2018 USL Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions: Conference Finals

Might as well see this through. Our guru predicts the next USL Cup representative from the East.

D4S_7418.jpg
Image: Ryan Meyer

Three years of participation in the USL have been beneficial for FC Cincinnati. Paint it any way you like—FCC still advanced further than ever before in the standings this year. The regular-season trophy still has value. Some rivals may brag that it’s not a gold star, but hardware occupies the trophy case.

However, it’s hard to deny that seeing the same names at the top of the marquee at this stage of the season is rough. In all three years of FC Cincinnati’s existence, Louisville City has made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. That alone is frustrating enough, but all three years have also produced the same two opponents in those conference finals. When Louisville has excelled, New York Red Bulls II have been with them every step of the way.

New York won it all in 2016. Lou City took it all in 2017. Now it’s time for the rubber match, and yeah, it stings to watch that from the perspective of the bystander.

There is at least one bright side. Phoenix Rising’s victory against Swope Park means that the West will be represented by a new independent team. While “Team Drogba” took out the Rangers, Orange County SC defeated Reno 1868 to take the fourth and final spot. Yes, the East may be more of the same, but a team west of the Mississippi will get a shot to host its first USL Cup Final since 2014.

This point is where I stop talking about FC Cincinnati. If you’re okay with that, read on, while I take out my crystal ball…


Conference Final Predictions

#2 Louisville City FC (21-6-9) vs. #5 New York Red Bulls II (15-8-13)

Head-to-head record:

New York leads the overall series (4-3-3). However, Louisville is undefeated in the past five matches, including the playoffs.

Past results:

We’ve been down this road before, and the results have been eerily similar but opposite. New York hosted the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals against Louisville and knotted the game at 1-1 before extra time. Red cards were exchanged without a result, but the Baby Bulls managed a 4-3 win in penalty kicks. The 2016 USL Cup in Harrison was surprisingly well-attended, and New York blasted Swope Park 5-1.

In 2017, Louisville got the opportunity to host against New York and took another early 1-0 lead. However, New York again tied the game in the second half, and extra time was penniless. This time around, New York couldn’t find the frame in penalty kicks, and Lou City took that one 4-3. A late Cameron Lancaster goal was the difference in the 2017 USL Cup, with Lou City beating Swope Park 1-0.

And so the sides meet once again. Fifteen of the 18 players on Louisville’s gameday roster from last year are still on the team. The most important piece, ex-head coach James O’Connor, is now piecing together a broken Orlando City team. Pundits wondered if Lou City was washed up with only player-coaches, but the arrival of John Hackworth has done its job. Since their last loss to FC Cincinnati at home, Lou City has gone 8-0-1, outscoring their opponents 25-6. Their game against Bethlehem Steel FC last week was a relative cakewalk. Midfielder Brian Ownby finally returned to form, pocketing a brace to help Louisville win 2-0.

New York’s squad is almost a complete overhaul from 2017, but essential pieces remain. Andrew Tinari still helms the midfield, while goalkeeper Evan Louro has returned to fine form from his run in 2016. Head coach John Wolyniec is the glue that keeps this team together. During his tenure with Red Bulls II, the squad has been one of the most ruthless offenses in the USL—the team has scored an average of 2.01 goals per game since 2016. (Louisville has scored an average of 1.89 in the same span.)

We don’t need to tell you how the Baby Bulls pretty much dismantled FC Cincinnati in the Conference semifinals. A goal in the 12th minute from Amando Moreno stood the entire way, while the defense rattled the Orange & Blue constantly. Perhaps the 1-0 score is misleading, as New York controlled the ball well in small spaces and slowed the game’s pace to a crawl.

This year’s results:

Past games between Louisville and New York were relative displays of control and defense. The two matches this year were anything but that. In the first June matchup at Louisville, Lancaster put in two quick-fire goals for an early 2-0 lead. However, Louisville played a physical game against the Baby Bulls afterward. The team racked up 19 fouls and 5 yellow cards, while New York dominated possession (57%). It took a late header from Magnus Rasmussen to save a 3-3 draw for Louisville.

