Week 27 Preview: what you need to know
One game overshadows everything else
The West has been tight all season long, to the point that almost every game has had significant implications attached. Until the past few weeks, that wasn’t true in the East, but that has changed. Although the conference is fairly clearly divided into the haves and have-nots, the 7 playoff spots are spread over just a 16-point range (the West is actually wider now at 24 points). The top 4 are just 6 points apart, and 2 through 4 are just 2 points apart. Every game is critical now, and the schedule for each team equally so. That’s especially true for the Legion who in their remaining 7 games play 3 teams in the Eastern playoff spots and the top team in the West. And 4 road games. It’s not a sprint to the finish, it’s a marathon.
The Open Cup closes down
There are 4 USL Championship games on Wednesday’s slate, but they all pale in comparison to the US Open Cup final (7:00pm, ESPN+). Sacramento Republic head to Orlando City of MLS looking to be the first lower division team to take the trophy since the Rochester Rhinos in 1999 (beating the Colorado Rapids 2-0), and none have even made the final since 2008, when the Charleston Battery lost 1-2 to DC United.
To prepare for this game SacRep pretty much sacrificed its game in Louisville this past weekend, resting fully 10 starters. They lost that game, of course, although nowhere near as badly as one might expect. From a league standings perspective, it worked out well, as New Mexico United – right below them – also lost, and the Republic still has a game in hand.
Further preparations have also come under some scrutiny, and from the wrong observers. Rumor has it that an Orlando City employee was caught yesterday spying on Sacramento’s training session. City deny this, of course, but it has the ring of truth to it. Orlando City is a trashy organization not known for its observance of moral proprieties. It’s also a clear indication that the pressure is entirely on Orlando and that they are feeling it keenly.
First, being the first MLS team to lose the US Open Cup this century would be highly embarrassing, to say the least. Second, Orlando has never won a trophy since it began play in MLS in 2015. They didn’t even make the playoffs until 2020 and have never made it past the quarterfinals. The closest they have ever come to winning anything was the Open Cup semifinals in 2019. Thirdly, the club was sold just over a month ago to the Wilf brothers (for a reported price of between $400 and $450 million). The Wilfs are owners of the Minnesota Vikings1Full disclosure: as a Bears fan, I consider the Vikings equally as detestable as Orlando City. who similarly play in a disgusting shade of purple. So the new owners are going to want to see a quick return on their investment.
Orlando is actually performing fairly well this season. They are sitting on 42 points from 28 games and are 5th in the MLS Eastern Conference. Like the USLC, that’s the highest away playoff spot, but they are only 3 points out of the home spots with a game in hand.
In addition to winning the trophy itself, also on the line is a spot in the 2023 CONCACAF Champions League. That would be very cool for a USL team to compete in, if perhaps prohibitively expensive. The Rhinos did not compete in that tournament back in 2000, as it was a much smaller event back then.
This one is going to be a big one.
The most important part
The Legion has played at least one game against team in the East except one. That would be Indy Eleven, and as luck would have the Legion find themselves facing a team that possibly finally found some form after struggling all season. Saturday’s game (6:00pm) will be the away leg of the season series. The 2 teams have played 6 times previously (4 times last season, twice in 2019), splitting the games 4-2, although the Legion has only won once on the road.
Indy currently sit in 9th place on 29 points and per 538 have less than a 1% chance of making the playoffs. That being said, they just pulled off a remarkable twofer beating both conference leaders, first San Antonio away 1-0 and then Louisville City at home 2-1 over a 5-day span before a much less impressive 0-0 draw in Detroit last weekend. It’s rather late in the season to be finally winning big games and it’s possible those 2 wins were a flash in the pan, but Indy are not to be discounted or taken lightly in any way.
Moreover, after dropping 2 points at Miami, the Legion cannot afford not to take full points from this game. The Eastern playoff race, especially for the home spots, is extremely tight with all 7 teams above the line bunched up. So who do they have to watch out for?
Indy’s biggest scoring threat is left wing Stefano Pinho, who has 9 of their 28 goals this season. No one else has more than 5. So this is another situation where one player has to be shut down, much like San Diego’s Kyle Vassell and Miami’s Kyle Murphy who were both kept scoreless by the Three Sparks lately. Other players to keep an eye on are forward Miguel Tejada (the player with 5 goals), right wing and long time USL stalwart Solomon Asante, and especially central midfielder Neveal Hackshaw who is every bit as physical as his name might suggest.
