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 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.

USL Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions: First Round

O&B Press’s stats junkie tries his hand at predicting the winners in the first round of the 2017 USL Eastern Conference Playoffs.

Credit: Ryan Meyer Photography

It took two more weeks than last year, but the 2017 USL regular season is finally in the books. While only three of the eight qualifying teams in the Western Conference have returned from last year’s playoffs, the Eastern Conference saw quite a bit of parity. Six of last year’s eight teams in the East are back to try again, including New York Red Bulls II, the 2016 USL Cup Champions.

Considering the lack of turnover in the East, familiarity should breed contempt. Louisville City is finally the #1 seed after two years as the bridesmaid and gets to host the Eastern Conference finals if they get that far. However, considering how Charlotte, Charleston, and Tampa Bay also spent time at the top of the table, nothing appears to be a guarantee.

So how will the first-round matchups shake out? Let’s look into the crystal ball…

First Round Predictions

#1 Louisville City FC (18-8-6) vs. #8 Bethlehem Steel FC (12-8-12)

Last playoffs performance:

Louisville – Lost 1-1 (3-4 in penalties) to New York in the 2016 Conference Finals.

Bethlehem – First appearance.

Over the past three years, Louisville City has played superior soccer at Slugger Field, losing only seven times in 48 home matches since their 2015 debut. However, having never been the #1 seed, Lou City has failed to get past the Eastern Conference finals, losing to the champion Red Bulls II squad in penalties last year. Finally the “Big Men on Conference” this year, Lou City has avoided the Baby Bulls in the first round and is the favorite to march to the USL Finals.

The reality is harsh for opponents—Coach James O’Connor’s squad has improved in wins, points, and goal differential since 2015 and, on paper, has the edge in every game from now on. While the team hasn’t had a go-to goal-scorer this year like a Matt Fondy back in 2015, forward Luke Spencer has had a stellar season, leading the team with 10 goals.

Bethlehem Steel FC walks into their first playoffs as one of the most improved squads from the past year, seeing vast improvement in goal production (from 32 to 46) from more consistent pressure. Forwards Seku Conneh and Corey Burke have been given the keys to the souped-up offense, enjoying healthy and complete seasons that made Bethlehem surprising challengers this year. As FC Cincinnati has learned three times this season, the Steel will try to beat you with pressure, but their defense hasn’t seen a big improvement, giving up around the same amount of goals as 2016.

Prediction: Louisville City 2, Bethlehem 1.

Neither of the games played between Lou City and Bethlehem this year had a clean sheet, so Lou City goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh is going to have to return to his 2016 postseason form. Ranjitsingh performed well in a terrific 3-1 win at Bethlehem, but had a shaky game at home in a 2-2 tie. Considering Lou City has had three shutouts in three home playoff games since 2015, Bethlehem getting a goal would be a moral victory, but expect Louisville to press hard and hammer shots on net all night.

#2 Charleston Battery (15-9-8) vs. #7 New York Red Bulls II (13-5-14)

Last playoffs performance:

Charleston – Lost 1-0 to Louisville in the 2016 Conference Semifinals.

New York – Defeated Swope Park Rangers 5-2 in the 2016 USL Championship.

Typically, the defending champion should be a dangerous team to play, but the New York Red Bulls II this year seem to lack the horns that carried them to a record-setting championship last year. Yes, their offense is still high-caliber—even though the 57 goals is surprisingly a drop in production from the 61 they scored last year, the Baby Bulls were still second in scoring in the conference. Forward Stefano Bonomo led the team in goals, scoring 10 goals despite playing only the last 13 games of the season, and forward Florian Valot has kept pace, scoring 8 goals over his past 8 games. However, on the other side of the coin, New York’s rotating goalkeeper position has given up 60 goals this season, the worst in the conference.

Charleston, on the other hand, has proven their mettle in the USL Playoffs ever since their championship run in 2012. The Battery enjoyed the second-highest goal differential in the conference with the balance of solid goalkeeping from mainstay Odisnel Cooper (10 clean sheets) and potent offense from Jamaican striker Romario Williams (15 goals over 22 games) and super-sub forward Heviel Cordovés (8 goals over the past 8 games). Charleston lost a lot of their firepower in midseason when Williams was either on international duty or serving suspensions, but the team has proven to be strong at home, giving up only 11 goals at MUSC Health Stadium and losing only once.

Prediction: New York 3, Charleston 2.