It appeared that New York had their own game well in hand back in August. Goals from Tinari and Ethan Kutler gave New York an early 2-0 advantage. However, Louisville pulled off their own offensive counter with a hat-trick from Lancaster. When the smoke cleared, Lou City’s fireworks display gave them the 6-4 win.

Prediction:

Both teams have understandably matured since their last game. Hackworth’s steadiness has given Louisville an eight-game winning streak and a path towards hosting another USL Cup. Wolyniec’s leadership has the Red Bulls on their own five-game winning run. Both teams have displayed immense kinetic energy on the pitch and have put up solid numbers against the other.

While both defenses are likely to be put through the wringer, the deciding factor will be the midfield. While Tinari has become a bedrock for New York, Louisville’s Ilija Ilic has played incredible football this year. His first of two goals against New York patched up the leak in that 6-4 comeback win. The Serbian’s numbers (12G, 11A) would have him in the MVP talks if it weren’t for his teammate Lancaster.

It will hurt the Greater Cincinnati region for me to say this, but I cannot see Louisville caving to the same hijinks that undid Cincinnati’s year last week. While New York enjoys playing a compact game, Slugger Field is made for that kind of close contact. On top of that, this Louisville offense is by far the most powerful it has ever been. Both teams will bomb the goal with plenty of strikes, but Lou City will do one better. Louisville 3, New York 2.


Again, the pain won’t go away after this game. No matter which team wins, they’ll be favored to double their cup total in the final. The best thing you can do is tune out the static and become a Phoenix or Orange County fan next week.

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more on the USL Playoffs and all FC Cincinnati news as they transition to MLS competition next year.

D4S_7418

2018 USL Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions: Conference Semi-Finals

Three out of four ain’t bad. We attempt to predict the next two matches in the USL Eastern Conference playoffs.

Image: JES Photography

Is everyone calm and collected after last weekend?

Good, because the matches only get tougher from here.

Now that the opening weekend has come and gone, the smoke has cleared to present two very similar matches in the East. Independent teams dominated the table in the regular season, but two “MLS 2” squads snuck up on their opponents for significant upsets. While one remaining challenge is a rematch from last year’s playoffs (Louisville vs. Bethlehem), the other is a “rematch” of fanbases from the 2017 U.S. Open Cup semifinal (Cincinnati vs. New York).

Considering that Louisville and New York were in similar situations last year, the stage could be set for a rubber match between LCFC and the Baby Bulls. However, Cincinnati’s 24-match unbeaten streak cannot be ignored, and Bethlehem is a much leaner team than they were last year. Any of the four outcomes for a conference final are still possible.

Okay, so I didn’t see the Steel overcoming the Steel Army. 75% is still a good percentage for predicting the future. Let’s ride the hand that Lady Luck dealt and make some more guesses.


Conference Semi-Final Predictions

#1 FC Cincinnati (23-3-9) vs. #5 New York Red Bulls II (14-8-13)

Head-to-head record:

Cincinnati and New York are level in the six matches they have faced each other (3-3-0). New York holds a +3 goal differential, but FC Cincinnati currently holds a 3-game winning streak.

Past results:

People have been debating who FC Cincinnati’s rivals may be in Major League Soccer next year. True, their nearest foes are Columbus and Chicago. Both are within driving distance, and both have fallen by the sword of the Knifey Lions. However, I would argue that perhaps the deepest bond might be with the New York Red Bulls. Despite the accolades thrown about last year, the loss against the MLS squad in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals stung much worse than the loss against Minnesota United this year.

It might not be visible, but the friction between FC Cincinnati and the Baby Bulls is there. In 2016, New York was the one team that FCC could not garner a single point against. The 2-1 loss at Nippert was one thing, but the early red card on Mitch Hildebrandt and the obvious VAR advantage made the 2-0 loss on the road harder to swallow. It didn’t get any better from the embarrassing 4-0 loss on the road in 2017. Both losses were brutal signals that the team wasn’t ready. It also proved that New York had a glut of rich talent in their system, while Cincinnati had to depend on synergy and experience.

