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.

Images: USL Regular Season Championship Trophy Ceremony

Images of FC Cincinnati’s USL Regular Season Championship Trophy Ceremony on Saturday, September 29th at Nippert Stadium.

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Here are images the USL regular season championship trophy celebration following the victory over Indy Eleven on Saturday, September 29th. When browsing the gallery below, for any given image, a high-resolution version can be found by scrolling down and clicking “View Full Size.” A watermark identifying the photographer can be found on each photo. All images are courtesy of Joe Schmuck and Ryan Meyer.

For images of Saturday’s contest, turn your attention to the following article.FCCvINDY-140
Images: FC Cincinnati 3 – 0 Indy Eleven

Images

All images are copyright protected to safeguard the creative rights of our photographers. We’re very open to sharing our work with those who want to show support for FC Cincinnati. We simply request that you ask (via DM on Twitter or email) and give credit where it’s due. Thanks!

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s 2018 season.
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Images: FC Cincinnati 3 – 0 Indy Eleven

Images of FC Cincinnati’s victory over Indy Eleven on Saturday, September 29th at Nippert Stadium.

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Here are images of FC Cincinnati’s 3-0 victory over Indy Eleven on Saturday, September 29th. When browsing the gallery below, for any given image, a high-resolution version can be found by scrolling down and clicking “View Full Size.” A watermark identifying the photographer can be found on each photo. All images are courtesy of Joe Schmuck and Ryan Meyer.

For more particulars of Saturday’s contest, turn your attention to the following article.

Indy 8.29_Match Recap
FC Cincinnati 3 – 0 Indy Eleven: USL Attendance Record, Fan Appreciation Night, and Silverware Celebration

Images

Looking for more images of the post-match trophy ceremony?  Check back on Orange & Blue Press soon for our gallery dedicated to those celebrations.

All images are copyright protected to safeguard the creative rights of our photographers. We’re very open to sharing our work with those who want to show support for FC Cincinnati. We simply request that you ask (via DM on Twitter or email) and give credit where it’s due. Thanks!

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s 2018 season.
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FC Cincinnati 3 – 0 Indy Eleven: USL Attendance Record, Fan Appreciation Night, and Silverware Celebration

FC Cincinnati closed out their USL regular season with a new attendance record and a 21-game unbeaten streak.

Graphic: Connor Paquette / Image: Ryan Meyer

What a night at Nippert! On Fan Appreciation Night and for the regular season home finale, FC Cincinnati surpassed their previous USL regular-season attendance record in front of 31,478 exuberant fans. The Orange & Blue extended their league record winning-streak to 10 in a row and are now 21 games unbeaten, one game from tying the USL record set by Richmond during the 2013 season. FCC has now gone 126 days without a loss.

The FCC fans came ready to party in anticipation of the USL regular-season championship hardware celebration, and the squad didn’t disappoint them, earning an emphatic regular season clean-sweep over their I-74 rivals, Indy Eleven.

Both teams started the match in a probing and lively fashion. Following several excellent saves by Evan Newton in the first twenty-five minutes, FCC found their offensive groove. The breakthrough occurred in the 34th minute. Following some wonderful combination play by Michael Lahoud, Jimmy McLaughlin, and Pa Konate, Jimmy played a square ball to a wide-open Fanendo Adi.  Adi turned, took a dribble, and struck a bullet from the top of the box. The shot deflected off of a defender, then off Owain Fôn Williams’ outstretched hands and into the back of the net. FC Cincinnati took the one-nil advantage into the half.

The Orange & Blue controlled the second half and wore the Eleven starters down. In the 65th minute, a timely Tyler Gibson block quickly turned into a counter attack for FCC. Jimmy played a beautiful long ball over the top of the Indy back line. Danni König out-legged the Indy defense and out-smarted Fôn Williams for his 11th goal of the season, and a second assist of the night for McLaughlin.

FC Cincinnati padded their cushion and put the match away in the 74th minute. Russell Cicerone blasted a shot that grazed off of Indy defender Carlyle Mitchell’s boot and past Fôn Williams. Evan Newton and the back-line were able to record the team’s 13th clean sheet of the season.

