Playoffs Round 2 Preview: what you need to know
The conference quarterfinals provided lots of entertainment, including four upset wins over the eight games. Of those 3 were in the Eastern Conference. The Players’ Shield winners, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, are now done and more or less every bracket in the league is well and truly busted. And the fact that the playoffs do not reseed after the first round (they have only done so in the past when the top teams received a first round bye) makes for some interesting matchups.
Charleston Battery v. Birmingham Legion (Saturday, 6:00pm)
In a slate of big games, this one looms pretty large. Featuring two of the three remaining top scoring teams in round 1, the Legion returns to Patriots Point for the second time in 14 days. Last time around the Three Sparks lost 0-1, albeit on a somewhat fortunate goal from the Battery’s perspective. However, they were unable to get more than a single shot on goal themselves.
The game was, it would seem, something of a test case, though. The Legion went with a 4-1-4-1, which they proceeded to use last weekend to devastating effect. There was one slight difference in the lineup: Neco Brett started at striker and Preston Tabort Etaka was on the left wing instead of Diba Nwegbo. But Preston’s average position in the game was effectively at striker anyway, just as he was against Tampa. I would expect the Legion to stick with this formation, likely with the same starting field players unless Phanuel Kavita is back to full fitness (he was an unused sub last week). Trevor Spangenberg will almost certainly be the starting keeper given the big gash in Matt van Oekel’s leg courtesy of Cal Jennings (who was dangerously close to a red card on that challenge). The only material difference in the Legion roster will be the absence of Matthew Corcoran who is headed to Bali in advance of the U-17 World Cup in Indonesia next month. He’s been a bench option moistly of late, so not too big a deal.
It is a shame though that the Legion’s young phenom will miss out on playing against Charleston’s young phenom, Fidel Barajas. Barajas is on Mexico’s roster for the same World Cup, but his availability this weekend is unclear. If he’s gone, that’s a big plus. He accounted for 5 goals and 10 assists this season, scoring and assisting in last week’s 5-0 romp over Indy Eleven. His 10 assists were 5 better than any other Battery player. His absence would be bigger for Charleston than Matthew’s will be for the Legion.
The Battery are hardly short of firepower elsewhere, of course. In the regular season Augustine Williams racked up 14 goals and Nicholas Markanich (who was the scorer against the Legion two weeks ago) 10. The two of them traded off goals and assists last week. The Legion will need to shut them down hard. The Battery uses a 4-2-3-1 almost exclusively, so the Three Sparks will be well accustomed to that and should be able to control it with a 5-man defensive setup.
As for that blowout win last week, it must be borne in mind that Indy were without Aodhan Quinn and Jack Blake due to injury and Solomon Asante due to a red card in the final week of the regular season. As such they were something of a patchwork squad, and it didn’t help that Tim Trilk had a horrendous day in goal. Thus it can be said that the scoreline rather flatters Charleston, but even so, they will be brimming over with confidence and are now the top seed in the East. Further, if Sacramento is not the West’s representative in the championship game, they will host it. The turnaround from last season (already one of the best in league history) might not be done yet. On the other hand, having beaten the Legion twice this season already (2-1 at Protective back in July) they could be a tad overconfident.
Prediction: The Legion still has a chance to host a playoff game this year if they advance and Detroit City beats Louisville City. They will very much have that in mind going into this game. Having won a playoff game for the first time in their history they will be more than ready to double it up. I personally think they will do it. Charleston now has the same issue the Legion had last week: beating a team for the third time in a season. But the Legion played the Battery far closer in the two games to date than Tampa did the Legion over those three losses. Call it another road win.
Sacramento Republic v. San Antonio (Friday, 9:30pm)
The weekend slate of games actually begins Friday evening and this one is huge. The top remaining seed is playing the defending champion. Both teams advanced with relatively unimpressive 1-0 wins, San Antonio doing so with their first win in almost a month. The win over the Colorado Springs Switchbacks was ugly, with 30 fouls and 7 yellow cards. SacRep beat New Mexico United with a relatively early goal and hunkering down after it.
This game should be far more entertaining than either of those were, and Sacramento probably gets the edge given the poorish performances San Antonio have been producing of late.
Louisville City v. Detroit City (Saturday, 6:30pm)
Detroit was the upset of the week, naturally, scoring a late goal against Pittsburgh after the two teams played 168 minutes of scoreless soccer (they played in the final game of the regular season). Dom Gasso (a 20-year-old academy product) was the difference maker. Lou City on the other hand survived a marathon in Memphis, going down a goal in the first 30 seconds, getting it back 18 minutes later. They carried the 1-1 score all the way through extra time and won when Aiden McFadden shanked his penalty kick in the 5th round of the shootout. Louisville have not been their old selves this season and are likely the underdog even though they are at home. If it goes to PKs again, they will have to deal with Nate Steinwascher. Not easy.
Orange County v. Phoenix Rising (Saturday, 9:00pm)
Phoenix Rising were another late survivor, scoring in the 119th minute to take a 4-3 goalfest over San Diego Loyal in that team’s last ever game. That was after giving up the lead deep in second half stoppage time on a stupid penalty. Orange County beat El Paso Locomotive 1-0 on a Milan Iloski free kick, but the game was kept close by El Paso goalie Benny Diaz (who ended up with a red card right at the end of the game on a DOGSO foul). They will also have midfielder Kevin Partida back from red card suspension this week. The Rising are unlikely to be able to score as easily this week and Orange County are the clear favorite here.
Back in the Old Country
The Wayne Rooney era at Birmingham City has not started well, with 0-1 and 0-2 losses to Middlesbrough and Hull City this week. They have dropped out of the playoff spots down to 12th in the table. This weekend’s game won’t get any easier: they face Southampton away (Saturday, 6:30am, ESPN+ for you early risers). Southampton are currently 5th, although they are only 3 points better than the Blues. Rooney-managed teams have now been outscored 8-0 over the past four games. Hmm.