However, the tidal wave has receded ever so slightly. A record 30,417 came to the last home game of 2017 to watch the Orange & Blue trounce the Red & Yellow 4-2. The results have been closer this year, but more to our liking. Goals by Emmanuel Ledesma and Danni Konig followed a missed penalty kick by the Bulls’ Brian White to give FCC a 2-1 win on the road to start their current 24-game unbeaten streak. The home game followed a similar pattern, as Ledesma fed Forrest Lasso and Paddy Barrett on set pieces for a 2-1 victory.

The Baby Bulls tend to leave more of their offense at home (49 goals at home, 23 on the road), but they didn’t need many goals last week. Tom Barlow’s goal in the 21st minute lasted the full 90 minutes, and goalkeeper Evan Louro made 4 saves to preserve a 1-0 victory over Charleston. Don’t look now, but that victory was New York’s third win in their last three road games.

Meanwhile, FC Cincinnati needed all 120 minutes and maybe a bit of luck from Mother Nature. Much like the regular season, the Orange & Blue couldn’t figure out Nashville SC. The 1-1 draw finally ended when Justin Davis popped up his penalty kick and Kenny Walker buried his. The goal from Corben Bone in the 95th minute was his 12th in USL play this season and his ninth in the last 12 matches. Meanwhile, Spencer Richey had arguably his best game of the season, making 5 saves to keep out a flood of late attacks.

Prediction: FC Cincinnati 2, New York 1 (after extra time)

I’m already feeling like I’m making the wrong choice. It would be easy to think this game could be an offensive onslaught. New York took 626 shots over their 34-game season, the most in the USL, and scored 71 in the process. Meanwhile, FC Cincinnati was the most accurate, leading the USL with 72 goals and a hefty 21% conversion rate.

Still, Cincinnati’s wins this year were victories on defense. Over both games against Cincinnati, the Baby Bulls led in shots (30-17) but trailed in shots on target (4-8). This stonewalling was partly due to the back line’s ability to block shots. They deflected 9 in total and kept New York’s shooting accuracy to a measly 13.3%. If Cincinnati expects a win, Paddy Barrett and Forrest Lasso need to be physical and unafraid. Both scored on the Baby Bulls last time, but they’ll need to be defense-minded in this one.


#2 Louisville City FC (20-6-9) vs. #6 Bethlehem Steel FC (14-12-9)

Head-to-head record:

Louisville City leads the overall series (4-0-3) and enjoys a +9 goal differential.

Past results:

As the record shows, this is hardly a rivalry. Bethlehem was the first pelt that Louisville claimed in the postseason last year, and the contest wasn’t even close. Louisville had lost at home only twice in 2017, while Bethlehem had limped into the playoffs. James O’Connor’s boys fired 12 shots on target against the Steel in the first round, an astounding 66.7% in accuracy. All Bethlehem could do is rack up frustration and four yellow cards on the way to a 4-0 throttling by the Derby City.

While Louisville’s starting eleven has been relatively unchanged over the season, Bethlehem coach Brendan Burke has tinkered with his lineup. The statistics for the two teams were almost identical in their Week 1 clash at Louisville. However, Louisville attacked goalkeeper Jake McGuire from his left constantly, putting the 3-1 game away early. The rematch at Bethlehem featured a heavy amount of possession by Louisville (65-35), but the use of 31-year-old James Chambers as the captain calmed the Steel down. Bethlehem fired as many shots as Louisville and captured a 0-0 draw.

Bethlehem’s lineup got even younger for their playoff match against Pittsburgh. Burke started six players who were under 20 years old, but it was Santi Moar (1 assist) and Chambers (1 goal) who led the team. Bethlehem’s offense—4th in the East in goal differential—put just enough on the board to force Pittsburgh’s goalkeeper to beat them in penalty kicks. The Steel outlasted Pittsburgh 10-9 in penalty kicks, advancing when Raymond Lee missed his last opportunity.

Louisville’s path was much simpler. The Coopers dominated again in possession (57-43) and put 10 shots on target against Indy Eleven. A brace from Niall McCabe put the game away early in the second half, and thoughts of a comeback were squashed by a brilliant set-piece goal. Louisville’s 4-1 win was nothing new, as they have never lost a playoff game at Slugger Field in eight matches. Their only two postseason losses have been on the road (2015 at Rochester, 2016 at New York).

