USL Playoff Races Leaves Many QuestionsOutside of Rochester and Louisville, little has been set for playoff positioning
by Ray Marcham | Thursday, September 10, 2015
It’s almost playoff time in the USL, and there are still plenty of spots up for grabs as the season winds down.
With just a couple of weekends left in the season, just seven of the 12 playoff spots have been clinched. The set-up is just like in MLS, where the top six clubs in each conference qualify for the postseason. The top two in each conference get a first-round bye, and the first round has 3-6 and 4-5 matchups. The highest seeded remaining team will host the final in the third weekend of October. USL only plays 28 games in its regular season, so it is the first of North America’s pro leagues to finish.
Five of those claimed playoff spots are in the Western Conference, but positioning is still up for grabs. In fact, any of the top teams could end up with a bye or on the road for first round, so nothing is yet settled. The Eastern Conference only has two spots clinched, as Rochester Rhinos and Louisville City have run away from the rest of the East. Both have secured a first-round bye, and Rochester has won the USL’s regular season title, meaning they would host the final at Sahlen’s Stadium if they make it that far.
There’s even time for a miracle, as one team has already finished its season but has a precarious hold on a playoff spot.
That team is Tulsa, which finished its initial season with a win over in-state rivals Oklahoma City Energy in the last round of the Black Gold Derby on Sunday night. If the Roughnecks are going to make the playoffs, they have to hope that Seattle Sounders 2 loses their last two matches against Orange County Blues and Austin Aztex. But the Sounders are at home for those two, so the chances of Tulsa making the playoffs are very slim.
Otherwise, the USL Western Conference is a bit chaotic, even with the playoff spots all but determined. Colorado Springs took the lead on Wednesday night after defeating Austin, but Oklahoma City (43 points), LA Galaxy II (42), Orange County (42) and Sacramento Republic (41) are all within 4 points of the Switchbacks’ 45 points. Even S2, with 39 points, could make a big move up in the standings if they win their last two.
But with each team having 2 or 3 matches remaining, which teams end up with the first-round byes are still not known. Any of the top five plus Seattle could get a bye, host a first round game or travel for the first round. The final two weekends will determine everything.
Over in the East, it’s still a jumble below Rochester (54 points) and Louisville City (48). New York Red Bulls II could have clinched a spot on Wednesday, but lost on the road to FC Montréal. NYRB II likely will be in, as they are 6 points above the “red line” with 42 points. Charlotte’s win on Wednesday over Toronto FC II brought the Independence level with Charleston Battery in fourth place at 40 points, making the race for home field in the first round extremely tight.
Richmond Kickers are in sixth place with 37 points, but Pittsburgh Riverhounds (36) and Harrisburg City Islanders (35) are just behind, and both have a game in hand on Richmond, Charlotte and Charleston. And with the Red Bulls only having only one match remaining, they could drop quickly in the Eastern standings.
There is one thing of note with this playoff chase, and that concerns Colorado Springs, Pittsburgh, Orange County and Tulsa. Those are the only four USL clubs that do not have an affiliation with an MLS club, and they have shown very well during the season. That Colorado Springs and Tulsa have been in the playoff hunt in their first season in the league is also of note, especially the Switchbacks and their major chance to win the Western Conference. If Colorado Springs does it, then they would be the second straight expansion club to finish first in the West. That other club was Sacramento, and the Republic won the USL title in 2014.
Of course, the philosophies of each USL club are different. An independent team like Colorado Springs and Pittsburgh are looking to succeed on and off the field, while an MLS in-house club like TFC II or Portland Timbers 2 are seen as a reserve side for developing players, with the hope of winning and moving up in the standings. An affiliated side like Sacramento or Rochester has a mix of players from MLS clubs and their own signings, and they have to not only succeed like the independent teams, but also work on developing players for their MLS affiliates. It is a tricky balance, but one that many of the top teams in USL are successful in pulling off.
That’s the fun of watching USL, and that is what makes watching the run to the playoffs so fascinating. It’s not much different than hockey, where AHL teams are affiliated with NHL teams but also sign a number of players on their own. The hope is the same, in that winning and developing good habits at the USL/AHL level will lead to success at the MLS/NHL level. That means New England fans can be happy that Rochester is the top regular season team in USL, and Orlando City supporters can hope that the players at Louisville City will bring their winning ways to Florida in the near future.
But that’s the future. Rochester and Louisville City are thinking about a big playoff run, as either could host the final. Who joins them in playoffs, and to make a run for the USL crown, is still a puzzle being pieced together.
In 10 days, we’ll know who the 12 USL teams are that will play on, and hope to end their season the same way Sacramento ended last season. As champions.