With one-third of the 2018 USL regular season remaining, it’s not too early to start playing the what-if game when it comes to potential postseason matchups. If this past weekend in the Eastern Conference is any guide, we could be in for something special in a couple of months if certain seedings fall the right way. With sixth-place Indy Eleven and seventh-place Nashville SC more than holding their own on the road in two of the tougher places to visit in the league, the countdown to the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs feels as though it has arrived.
1. HEADED DUE NORTH: Having taken the lead twice on the road, and having missed a penalty kick inside the final 20 minutes that would have restored their advantage again, Indy Eleven was disappointed not to come away with more than a 2-2 draw with Louisville City FC, but despite that the potential the side has to make some noise in the postseason should it clinch a spot was certainly on show at Slugger Field. Chief of those was Jack McInerney scoring twice on the day, with the former Philadelphia Union forward having now doubled his goal total for the season (6) in the Eleven’s past two outings. “We definitely did enough to win the game,” said Indy Head Coach Martin Rennie. “We finished the game very, very strong. You know, it’s disappointing not to win, but at the same time it’s a good performance, a good point. I think we can take a lot of positives from it.” There are two key games coming next for the Eleven, at home to North Carolina FC and away to Ottawa Fury FC, but things seem to be pointed back in the right direction again for Rennie’s crew.
2. RISING BACK UP: While Indy landed solid blows to Louisville, the defending USL Cup champion showed why they hold that title and had just as good an argument for all three points as their visitors in what was a compelling contest from start to finish. From Ilija Ilic’s immediate response within 60 seconds of Indy’s opening goal to George Davis IV’s rifled finish that ended up proving decisive thanks to Greg Ranjitsingh’s penalty-kick save on Eugene Starikov a little over 10 minutes later, Louisville’s ability to rebound was again on display as it rallied to earn points for the fourth time this season after conceding the opening goal. While that’s a nice feather in the side’s cap, though, Louisville was still left wanting more, which is the mark of a side that’s going to be a tough out when October arrives. “It’s nice to show resilience and come back to get the draw,” said Davis, whose goal was the 50th USL regular-season goal of his career, “but at the end of the day, we’re going to go back to the drawing board and see what we could’ve done better and how we could come out of that game and get three points.”
3. RISE TO THE MOMENT: Sitting only a point ahead of ninth-place Bethlehem Steel FC, Nashville SC has still got work to do to earn a trip to the USL Cup Playoffs in its first professional season, but just like Indy Eleven it certainly is easy to see the sort of trouble Head Coach Gary Smith’s side could cause if it does book a place in the postseason after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Eastern Conference-leader FC Cincinnati. If not for a slack piece of defending less than a minute into the contest that allowed FCC’s Danni Konig to strike after just 28 seconds, NSC could have taken a win back to the Music City, but Walker Hume’s late equalizer was the least the visitors deserved after a terrific road display. Nashville is now 2-1-4 against the teams currently sitting in the top four of the Eastern Conference this season and will not be a fun matchup for anyone should it gain a postseason berth.
4. TARGET PRACTICE: If the week building up to Saturday’s game further reemphasized FC Cincinnati’s status as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference this season, the game itself showed that there are still no givens at this point in a highly-competitive field. “Disappointing performance, disappointing result, disappointing game in so many respects,” said FCC Head Coach Alan Koch. “It was probably the game this season that I’m most looking forward to going and reviewing.” If there is a silver lining, though, it’s that Cincinnati still came through the game in earning a point and potentially got a glimpse of what the final 12 games of the regular season and the playoffs are going to look like. The target on FCC’s back has never been bigger, and this past Saturday showed the side is going to have to be up to the challenge of that frontrunner status.
5. PRESSURE POINTS: That late-season pressure to pick up points was also evident for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which needed to pull out some late stops to earn a 1-0 victory against Toronto FC II at Highmark Stadium and gain ground on Cincinnati at the top of the Eastern standings. Hounds goalkeeper Dan Lynd only had to make two saves in the contest, but they both came at crucial moments as Toronto almost pulled a second consecutive surprise behind the efforts of young forward Shaan Hundal. Lynd’s saves bookended the best moment of the match for the hosts, which unsurprisingly came thanks to the efforts of Christiano Francois as his weaving run and cross allowed Neco Brett to score his 11th goal of the season. “It was a great goal,” said Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley. “Dennis Chin made a great run early in the sequence. We found an outlet and found the next pass to make another run. That was a great moment.”