Prediction: Louisville City 4, Bethlehem 2.

Not many of us predicted Bethlehem would slug back against a strong Pittsburgh defense. Bob Lilley had been automatic in the first round of the playoffs, but perhaps the writing had been on the wall. Pittsburgh had drawn with their opponents 14 times over the season, tied for first in the East. The door was left open for Bethlehem to take command against a team that had faced only one penalty kick all season.

However, if there’s anything close to an automatic win, it should be this week. Since their loss to Cincinnati, Louisville is undefeated in their last eight matches (7-0-1). Their offense has trucked opponents with a combined 23-9 scoreline over that span. Eight of those goals have come from Cameron Lancaster, and at least one more should come this week. Bethlehem can still perform better than their playoff game last year, but experience should trump youth in this one.


If you’re a fan of intense rivalries with more than just bragging rights on the line, you probably agree with my picks, but not everyone wants a postseason Dirty River Derby. What are your predictions for this stage of the playoffs? Let us know!

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more on the FC Cincinnati match against New York this weekend.

Image: JES Photography

2018 USL Cup Run: Orange & Blue Press Staff Predictions

The O&BP staff try their hand at predicting the thoroughbreds and dark horses for the 2018 USL Cup playoffs.

FCCvINDY-173
Image: Ryan Meyer

FC Cincinnati’s much anticipated 2018 opening-round playoff match has finally arrived. Having secured the most points in USL history to earn a playoff passage for the third time in three seasons, will the Orange & Blue right past inequities and grab their first-ever postseason victory?  Will FCC finally overcome Nashville and extend their unbeaten streak to 24 games?  Will we see a second-round match come October 27th?

As a lead-up to Saturday’s game, we invited the Orange & Blue Press staff to opine on several USL playoff questions and possibilities. Here are the results…

1. Which team is most likely to knock off FCC in the East?

Graphics by Connor Paquette

Michael Walker (Founder/Managing Editor):  Louisville City FC

As unpopular as it is for Cincinnatians to accept, Louisville City is still the next best team in the East, and now that John Hackworth has some games under his belt, they’re on a winning streak and banging in the goals.

Geoff Tebbetts (Writer/Editor):  Louisville City FC

Louisville City figured FCC out early and often this year, and that hurricane at Slugger really doesn’t count for much in my opinion. I still think FCC can get to Louisville keeper Greg Ranjitsingh a few times, but Lou City’s offense just looks harder to hold back now that Luke Spencer is healthy again. 

Stephen Buckeridge (Writer/Editor):  Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

The Riverhounds match up well against Eastern rivals Louisville City and FC Cincinnati. They are compact and stingy on defense, their keeper Daniel Lynd is healthy again, and they know how to effectively apply high pressure on the opposing backlines. Their secret weapon though may be their coach, Bob Lilley. He’s a USL playoff veteran and won the USL Cup with with the Rochester Rhinos in 2015.

Connor Paquette (Contributor/Graphics):  Nashville SC

FC Cincinnati earning the 2018 USL Regular Season Title was almost laughably easy. But FCC is not exempt from the Queen City “first-round-and-out” curse that has been plaguing local major league teams for more than two decades. Beyond our playoff curse, FCC failed to produce a win against Nashville all season. If the trend continues and another draw is the finale to this rivalry’s USL chapter, I fear facing Matt Pickens in penalty kicks to decide the match.

Joe Craven (Photographer):  New York Red Bulls II

New York Red Bulls II have a recent USL Cup title of their own. With a consistent finish to the regular season, I predict they will pose a hefty challenge for the Orange & Blue.

2. Which team from the Western Conference will FCC play in the USL Championship Game?

Graphics by Connor Paquette

Connor:  Sacramento Republic FC

One month ago, I would’ve said Phoenix Rising FC. However, though they were once on pace to finish the season as the West’s #1 seed, they dropped their final two games – usually a sign of a burnt-out squad. That in mind, I consider Sacramento Republic FC, who are undefeated in their final eight regular season matches, to be the team to beat in the West. They’re peaking heading into the most important part of the season.

