A Look Around the League - Conference Semifinals Preview

Keeping up with the USL as a whole is something of a struggle. With the exception of Akeem O’Connor-Ward, USL news does not make SportsCenter very often. For the Blog, I check FBRef pretty regularly, but even then it’s mostly research on the Pacific Division and whoever the Roots are playing that week.

This article is my attempt to learn more about what is going on in the USL playoffs, and as long as I am doing that, to give you a little mini uh--I’m not sure I am permitted to say I am going to provide you with that, so like, here is a BlortsCenter--for the USL Championship playoffs.

The Eastern Conference

[Source: USLChampionship.com]

[Source: USLChampionship.com]

Eastern Conference Semifinal One - Tampa Bay vs. Birmingham Legion

November 13 at 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time.

How Tampa Bay Got Here

Tampa Bay Rowdies romped to an Atlantic Division title, racking up one shy of the best goal differential in the league. Tampa was only seventh in the league in goals, but had the best defense in the league with only 0.69 goals conceded per 90. In real terms that is 22 goals conceded.

A huge part of that was Sebastian Guenzatti, with 21 goals on the season, second only to Hadji Barry, and NINE appearances on the USL Championship Team of the Week (including bench appearances).

Don’t think it was all Guenzatti, though, Rowdies players appeared either starting or on the bench for the team of the week 32 times, or roughly twice as often as you would expect a team to have its players in the Team of the Week.

Goalkeeper Ean Louro made five appearances, including as player of the week in Week 19. Each of Tampa Bay’s famous back three, Lasso, Scarlett, and Guillen, got at least one appearance, and Wyke, Dos Santos, Hilton, and Fernandes each appeared three times.

Surprisingly, for an Eastern Conference team, we can actually cite some of our own prior work on this:

Tampa Bay had the only blowout of the playoffs quarterfinals.

Tampa’s first is hilarious. Guenzatti gets there, but slides past the ball, getting it stuck more or less completely under his butt, but then it rolls a little bit and he’s able to scramble to get it in. Just electrifying stuff.

Tulsa, to their credit, did not concede again in the first half. The goal to double the Rowdies’ lead was credited as an own goal, but from the one angle of it in the highlights it looks like Dos Santos’s shot was on target, and it was certainly struck authoritatively. Kibato had to try to block the shot, and the fact that it went off of him instead of going in past him is really just bookkeeping. Dos Santos got a goal in the 56th that he gets to actually take credit for--a towering header.

In the 67th, Joaquin Rivas pulled a goal back for Tulsa and the commentator says of Tulsa “they’re not done yet.” Reader: they were done. Eric Bird came on the 54th minute, got a yellow in the 63rd, and a second yellow in the 73rd. The second was for a tackle that isn’t really done justice by calling it two-footed as he missed the ball entirely and took out Yann Ekra with one foot and the other shin. Somehow the status remained quo for 15 more minutes, and then another entire game was played starting after the 88:00 mark. At 88:30, Leo Fernandes scored, assisted by Lucky Mkosana who took advantage of Tulsa throwing everyone forward by picking his defender’s pocket and then running through clear on goal, drawing the keeper’s attention, and making the easy pass to Fernandes for the easy shot on an open net. About 80 seconds later Tulsa winger Dario Suarez smashed an unsaveable shot from 30ish yards that might have utterly deflated a team that wasn’t already leading by three with seven seconds remaining in the 90.

For no other reason, apparently, than to send a message to the rest of the league, Tampa Bay then scored two more times.

How Birmingham Got Here

TAMPA, Fla. – The United Soccer League today announced that the USL Championship Playoffs Eastern Conference Quarterfinal match between Birmingham Legion FC and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, scheduled for Sunday, November 7 at PNC Field (formerly BBVA Field) in Birmingham, has been canceled.

The decision to cancel the match comes after multiple covered persons from the Riverhounds organization have tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, Birmingham will advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and will take on the winner of the match between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and FC Tulsa.

All league, local and state health and wellness protocols are being followed.
Oh jesus christ.

Only six teams have a goal differential of twenty or better, and Birmingham just managed to get over that line.

Birmingham Legion players appeared seventeen times in the team of the week, including Player of the Week appearances by American keeper Matt Van Oekel, Brazilian midfielder Bruno Lapa, and Jamaican forward Neco Brett who netted fourteen times on the season.

