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11 Things – Ready for the Finale

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 10/08/18, 9:13AM EDT

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Weekend results set up fights to the finish across Western, Eastern Conferences

It was never going to be simple, was it? From numerous twists and turns around the Eastern Conference playoff line to a pair of results that set up the prospect of the closest-run battle at the top of the Western Conference since Orange County last sat atop the standings in the 2015 season, the past weekend of action produced conclusions that ensured we’d be going to the final weekend of the season to determine which teams are in the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs and where they’ll be seeded. Here are 11 numbers that helped tell the story of Week 30 in the 2018 USL regular season.

3 – With 11 goals and 13 assists this season, Aodhan Quinn has been one of the key figures to Orange County SC’s success this season, but his penalty kick in the fourth minute of stoppage time on Saturday night to lift the side to a 2-1 victory against Seattle Sounders FC set up a potentially enthralling final week of the season that will see OCSC and Phoenix Rising FC potentially go to tiebreakers to decide which team finishes top of the Western Conference. After Phoenix’s scoreless draw with Reno 1868 FC wrapped up soon after Orange County’s victory the gap in both points and goal differential between the two clubs sits at three in favor of OCSC with Rising FC holding a game in hand. With the chance the two sides could finish with identical records, next Saturday night could see the top seed in the Western Conference decided by goal differential in what has been one of the most remarkable races we’ve seen to wrap up a regular season in the league’s modern era.

8 – For third-place Sacramento Republic FC, a chance at a first-place finish disappeared the moment Quinn’s penalty kick found the net, but two goals in eight minutes by Keven Aleman led the side to a 2-1 victory against the LA Galaxy II that assured the side of a home game in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, and potentially more should Phoenix fail to navigate its final week of the season cleanly. Winners of three in a row, and undefeated in its last seven games overall, Sacramento is coming into the sort of form that looks set to make it a threat to the presumptive top two when the postseason arrives with its victory on Saturday night setting a club record with its 18th win of the regular season. The mark it broke? The 17 wins Republic FC picked up in its inaugural 2014 season, when it also ended the season by raising the USL Cup.

5 – At the other end of the Western Conference’s playoff race, San Antonio FC ensured the final week of the regular season would have plenty at stake as it took a 3-1 victory against Las Vegas Lights FC that moved the club into the eighth and final playoff place going to its last game of the season. Ever Guzman struck twice for the hosts, who had conceded the opening goal of the game, while Lance Laing recorded a goal and assist in the same game for the fifth time since joining the club on loan from FC Cincinnati. It’s become a pattern for the Jamaican, every time he’s scored a goal for SAFC there’s been an assist to go with it, and with South Texas Derby rival Rio Grande Valley FC coming to Toyota Field for the final game of the regular season next Saturday the side will be hoping it can count on Laing to continue his remarkable contribution to its playoff pursuit.

4 – San Antonio’s victory has raised the pressure on Saint Louis FC, while now sits in ninth place after its bye this weekend, but the side goes into the final week of the regular season knowing that whatever SAFC does against RGVFC next Saturday all it will need is four points from its final two regular-season outings to ensure it is part of the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time. Facing Tulsa Roughnecks FC on Wednesday night in a game that will resume in the in the ninth minute after its original postponement on July 14 and fellow Sooner State side OKC Energy FC this Saturday those points certainly should be there for the taking with Saint Louis on a six-game winning streak at Toyota Stadium – Saint Louis. Fail to take victory against the Roughnecks, though, and Saint Louis could be looking over its shoulder when the final game of the season arrives.

10 – Just as in the Western Conference, the race for the final places in the postseason in the Eastern Conference are also guaranteed to go down to the final weekend of the season thanks in part to the New York Red Bulls II, who despite being down to 10 men managed to claim their first road victory of the regular season in a 2-1 victory against North Carolina FC that once again shifted the balance of power in the postseason race. Tom Barlow’s goal, the end result of a disastrous pass in the defensive third by NCFC, moved New York not only into eight-place at the end of the night but also potentially in position to clinch its playoff place on Tuesday when it hosts Penn FC. A victory for the Red Bulls II and defeat for North Carolina on the road against Louisville would book New York’s fourth consecutive trip to the postseason. That playoff berth looked as though it was in the grasp of North Carolina as it stormed back to level after going behind in the first half, especially with the man-advantage caused by a remarkable loss of temper by New York’s Anatole Abang after the halftime whistle had gone. Instead, it’s New York with the edge, a sign of how quickly things can change sometimes when the margins between success and failure are so narrow.

