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