Birmingham went 6-3-0 in the 9 games before the last game of their season, hosting Louisville City, whom they lead by two points in the Central Division. Birmingham had taken that lead in large part because of back to back losses Louisville suffered away to Memphis and Indy.

Louisville City would take the game and the division.

Birmingham then got the default win over Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

With Phoenix and El Paso out, you have to guess that Tampa Bay are not just the favorites over Birmingham, but will be the favorites over any team they face this year.

Eastern Conference Semifinal Two - Louisville City vs. Charlotte Independence

November 13 at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time

How Louisville City Got Here

Louisville City won the Central Division on the match discussed above against Birmingham. Louisville were second only to Phoenix in total goals scored with 61. Twenty of those were scored by 29-year-old talisman Cameron Lancaster from North London who came up with Dagenham & Redbridge and played thirteen minutes for the one and only Tottenham Hotspur Football Club in the 2011-12 season. Spurs finished one point below Arsenal that season. Lancaster has been in the team of the week four times, winning player of the week twice. Lancaster’s scoring is pretty well spread out over the season, although his five goals over his last seven came in only two matches.

Attacking midfielder Brian Ownby, in his seventh season in USL, had a couple seasons in his youth with Houston Dynamo, although very little game time. He is having an enormous age-30 season with four goals and ten assists. He has appeared in the USL Team of the Week five times.

Finally central/defensive midfielder Paolo DelPiccolo, one-time Player of the Week and three-time Team of the Week, has contributed nine goals, is usually Louisville’s captain, and has registered an impressive nine goals for a midfielder. When DelPiccolo isn’t captaining, that job usually falls to Corben Bone, the second funniest Bone in the USL after Tucker Bone.

Louisville’s stadium only seats 11k or so, which is hard to believe when you see those towering stands opposite the camera to start off the highlights. In any event, these are some of the best highlights I’ve ever seen for a game where I’m a neutral and the scoreline was only 1-0. It took 73 minutes for Louisville to break the deadlock, and when Jorge Hernadez finally did it was from maybe the fourth best chance. Nonetheless, he managed to get a shot off as he went to ground in the box and managed to somehow both poke the shot and have it curl unsaveably around the keeper to the far post.

How Charlotte Got Here

I just learned that Christian Fuchs plays for Charlotte. The Christian Fuchs who won the Premier League with Leicester City. What.

Charlotte has also gotten nearly 1300 minutes out of Sylvain Marveaux, who played about that many minutes for Newcastle United over three seasons in the Premier League from 2011-14, including scoring one (1) goal in that span in a match against Arsenal. 

Charlotte is in the top six in the league in both goals and in goals conceded, although to be fair they scored ten in two matches against Loudoun United, the worst team in the league. Charlotte’s goals are spread around, with the only players in double-digits tied on 11: 30-year-old Jamaican Dane Kelly, who had a brief stint with D.C. United and has otherwise bounced around USL, and 28-year-old Irvin Parra of Inglewood, CA, who has played for Sounders 2 (before they were Tacoma Defiance), Orange County, Las Vegas Lights, and San Diego. We look forward to welcoming him to the Roots next season.

The teams that finished 2nd-4th in the Atlantic Division were separated by only four points at the end of the season. Charlotte really earned its second place finish over third-place Pittsburgh by going 3-1-0 against the Riverhounds over the season, but were somehow 0-2-2 against fourth place Miami.

I am not going to lie and tell you I watched this whole game, but from the highlights and the FBRef stats it looks like Charlotte started on top and never really wavered. Joel Johnson opened the scoring ten minutes in on what I assure you is the worst clearance you have ever seen. Christian Fuchs, who as you will recall lost twice to Arsenal in an otherwise unremarkable 2015-16 Leicester season, doubled Charlotte’s lead in the 32nd on a scuffed shot that was cleared by the Memphis defender from about 18 inches into the goal. Marveaux put up a third late in the second half, making Memphis’s goal right at the 82-minute mark pure consolation. Charlotte failed to convert a penalty in the 84th, because they comport themselves with honor and dignity.

The Western Conference

[Source: USLChampionship.com]

[Source: USLChampionship.com]

As I was mentioning to the rest of the Blog this week, it’s a little funny that by having the same seeds win, the Pacific and Mountain Divisions have re-divided for the Conference semifinals.