22 – If North Carolina is going to keep its playoff hopes alive on Tuesday as it visits Slugger Field, it’s going to have to contend with Cameron Lancaster, who on Friday night notched his 22nd goal of the regular season to tie the USL single-season record set by former teammate Matt Fondy in the club’s inaugural season in 2015. Lancaster’s record-equaling goal arrived after he’d come on as a second-half substitute, a clinical finish that moved Louisville into sole possession of second place by the end of the weekend as it took a 3-1 victory against Toronto FC II. With Louisville knowing two victories to close out the regular season would also ensure a fourth consecutive top-two finish, the hosts are going to be a serious challenge for North Carolina to produce a victory it almost has to have to keep its postseason hopes intact.  

200 – Lancaster wasn’t the only second-half substitute to make history on Friday night at Lamport Stadium. For George Davis IV, however, it was as simple as stepping onto the field as the three-time USL All-League selection became the first player to register 200 regular-season appearances in the league’s modern era. One of the five players to have also notched 50 regular-season goals in the league since the start of the 2011 season, Davis has seen plenty during his career, which also included stints with the Dayton Dutch Lions, Orange County SC, Orlando City SC and the Richmond Kickers before his arrival in Louisville before the 2016 season. One of the three players who served as interim Head Coach for LouCity earlier this season, there are few players who’ve earned the respect Davis has for his contribution to his teams past and present, and the manner which he’s gone about his work over the past eight seasons.

18 – Louisville now holds a two-point edge on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in the race for second place in the Eastern Conference after the Hounds outshot FC Cincinnati 18-4 in their third and final meeting of the regular season but were unable to find a way past FCC goalkeeper Spencer Richey in a goalless draw at Highmark Stadium. Pittsburgh’s pressure throughout the night saw the hosts create numerous chances and hold Cincinnati to only one shot in the second half off a set piece, but the Hounds will likely have been disappointed not to have tested Richey more often as they finished with only four shots on goal and missed out on the chance to end FCC’s undefeated run.

134 – While Cincinnati’s winning streak was snapped at 10 games, the side’s 14th shutout of the season allowed it to equal the Richmond Kickers’ modern-era record of 22 games undefeated as it heads to the final weekend of the season and its final regular-season contest on the road against Nashville SC. After Saturday night’s game, FCC had gone 134 days since it last suffered defeat in a league contest with the 2-0 loss to Louisville City FC on May 26 at Nippert Stadium marking the last time Head Coach Alan Koch’s side came up on the short end of a league result. With Nashville having a chance to not only clinch a playoff place but potentially improve its seeding for the postseason after a 3-0 victory against the Kickers on Saturday night, there should be plenty of intrigue when the two rivals take to the field at First Tennessee Park next Saturday.

64 – The flipside to FC Cincinnati’s success is the continued struggles of Las Vegas Lights FC, which has gone 64 days without a win after its defeat to San Antonio FC on Saturday night despite taking an early lead at Toyota Field. There’s been no question Las Vegas has lived up to it goal of playing exciting and attractive soccer regularly this season, but the side’s defensive issues have been too much to overcome on an 11-game winless streak that sent the side from 7-9-5 on August 4 after its victory against the LA Galaxy II to a conclusion that will see the side finish 15th in the Western Conference after the final week of its inaugural season. One of four teams to have conceded more than 70 goals this season – an average of more than two per game – the upcoming week promises more potential fireworks as Lights FC squares off with Phoenix Rising FC and Sacramento Republic FC, two of the top-three sides in the West.

12 – Tulsa Roughnecks FC has also struggled this year after the magical run to the postseason of a season ago, but one player that has risen above for the club has been Joaquin Rivas, who on Saturday night scored his 12th goal of the season to set a new modern-era club record as he surpassed the 11 goals accumulated by Sammy Ochoa and Ian Svantesson in previous seasons. The goal came, unfortunately, in a 2-1 defeat to Rio Grande Valley FC that kept the Roughnecks rooted to the bottom of the Western Conference, but Rivas’ play should at least be some grounds for optimism as the side heads into the offseason. If Tulsa can add some more pieces around the El Salvador international, a turnaround wouldn’t be that improbable starting next spring.

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