Playoffs Round 1 Preview: what you need to know
It's win or go home
Once again, our playoff update gives you the lowdown on what’s at stake this week. And there’s a lot of it.
The most important part
For the third time in four seasons, the Legion has been matched up against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the opening round of the playoffs. For the second time, it’s scheduled as a home game. Last year’s game, of course, never got played due to the Hounds crying off because of COVID or some such nonsense. Having wrecked the Legion’s first ever home playoff, it seems utterly wrong that they get a second shot at it. But it is what it is.
The 2 teams split the season series, both teams winning at home by a 1-goal margin. Except, that is, the Legion were denied an obvious goal in the home leg by an egregious offside call on Juan Agudelo. That gave Pittsburgh the tiebreaker advantage, which fortunately ended up not being needed. But how many reasons do we need to despise this team?
Since the game is being played Sunday (5:00pm), the teams will both know who they would face in the second round (the conference semifinals). The bracket is reseeded after the first round (home field advantage goes to the higher seed in all rounds). The Legion is 4th seed and the Hounds are 5th, so in order for either of them to avoid a trip to top seed Louisville City, either Memphis 901 or the Tampa Bay Rowdies would have to lose. If both lose, the winner of this game gets a home game in the next round. If both win, it’s off to Kentucky.
Pitt’s only win in the last five games was the season finale, a 3-1 home victory over the Oakland Roots. The rest of that schedule was the 1-2 loss here in Birmingham, a 1-1 home draw with Orange County, a 0-1 home loss to San Antonio and a 1-1 road draw with Sacramento Republic. The season finale was their first win since September 4th. In fact, over the past ten games they rather slunk into the playoffs on a not particularly difficult schedule. The Legion didn’t do a lot better, but did have the harder slate of games over the past two months. And they have that home win head-to-head.
For the season, Pittsburgh were a meager 7-6-4 away, and their only road win against a playoff team was all the way back in week 1, 3-0 over Memphis (who as usual were late to get started).
They haven’t been scoring much lately, but they do have the twin threats of Russell Cicerone and Albert Dikwa. Those two combined for 24 goals this season. Dikwa (who scored Pitt’s goal here a few weeks ago) is usually deployed as the solo striker and Cicerone is a left winger. Cicerone will therefore be up against Jonny Dean, but Dikwa, who is 6’2″ will be a handful for Alex Crognale and Phanuel Kavita. It is also worth noting that of Pitt’s 50 goals for the year, 25 were scored away from home. On the other hand, the Legion allowed just 15 at home this season, less than 1 per game.
Prediction: To say this is a grudge match is a massive understatement. The fans will be equally as aware of this, since a large fraction of them will have had tickets to that cancelled game a year ago. It’s not going to be a hospitable venue. Then there’s also that 7-0 scoreline in Pittsburgh back in 2019. There are enough players on the Legion squad who will remember that. It will be a highly motivated home team, and I can’t see them losing. Legion moves on to the conference semifinals with a multi-goal win.
All the rest
Tampa Bay Rowdies (#3) v. The Miami FC (#6), Saturday 6:30pm
After beating Detroit in the season closer, The™ Miami earned themselves the shortest road trip possible in the first round. Except they have to visit a Rowdies team that is firing on all cylinders right now. Tampa are on a 4-game win streak, best in the entire league, and are looking very difficult to beat. Especially at home, where they lost just twice this season. Tampa gets the win here.
Memphis 901 (#2) v. Detroit City (#7), Saturday 7:0pm
Despite dropping to 7th in the final week, Detroit have been troublesome all season and have proven their worthiness to be in this league. Memphis for their part have been incredibly solid all season and are clear contenders. This one will be Memphis striker Phillip Goodrum v. Detroit netminder Nate Steinwascher. I think this is the likeliest game to have an upset, and I am calling it for the visitors.
Colorado Springs Switchbacks (#3) v. Rio Grande Valley Toros (#6), Saturday 7:30pm
The Switchbacks have rather stumbled of late, going 1-3-1 in the last 5 games. They are also now without star striker Hadji Barry, sold for a record transfer fee to Future FC of Egypt. The Toros on the other hand have been playing some of their best soccer of the year, although their last few games were relatively soft. A road win is very possible here, but I am going win the home team to advance.
Sacramento Republic (#4) v. New Mexico United (#5), Saturday 9:00pm
New Mexico won its last two matches, both at home, to make it into the playoffs and even rise as high as 5th, but their form up to that point was dire. SacRep also haven’t been playing all that well since the US Open Cup disappointment. This one could well be the snoozer of the first round. For want of any other reason to call this one, I’m giving it to the home team.
San Diego Loyal (#2) v. Oakland Roots (#7), Sunday 9:00pm
Oakland were the luckiest qualifier in the entire pool, losing 1-3 in Pittsburgh and watching other results all go their way. San Diego lost last week 0-4 to SacRep, but were resting several players ahead of this week, having already locked down their seeding. Oher than that game, they’ve been very consistent. This one is a complete mismatch and the Loyal move on.
Back in the Old Country
Birmingham City continue to perform well. After beating Hull City 2-0 away last weekend they drew with Burnley at home yesterday. Burnley are 3rd in the Championship, but only a point behind leaders QPR. The 4 points were enough for the Blues to inch up to 14th place and are themselves only 7 points out of 1st. The standings overall are pretty packed right now: the top 18 teams are spread over just 10 points. This Saturday the Blues complete a challenging week, playing at Blackburn Rovers (9:00am, no ESPN+ stream). The Rovers are second in the league, tied on points with QPR.