My first draft actually had Charleston taking this game, but there’s something about New York that has me thinking they’re not finished. While New York has not performed well on the road with its only road clean sheet being a midseason win over Richmond, I find a wounded animal to be the most dangerous. It may be a coin flip to some, but if New York’s back duo of Hassan Ndam and Jordan Scarlett can do just enough to counter Charleston’s attack while New York maintains a constant barrage of shots on Cooper, I think an upset is in the making.

#3 Tampa Bay Rowdies (14-11-7) vs. #6 FC Cincinnati (12-10-10)

Last playoffs performance:

Tampa Bay – Won the 2012 NASL Championship over the Minnesota Stars.

Cincinnati – Lost 2-1 to Charleston in the 2016 Conference First Round.

After failing to get to the second round as the #3 seed last year, FC Cincinnati has the chance to come in and defeat their own #3 seed to move on in the 2017 playoffs. Say what you will about the team’s inefficiency away from Nippert Stadium and the seven shutouts suffered on the road—Cincinnati went 4-3-1 in the last eight games of the season, so general momentum is still on their side. Midfielders Kenney Walker and Corben Bone are playing their best soccer of the season down the stretch, and the front line was solid on offense in the finale. The defense has been threadbare though, giving up 48 goals on 152 shots—only the Red Bulls are worse.

Tampa Bay’s first year in the USL has been relatively successful compared to their flat 2016 NASL campaign where they finished 9th out of 12 teams. Over the same number of games, the team’s goal differential improved from -1 to +15, and the squad has given up only 9 goals in 16 home games. The discipline in the defense has led to 12 shutouts this season, while the offense has been led by Georgi Hristov’s 13 goals and Joe Cole‘s solid midfield play. Surprisingly, while the team has led the Eastern Conference in yellow cards (78), Tampa Bay has had only one red card all season.

Prediction: Tampa Bay 2, FC Cincinnati 1.

Random play has diverted the Orange & Blue from having to face Charleston again, but let’s not forget that Tampa Bay also has the experience of eliminating FCC from U.S. Open Cup play in 2016. While Hristov has been the productive scorer and Cole has been the bane of Cincinnati’s existence at Al Lang Stadium, Tampa Bay’s X-factor is likely forward Martin Paterson. The journeyman’s play helped the Rowdies escape their 7-game winless funk at home against FCC the last time the teams met, so they’ll need him to do the same sort of voodoo on Cincinnati’s defense. It’s hard to envision FCC infiltrating Tampa Bay’s home fortress, but do you remember the last time Cincinnati went to Florida?

#4 Rochester Rhinos (14-11-7) vs. #5 Charlotte Independence (13-9-10)

Last playoffs performance:

Rochester – Lost 3-3 (4-5 pen.) to New York in the 2016 Conference Semi-Finals.

Charlotte – Lost 3-1 to Rochester in the 2016 Conference First Round.

It’s practically deja-vu all over again for the Rhinos and Independence, as both teams are near their levels from 2016 and faced each other as the #4 and #5 seed last year. Rochester has turned on their defensive prowess again in 2017, giving up a conference-low 28 goals over the entire season. That’s a far cry from the 15 goals they gave up during their 2015 championship season. But the team’s goaltender Tomas Gomez has continued his lock-down numbers from 2016, collecting 11 clean sheets in 22 appearances, while the defense allowed the fewest shots on goal in the conference (94). However, the team’s offense has only scored 36 goals this year, the fewest of the Eastern Conference playoff teams.

Charlotte has demonstrated some of their worst soccer down the stretch of the season, losing their last five games (albeit all to playoff teams). However, let’s also not ignore the fact they’ve enjoyed the longest undefeated stretch in the Eastern Conference this year (a +18 differential over 12 games) and have a high-impact scoring tandem in forwards Enzo Martinez (16 goals) and Jorge Herrera (12 goals). The duo combined for 17 goals during Charlotte’s unbeaten run, but both have been shut out over the last five games.

Prediction: Rochester 1, Charlotte 0.

Considering Charlotte’s recent woes and Rochester’s season-long stinginess, it’s hard to expect the Independence to break their recent scoring drought, but Rochester also needs to prove they can score as well. While midfielder Wal Fall and forward Jochen Graf have been the muscle for Rochester, they’ll need the resurgence of winger Christiano Francois to get the ball to them. Despite missing half the season due to injury, Francois led the team with six assists, collecting two in the massive 4-0 win over Charlotte at home earlier this season. It may go to penalties in this expected low-scoring affair, but Rochester likely dooms Charlotte again in the playoffs.

