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IN FOCUS – 10 Key Storylines in the Conference Quarterfinals

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - [email protected], 10/25/19, 7:00AM EDT

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We’re down to 16 teams, what lies ahead on Saturday night?


Sacramento Republic FC's duo of Thomas Enevoldsen and Cameron Iwasa could be crucial if their side is to upset No. 2 seed Reno 1868 FC. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC

The opening night of action in the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs produced two lower-seed upsets – both in the Eastern Conference in dramatic fashion – and two home sides advancing in the West to give us the top eight in the conference’s regular season standings lined up on the bracket lines.

With the official road to the USL Championship Final now set – no more reseeding after last night, after all – what should fans be on the lookout for when Saturday’s Conference Quarterfinals kick off? Here are 10 storylines worth watching.


 1. Can Sacramento overcome Reno on the road?

If you’ve only followed the Donner Pass Derby rivalry between Reno 1868 FC and Sacramento Republic FC in league play since Reno joined the Championship, you’ll know it’s been pretty one-sided. This season, in fact, 1868 FC swept the regular season series between the two clubs by a combined score of 6-1, which included a 4-1 victory on the road at Papa Murphy’s Park. On the face of it, that doesn’t bode well for Republic FC as it heads to Greater Nevada Field on Saturday night, but this is the playoffs, and you know what that means? Win, or go home, and in games where that has been the stakes between the two sides, Sacramento has been unbeatable.

Each of the past three seasons, Republic FC and 1868 FC have met in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and each time Sacramento has advanced – twice on home turf and in 2018 at Greater Nevada Field. If Sacramento can use the Open Cup as inspiration, it could find itself in the Western Conference Semifinals for the second time in three seasons.


 2. Can Pittsburgh close out Birmingham’s visit in 90 minutes?

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has set numerous club records this year, making it arguably the most successful season in the club’s two-decade history, and one of the most impressive feats was sporting an undefeated record at Highmark Stadium, one of only two teams in the league to go unbeaten at home. There was a minor caveat to that record, though, as although the Hounds didn’t suffer a home loss, seven teams went into their stadium and earned a point as Pittsburgh compiled a 10-0-7 record. Compared to Indy Eleven’s record of 13-0-4, a little luster leaves the Hounds’ achievement.

Why is that important now, though? Well, you only need to think back a year when Highmark Stadium hosted its first USL Championship Playoffs game when the Hounds were a No. 3 seed against Bethlehem Steel FC. Twice they took the lead against their Pennsylvania rival, but twice Steel FC got back on level terms to send the game to a penalty shootout. There, the visitors took victory, ending a great year for Head Coach Bob Lilley’s side. With Birmingham Legion FC having shown an ability to rebound against North Carolina FC on Wednesday, the Hounds may want to put this game away in regulation, lest the memories of 2018 come back to haunt them again.


 3. Can Austin keep its cool in Phoenix?

According to Transfermarkt.com, there’s no club in the USL Championship blessed with as much experience as Austin Bold FC, whose average player age is 27.8 years old. So, it was a surprise when, on the club’s first visit to face Phoenix Rising FC that it seemed to lose focus so regularly. Leaving space for Solomon Asante inside the penalty area or getting caught upfield allowing Phoenix to counterattack didn’t seem like a good plan, and so it proved in a 6-0 defeat that – arriving shortly after a thrilling win against Orange County SC – proved rather deflating.

Bold FC has accomplished a lot in its first season, and has some players who’ve played in big games before – “Players on our team have played bigger games than the ones we’re playing now,” said Bold FC midfielder Sonny Guadarrama to the Austin American-Statesman’s Chris Bils after Wednesday’s win against the LA Galaxy II – but can they make that experience translate in a place like Phoenix? It’s going to be fascinating to find out.


 4. Will the New York Red Bulls II regain their identity?


New York Red Bulls II's Jared Stroud scored when his side defeated Indy Eleven early this season, but the Red Bulls II's recent form has been a cause for postseason concern. | Photo courtesy New York Red Bulls II

The past three seasons, it’s been Louisville City FC, the New York Red Bulls II and then everybody else when it comes to the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The two sides have met in the Eastern Conference Final on three successive occasions, but while Louisville looks to have found its typical fall form, the Red Bulls II have surprisingly sputtered into the postseason. Now as they head to Indy Eleven on Saturday, all eyes will be on whether they can find the side that made life so miserable for most opponents before the calendar turned to October.

“[We need to] remember that, you know, we've had a good season, we’ve played some really good games, got some really good results and we just got to find that team,” said Head Coach John Wolyniec on Thursday, and there’s some truth to that. One of those games was against Indy, where New York outshot its opponent 20-7 at Lucas Oil Stadium, but spurned chance after chance and left with a 1-0 defeat. Finding a performance like that – and finishing their chances this time – could be the catalyst to another Red Bulls II postseason run.


 5. Will it be a happy homecoming at The Mike for Indy?

There’s been no place like home for Indy Eleven in 2019 as the club racked up the most home points in the regular season (43) thanks to the aforementioned 13-0-4 record at Lucas Oil Stadium. But now the club is heading back to its old stomping grounds for the playoffs; Michael A. Carroll Stadium, better known as “The Mike” to Indy fans, a venue the club called home for four seasons prior to joining the USL Championship.