Lawson and I appeared on the Orange and Black Soccer Cast to discuss the state of the Western Conference playoffs, and you can find video of that here:

Edson Ochoa from Down in the Valley, an RGV Toros podcast, and Harry from the S.A. Soccer Roundtable also joined the Orange County guys to provide actual informed analysis of the Western Conference. I have never once promised to provide you with informed analysis.

Western Conference Semifinal One - San Antonio vs. RGV Toros

November 13 at 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time

How San Antonio Got Here

San Antonio have a strong defense and a middling attack, and managed second in the Mountain Division despite losing records against Austin, El Paso, and New Mexico United. San Antonio only had one player reach double-digit goals: 22-year-old Brazilian forward Nathan. Fellow Brazilian PC,

is the usual captain for San Antonio, although he missed much of the season. PC has career appearances for both the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and the then-NASL Tampa Bay Rowdies, before playing for Orlando City as a role player in their early MLS days, and a handful of appearances for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Although never making the USL Team of the Week, central midfielder Mohammed Abu was Fotmob’s Man of the Match in San Antonio’s win over San Diego in the quarterfinal, following two prior Man of the Match performances this season. Indeed, the 29-year-old Ghanaian put in an essentially perfect free kick to get the assist for Nathan’s goal to open the scoring against San Diego in the 14th minute:

San Diego will spend a lot of the offseason wishing someone had marked Nathan closer. Ten minutes later, a loose header in the box fell to Santiago Patino, leading to this just incredible bit of commentary:
That’s the poacher, I call him in spanish “raton,” the rat. Looking for the cheese, inside the six-yard box, and the rat found it, raton is on.
I would have gone with “Ratino” or, alternatively, not called a player “the Rat.”

Anyway, pour one out for our friends in San Diego. Orange County got hot at the end of the season and San Diego struggled, and getting San Antonio in San Antonio instead of Colorado Springs in San Diego is going to feel like it made the difference.

How RGV Toros Got Here

RGV Toros call Edinburg, Texas home. Edinburg, and the stretch of the Rio Grande that is called the “Rio Grande Valley” is significantly further east than I had thought.

RGV are tied for the second worst points total in the USL Playoffs (you’re welcome), and the fourth worst goal differential to make it to the USL Playoffs (you’re welcome). Neither their offense nor defense is the culprit, both are pretty middling. Like their opponent San Antonio, RGV only got one player into double figures for goals: 29-year-old Ghanaian striker Elvis Amoh. This is Amoh’s first season with RGV after two seasons with Loudoun. Although he netted only 11 total, he scored in six matches in which RGV drew or won on account of goals he scored.

RGV’s top-rated player on Fotmob is Rodrigo Lopez, who would have been Fotmob’s Man of the Match in RGV’s dramatic escape against Phoenix Rising with a huge 8.9 out of 10 if Solomon Asante hadn’t somehow managed a 9.0 (it’s because of the two goals). I assume Lopez will sleep well knowing he gets to play another game. Lopez started his career with Chivas USA, although he saw very limited game time as a teenager, bounced through the Portland academy system and a couple third-division teams before popping up on the USL-winning Sacramento Republic in 2014 with your friend and mine Emrah Klimenta.

That’s as much dumb trivia as I can stomach before we talk about this barn burner:

[Source: FBRef]

Holy shit lol.

It’s six goals and seven penalties. Just watch the highlights.

Baboucarr Nije’s opener in the 19th is an absolute beauty of a solo run. Phoenix’s defense is great and they just… didn’t stop him.

Solomon Asante pulled one back four minutes later, casually burying a ludicrous free kick. Goalkeeper Colin Miller is cheating towards the near post, and the ball goes near post, but it’s struck hard and is obviously going wide of the post until suddenly it was very much not going wide of the post.

It’s hard to believe that Phoenix failed to convert two out of their first three penalties and the shootout somehow still became exciting. Nonetheless, it was too deep a hole for Phoenix to rise out of. Phoenix had an incredible season, but there were always weaknesses, and the weaknesses got exposed at a terrible time. I am told this has happened to them in the playoffs before.

Western Conference Semifinal Two - Orange County S.C. vs. God's Own Oakland Roots

November 13 at 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time

Stay tuned for Lawson’s deep dive on Orange County’s tactics on Thursday, and RootsBlog’s normal Match Preview coming on Friday. In the meantime, here are the highlights from Orange County’s and Oakland’s respective wins this past weekend in the Conference Quarterfinals.

Up the Roots.


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