Playoffs Round 1 Preview: what you need to know
Win or go home time
The regular season is done and dusted and 8 teams remain alive in the hunt for the USL Cup. While the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Sacramento Republic as conference champions look like the obvious choices to be the last teams standing, our final Power Rankings potentially suggest otherwise. The top team in those rankings was New Mexico United, who finished on a hot streak. That got them the lowest seed in the West and so they face SacRep this weekend. The Republic were 8th in those same rankings; An upset could be on the cards. Two other away teams finished higher than their opponents: Western 5th seed Colorado Springs Switchbacks (3rd in our rankings) head to 4th seed San Antonio (9th in the rankings) and Eastern 6th seed Indy Eleven (7th in the rankings) head to 3rd seed Charleston Battery (17th). Those are also potential upsets.
Our own Birmingham Legion finished in 7th and so head to 2nd seed Tampa Bay Rowdies, but the Rowdies barely edged the Legion in the rankings, 9th and 10th respectively…
Tampa Bay Rowdies v. Birmingham Legion (Saturday, 6:30pm)
The Three Sparks swept 4 season series against Eastern Conference opponents this year: FC Tulsa, Hartford Athletic, (neither of whom made the playoffs), Louisville City and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Of the four, only the Rowdies failed to score against the Legion over two games, losing 0-2 at home and 0-1 in the Magic City.
But this is the playoffs, which are an entirely different animal, and besides that last win was back in July. Season records no longer count for much. The two teams will look a little changed this week as well.
Most notably, the Rowdies have 2022 Championship MVP Leo Fernandes back. Fernandes ruptured an Achilles tendon in preseason and was expected to miss the entire year. He managed to get back to training in September and made two bench appearances in the last two games totaling 46 minutes. Fernandes shares the league lead for playoff goals scored at 5 with Solomon Asante (Indy) and Rodrigo Lopez (Sacramento). In fact, of the top 5 postseason scorers, only Asante will not be in action this week due to a red card last week. The other two, both on 4, are Ronaldo Damus (San Diego Loyal) and…Neco Brett. Neco of course scored all 4 of those against the Legion back in 2019, prompting his immediate hire by the club.
On the Legion side, Anderson Asiedu, officially out for “personal reasons”, is effectively off the club roster and Mikey Lopez may still be out thanks to that injury on the atrocious turf at AutoZone Park in Memphis, although he was an unused sub last week against Charleston. We won’t know his availability until game time probably.
It also not as if Tampa needs Fernandes anyway. Cal Jennings finished a close second in the Golden Boot race with 19 goals, and former Legionary JJ Williams has found his home, logging 12 goals and 9 assists this season. The assist were tied for second best in the league this year. As a team the Rowdies scored 60 goals, best in the Eastern Conference. They also allowed just 39, third best in the East. They were an impressive 11-4-2 at home, the other losses being against Charleston, Memphis 901 and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. The last two were in the last 5 games though, and their wins over that stretch were against Hartford, Loudoun United and Louisville. The Lou City win was last week and it was nowhere near as close as the 3-2 scoreline suggests. Tampa had plenty of other scoring chances, including a missed PK by JJ. Louisville’s first goal was a Freddy Kleemann own goal (another old friend) and their second was well into second half stoppage time.
However, the Tampa defense, especially Forrest Lasso, can be prone to dumb and costly mistakes. The loss to Area Code FC was a messy 2-4 result. If the Legion can exploit any such errors, the upset could be on.
Prediction: This is going to sound like a real homer statement, but I am going with the Legion to get the surprise win. Although results have been erratic, over the past few weeks we have seen a slightly changed tactical approach that veers significantly from the 4-2-3-1 standard, The win over Monterey Bay was solid team soccer and the loss to Charleston least week was a little unfortunate. This Three Sparks squad has it in them to take this one.