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 news, analysis, and color commentary on FC Cincinnati.


FC Cincinnati Halts Skid with Stormy Win against Bethlehem Steel

FC Cincinnati halts a five game winless streak with a 2-1 victory over Bethlehem Steel. Danni König scored two goals to lift FC Cincinnati to victory.

Photo courtesy of JES Photography / Joe Schmuck

This match report is provided by Last Word on Soccer

FC Cincinnati defeated Bethlehem Steel FC by a score of 2-1 on Saturday in front of 18,441 at a stormy Nippert Stadium. Recent acquisition Danni König scored a brace for the home side to secure the victory in only his second start for the club. König joined FC Cincinnati just ten days ago from OKC Energy. The victory halts a five game winless streak for Alan Koch’s team that has stretched back to April 19th.

In an interesting twist of USL scheduling, this was the third time these teams had met in the past month and a half. Bethlehem Steel FC won both of the last two contests in the month of April in the Lehigh Valley.

Continue reading the article on Last Word on Soccer.



Bethlehem Steel FC 2 – FC Cincinnati 0 – Match Changing Moment

Learn more about the moment that changed the match in FC Cincinnati’s defeat against Bethlehem Steel FC on Sunday. Plus Koch’s comments.

Photo courtesy of Bethlehem Steel FC

FC Cincinnati was defeated 2-0 by Bethlehem Steel FC in Pennsylvania on Sunday. A red card issued to FC Cincinnati defender Paul Nicholson in the 23rd minute changed the match. Steel FC took advantage, and their captain Seku Conneh scored two second-half goals to secure the victory for the Pennsylvania outfit.

Match Changing Moment

Steel FC’s Jack Elliot played a ball over the top to forward Corey Burke who ran in behind FC Cincinnati’s defense. Paul Nicholson tracked back to cover. Nicholson fell while attempting to challenge Burke in the box, and clipped the forward’s legs. A penalty kick was awarded, a red card was shown to Nicholson, and FC Cincinnati was reduced to 10 men.

Steel FC forward Seku Conneh stepped up to take the penalty. He drove a low shot to Mitch Hildebrandt’s right side. It wasn’t placed in the corner though and Mitch dove to make a fine save.

Even after going down a man FC Cincinnati held defensively in the first half, which ended goalless. They even had a few chances to take the lead before the break with threatening counter-attacking moves. The second half was dominated by Steel FC, who capitalized on their man advantage, scoring goals in the 47th and 60th minutes.

For play-by-play details of the match’s event, turn your attention to the FC Cincinnati match report.


Not surprisingly, the match stats in many statistical categories were lopsided in Steel FC’s favor. They controlled 59 percent of possession, and outshot FC Cincinnati 20-7. More importantly, they controlled periods of play in the second half. They also limited FC Cincinnati to only a single blocked shot in the second half. They did a professional job of capitalizing on the extra man, and closed out the game comfortably.

More Defensive Damage

Defender Justin Hoyte made his debut on Sunday for FC Cincinnati, but left injured after only 13 minutes of play. They were already playing without center back Austin Berry who is still recovering from a concussion suffered against Pittsburgh last week. FC Cincinnati may need to rely on depth in defense during their upcoming home stand.

Koch’s Comments*

Opening statement…

“It was a tough game for us today. It’s not ideal to have an injury in the first 10 minutes and obviously the red card wasn’t something that was planned for. Everything that could go wrong at the start of the game, certainly did go wrong. I was pleased with how our players dealt with it until halftime and then obviously, full credit to Bethlehem Steel FC, they came at us and fully deserved the three points.”

On the attack of Steel FC…

“It’s hard to analyze a game like this when you’ve played a man down for 75 minutes. We knew they’d be good but there was a lot of space for them since we were playing a man down.”

On the team adjusting well the first half to playing with only 10 men…

“I think experience helps and we adjusted to a 4-4-1 when we went a man down. I thought the guys did a good job managing the game until halftime. It’s not ideal to concede a goal when you are a man down at the start of the second half, and I think that was the big turning point in the game. Full credit to our players, they showed a lot of character to fight to the bitter end.”

*Comments courtesy of Evan Villella

What’s next?

FC Cincinnati returns to Nippert stadium for their home opener next Saturday, April 15th. That match against Saint Louis FC is the first of three home matches in eight days. Hopefully some home cookin’ and a newly rennovated Nippert stadium can turn around the fortunes of the Orange and Blue.