The club had success at the stadium, including a remarkable 2016 campaign where it won 13 out of 16 contests at “The Mike”. Finding a way to recapture the magic of that era could be a sure way to success for this year’s club as Dane Kelly and Tyler Pasher look to play the roles of Eamon Zayed and Justin Braun this time around.


 6. Can the Monarchs end their playoff hoodoo?

Since the start of the club’s 2017 campaign, there has been no better home side in the regular season than Real Monarchs SLC. Whether at Rio Tinto Stadium or its new home at Zions Bank Stadium that opened last April, the Monarchs have been dominant and produced a 36-5-9 home record over the past three regular seasons. So that makes it even more inexplicable that over the last two seasons, the Monarchs’ home record in the playoffs has been 0-1-1.

Now, as any statistician might tell you, that’s certainly attributable to the scale of the number of games in each category – and as we all know in 90 minutes, 120 minutes or a penalty shootout, anything can happen in a single-elimination format – but those defeats over the past two years in a penalty shootout to Sacramento Republic FC in 2017 and on a stoppage-time goal by Reno 1868 FC last year might be in the back of a few minds on Saturday afternoon. Whether the Monarchs can overcome that hurdle is going to be fascinating to see.


 7. Will Louisville’s Slugger Field streak continue?

As we mentioned previously, the postseason has meant go-time for Louisville City FC over its first four seasons, and with a home date against the Tampa Bay Rowdies to kick things off this year the club’s remarkable playoff streak at Slugger Field comes into the spotlight again. Louisville has won 10 consecutive home playoff games at the venue – and in fact has never lost at home in the USL Championship Playoffs after winning last year’s title game against Phoenix at Lynn Stadium on the campus of the University of Louisville.

After putting up eight goals against the Swope Park Rangers in what at the time looked like it was going to be the final game at Slugger Field for the club before it moves to Lynn Family Stadium – its new 11,700-seat venue scheduled to open for next season – LouCity jumped up into the top four seed on the final Saturday of the season. With Tampa Bay having rallied dramatically to earn a 2-2 draw when the teams last met at the venue, the Rowdies should play without fear in this do-or-die moment, but Louisville’s players – especially its longstanding veterans – will want to preserve the playoff history it has established at Slugger Field.  


 8. Can Fresno ride out its two key absences?


Fresno FC's Qudus Lawal put the Foxes - including Juan Pablo Caffa - on his back when they defeated El Paso Locomotive FC earlier this year, but he'll be a key absence in Saturday's return contest for the hosts. | Photo courtesy Kiel Maddox / Fresno FC

There was bad news for Fresno FC last weekend as it got bumped into third place in the Western Conference after seeming primed for a top-two finish for most of the regular season. The worse news coming out of its clash with Orange County SC, though, was that it would be without two important pieces for the club’s first playoff contest in its history after both Qudus Lawal and Ramon Martin del Campo received red cards during the contest.

Lawal ranks second on the Foxes with 10 goals this season and scored twice when Fresno hosted Saturday’s opponent El Paso Locomotive FC at Chukchansi Park in June, while Del Campo ranked second on the team in minutes played behind only goalkeeper C.J. Cochran, and ranked first on the team with 31 blocked shots and 117 clearances. Those are going to be difficult holes to fill for Head Coach Adam Smith, and how he handles this situation might be the difference in Fresno advancing and getting both players back for a Conference Semifinal and elimination at the hands of Locomotive FC.


 9. How are Charleston’s energy levels?

There’s little like the adrenaline rush of winning a game in a penalty shootout, and the Charleston Battery’s players looked on cloud nine on Wednesday night after Jarad van Schaik’s shot found the bottom-right corner of the net to send his side through on the road against Ottawa Fury FC. But, then there’s the comedown, and the added miles that the players had to work to simply get through 120 minutes while making 21 tackles and 27 clearances while chasing for possession.

How the Battery are able to rebound is going to dictate how they fare on Saturday night, as Nashville SC awaits after a week off following its 3-0 victory against ATL UTD 2 to close the regular season. NSC has done a tremendous job in general this season of getting out to fast starts and putting its opponents under pressure at home. That didn’t quite happen the last time the Battery visited First Tennessee Park on August 24, but a mid-half flurry of shots meant that when Kotaro Higashi gave Charleston the lead right before halftime it felt like it had come against the run of play. Finding a way to withstand Nashville’s early pressure is going to be the order of the day for the Battery to try and gain a foothold in the contest.


 10. Is Orange County primed for another run?

If I told you that since August 17, one club had matched Phoenix Rising FC’s totals for wins and losses during the regular season, what would you make of that side’s playoff chances? Pretty good, right? And they should be for Orange County SC, which closed the regular season on a 9-2-0 run – Phoenix played one more game and sat at 9-2-1 – to assure itself of a playoff place.

But, the side’s form prior to the final third of the season meant that OCSC is only sitting in the fifth seed in the Western Conference, which could mean a path to the USL Championship Final that would see it need to defeat a Real Monarchs SLC side it suffered one of those two losses to earlier this month, and the aforementioned Rising FC in its next two contests. Can Orange County pull that off? It feels like it has the talent to, and the prospect of a return fixture from last year’s Western Conference Final, this time in Phoenix, should be enticing. The last side to reach the USL Championship Final as a No. 5 seed was OCSC’s SoCal rival the LA Galaxy II in 2015; emulating that feat would be a tremendous achievement for Head Coach Braeden Cloutier’s experienced squad.

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