JoeSacramento Republic FC

Sacramento Republic FC has a solid defense and a reputation for performing well during the playoffs, winning the USL Cup in their first season in 2014 under Preki. First-year head coach, Simon Elliott, will lead the Republic side back to the Cup Final.

StephenOrange County SC

Going against the OB&P grain it appears, I see Orange County muscling through the gauntlet in the West. They have a difficult path, even as a #1 seed. OCSC boasts a prolific attack led by Thomas Enevoldsen (20 goals, 9 assists) and former FCC player Aodhan Quinn (11 goals, 14 assists, and a league high 103 chances created). Not to be outdone by their offense, they have a more than adequate defense that is ranked in the top tier statistically. Hosting each game at home, where they are 10-3-4 this season, may be the clinching factor.

Geoff:  Sacramento Republic FC

I am hesitant to stick with my mid-season pick of Orange County SC, so I’ll go with the hotter team, Sacramento Republic. The team has gone undefeated in their last eight games, and Cameron Iwasa has scored 10 goals in his last 15 matches. Sacramento has also managed to beat Orange County twice this year, which helps if they go on the road against them in the conference final. Besides, don’t you want a Sacramento-Cincinnati rematch?!

Michael:  Sacramento Republic FC

The West is wild, and the #1 seed has gotten knocked out early the past two seasons, so don’t expect to see OCSC there necessarily. Sacramento Republic hasn’t grabbed headlines lately, but they are the two seed, have a great home field advantage, and their half of the bracket might be more manageable.

3. Who are your dark horse picks for the East and West?

Michael:

East: New York Red Bulls II. The Red Bulls always produce a steady stream of high-quality talent and have been to the Eastern Conference finals the last two seasons. They won the whole thing in 2016. They’re inconsistent, but when they’re clicking they can beat anyone in the USL.

West: Reno 1868 FC. They’re undefeated in their last 7 including 5 wins. But in truth, whatever Geoff Tebbetts says … he knows that conference better than I do. Can I cheat off of his paper? 

Geoff:

East: New York Red Bulls II. In the East, I still think Red Bulls II is a scary team. It’s hard to ignore what they pulled off last year in the playoffs, and coach John Wolyniec continues to stockpile high-octane pieces on offense.

West: Phoenix Rising FC. Well, I had Reno as my dark horse, but it appears there’s not enough room on this bandwagon. Phoenix, despite their last two games of the season, have a talented offense spearheaded by winger Solomon Asante. If Chris Cortez (17 goals) can remain hotter than the Sonoran Desert, I think they could give Didier Drogba a retirement present.

Joe:

East: Bethlehem Steel FC. I believe Bethlehem Steel FC may surprise people. Their path to an Eastern Conference title won’t be easy for them though.

West: Reno 1868 FC. Reno 1868 FC closed out their season well. Real Monarchs and Reno 1868 FC will be a good match-up in the Conference Quarter-finals.

Connor:

East: Louisville City FC. I’ve already discussed Nashville and the difficult first round playoff hump, so I’m gonna cheat a little and go with the #2 seed. Louisville experienced growing pains after losing Head Coach James O’Connor. However, they seem to be stabilized again after finishing the regular season with six straight wins. Oh, and their last loss? That would be against FC Cincinnati in the rain. Revenge in the eye of the defending champions vs. the 2018 Regular Season Champs in the Eastern Conference title match? Now that’s a finale worthy of the Dirty River Derby.

West: Reno 1868 FC. Reno is only a year off of setting the single season scoring record. Along with this, I’m sticking to my fear of teams who are hitting their stride heading into the playoffs. Reno is undefeated in their last seven games. They also capped off their season by thumping the #1 seed in the West, Orange County SC, 3-1. Ye be warned.

4. Who will be the FC Cincinnati MVP in the 2018 USL playoffs? 

Connor:  Forrest Lasso

Though FCC’s entire team has seen plenty of rotation in 2018, our stalwart central defender has remained the anchor securing Cincinnati’s elite defense. At 25 years of age, this is a perfect time for the young defender to hone his leadership skills and cement the defensive wall – just like he did against FC Cincinnati as a member of the Charleston Battery in the 2016 USL Playoffs. If Lasso struggles, you’ll notice. But he hasn’t and that’s a big part of why FC Cincinnati has the best goal differential in the entire USL.