Final Score: FC Cincinnati 3 – 0 Indy Eleven

Standings Update:

Another match, another three points. Although the Orange & Blue have already secured the regular-season championship and will host each playoff match, there is still reason to keep an eye on the Eastern Conference standings. Pay attention to the teams that are currently positioned in the 6th to 10th spots. FC Cincinnati will host the 8th place team in the first round of the playoffs October 20th.

Highlight of the Match

There were many highlights to choose from this evening between 3 quality goals and 5 deserving saves by Newton. But the highlight of the match came after the match when the team and coaching staff were able to lift the USL 2018 Regular-Season Champions Silverware.

Image: Ryan Meyer

Quote of the Match

Alan Koch had the following to say at the conclusion of tonight’s match.

Fun game tonight. I don’t think it would be as enjoyable celebrating a regular-season championship if we didn’t go out and get a positive result against a very good team tonight. . . I said to the guys, ‘Go out and enjoy it tonight.’ We obviously enjoyed it Wednesday. We get to enjoy it together tonight with everybody’ . . .We’re going to give [the players] a few days off and then we come back and have the last two games and every day of training to prepare ourselves for the postseason.

Stat of the Match

56% – FC Cincinnati placed 5 of 9 shots on target, three of which found the back of the net. FCC’s 56% shooting accuracy out-classed Indy Eleven’s 25% accuracy (5 of 20 shots on target) and improved their own season shooting accuracy to 49.7%.

Who Started?

Alan Koch made 10 changes from the side that clinched the USL Regular-Season Championship at Richmond earlier this week. Only goalkeeper Evan Newton remained in the starting XI from Wednesday. Every field position rotated this evening without missing a beat in Koch’s 4-4-2 formation.

Adi (88′ Ameobi) – König
McLaughlin – Lahoud – Gibson – Cicerone
Konate (53′ Smith) – de Wit – Keinan (C) – Bahner
Newton

What’s Next?

FC Cincinnati closes out their 2018 regular season on the the road visiting Pittsburgh on October 6th and Nashville October 13th. The next match at Nippert will be an Orange & Blue first-round playoff match on Saturday, October 20th at 4 pm.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s 2018 season and the run to the 2018 USL Cup.

Graphic: Connor Paquette / Image: Ryan Meyer

Match Program: FC Cincinnati vs. Indy Eleven

Orange & Blue Press’ Match Program supplies the information and fast facts you need for FC Cincinnati’s league meeting with Indy XI.

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Design: CSDIV / Images: Ryan Meyer

With the champagne uncorked after their 4-1 win over Richmond, there is still no rest for the weary. FC Cincinnati comes home for a royal welcome, only to be greeted by their I-74 rivals, the Indy Eleven. This showdown on Saturday closes the door on a short rivalry, but with both teams preparing for the playoffs, these ninety minutes should still be intense.

Despite allowing a first-half goal against Richmond, FC Cincinnati poured on the pressure for a full-game effort on Wednesday. Goals by Nazmi Albadawi and Emery Welshman started and finished the onslaught, but the night again belonged to Emmanuel Ledesma. His two moon-shot goals in the first half give him 16 overall for the year. With that, he ties Sean Okoli for the most USL goals by an FC Cincinnati player in a season.

Wednesday’s win also officially gives FC Cincinnati the USL regular-season title, as Phoenix can no longer pass them in the points total. The team will celebrate the achievement after the game on Saturday in front of a full house at Nippert Stadium that could see another possible record crowd for “Fan Appreciation Day.” Saturday will also be FC Cincinnati’s last USL regular-season home match before the playoffs begin next month.

FC Cincinnati’s ninth win in a row matches the mark set by Real Monarchs last season, and their 20th consecutive non-defeat leaves the team two games behind the record set by Richmond in 2013. FCC could also have other records to smash, but the team visiting from the Hoosier State could have something to say about that.

Indy Eleven comes into Saturday’s game after righting their ship. The Eleven turned away the Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-0 to remain in the middle of the playoff hunt. Indy sports a hungry set of strikers in Jack McInerney (10 goals) and Eugene Starikov (5 goals), but can also beat you from any position. Ayoze, Karl Ouimette, and Carlyle Mitchell have played significant minutes as a productive defending line, and goalkeeper Owain Fôn Williams has 11 clean sheets this season.