FC Cincinnati at Bethlehem Steel FC – History Making Matchup

FC Cincinnati made history last season in the corresponding fixture with Bethlehem Steel FC. Plus, inside intel from Evan Villella of the ECC podcast.

Tyler Polak. Photo courtesy JES Photography / Joe Schmuck

FC Cincinnati finishes its three game road series on Sunday when they take on Bethlehem Steel FC at Goodman Stadium. The Orange and Blue currently sit seventh in the Eastern Conference on three points with one win and one loss after two games. Last Saturday they earned their first points of 2017 with a narrow 1-0 victory over a 10 man Pittsburgh Riverhounds side.

Bethlehem Steel is the MLS 2 side for the Philadelphia Union, and like FC Cincinnati, are playing just their second season in USL. Unlike some MLS 2 sides, Steel FC has their own branding and plays outside of their MLS team’s metro area.

Bethlehem played their first match of the year last Saturday and lost 3-2 to Rochester as the result of an 88th minute goal from Jochen Graf. Steel FC controlled 60% of possession and outshot Rochester, but came out on the wrong end of a match where three goals were scored from the penalty spot.

Q&A With Evan Villella

Orange and Blue Press caught up with Evan Villella to get the run down on Steel FC. Evan is the host of the Eastern Conference Confidential podcast, and the Bethlehem Steel staff writer for the Brotherly Game.

I remember talking to you last year after the match at Goodman Stadium and you thought that Steel FC was a playoff team. Bethlehem finished 11th in the East. What happened to a team that looked good early? 

“Losing Ryan Richter and Mickey Daly midseason to New York Cosmos and NCFC respectively was a huge blow for the defense. It didn’t help that defender and Union loanee Anderson was outplayed consistently by Union homegrown Auston Trusty. Between that and no one stepping up to grab goals consistently, Steel was stuck on the outside looking in.”

Steel FC lost their season opener to Rochester in a game that featured 3 PKs, what did they do well in that match?

“I thought they controlled possession really well against a very tough Rochester side. Between that and getting quality performances from academy products Tomas Romero (16 year old keeper who will be away on YNT duty with El Salvador) and Josue Monge (looked pretty good in the CM role next to Brian Carroll), there’s a lot to like from a narrow defeat.”

Charlie Davies scored for Bethlehem last weekend. It’s not often that we see a former US international matched up against us. How has Davies looked in preseason, and will see him on Sunday?

“Davies was a short term loan, which all MLS 2 sides have the ability to do at any time during the season. Really those are just to get guys minutes and Chuck needed them this preseason. He looked, fine, burying a penalty at the death of the first half and generally being one of the more dangerous guys on the pitch for Steel in the opening 45. That being said, for the way Steel play, Jamaican International Cory Burke or even Seku Conneh is a better bet.”

Steel FC featured eight Union loanees last week. Are we going to see that much MLS talent again this Sunday?

“I hope not. Perhaps for selfish reasons (I saw a ton of Derrick Jones before he lit up MLS last year), but I really enjoy seeing the next crop of young talent in the organization apply their craft in USL. Chris Nanco should be available and I would be very wary of him and Marcus Epps out wide.”

Unlike some MLS2 teams, Steel FC has unique branding and plays in a removed market from the parent club. Do you think this model works better in terms of drawing fan support? Are there other benefits?

“The Lehigh Valley (kind of the surrounding area where Bethlehem play) is a hot bed for development teams. The Philadelphia Flyers have their AHL team in the LV and the Philadelphia Phillies have their top affiliate (AAA) in the LV as well. From that stand point, it’s a real smart move. In terms of drawing fans I didn’t get an attendance number this last weekend but 800-1600 is not bad all. From a marketing stand point I think the “MLS 2″ team name is lazy and boring, but that’s one man’s opinion.”

Anything else we should know about Bethlehem Steel ahead of the match?

Auston Trusty (#26) helped the USMNT u-20’s take home their first CONCACAF crown this summer. He is frightfully good at knowing where he is and plays strong for a young kid just out of the Academy. We also might have Adam Najem who was the crown jewel of the Red Bull academy, and could turn into one of the best attacking mids in USL.”

History Making Fixture

In FC Cincinnati’s inaugural 2016 season, the away match at Bethlehem Steel produced the team’s first ever goal and their first ever win. Andrew Wiedeman has the honor of being the team’s first goalscorer.  He opened FC Cincinnati’s account with a low near post drive assisted by Kenney Walker in the 25th minute. Sean Okoli doubled FC Cincinnati’s lead in the 35th minute with a goal that featured some great combination play with Wiedeman. The match was also history making for Steel FC. It was their inaugural home opener at Goodman Stadium.