Stephen:  Emmanuel Ledesma

Hard to not go with the most influential player on the team and the odds-on league MVP. Success in the playoffs is neither guaranteed nor straight-forward. A clever touch, a timely assist against the run of play, an “Olimpico” or a free kick golazo may be the elixir that sees a Cincinnati sports team win in the playoffs. Manu was the catalyst for this team all season; let’s continue that winning formula to the 2018 USL Cup.

Joe:  Forrest Lasso

Keen awareness, hardworking, and willing to sacrifice. Enough said. 

Geoff:  Corben Bone

Assuming that FCC can go far in the playoffs, I think you ride the Cinderella story that is Corben Bone. Team defenses are going to focus on Emmanuel Ledesma and Fanendo Adi so much that Bone will likely have runs at the goal like he had against Nashville in the final game of the season. It would be the perfect postscript to the season.

MichaelForrest Lasso

It’s cliché but defense wins championships. A lot of FCC’s recent success has required them to absorb shots and pressure but not concede goals. Remember that header he cleared off the line against Penn FC? Manu and Adi will provide FCC’s goals, but we’ll need heroic defending and Lasso’s aerial dominance to lift the cup.


Have your own thought on how the 2018 USL Playoffs will unfold? Share your opinions with us as you get ready for the “Blue Out” at Nippert Saturday at 4pm.

* Special thanks to all our Orange & Blue Press colleagues and friends for an enjoyable and fun season covering this team. In addition, thank you Connor Paquette for spurring us on to co-author this glimpse into the Orange & Blue staff’s USP playoff predictions.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for all of your FC Cincinnati coverage during their 2018 USL Cup playoff run.

FCCvINDY-173

2018 USL Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions: First Round

O&BP’s prognosticator crunches the numbers again to predict the first round of the USL Eastern Conference playoffs.

Image: Ryan Meyer

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.

Playoff Decision Weekend: Who Will FC Cincinnati Face in the First Round?

Photo by: Ryan Meyer

Although the four midweek USL Eastern Conference matches failed to clarify FC Cincinnati’s first round opponent, it raised the stakes for this weekend’s regular-season finale. Nashville SC was leading Toronto FC II 2-0 late in the second half Tuesday evening before relinquishing the lead. Inexplicably, the match ended in a 2-2 draw, unleashing the following ripple effect within the Eastern Conference playoff race:

  • Charleston Battery cemented the 4th Eastern playoff seed
  • Indy Eleven and New York Red Bulls II clinched a playoff berth
  • Nashville SC missed out on clinching a playoff berth
  • Nashville may now miss out on the playoffs entirely if the following occurs this weekend:
    • Ottawa FC beats Charleston Battery Saturday at 2:00 PM
    • FCC beats Nashville SC Saturday at 8:30 PM
    • Bethlehem Steel FC tie or beat Tampa Bay Sunday at 3:00 PM

Wednesday’s 1-1 draw in Atlanta between the Atlanta United 2 and the Riverhounds resulted in the top four Eastern playoff seeds being solidified:

  1.  FC Cincinnati
  2.  Louisville City FC
  3.  Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
  4.  Charleston Battery.

Following the midweek action, here is your updated USL Eastern Conference Standings, ranked by projected points. 

Graphic by Connor Paquette

Determining FCC’s First Round Playoff Opponent

The one remaining question of the 2018 regular season is this … which team will FC Cincinnati face on October 20th at Nippert?

Let’s review the six teams in contention and their potential paths to the postseason.

Indy Eleven

The Eleven currently sit in 5th place and have clinched a playoff spot. They are on the road at Louisville City Saturday evening. A win will cement fifth place for Indy and a playoff visit to Charleston. A draw or loss could drop them into the 8th spot, contingent on other results, and a return to Nippert next week. Indy are 1-0-1 vs LCFC this season.