While Cincinnati has beaten Indy both times on the road this year, this Eleven squad had chances both times to capture at least a point. It took an Evan Newton penalty-kick save to preserve a 1-0 win in March, while the team used a Corben Bone goal to come from behind to win 3-2 in early May.

Fast Facts

Here are five facts before the regular-season finale at Nippert Stadium.

  • If you want to win a game, get the ball to either Corben Bone or Emmanuel Ledesma. The two midfielders have combined for 10 match-winning goals this season—seven coming in the last nine games.
  • Cincinnati has given up only 31 goals all season, but most have come in the first half (58%). This could spell bad news against Indy, as the Eleven have scored 59% of their 44 goals in the first half. However, Indy has also experienced meltdowns after halftime. The team has given up 59% of their conceded goals in the second half.
  • Indy Eleven is one of three teams in the USL that has used only one goalkeeper all season. Fôn Williams has played the most minutes of any goalkeeper in the USL, starting all 31 USL matches. The Welsh keeper is one of the best on the road, as seven of his 11 clean sheets have come away from Indiana.
  • If they intend to go far in the playoffs, Indy’s numbers against the current Top 8 in the USL East could improve a little. As the table currently sits, Indy Eleven has a 9-3-4 record (31 pts.) against the Bottom 8 teams with a goal differential of +8. Against the seven teams that are currently in playoff positions, they are only 4-6-5 (17 pts.) with a -1 goal differential.
  • Who says youth trumps experience? Saturday’s game will feature the two USL teams with the oldest average Starting XI. FC Cincinnati has the oldest Starting XI (28.6 year average), while Indy has the second-oldest (28.5). (The youngest is Toronto FC II at 20.9.)

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of the “I-74 Derby” on Saturday night.

Scouting the Field: Ranking FCC’s Possible First-Round Opponents

Now that FC Cincinnati is guaranteed a first-round home match, what potential matchup could spell the most trouble?

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Image: Ryan Meyer

The common cliché in sports is that you need to take things “one game at a time.” Looking too far ahead in the future will catch you napping against your next opponent. As good as this undefeated streak has been, coach Alan Koch has emphasized doing what you can against the next opponent, not the one you might play in the USL playoffs. The near-loss to Toronto FC II this weekend was a reminder of that.

While it helps to scout the opposition before the last minute, the planets could still align badly in the playoffs. Last year, #2 Charleston couldn’t beat #7 New York during the regular season, then got trucked at home by the Baby Bulls the first round. The same thing happened with FC Cincinnati in 2016—despite the strong end to the season, FCC couldn’t figure out the Battery during the regular season, then wilted in the second half to get knocked out early.

Basically, solid preparation is good, but the last thing you want is for fate to provide a difficult opponent. For this article, without looking too far ahead, we scout FC Cincinnati’s possible first-round opponents and rank the six in order of upset potential.

The Playoff Picture

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Image: Connor Paquette, teams are ordered by projected points.

Currently, FCC is the only team that has safely qualified for the playoffs. While the competition is getting closer to the top, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Charleston still own paths to first-round home games.

Aside from Toronto, Richmond, and Atlanta, the rest of the pack is still realistically alive. Charlotte, Tampa Bay, and Penn FC all have a tough road to get to that coveted playoff line, and while all could upset FC Cincinnati if they make it in, for the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on the closer competition.

6. Ottawa Fury FC

1200px-Ottawa_Fury_svgRecord:               12-13-5 (41 pts.), currently 7th
Schedule:           at Louisville, at Toronto, vs. Bethlehem, vs. Charleston

While they started out of the gate with three losses, Ottawa has been able to hang in the middle of the table. Goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau leads the East with 13 clean sheets, while the defense has kept the powerful New York Red Bulls II offense checked over three games. Forward Tony Taylor has managed to get hot lately with five goals in 11 games.

However, it’s hard to really view the Fury as a credible away threat. The team has been shut out seven times in 15 road games and has yet to score on Cincinnati’s defense. In fact, most of Ottawa’s points have come against the poorer competition—they have no wins against the Top 4 teams (0-1-5). While the road wins against Indy and New York are notable, until they can break out a credible secondary scorer, Ottawa’s chances at pulling a first-round upset appear slim.

