Okay, so Vegas didn’t end well last year.
I was this close to predicting the entire Eastern Conference playoffs last year. In the end, Louisville won all the chips after my half-hearted attempt at a hex fell flat. Still, I had no doubts that the Eastern Conference champ would win. While the jury’s still out on which conference has more punch this year, I can give it another go predicting the future in the East.
Last year, all the first-round games took place between teams separated by at least 650 miles. This year, all four games are thick with rivalry, with three games featuring teams separated by less than 300 miles. While the fourth game isn’t so close, it does feature one of two rematches from last year’s USL playoffs. The USL should see some hefty audiences, as the road teams and their supporters should be able to travel well.
So let’s dust off that crystal ball and test the luck again…
First Round Predictions
#1 FC Cincinnati (23-3-8) vs. #8 Nashville SC (12-9-13)
Last playoffs performance:
Cincinnati – Lost 3-0 to Tampa Bay Rowdies in the 2017 Conference First Round.
Nashville – First appearance.
At the end of the 2017 season, it was obvious that FC Cincinnati had a ton to accomplish to convince naysayers. While the signings were massive and the attendances were growing, reality felt heavy. Louisville had little problems getting a star on their logo in their third year. If the Queen City wanted to really outdo the Derby City, they would have to make deep impacts.
34 games have come and gone, and so far FCC have walked the walk and talked the talk. Yes, the team suffered two early home losses to Louisville, but the Orange & Blue kept marching. Despite their aggressive play, the squad stayed relatively healthy and free of red cards. The offense promised in 2017 showed up a year late, but produced crooked numbers on the scoreboard. While Emmanuel Ledesma has been the spark plug (16 goals, 16 assists), his energy feeds the engine—the team led the league in goals (72) and goal differential (+38). Not only does the team have four double-digit scorers, but they also have the drive of Fanendo Adi at their disposal.
And yet, even with all the records being set, there’s still this feeling that the shine’s being stolen. Nashville SC came into the league with the most fanfare, capturing the first MLS expansion slot before Cincinnati, to many people’s surprise. Their pickup of goalkeeper Matt Pickens in the offseason from Tampa Bay was surprising, but immense. The defense allowed the second-lowest amount of goals in the USL (31), and Pickens’ 14 clean sheets would have been a USL record in any other year. Most importantly, Nashville has been a thorn in Cincinnati’s side, capturing a draw in all three games.
Prediction: Cincinnati 2, Nashville 1.
Cincinnati’s inability to put Nashville away makes this match incredibly hard to predict. Nashville’s defense has been stellar when it comes to facing competition on the road. Against the other seven playoff teams, Nashville is 2-2-4 on the road with three clean sheets. Meanwhile, Cincinnati is 4-2-3 at home against the other playoff teams with only two clean sheets.
The Cincinnati offense should still run smoothly, and the defense should remain stout. This means that the X-factor will have to be the Cincinnati goalkeeping. Whether it is Evan Newton or Spencer Richey, the keeper will need to patrol the back line and keep Nashville’s quick attack out of the net. Of course, a few goals past Pickens wouldn’t hurt.
#2 Louisville City FC (19-6-9) vs. #7 Indy Eleven (13-11-10)
Last playoffs performance:
Louisville – Defeated Swope Park Rangers 1-0 in the 2017 USL Championship.
Indy – Lost 0-0 (4-2 PK) to New York Cosmos in the 2016 NASL Championship.
Lou City’s unheralded trend continued in 2018, despite shifts in the Derby City landscape. The departure of coach James O’Connor forced the team to tread water. Now that new coach John Hackworth is solidly in place, the team is riding a six-game winning streak heading into the playoffs.
Much of the success can be attributed to Cameron Lancaster’s record-breaking 25-goal tally. Despite playing only 2,005 minutes over 30 games, Lancaster has pocketed a goal every 80 minutes of play. However, the team’s 71 goals prove Lancaster isn’t the only producer. Injuries to key figures from 2017 threatened the team, but midfielder Ilija Ilic filled the void and was one of three players in the USL with double-digit goals and assists (11 goals, 11 assists).
With the departure of FC Cincinnati for MLS in 2019, Indy Eleven have emerged as Louisville’s biggest rival. While the season started with uncertainty, Indy cobbled together a decent squad under coach Martin Rennie’s leadership. Despite the heavy competition in the East, Owain Fôn Williams become a dependable goalkeeper, compiling 91 saves and 11 clean sheets while playing every minute of the USL season. The scoring load was rather spread out, with 16 players tallying a goal and forward Jack McInerney leading the team with 10.
Prediction: Louisville City 3, Indy 1.
While Louisville was expected to collapse from the midseason departure of O’Connor, the team has only gotten better. Their 37 points in the second half of the season was second only to Cincinnati (43), and their goal differential ballooned from +6 to +33 in the process. Meanwhile, Indy’s 21 points since the season’s midpoint was the worst of all 16 playoff teams.
On paper, Louisville is healthy and loaded for the postseason, while Indy has tired down the stretch. If Oscar Jiménez and Kyle Smith patrol their defensive edges, Louisville should defeat their northern neighbors handily.