New York Red Bulls II

The Baby Bulls are riding a five-match unbeaten streak as they host Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon. A win will solidify 5th or 6th place for NYRBII. A draw or loss could see them in Cincinnati on October 20th. New York lost 0-3 to the Riverhounds back in the middle of June but could be facing a Pittsburgh side content to rest tired legs before the playoffs.

Nashville SC

As mentioned above, Nashville holds the most interesting position of the remaining playoff contenders. They should have booked their playoff ticket earlier this week but now must beat FCC or seek help from others. A loss to Cincinnati, combined with a win by Ottawa and at least a draw by Bethlehem, sends them packing for the off-season. The “Fighting Six Strings” have played the Orange & Blue tough this season, earning two draws (home and away), but face a squad aiming for a USL record 23-game unbeaten streak. Here is your Match Program for Saturday’s influential contest.

Bethlehem Steel FC

The Steel control their own playoff destiny and host Tampa Bay at Goodman Stadium on Sunday. Bethlehem are 7-4-5 at home this season. They lost 0-2 at Tampa in the second game of the season; however, the Rowdies have been eliminated from the postseason and are only 4-9-3 on the road this year. Bethlehem is in an all-or-nothing scenario, as well. With a loss and an Ottawa win, they are eliminated. Should Indy, New York and Nashville all win in addition to the Steel, FCC would face Bethlehem at home October 20th. Bethlehem are able to finish as high as fifth with a win and ties or losses by Indy, New York and Nashville.

Ottawa Fury FC

Ottawa has been battling back into contention all season. After a dismal 0-4-1 start to the season, they are one win and some help from FCC or Tampa Bay in making the USL playoffs for the first time. The Fury host the playoff-bound Battery Saturday afternoon at TD Place Stadium, where they are 2-1-2 in their last five home matches.

North Carolina FC

The Dead Whales stumble into the final weekend with two losses in a row. They face their intrastate rival Charlotte Saturday evening in the North Carolina Derby. Not only do they need a win to take them to 47 points, they require Ottawa to draw or lose and Bethlehem to lose. That’s not all; they also need to overcome a plus-6 goal-differential with the Steel. NCFC has had the upper hand on the Independence this season, winning both matches with an aggregate 8-2 goal margin.

With many scenarios in play, what is your prediction of who FCC will play in the first round?

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press this weekend for updates to FC Cincinnati’s match vs Nashville SC and the latest regarding FCC’s first-round playoff opponent.

Midweek Scoreboard Watching: The Impact to FC Cincinnati’s First Round USL Playoff Opponent

With twelve matches remaining in the USL Eastern Conference regular season, the playoff picture is still unfolding. Specifically, we all want to know which opponent FC Cincinnati will host at Nippert Stadium on October 20th.

What We Know

Mathematically, there are multiple scenarios where FCC could play one of six different teams October 20th in the #1 vs #8 seed match. Here is what we know going into the final week of regular season action:

  • Four teams have officially clinched – FC Cincinnati, Louisville City, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and Charleston Battery.
  • The Orange & Blue have won the East, the League and will host 2018 playoff matches at Nippert, as far and long as the team continues to advance.
  • Six Eastern Conference teams have been eliminated – Charlotte Independence, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Penn FC, Atlanta United 2, Richmond Kickers, and Toronto FC II.
  • The remaining six teams are fighting for the last four playoff spots – Indy Eleven, Nashville SC, New York Red Bulls II, Bethlehem Steel, North Carolina FC, and Ottawa Fury.

Here is your current USL Eastern Conference Standings, ranked by projected points. 

Graphic by Connor Paquette

Other soccer leagues worldwide play their final matches on the same day and time. The USL schedule is different. The remaining 12 games are spread from Tuesday evening through Sunday afternoon. Ten of these matches have a potential impact in determining FC Cincinnati’s first round opponent.

What to Look for in the Midweek Matches

Let’s review three midweek matches that have a direct impact on the Orange & Blue’s first round USL playoff opponent.

Penn FC vs NYRB II, Tuesday 10/9 at 6:30 PM. News broke yesterday that Penn FC has decided to take a one-year hiatus before joining USL League One in 2020. This unexpected announcement may play perfectly into the Baby Bulls need for 3 points to solidify their playoff spot. New York currently sits in 7th place in the East with 1.44 points per game (49 total projected points). They will need to overcome their dismal 1-5-10 road record this season to stay in the top eight.