5. Indy Eleven

Indy_Eleven_Logo_svgRecord: 12-8-9 (45 pts.), currently 5th
Schedule: at Pittsburgh, vs. Tampa Bay, at Cincinnati, vs. Bethlehem, at Louisville

This position in the rankings could be debatable. For one thing, it’s hard to guess what position Indy may finish—four of the final five games are against projected playoff teams. On the other hand, Indy has yet to face FCC at Nippert Stadium, so it’s hard to gauge just how difficult a team they are on the road.

Goalkeeper Owain Fôn Williams has quietly claimed 10 clean sheets in 29 games started, and seven of them have been on the road. Forward Eugene Starikov (5 goals in his last 10 games) has become a solid second scorer next to Jack McInerney, while Ayoze (4 goals, 6 assists) is still a mammoth presence in the defending line.

Again, Indy could legitimately be higher after their game at Cincinnati—we’ll see how well they can perform at Nippert—but so far, they’ve yet to figure out FCC. They may also be searching for that extra threat on offense, as their other big offseason pickup, forward Soony Saad, hasn’t scored since Week 11. Their away offense also may need improvement, as they’ve only scored 14 on the road in 14 games.

Their proximity to Cincinnati could bring a huge away crowd to Nippert in the playoffs. Right now, the game on September 29th could be the indicator of how difficult Indy would be in the playoffs.

4. North Carolina FC

1200px-North_Carolina_FC_logo_svgRecord: 10-10-8 (38 pts.), currently 10th
Schedule: at Atlanta, at Charleston, vs. Richmond, vs. New York, at Louisville, at Charlotte

While the former Railhawks dug themselves into an early-season hole, NCFC has bounced back. They started the first 14 games with 7 losses (including two to FCC), but have gone 6-5-3 in the next 14 games.

Forward Daniel Ríos has been a blessing on loan from Guadalajara and currently sits second in the Golden Boot standings (17 goals). Midfielders Kyle Bekker (2nd in assists) and Austin da Luz (2nd in passing) are also high on the stats charts. The potent offense is ranked fifth in the East and has gotten better with the addition of midfielder Zach Steinberger from Indy.

Considering that NCFC still has four road games to play against difficult teams, the final stretch could show how serious the team is against competition. That would require a statement away win at either Louisville or Charleston. Without either, they may miss out on the playoffs completely.

3. Bethlehem Steel FC

Bethlehem_Steel_FC_(USL)_CrestRecord: 12-12-6 (42 pts), currently 6th
Schedule: vs. Toronto, at Ottawa, at Indy, vs. Tampa Bay

Bethlehem’s form may not scare most, as their inconsistency will flare up at bad times. Of their 12 wins, 11 have come against teams currently below them in the table. Their only marquee win is a victory at Indy Eleven in Week 10. They’ve also suffered bad losses to Penn FC twice and Atlanta. It’s hard to say which Bethlehem squad will show up.

That’s what makes them difficult to predict. So far, FC Cincinnati is the only team in the top half of the table that hasn’t defeated Bethlehem. The Orange & Blue looked inconsistent and shaky on the road, needing a Nazmi Albadawi goal late to force a 1-1 draw. The home match was even more deluding, as the team couldn’t take advantage of a lead late against a 10-man Bethlehem squad.

In total, 21 players have scored for Bethlehem, and their 50 goals ranks them fourth in the East. Santi Moar is a solid midfielder (6 goals, 8 assists) who has given FCC trouble this year, while forward Chris Nanco has improved over the season. This is an offense that will rarely be shut out. However, it’s also a team that will also rarely shut down your side. The goalkeepers have only six clean sheets, and their 40 goals allowed are tied for sixth-worst in the East.

As frustrating as the draws were against Bethlehem, let’s keep in mind that these two teams were vastly different then. Emmanuel Ledesma was serving a yellow-card suspension during the 2-2 home draw. FCC also have added Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe to the team since that match, while much of the Bethlehem offense has been promoted to the MLS squad. On paper, a match between the squads would look a lot different.