#3 Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (15-5-14) vs. #6 Bethlehem Steel FC (14-12-8)
Last playoffs performance:
Pittsburgh – Lost 4-2 to New York Red Bulls II in the 2015 Conference First Round.
Bethlehem – Lost 4-0 to Louisville City in the 2017 Conference First Round.
The matchup between the Steel and the Steel Army is the only intrastate clash this year (unless Sacramento and Orange County face off later). With Penn FC on hiatus next year, Pittsburgh and Bethlehem will have to embrace a new type of in-state hate.
The turnaround in Pittsburgh shouldn’t come as a surprise. Under coach Bob Lilley, Rochester had the best record in the USL three times and won the Cup once. Lilley’s move to Pittsburgh and focus on a stifling defense led to an incredible 17 clean sheets and a league-low 26 goals allowed. Highmark Stadium is now one of the strongholds in the East, as opponents could only score 8 goals over 17 games. Had it not been for a head injury (in a game against Bethlehem, no less), goalkeeper Dan Lynd could have had more than his 12 clean sheets this season.
The Steel have managed to improve steadily over the past three seasons, despite the movement between the Union’s USL and MLS squads. Their 56 goals were 5th-most in the East, a major improvement from the 32 scored in 2016. The offense has mostly come from the wings, particularly Santi Moar (6 goals, 8 assists) and youngster Michee Ngalina (6 goals). However, their record could be a mirage. Eleven of the Steel’s 14 wins were against teams that missed the playoffs.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 1, Bethlehem 0.
Even though Pittsburgh beat Bethlehem 4-1 last month, there’s a realistic possibility that this game could end scoreless after 120 minutes. While Pittsburgh is known for its defense, its offense has often taken holidays. Of their 17 clean sheets, the Riverhounds failed to score in seven of them.
If Pittsburgh is to win this game, they’ll need a strong performance from the offense, particularly Neco Brett. The Jamaican striker has been a blessing for the offense, scoring 15 goals (11 at home) this season. This year, when he scores, his team ALWAYS wins. Look it up—Pittsburgh is 10-0-0 this season if Brett tallies at least one goal. Pittsburgh has beaten the Steel twice this year, and if Lilley can keep the team focused on this week, they should only need one goal.
#4 Charleston Battery (14-6-14) vs. #5 New York Red Bulls II (13-8-13)
Last playoffs performance:
Charleston – Lost 4-0 to New York Red Bulls II in the 2017 Conference First Round.
New York – Lost 1-1 (4-3 PK) to Louisville City in the 2017 Conference Finals.
Rematches in the playoffs don’t happen often in the USL. Teams have come and gone, and the playoff format hasn’t been constant. However, the marquee rematch in the East might be the most savage. Despite having the third-best defense in the East last year, Charleston were beaten to a pulp by the younger Baby Bulls, an embarrassing 4-0 loss at home.
New York has been another interesting study in keeping the gas pedal down as long as possible. The Baby Bulls have scored 189 regular-season goals over the past three years, tops in the league. However, that potent offense has been accompanied by a fizzling defense. Their +12 goal differential is 6th in the East, despite the 71 goals put in the net. New York has scored 3 or more goals 11 times this year, but their record in those games is only 7-1-3. Midfielder Andrew Tinari, one of the few holdovers from 2017, leads the East in chances created (102), while winger Jared Stroud has excelled in his first professional year (7 goals, 11 assists).
Meanwhile, Charleston proves to be one of the bedrocks of independent soccer. Coach Mike Anhaeuser celebrated his 13th year as head coach by capturing his 200th win, leading the Battery to its 11th-straight season in the playoffs. While the team lost a lot of its young talent (hello, Forrest Lasso), plenty remained. Charleston placed its stock in its capable #10, Ataullah Guerra, who scored 15 goals for the Battery this year. The forward line was completely retooled, and Joe Kuzminsky won the job as the starting goalkeeper, racking up 12 clean sheets in the process. While the team had an outstanding summer with an 11-game unbeaten streak, the Battery dropped vital points down the stretch. They’ve won only five of their last 14 games, and all were against non-playoff teams.
Prediction: New York 4, Charleston 3.
I don’t want to call this game the definition of madness, but it’s hard not to pick the “upset” here. While the Red Bulls II squad has been sluggish on the road (2-5-10), their last two road games have been wins. In fact, over the past four years, the Battery have beaten New York only once in nine matches. Just this year alone, Charleston has given up nine goals to New York in two games, even though they have scored six of their own.
This game may come down to just how accurate the offenses can be. While Charleston was outshot 21-8 in their last game against New York, all four shots on net went in. However, the Battery could not solve super-sub Tom Barlow, who scored a hat trick in only 27 minutes of play. Charleston is going to try to flood New York’s defense early and often, but a second-straight early exit at the hands of the Baby Bulls could be imminent.
So what are your predictions for this first week of the Eastern Conference playoffs? Let us know!
Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more on the upcoming USL Playoffs.