Louisville City FC vs North Carolina FC, Tuesday 10/9 at 7:00 PM. Since losing to FCC 0-1 in the rain-drenched multi-day affair four weeks ago, the “Boys in Purple” have won 4 straight games and are unbeaten in five. The defending USL Champions are rounding third and heading home (pun intended) into the playoffs under John Hackworth. Although a win Tuesday does not guarantee a second-place finish, it certainly moves them one large step closer. A tie or loss by NCFC makes it increasingly difficult for them to enter the 2018 playoff race. They would require a road win at Charlotte Saturday and a series of losses by NYRB II, Bethlehem, and Ottawa.

Nashville SC vs. Toronto FC II, Tuesday 10/9 at 8:30 PM. Nashville may be the most intriguing team left to clinch a playoff spot. They have an opportunity, with two wins and a Charleston loss this weekend, to capture 4th place overall. However, they could also fail to make the playoffs with two losses in their final two matches (and other results going against them). Don’t sleep on the last place team in the East. TFC II has surprisingly knocked off both Louisville and Charleston on the road in the past six weeks. In addition, NSC is only 1-2-2 in their last five matches in the Music City.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for updates to FC Cincinnati’s first-round playoff opponent and all of FCC’s 2018 USL playoff coverage.

Top 4 Clinch . . . Best in the East . . . USL Regular Season Champs . . . 2018 USL Cup?

Image: Joe Craven

As the Orange & Blue prepare for the resumption of play in Lousville on Tuesday, let’s take inventory of the current playoff picture and the run to the 2018 USL Cup.

Through Week 26 of the USL regular season, FCC still holds a commanding lead in the Eastern Conference. With seven matches remaining, FCC leads Pittsburgh by 11 points, Charleston by 12 points and Louisville City by 13 points. FC Cincinnati can finish no worse than fifth in the East based on the maximum points available per team (see below). FC Cincinnati needs 12 total points in any fashion to win the East outright and lock down home pitch advantage for the entire Eastern playoffs.

Eastern Conference Table

Teams Ranked by Maximum Points

So what’s up for grabs this coming week? None other than clinching a home playoff match October 20th at Nippert. Note the 3 point differential between FCC and Indy Eleven* above in yellow. To guarantee a first round home playoff match, only one of the following results needs to occur this week:

  • FCC closes out the win versus Louisville City FC Tuesday evening
  • The Orange & Blue beat Toronto FC II on Sunday
  • FCC draws LCFC Tuesday and Indy Eleven draws Penn FC on Wednesday
  • FCC draws TFC II Sunday and Indy Eleven draws Penn FC on Wednesday
  • Indy Eleven loses to Penn FC on Wednesday

*  With any of the results above, FC Cincinnati owns the first tiebreaker of most league wins over Indy

Ok, great…but who will the Orange & Blue be playing come October 20th at Nippert? Let’s take a look at the following graphic that shows a sensitivity analysis of possible playoff opponents (teams ranked by projected points) and the impact that current, projected and maximum points have with respect to the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Eastern Conference Playoff Race

Graphic by Connor Paquette

If the season finished today, and using the projected points metric (points per game earned extrapolated over 34 total matches) represented above, FCC would be hosting the Bethlehem Steel FC in the first round with the opportunity to face the winner of Charleston Battery vs Indy Eleven. All things considering, this is a pretty decent path to a potential Eastern Conference final where they could face the winner of the other side of the bracket (currently Pittsburgh, Louisville City, Nashville and New York).

Several factors go into the ideal, most favorable first round opponent at home, including:

  • Head to head results this season
  • Away record of possible opponent
  • Recent form
  • Any suspensions or injuries
  • International call-ups during the FIFA International October window

Who do you want to face in the opening playoff match? What surprises might we see in the remaining five weeks of USL play? Who would be the most difficult first round playoff opponent?  Let’s hear from you FCC fans.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for your remaining 2018 regular season and playoff coverage.