2. New York Red Bulls II

220px-Red_Bull_New_York_II.pngRecord: 10-8-11 (41 pts), currently 8th
Schedule: at Charlotte, at Nashville, at North Carolina, at Penn FC, vs. Pittsburgh

I don’t blame people if they see the Baby Bulls as less of a threat than the past two years. New York has been counterproductive on the road, as they haven’t won in 13 away games (0-5-8). Much of their talent could be frozen in place on their MLS squad, and the defense is the fourth-worst in the East (54 goals allowed). However, their defense was dead-last in the East last year, and they made it to the Conference Finals!

Even though they have no players with double-digit goals, Red Bulls II still leads the USL with 62 goals scored. Six of their players have five or more goals, including forward Jared Stroud, who is tied for second in the East in assists (10). The team has almost 100 more shots than the nearest competition (544 to Phoenix’s 442). They also play a very aggressive game—their 438 tackles lead the East, as well.

However, the top teams in the East still have the Red Bulls’ number. Their lone win over the Top 4 has been a home victory over Charleston. FC Cincinnati has also appeared to figure them out over the last three matches played (3-0-0). However, this is still a young and hungry team that sees the USL as a feeding ground, not as a training ground.

1. Nashville SC

Nashville_SCRecord: 10-9-9 (39 pts), currently 9th
Schedule: vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Charleston, at Atlanta, vs. New York, at Richmond, vs. Toronto, vs. Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati has exterminated a lot of ghosts this season. The Orange & Blue managed to claim their first victories over Charleston and Tampa Bay this year. They have also beaten Louisville and Charlotte after losses to both earlier.

However, there is one ghost they have not been able to bust—the enigma known as Matt Pickens.

Over the past two years, Pickens has had Cincinnati’s name. His Tampa Bay Rowdies squad eliminated FCC in the 2016 U.S. Open Cup and the 2017 USL Playoffs. While he may not have been the sole reason for the victories, Pickens only gave up one goal against FCC in four games as a Rowdie.

Pickens has only gotten better with the change of scenery. In 24 starts for Nashville SC, Pickens has conceded only 19 goals. His 12 clean sheets put him second in the USL and are already better than his numbers from last year. His 67 saves also puts him at fourth in the East. Over three seasons against Cincinnati (6 games), Pickens has never lost, giving up only two goals (3-3-0).

That solid wall in front of Pickens just adds to the frustration FCC fans have had with Nashville. While the offense has not been at Cincinnati’s level, forwards Brandon Allen, Ropapa Mensah, Alan Winn, and Tucker Hume have the potential to crack defenses. The team has shown that it is unafraid of the large Cincinnati crowds, which may be the kryptonite for an upset in the Queen City.

Most importantly, of the teams that are trying to make the playoffs, Nashville has the best record when it comes to playing the Top 4 (2-4-1). NSC is one of only two teams to have beaten the Riverhounds in Pittsburgh, and their only loss was a Week 1 loss at Louisville. Considering the team also has a U.S. Open Cup victory over an MLS side, the potential for a Music City upset is there.

Of course, they must make the playoffs first, and they’ll need to face FCC once more to do so.


Which team outside of the Top 4 terrifies you the most in a potential first-round matchup? Let us know what you think!

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Indy Eleven 2 – 3 FC Cincinnati: Bonus Track

The Orange & Blue Press Bonus Track segment is a shortened version of our Deeper Cuts series. This edition takes a look at how new starters Paddy Barrett and Mike Lahoud fared against Indy on Wednesday.

The Bonus Track segment is an abridged version of Orange & Blue Press’ Deeper Cuts series. It takes one component of a recent match and breaks it down in more detail.

Both Michael Lahoud and Paddy Barrett received their first starts of the 2018 season and played the full 90 minutes in a 3-2 win over Indy Eleven. Let’s take a deeper look at how they fared on the field during Wednesday’s victory.

Michael Lahoud

FC Cincinnati’s #13 produced 46 passes at an 87% passing accuracy, including a 78% passing accuracy in the opponent’s half. Lahoud added a calm and efficient influence on FC Cincinnati’s attempts to control possession on Wednesday. He took up a defensive midfield position next to Kenney Walker but played slightly closer to the back line, allowing Walker to get forward periodically when FCC had the ball. He also intercepted the ball and started the break to assist on Corben Bone’s game-winning goal.