Memphis 901 v. Louisville City (Saturday, 5:30pm)
Theoretically, 4 v. 5 should be the most competitive game on the slate. However, Louisville has been very dodgy lately. Their only win in the last 5 games was 2-1 over Loudoun. They drew Hartford 1-1, and lost to Tampa as noted above, New Mexico (0-2) and The™ Miami FC (a ridiculous 3-4). Memphis has been a little better, beating Tampa and also El Paso Locomotive (4-0), while losing to and drawing with the Legion and outdoing Lou City loss to New Mexico with a 1-4 scoreline last week. So, yes, this could be competitive, but potentially for all the wrong reasons. Expect Memphis to come out on top though.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds v. Detroit City (Saturday, 6:00pm)
These two teams played each other last week, although in Detroit. Detroit predictably didn’t score (they scored a league low 30 goals, just 0.88 goals per game). Less predictably, Pittsburgh didn’t either despite having Golden Boot winner Albert Dikwa (20 goals) and assist co-leader Kenardo Forbes (10 assists). It wa a rather dreary 0-0 draw, but that won’t be the case this week. Pitt will be all over this one as they clearly have their eyes on the USL Cup to go with the Players’ Shield already in the trophy cabinet.
San Antonio v. Colorado Springs Switchbacks (Saturday, 8:00pm)
4 v. 5 again, but what is up with San Antonio? After romping through most the season they have totally crashed in the last three months, going 1-2-7 over the last 10 games. They also benched Jordan Farr, one of the best keepers in the league, for the past 5 games in favor of Nick Marsman. He is a loanee from the MLS pool, and needed to get those 5 games to be eligible for the playoffs. He was in the pool after being dropped by Inter Miami. The Switchbacks, conversely, have been red hot, winning 5 of their last 6 games. This one has road win written all over it.
Sacramento Republic v. New Mexico United (Saturday, 8:00pm)
This could be the best game of the weekend. SacRep more or less cruised to the Western Conference title, finishing with a 7-point margin. New Mexico looked questionable to even qualify for the playoffs just a few weeks ago after losing to the Legion and then Indy, but took 10 points from the last 5 games, including a 3-game win streak to end the season to get above the line. They are playing with confidence and should make this a much tougher game than Sacramento may have been expecting.
Orange County v. El Paso Locomotive (Saturday, 9:30pm)
El Paso started the season strong, including a 7-game win streak, but then went on a massive 10-game winless streak earning just 3 points. They pretty much limped into the playoffs. In contrast, Orange County started off poorly, but eventually one-upped El Paso’s win streak with a league-best 8 games, ultimately powering all the way up to second in the West. The playoffs will be Milan Iloski’s swan song in California, so they are going to make it last as long as possible. This game should not be in doubt. Orange County will be without midfielder Kevin Partida though, who got two yellow cards last week after the 88th minute.
Charleston Battery v. Indy Eleven (Sunday, 3:00pm)
This is another game that could go to extra time if not PKs. Charleston made one of the biggest single turnarounds in USL history, going from a miserable 25 points last year to 59 this season. They weren’t particularly impressive against the Legion last week, though. Indy are also much improved this year, although to nowhere near the same degree. They will be playing without Solomon Asante though, who picked up two yellows last week in the wild 3-3 draw with San Antonio (not quite as spectacularly as Partida though). I think the Battery takes this, but it could go either way.
San Diego Loyal v. Phoenix Rising (9:00pm)
How much longer will the San Diego Loyal exist? Well, at least another week, I believe. Since announcing the club’s dissolution, they have been on something of a tear, going unbeaten in the past 6 games 4-0-2. Only Pittsburgh and Colorado Springs (13 points each) did better over that stretch. Phoenix on the other hand went just 1-2-3 and lost both the last two games, to New Mexico and Colorado Springs. They are not the Rising of old. Call it for the Loyal.
Back in the Old Country
Birmingham City are back in action, and new head coach Wayne Rooney and his staff (including former LA Galaxy player Ashley Cole and long ago Manchester United teammate John O’Shea) have a busy first week with a double-game week ahead. Tomorrow they head to Middlesbrough (9:00am, no ESPN+) and Wednesday they face Hull City (1:45pm, also no ESPN+. Apparently ESPN doesn’t think Rooney is a big draw in the US). The Blues are currently in 6th place, only 2 points out of 3rd. The top two teams, Leicester City and Ipswich Town, are already opening up a wide gap (10 and 8 points clear of Preston in 3rd respectively), so those automatic promotion spots are quickly getting out of reach. Middlesbrough are 16th right now, albeit only 4 points behind the Blues. Hull City will be a slightly tougher matchup; they are 9th and just a point back of City in a 4-way tie. Tomorrow they play Southampton, one of those teams, and that result could well impact Wednesday’s game.