6. FINDING THE HIGHWAY: With all the near-misses Sacramento Republic FC had in the first half of its Highway 99 Derby clash with Fresno FC on Saturday night there could easily have been some doubt cast as to whether it was going to be one of those nights for the hosts at Papa Murphy’s Park. But then from almost nothing a moment of brilliance by Fresno native Villyan Bijev produced the goal Republic FC needed to maintain its positive momentum and move into the top four of the Western Conference standings. Sacramento is now undefeated in its last five games (3-0-2) and has plenty of positive momentum as it moves into its final third of the season.
7. SILVER STREAK: While Republic FC has some momentum on its side, there’s no-one hotter right now than San Antonio FC, which grabbed its fourth consecutive victory with a 2-1 win against the LA Galaxy II at Toyota Field to continue its rise up the Western Conference. For all the questions that were swirling around SAFC a few weeks ago as the side had difficulty putting together a run of consistent form, something has now clearly clicked into place for Head Coach Darren Powell’s side that should be turning some heads higher up the conference standings. Now one win away from equaling a club-record winning streak as it heads to Seattle this weekend, San Antonio has moved within range of a run at a top-four finish if it can maintain its current pace.
8. BECOMING MR. CONSISTENT: The road hadn’t been kind to Phoenix Rising FC over the past couple of months – the side hadn’t taken victory away from the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex since May 30 – but with a 4-1 victory against the Portland Timbers 2 on Sunday a focused and energized Phoenix side produced one of its best attacking displays in a while as Chris Cortez reached a personal landmark in the process. Cortez’s brace moved him into double-digits for the first time in a USL regular-season, and to 44 regular-season goals for his career after moving into the all-time Top 10 with his game-winner against Seattle on July 20. Capable of the spectacular in the past, Cortez’s career year has brought consistency from a player who has been a fan-favorite from the moment he arrived in Phoenix.
9. REACH FOR THE TOP: Cortez figures to be one of the key figures as Phoenix faces his former club, Orange County SC, in what is one of the biggest games in Week 22 of the season with the two sides sitting level on points in second and third place in the West. Orange County’s 2-1 victory on Saturday against the Swope Park Rangers ensured it would head to Phoenix with the edge in the standings as Darwin Jones’ first two goals for the club gave the hosts victory against the defending Western Conference champion for the second time this season. The biggest question now is whether Orange County can find a breakthrough against one of the sides it is battling for a high seed in the USL Cup Playoffs, with Phoenix having gone 1-0-1 so far this season against OCSC thanks to Cortez’s game-winner the last time they met on June 29. There would certainly be no better time for Orange County to break its winless run against the rest of the top four in the West than Saturday in what could easily be a sneak-preview of a playoff matchup down the road.
10. EMERGING INTO THE LIGHT: While Phoenix and Orange County are well on their way to a postseason berth, Saint Louis FC might have seen some light at the end of the tunnel after its 2-0 victory against Seattle Sounders FC 2 on Saturday that saw the hosts do enough in the first half to come away with a second consecutive victory. Sitting in 11th place in the West currently the next few weeks are going to be crucial as Saint Louis makes up its games in hand on the four teams sitting directly above it in the conference standings. Continue its recent run and there’s a playoff place to be had for Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ side, which has enough points available to it over its final 13 games to outrun the likes of Portland and Swope Park to the finish line. Another three points this Saturday against one of the others hoping to chase down the top eight would go a long way toward a potential postseason berth.
11. CARRYING THE TORCH: The opponent for Saint Louis this weekend is Las Vegas Lights FC, which this past Saturday night was carried by goalkeeper Ricardo Ferriño to a fourth consecutive home victory at Cashman Field that helped keep the club’s playoff hopes alive. While he’s developed somewhat of a reputation this season for his foibles, against Rio Grande Valley FC there was nothing to find fault with as Ferriño recorded a seven-save shutout to keep Lights FC in the game against the Toros, who were again left to curse their luck on another trying night that saw the visitors hold a 7-2 edge in shots on target but leave Vegas with nothing to show for their efforts. Ferriño will need to come up big down the stretch for Lights FC’s playoff hopes to come true, but it feels like he’s ready to embrace that pressure as the season comes down to the wire.