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Lahoud’s first-half distribution, when he was most influential from a passing perspective.

Paddy Barrett

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Paddy Barrett won 7 of 10 duels in his center back role next to Forrest Lasso. Additionally, he put in 4 tackles and made 7 clearances. The Waterford, Ireland native handled the ball well throughout the match. In his 45 passes (most of any defender and only one less than Lahoud), he had an 80% pass accuracy. That accuracy was the second highest of any starting defender for either team (Blake Smith was higher at 91.4%). Barrett conceded just one foul during the match, but that was the fateful and dubious penalty kick that Indy was awarded in the first half.

Beyond statistics, both Lahoud and Barrett replaced key players that have been critical to FCC’s success this season. FC Cincinnati was able to give a much-needed rest Richie Ryan and Dekel Keinan as a result. Prior to Wednesday, those two had started and played every minute of FC Cincinnati’s season. Now, the only player that has played every minute of FCC’s 2018 campaign is Forrest Lasso – 7 matches, 7 starts, 630 minutes played.

Alan Koch’s side did not miss a beat with the rotation. They exceeded expectations and earned another road victory, their fourth of the season. If the Orange & Blue can continue to use their depth this effectively, they will find themselves in a lofty position in the standings after a 34 game USL season. It’s also worth a tip of the cap to the contributions of Jimmy McLaughlin, Daniel Haber, Emery Welshman, and Matt Bahner who all started the match after being out of the eleven against Ottawa Fury FC.

FC Cincinnati’s head coach had the following to say about the rotation after the match.

“Tonight it was necessary for us to rotate (players). We’ve got a long, long season and we’ve got so many games in a short amount of time. But we also want to reward players and give them opportunities. If I go and look the players in the eye and say I have confidence in them, I better give them opportunities … The guys tonight that haven’t played that much so far this season or made their debuts tonight, all embraced those opportunities.”

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for coverage of Saturday’s first-ever match against Atlanta United 2.

Indy Eleven 2 – 3 FC Cincinnati: Rotation Reaps Hoosier State Rewards

FC Cincinnati tested their squad depth on Wednesday and earned an impressive 3-2 road victory against Indy Eleven at Lucas Oil Stadium.

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Design: Connor Paquette / Image: Joe Craven

FC Cincinnati tested their squad depth on Wednesday and earned an impressive 3-2 road victory against Indy Eleven at Lucas Oil Stadium. The victory was their fourth this season in five matches played away from Nippert Stadium.

Each team snagged a pair of goals in a back-and-forth first half. The Orange & Blue were awarded an early penalty kick in the sixth minute when Emery Welshman was fouled by defender Carlyle Mitchell in the box. Kenney Walker converted the ensuing penalty kick, claiming a small slice of revenge after an unpleasant visit to Lucas Oil in March.

Shortly thereafter, the home side scored two goals in seven minutes to reclaim the lead. Jack McInerney grabbed a stray back-pass by Walker in the 24th minute and got his own rebound from a Spencer Richey save to make it 1-1. The second of Indy’s two goals was a penalty kick awarded against Paddy Barrett, despite seemingly little contact between the Irishman and Soony Saad. However, five minutes before halftime, Jimmy McLaughlin leveled the score at 2-2, finishing off a beautiful slice of buildup play between himself, Corben Bone, and Emery Welshman.

FC Cincinnati played a compelling second half, controlling a fair share possession and creating quality chances throughout. Their efforts paid dividends in the 54th minute when Corben Bone placed a manicured strike past Indy goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams from 20 yards out. The goal was assisted by midfielder Mike Lahoud, who claimed his first start in an FCC jersey this season.

The 3-2 lead would stand for the duration of the contest despite some late pressure from the Eleven. Manu Ledesma, Will Seymore, and Tomi Ameobi all came on as substitutes and got their hands dirty putting the game to bed. Final score: Indy Eleven 2 – 3 FC Cincinnati.