Re-live those trivia-making moments here. The second goal is especially good to watch.

The match kicks off at 4pm Eastern on Sunday and can be viewed on Star64 (WSTR) or streamed on YouTube.

FC Cincinnati vs Bethlehem Steel – Speaking in Numbers

FC Cincinnati’s 1-0 win over Bethlehem Steel takes the Orange and Blue to the halfway point in their season. This segment focuses on numbers that help explain this contest and the teams’ performance to date.

FC Cincinnati’s 1-0 win over Bethlehem Steel takes the Orange and Blue to the halfway point in their season. This segment focuses on numbers that help explain this contest and the teams’ performance to date.

Match Notes


Fifteen games have been played in the league and fifteen remain on the schedule.

The results over the first half of the season have been impressive for the first year outfit and good enough position them in 3rd place in the Eastern conference, within touching distance of league leaders Louisville City.

The team enters the second half of the season with 9 wins, 2 losses and 4 draws.

It was great to see Jimmy McLaughlin get a goal against his old organization. McLaughlin spent almost 3 years with the Philadelphia Union and Harrisburg, their USL affiliate. It clearly meant something to him as well. Following the match he commented, “When you’re playing against a team you used to play for, you want to make a good impression and do the best you possibly can.” 

McLaughlin’s goal, assisted by Bone and Cummings, underlines the wealth of attacking options that FCC has at their disposal.
10 different players have scored goals.
10 different players (a different but overlapping set) have provided assists.
14 different players overall have had a goal or an assist this season.

FC Cincinnati’s 14 shots in Saturday’s contest were spread across 8 different players.

Corben Bone’s assist on the game’s lone goal takes him to 5 total on the season, tied for 1st place in the league.


Mitch Hildebrandt had less than usual to do against Bethlehem’s statistically weak offense, but he was still needed for 2 vital saves. What a key Mitch Hildebrandt has been to FC Cincinnati’s success in the first half of the season. Hildebrandt ranks 4th in the USL in saves, 5th in goals against average and is tied for 1st in minutes played. Harkes specifically mentioned him as a “leader in the back” during the press conference on Saturday.


Jimmy McLaughlin – Busy offensively throughout the 90 minutes, led the team in shots and scored the game winner against his old club. What’s not to like?

Tyler Polak – Great performance after a challenging outing last week against Kadeem Dacres and Louisville City’s potent offense. He may be the most versatile player on the team given his ability to defend, join the attack down the left, and deliver quality set pieces.

Omar Cummings – This guy knows where to be in the offensive third. Harkes specifically highlighted how Bethlehem’s defense dropped off after the Cummings substitution, giving respect to his pace. He also applauded all of the substitutes in his post match comments stating that “all of the guys off the bench contributed.” Cummings has tallied a goal and 2 assists in 187 minutes of league play this season.

FCC’s Competition

FC Cincinnati remains in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference, a spot they’ve occupied for a few weeks, behind leaders Louisville City and New York Red Bulls II.

Fourth place Charleston defeated the Richmond Kickers to keep pace, but Charlotte, New York Red Bulls II and Rochester all drew this weekend. Louisville city plays Monday evening at home against last place FC Montréal and will be heavy favorites to win. If they do, they will be 6 points clear at the top, but having played 2 more matches than FCC.

The Orange and Blue are eleven unbeaten now. What’s perhaps most impressive about that achievement is that 7 of those 11, almost two-thirds of the results, have been wins. There’s a real chance that undefeated streak could be broken as the team goes away for two on the road. Let’s take these couple of days to savor how good a team we are being treated to in its first months of existence.

FC Cincinnati 1 – Bethlehem Steel 0

FC Cincinnati defeated Bethlehem Steel 1-0 in front of a crowd of 17,380 at Nippert Stadium.

FC Cincinnati defeated Bethlehem Steel 1-0 in front of a crowd of 17,380 at Nippert Stadium on Saturday evening. FC Cincinnati dominated possession and play throughout the game. In the 69th minute, Jimmy McLaughlin separated the two sides by getting on the end of a Corben Bone corner kick, assisted by Omar Cummings.

Match recaps:

FCC Official



Bethlehem Steel

Cincinnati Soccer Talk

The win extends the Orange and Blue’s unbeaten streak to 11 games and sees them pull within 1 point of second place New York Red Bulls II who drew yesterday.

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for Match Notes and related news and analysis this week.