I really thought I could make this short and sweet.
Okay, maybe not.
After watching a 32-game regular season, I have seen most of these teams play at least two times, so what the heck, I might as well try to make some predictions on how things will transpire in the USL’s Eastern Conference playoffs that will take place over the next three weeks.
In the case of number one seed, Louisville City FC, I happened to see them play four times, and each time, they looked better and better. My first look at Lou City was when they made a very special extra U.S. Open Cup visit to Pittsburgh in May, taking all of the scrap off the scrappy Tartan Devils FC in a 9-0 rout.
After the match, coach James O’Connor saluted his amateur opponents, but the Irishman was all business. He made sure his team played at a high level, and wouldn’t accept anything less.
His expectations to play with a certain hunger has resonated with his players.
“It was important that we showed them the respect that they deserved for getting to this point,” O’Connor said after that match with Tartan Devils. “And for our guys who needed to get important minutes, and show tremendous hunger to make a statement. It was a professional effort.”
Then, O’Connor’s squad proceeded to dominate the Riverhounds in three games by an aggregate margin of 7-0.
Sure they’ve had some hiccups along the way — but yes they’ve carried that hunger all season long, winning the Eastern Conference by a comfortable eight point margin, with a goal differential of +27 (58 goals/31 goals conceded).
This is not a team that has placed any players in the top of the league scorers, but they’re are deep, talented, cohesive and filled with veterans. Luke Spencer has been a breakthrough player this year and one of the better stories in USL this season. The 26-year old former New England Revolution MLS SuperDraft selection who tore his ACL after his first week of practice in MLS, and subsequently wasn’t signed. He didn’t return to playing professionally until last season with a stint with FC Cincinnati. This year the Cincinnati native has led Lou City with 10 goals. O’Connor has plenty of other scoring options including Cameron Lancaster, George Davis IV, Brian Ownby and Ilija Ilic to name a few. Former Robert Morris standout Devon “Speedy” Williams who won a title with NYRBII last season, and Oscar Jimenez have been solid mainstays in the midfield and this is also a team that has been tough to score goals against.
Now, it gets real for Lou City FC, who clearly are the prohibitive favorites, and the seven other teams that qualified for the USL playoffs. The USL has a Western Conference playoff too — by the way — and to soccer fans in Pittsburgh — those teams might as well be playing in a league in Canada or Mexico — because those games seem so far away, so foreign.
The winners of each conference will meet in the USL Cup on Monday, November 13 at 9 p.m.
But first, here are my Eastern Conference playoff picks:
Friday October 20
1 Louisville City vs 8 Bethlehem Steel FC
Never underestimate a team that’s had to battle its way into a playoffs. Bethlehem Steel earned its way into the playoffs thanks to good enough finish that included a pivotal 3-2 win over the Hounds. With a draw on Sunday against Saint Louis FC, Steel FC ended up with the 8th seed, and now have to face the prohibitive favorites. A former EPL and Orlando City player, O’Connor has the most complete team I’ve seen this year in USL, and after coming close, losing in the Eastern Conference finals the previous two years, this team looks poised to make it to the USL Cup Final.
Prediction: Louisville City 3-1
Saturday, October 21
4 Rochester Rhinos vs. 5 Charlotte Independence
One of these teams has lost five straight games, and lost a chance to host a playoff game. That would be Charlotte. Yes– this is the same Independence team that came to Pittsburgh on July 4 and had their way in a commanding 3-1 win, rosing to the top of the Eastern Conference standings at mid-season. On the flip side, a team we’ve seen a lot of in the past month here in Pittsburgh, Rochester came away with a dramatic 1-1 draw on September 16, showing that when pressing for goals, they can be dangerous especially from the width. The Rhinos clinched a spot in the playoffs with a commanding 2-0 win on October 7 at Highmark Stadium when they scored 27 seconds into the match. Head Coach Bob Lilley, who lifted the USL Cup in 2015, once again has the best defensive team and the league’s best goalkeeper Tomas Gomez, always has his troops ready for tightly contested playoff matches. So, this one should favor the home side
After the October 7 match Lilley told me that competition in USL is now as fierce as ever.
“The league is at a point now where the eight teams that make it out of the 15, I can tell you that there are four or five teams that didn’t make the playoff, have shown they can play with anyone during different stretches of the year. The conference has been that good this year.”
Prediction: Rochester 2-1 (OT)
2 Charleston Battery vs. 7 New York Red Bulls II
Last year the Baby Bulls were a juggernaut — and lifted the USL Cup. This year, they’re not quite the same team, but boy, a few weeks ago against the Hounds, with midfielders Vincent Bezecourt and Florian Valot, leading the way, they picked apart and made the Hounds chase the game from start to finish. Charleston finished the season strong with a 1-0 win over Charlotte to solidify a second place seeding. They had trouble with the Red Bulls II this season, losing early in the season, and playing to a 1-1 draw most recently on August 12. This one feels like a 120 minute plus affair.
Prediction: Charleston, 2-2, wins on PK
3 Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. 6 FC Cincinnati
These might be the two most jekyll and hyde teams in the Eastern Conference. FCC has had some head scratching results (losing 4-0 at Ottawa and 5-0 to NYRBII), and yet they’ve made an incredible run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, beating two pretty good MLS teams (Chicago and Columbus) and a hot NASL team (Miami) along the way. They’re pretty good at home, and have been fairly suspect on the road (yes though they did beat the Riverhounds at Highmark Stadium way back in April). FCC also closed out the season and moved up to a six-seed thanks to a 4-3 win at lowly Toronto FC II. Yes, they’ve surrendered seven goals to Ottawa and TFCII in the past two games. On the other side, Tampa Bay turned things up a notch in September and October (unlike say the Riverhounds) — going unbeaten in its last seven to earn the three seed after things looked dicey in late August. Got to go with the hot team, and slightly more consistent team here at home.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 3-1
SEMIFINALS (Oct 27-28)
I could see Rochester pushing Louisville City to the limit, and the Rowdies and Battery playing to a pretty good battle as well, but in the end I’m going to go out on the limb.
Louisville City def Rochester, 0-0, advances on PK’s
Charleston def Tampa Bay, 2-1
EASTERN CONFERENCE CUP FINAL
Just like the Red Bulls did last year, after having to go through the test of beating the best defensive team in the league, they rolled all the way to the Finals.
Since I’m drinking from my ‘Loouavul’ Cup this morning on my porch as I type this…
Third time will be charm in the Conference Finals for hungry boys in Purple.
Prediction: Louisville City def Charleston, 3-1