Key Events

7′ – GOAL – CIN – Kenney Walker (PK)
24′ – GOAL – IND – Jack McInerney
30′ – GOAL – IND – Ayoze (PK)
41′ – GOAL – CIN – Jimmy McLaughlin (assist Corben Bone)
54′ – GOAL – CIN – Corben Bone (assist Mike Lahoud)
60′ – YELLOW CARD – CIN – Forrest Lasso
72′ – YELLOW CARD – CIN – Emery Welshman
75′ – YELLOW CARD – CIN – Kenney Walker
88′ – YELLOW CARD – IND – Ayoze

Match Notes

The result takes FC Cincinnati to 14 points and moves them up to the lofty heights of second place in the Eastern Conference after seven matches played. Indy Eleven remains in seventh place on ten points.

FCC featured a rotated roster that included six changes to the squad that earned a 3-0 victory against Ottawa Fury FC. Emery Welshman, Jimmy McLaughlin, Daniel Haber, Mike Lahoud, Matt Bahner, and Paddy Barrett all entered the fray as starters in this contest.

Starting XI

Welshman (86′ Ameobi)
McLaughlin – Bone (81′ Seymore) – Haber (67′ Ledesma)
Lahoud – Walker
Smith – Lasso – Barrett – Bahner
Richey

Barrett and Lahoud received their first starts of the 2018 season. Nazmi Albadawi, Richey Ryan, and Evan Newton all missed the match with minor injuries.

FC Cincinnati “inaugurals”, players that featured on the 2016 roster, scored all three goals on Wednesday.

Alan Koch’s goatee is 2-0 this season and is, in part, responsible for six FC Cincinnati goals.

What’s Next?

The Orange and Blue head back home to Nippert Stadium for their third match in eight days. They’ll face Atlanta United 2 for the first time ever in a 7 pm Saturday kickoff in the Queen City. The USL newcomers have talent on their roster but are winless in their last five games. Alan Koch and company will be looking for maximum points and their first home win of 2018 this weekend.

Check in tomorrow for more analysis of Wednesday’s result and also stay tuned for our Match Program preview of FC Cincinnati versus Atlanta United 2.

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Match Program: FC Cincinnati at Indy Eleven

Orange and Blue Press’ Match Program supplies the information and fast facts you need to prepare for FC Cincinnati at Indy Eleven on Wednesday.

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Design: CSDIV / Image: JES Photography

FC Cincinnati continues its road-heavy schedule this Wednesday in Indianapolis playing back-to-back road games for the second time this season. They will face a solid Indy Eleven squad for the second of three games in the series. In the first meeting between these two sides, FCC managed to grind out a 1-0 victory in Indianapolis. More recently the Orange & Blue appear to have found their form after soundly defeating the Ottawa Fury 3-0 on Saturday. That victory puts FC Cincinnati in fifth place in the USL Eastern Conference standings.

Indy Eleven comes into the match two places behind FC Cincinnati in the East, but they’ve played one less match. The Eleven rebounded from their March loss to FCC with back-to-back victories against North Carolina FC and Nashville SC. Note that Indy’s three victories came against three teams who are currently fighting for the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference. Indianapolis’ defense is one of the toughest in the USL, having conceded only two goals including one penalty in 2018.

This week will most certainly be dangerous waters for the Orange & Blue. They have one of their most action-packed weeks of the year with only three days rest between playing in Ottawa and Indy, and then have just another three days to prepare for their home match Saturday, May 5th against Atlanta United 2.

Fast Facts

Here are four facts to relay to the FC Cincinnati fans sitting around you when you’re watching the game on Wednesday.

  • FC Cincinnati continued their road dominance on Sunday as they held Ottawa scoreless to earn their third clean sheet on the road this season. Even without star goalkeeper Evan Newton, the Orange & Blue looked solid defensively.
  • Both teams have struggled to convert the chances they have created this season. Indy Eleven’s conversion rate (goals scored divided by shots attempted) of 8% is tied for 27th in the 33 team USL. Compare that to a 13% conversion rate for FCC, which is good enough for 19th.
  • Carlyle Mitchell is a rock in the center of Indy Eleven’s defense. The center back leads the team with 35 clearances (18 more than any other Indy player). He also leads the team in aerial duels (30) and aerial duels (21) won.
  • During the last match against Indianapolis, Kenny Walker suffered a concussion after a nasty hit from Jack McInerney. McInerney was given a retroactive one-game suspension for the no-call penalty on Walker. Kenny will no doubt be looking for revenge by attempting to score his third goal in three games after returning from his injury in Indianapolis.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati at Indy Eleven.