In goal – at least currently – is Tim Trilk. Indy has used 4 keepers this season, but Trilk seems to be the presumptive starter even though they traded away defender Noah Powder to Tulsa for Sean Lewis. Trilk and Lewis have just 3 clean sheets between them and the team has just 4 (against Hartford, New York, San Antonio and Detroit, although 2 of those were over the last 3 games). That being said, the team does not give goals up in large quantities, just 39 on the year.
The Eleven generally plays in a 4-3-3 and has a very counterattacking style. So much so that the team is dead last in shots taken with just 250 (9.26 per game) and is unsurprisingly second last in scoring. This then will be a matchup of similar styles and could be a low-scoring affair.
Prediction: As said, this is not a game the Legion can afford not to win. The Eleven have recently shown that they can present problems even to the strongest teams. However, they are leaky at the back and have difficulty scoring. The Legion should be able to keep them at bay but get a goal or two themselves. Put this one in the win column.
Best of the rest
Also tonight are a couple of East game that will interest Legion fans. First, Atlanta United 2 plays Memphis 901 (6:30pm). Twonited are coming of a surprise win over FC Tulsa and are clearly enjoying the role of spoiler as their last USL season comes to an end. Area Code FC have just 1 point from their last 3 games and really need a result to keep pace with Tampa Bay and to keep some distance between themselves and the Legion and Pittsburgh. Also, a win would clinch a playoff spot…
…Which they may not need to do if the aforementioned Tulsa does not beat Louisville City tonight (7:30pm). Tulsa more or less need to win out if they are to have any hope of a playoff spot this year, and Lou City will not want to risk their 4-point lead at the top of the conference narrowing. Could be a good game.
You can probably skip tonight’s Western Conference games (El Paso v. RGV, 8:00pm, and Monterey v. Orange County, 9:30pm).
There’s one game on Friday that could be of interest: New York Red Bulls II play The™ Miami FC (6:00pm). Full points would bring Miami 4 points behind the Legion, uncomfortably close.
On Saturday, kicking off alongside the Legion game is another potential spoiler match: the Charleston Battery hosts the Rowdies (6:00pm). The Rowdies are 4 points behind Lou City and 2 points ahead of Memphis in what has become a very tight race for home playoff spots in the East. Perhaps of greater immediate importance to the Legion though is the Pittsburgh Riverhounds v. Lou City (6:00pm). The best result for the Legion would probably be a Lou City win, which would give the Three Sparks a chance to jump ahead of the Hounds into the home playoff spots and put a little distance between the 2 teams before they play here in Birmingham a week from today. Most other teams in the East would probably prefer a draw, with both teams dropping points.
The last remaining East team in playoff position is Detroit City, and they head west for a tough matchup against the Colorado Springs Switchbacks (8:00pm). Detroit is currently a point behind Miami in the final playoff spot and needs to keep pace (they have a game in hand though).
Also out west are a pair of grudge matches. Phoenix Rising play the Oakland Roots (9:30pm). The Rising stole the Roots’ head coach Juan Guerra a few weeks ago under less than honorable circumstances, so feelings will will be less than charitable. But the big one will be Orange County v. LA Galaxy II (9:00pm). Those in the know will be aware that the Galaxy is trying to move Los Dos to Championship Stadium in Irvine and as part of the deal with the City pushing out both Orange County and NISA team California United Strikers (who are currently leading that league). The negotiations have been shady to say the least (not least of which is going behind a valid bid from OCSC) and is being seen as part of an MLS strategy to control more levels of soccer in the US. This has not been taken well by the local fans and business owners (Los Dos currently play in an empty stadium with no fans). The game is near a sellout and will likely feature some significant protests.
No games on Sunday this week, so enjoy your day of rest!
Back in the Old Country
The Blues had probably their best game of the season so far, beating Preston away 1-0 last week and breaking a 3-game losing streak. This week they host Swansea (Saturday, 9:00am) in a game on ESPN+. Swansea aren’t doing so well either, sitting 2 places above Birmingham in 19th but only 1 point ahead. The Blues thus have a chance to get some clearance from the relegation zone.