwasa, who failed to really break it big with Sporting Kansas City last year. Iwasa has scored 10 goals and 4 assists in his return to the team, while goalkeeper Josh Cohen has filled the gloves of the departed Evan Newton very well (72 saves, 8 clean sheets).
Sacramento has a very good away record (wins at Phoenix and Orange County) and only faces three playoff contenders down the stretch. Their home record could be better (only 16 points in 11 games), but the team is going to have to convert the opportunities they’re given. While they are third in the West in shots taken (330), they are near the bottom in conversion rate (11%). In particular, the team is going to need more production from midfielder Villyan Bijev (4 goals from 55 shots) and defender Adam Moffat (1 goal in 23 shots).
3. Phoenix Rising FC
Record: 12-5-5 (41 pts), tied for 2nd in the West
Even though the big names on Phoenix may belong to their ownership group, the Rising have become a completely different team since their years as Arizona United. Despite the carousel of leadership, interim coach Rick Schantz has managed to keep Phoenix consistent as an offensive threat, even without Didier Drogba playing every game.
The team, overall, only fields 21 players on the roster, but Phoenix stays competitive through their offense. The big offseason arrival may have been winger Solomon Asante. While forwards Chris Cortez and Jason Johnson have formed a strong scoring core (18 goals combined), Asante has been arguably the team’s MVP. The Ghanaian national has consistently produced (7 goals, 7 assists) and created 74 chances for the team, first in the West. Bolstered by goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski’s 9 clean sheets, Phoenix enjoys the second-best goal differential in the West.
While Phoenix has similar home and away records, they still have five games left against contenders. Opponents have also been able to take advantage of poor possession numbers (46%) and Phoenix’s inability to stay out of foul trouble. Their last two losses (at Fresno, at Real Monarchs) have been lopsided and stained with straight red cards. If they must hit the road against a more talented offense, they may have to foul to slow the game down enough to stay competitive.
2. Real Monarchs SLC
Record: 14-5-2 (44 pts), 1st in the West
In any other year, a team with the most wins (34) and points (111) in the past two seasons would be the team to beat in the West. However, it’s hard to trust a #1 seed that could not get past the first round last year.
The production may not be as impressive as Phoenix or as trigger-happy as Sacramento, but the Monarchs are a model of the “MLS 2” team. The team has fielded 36 players at some point during the season, spreading out the minutes economically. Sebastian Velasquez and Chandler Hoffman lead the team with 7 goals each and are the elder statesmen on a fresh Starting XI. The Monarchs also lead the West in passing efficiency (82%) and clean sheets (10), even though the team has started four goalkeepers so far.
While they have plenty of games in hand, the Monarchs are a team that has a two-sided nature. At home, they are untouchable, obtaining 28 of 30 possible points at the brand-new Zions Bank Stadium. However, their away form is comparatively brutal—the Monarchs have lost five of their 11 road games and have a -2 goal differential. Real Salt Lake’s USL affiliate is going to need more production on the road if they do get passed by…
1. Orange County SC
Record: 12-6-5 (41 pts), 2nd in the West
Orange County’s bounce-back season has been remarkable to follow. The team underwent a complete overhaul from their 10th-place finish in 2017 and are four points away from surpassing last year’s total. Braeden Cloutier was promoted to head coach from their academy, and all but four players from the 2017 squad were shown the door. In fact, the entire back and front lines were fully replaced.
Danish winger Thomas Enevoldsen has resurrected his career by scoring 5 assists and 12 goals to lead the West in the race for the Golden Boot. However, the biggest surprise contribution has come from former FC Cincinnati midfielder Aodhan Quinn. Along with his 8 assists, he leads the USL in passes and is tied for third in chances created (63). Thanks to goalkeeper Andre Rawls’s 7 clean sheets and OCSC’s West-leading conversion rate (18%), the team leads the USL in goal differential (+22).
While team is rounding into form and shaking off mid-season rust, the only big concern may be the distribution of their remaining schedule. Orange County will alternate home and away trips, having to bounce back and forth from Portland, Seattle, Nevada, Fresno, and Phoenix. The travel schedule might bog the team down and make it hard to get into a familiar groove.
In the end, it may not matter who wins the regular season title in the West. Over the past three years, #1 seeds have not won a single match in the Western Conference playoffs. Orange County’s first-round bye in 2015 led to a home loss against LA Galaxy II, and both Sacramento and Real Monarchs lost on penalty kicks in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Perhaps that might also be a reason the West has never won the USL Cup over the past three years—the #1 seed in the East has won it each time.
Hopefully, that team out of the West will have to go through the boys in Orange & Blue to get it.
What team out of the West do you think will challenge the East for the USL Cup? Let us know what you think!