Indy Eleven 0 – 1 FC Cincinnati: Deeper Cuts

More insights on FC Cincinnati’s victory in Indy, including Newton’s 4th Law, the impact of FCC’s fullbacks, and another display of character.

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Photo Credit: JES Photography

Attention Cincinnati, this is no April Fool’s joke! FC Cincinnati has won back-to-back shutout road matches for the first time in their young history, and they’ve done it in style. In front of 1200+ jubilant traveling fans, the Orange & Blue earned the full three points in their 1-0 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium. They also helped Indy Eleven set a new club record attendance of 17,535.

Although this match carried all the same ingredients and grit as the away win at Charleston, there is also a different feeling to the result and this team. Let’s roll the tape…

Evan Almighty

It’s only two games into the season and we might run out of superlatives to describe Evan Newton’s sensational play. He is truly inventing the 4th Law of Motion in front of our very eyes. Having labored through engineering school, I’ve never been so happy as I am now to witness a physics experiment and pen a lab report. Evan Newton’s 4th Law of Motion is simply defined as repelling a certain round object in the field of play from crossing the magic line.

Newton spread his six saves evenly across both halves of play, but it was his double save in the 40th minute that earned him his second Man of the Match (MOTM) honors. Guessing correctly on the penalty kick, he followed up the initial block with a sublime foot save to stop Ben Speas strike after the rebound.

Wall of Defense

Even with the exploits of our phenomenal keeper, this was the definition of a team win and it took a wall of defense to secure all three points. The back line of Hoyte, Keinan, Lasso, and Smith may feature as the defensive unit on the formation chart, but it takes all ten field players (and three substitutes) to earn a clean sheet. Legendary pigskin football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant famously said, “Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.” If this is true, FC Cincinnati may have found the winning formula.

After the Charleston victory, we took a peek at FCC’s center back pairing. Today, let’s highlight the outstanding performance of the fullbacks, Justin Hoyte and Blake Smith. In the first two charts below, we see the Indy Eleven’s heatmap and touchmap for the full contest. In particular, these show how the home team concentrated play and attacked along the narrow flanks.

All stats and graphic courtesy USL / Opta

In contrast, look at the defensive and pass distribution chart for Hoyte and Smith. It illustrates how they combated Indy’s penetrating surges and touches. Without these multi-disciplined players being in position, making timely stops, covering the weak side, and acting as an outlet from the back, the scoreline would certainly have been different in Indy.

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Distribution and defensive events from Hoyte and Smith

Another key to victory was FC Cincinnati’s defensive shape. They kept Indy Eleven’s shot selection, specifically in the second half, limited to outside the 18-yard box or attempts from wide angles. Except for Netwon’s tip over the crossbar in the closing minutes, Indy Eleven never really threatened to find the equalizer.

Character

Now let’s delve into what is different about this 2018 FCC team on the pitch from seasons past – character. Upon each signing in the offseason, we heard over-and-over again about the quality of character of the players Coach Koch was bringing into the side. The mental toughness and resolve this side has displayed over the first two matches, particularly in hostile away venues, is encouraging. Yes, they are paid to do a job, but in today’s professional sports it is refreshing to see a group of players proverbially leaving it all on the pitch.

There are many individual examples of this throughout the team, but Will Seymore is deserving of special mention. He stepped off the bench in the 17th minute to fill in for Kenney Walker. Indy Eleven’s Jack McInerney injured Walker with a harsh tackle in the first few minutes of action. On the road, FCC could have wilted, but Will stepped in and the team didn’t miss a beat.

As always, the players never miss a chance to applaud and engage with their passionate fans and that accessibility continues to endear this city to the club, and vice versa.

Coming out of the gates with two wins, two clean sheets, and all six points is the perfect way to start the season. With the inaugural “War for 74” in the rearview mirror, it’s now time for the Dirty River Derby against Louisville City. Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for all of your upcoming FC Cincinnati coverage.

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