Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
The 2017 USL regular season – the longest in the league’s history – is over, and we’ve got 16 teams left standing for a chance to claim the USL Cup four weeks from tonight on ESPNU. There’s still plenty to discuss from the past weekend, though, with some teams looking primed for a run at the championship and others looking for anything that will get things turned around as they sit four victories from glory.
1. BRING IT ON HOME: The goal for any team that’s made it to the postseason is to build momentum in the remaining games on the schedule. Louisville City FC’s late push to take a 3-1 victory against the Richmond Kickers on Saturday night in front of more than 9,000 fans at Slugger Field produced just the result the hosts were looking for on a night of celebration for the players and the fans. After reaching the Eastern Conference Final in the past two seasons, only having to travel for the decisive game to reach the USL Cup, Louisville’s big homefield advantage is going to make for a tough out for its Eastern Conference foes.
2. ALL THE ANGLES: If some momentum is good, being the hottest team going into the postseason should in theory be better. That’s the tag that OKC Energy FC will carry with it, as it heads on the road to face Reno 1868 FC this Saturday night after taking its fourth consecutive victory to close out the regular season on the back of another inspired display by forward Jose Angulo. The 2013 USL Most Valuable Player is in sparkling form with six goals and three assists in October, with Sunday’s display in a 3-1 win against Seattle Sounders FC 2 highlighting everything the Colombian has brought to OKC during its run to the postseason. Two deft assists and a powerful finish left Energy FC looking squarely at pulling another road upset in the Western Conference Quarterfinals this season.
3. FLAMING HOT: Energy FC’s burst of victories to end the season has been impressive, but the elongated stretch of form that put Phoenix Rising FC from outside the playoff positions to the verge of a home playoff game this weekend has been nothing but awe-inspiring. Rising FC was on pace for the nine-goal victory it needed after 20 minutes against the Portland Timbers 2 on Saturday night in front of another great crowd at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex of more than 6,700. However, while the hosts couldn’t keep up the pace for the duration, the quality Phoenix brought in the final third makes the side a threat to win it all in its first trip to the postseason. Saturday night’s game with defending Western Conference champions the Swope Park Rangers is definitely a must-see game.
4. EVER READY: San Antonio FC has sat near the top of the Western Conference standings for much of the regular season on the back of its outstanding organization and impenetrable defense. With the playoffs around the corner, though, the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference might have added its final piece of the puzzle in Mexican forward Ever Guzman, whose good run of four goals in the past three games continued on Saturday night in a 3-1 win against Rio Grande Valley FC. SAFC’s biggest weakness this season had been a lack of a consistent scoring threat. Even with Billy Forbes reaching 10 goals this season, only four of those came from May onward. In Guzman, SAFC might now have the man to push it over the top in the upcoming month.
5. HAPPY ANNIVERSARY: The Charleston Battery’s defense hasn’t been quite as good as San Antonio FC’s this season, but it hasn’t been far off, as center back Taylor Mueller marshalled the back line – playing every minute of the regular season alongside midfielder Justin Portillo – to the first second-place finish for the Battery in the USL era. Even when Charleston claimed the USL Cup in 2012, it was the No. 3 seed in the single-table format, but after Saturday’s 1-0 victory against the Charlotte Independence, the side is in position to try and challenge for silverware again. The Battery marked their 20th anniversary with a championship. With their combination of organization, experience and just enough firepower, might they do the same for their 25th?
6. HITTING THE SKIDS: As little as three weeks ago, it seemed inevitable the Charlotte Independence would be hosting the club’s first USL Cup Playoffs game this weekend. After a five-game losing streak to close the regular season, capped by Saturday’s defeat to the Battery from the Sportsplex at Matthews, that’s no longer the case. A rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinals is now on the docket for the Independence as they visit the Rochester Rhinos on Saturday evening. As big a concern as there might be for Charlotte considering its run of form, though, there is also room for some optimism. While they’ve lost five consecutive games, the numbers for the Independence haven’t been indicative of a side that’s playing badly. More, it’s a team that’s either run into a hot goalkeeper or had some bad luck in front of goals. With the chance to overturn their elimination a season ago in Rochester, the matchup might be just what Charlotte needs to spin things around.
7. RUMBLING THROUGH: As disappointing as the Independence’s conclusion to the regular season was, the Rhinos’ was almost ideal. Three consecutive victories weren’t enough to move into the top three, but the side will still get to open the postseason and its bid for a second USL Cup in three years at home, which is certainly a good thing. Rochester’s 2-1 victory against the New York Red Bulls II on Saturday evening gave the side its ninth home victory of the season, as Jochen Graf’s good run of form continued. Rochester has again been stout defensively, conceding the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference and, as such, is going to be a threat even should it face a trip to Louisville City FC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
8. LEAVE IT BEHIND: FC Cincinnati has been unquestionably the most confounding team of the regular season, with its 4-3 victory against Toronto FC II on Saturday night the most recent example of the inconsistency that’s been present for a clearly talented squad. As underwhelming as FCC has been on numerous occasions this season, though, a late victory thanks to Justin Hoyte’s stylish finish and another excellent display by Kenney Walker could allow everything to be swept aside as the postseason arrives. Cincinnati went on a remarkable four-game winning streak to reach the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup earlier this year. There are no guarantees, especially going to visit a very strong Tampa Bay Rowdies side, but the clean slate FCC now has could be exactly what it needs to rise to the occasion.
9. SWITCHED ON: Outside of OKC Energy FC and Phoenix Rising FC, no-one finished the USL regular season in more style than Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, with a 4-2 victory against playoff-bound Tulsa Roughnecks FC – an exclamation mark on a run that provides plenty to build on in 2018. The Switchbacks will look back on this season with some regret, as dropped points saw the side fail to live up to its potential consistently enough. If the Colorado Springs side that ended the season shows up refreshed next spring, there should be a lot to look forward to at Weidner Field.
10. SQUEEZED OUT: Just like the Switchbacks, Orange County SC’s big performances were too few and far between to earn a third consecutive trip to the playoffs, but with Friday night’s 4-3 victory against Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 the side – and Irvin Parra in particular – ended its 2018 on a high note. With a goal and two assists, Parra became the first player in USL history to finish with double-digit goals and assists in the regular season, going one better than the likes of historic USL standouts in Kevin Molino, Kevin Kerr and Luke Vercollone, all of whom finished one assist short. Parra’s play since his arrival brought a major boost to OCSC, and with the side now getting ready for a full season at its beautiful new home, the club’s fans should have some optimism going into 2018.
11. THREE IN A ROW: For a three-year span, it felt like winning the USL Regular Season Championship was developing into a bit of a curse, as the side that claimed the shield failed to reach the USL Cup that postseason. Thanks to the victories of the Rochester Rhinos and New York Red Bulls II over the past two years the thoughts of a jinx have subsided, but it still feels as though Real Monarchs SLC is going to have to be at its very best to run the gauntlet and claim the championship. The good news, however, is Real seems ready. A 2-1 victory to close out the regular season against the LA Galaxy II left the side looking ready to go. After claiming a league-high 12 home wins at Rio Tinto Stadium this year, the mountain for any visitor to the overall No. 1 seed is going to be a steep one to climb.