Bethlehem Steel FC, Birmingham Legion FC, the Charlotte Independence and Saint Louis FC are all fighting for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
If fivethirtyeight.com is any judge, eight of the 10 playoff positions in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference are securely in the hands of the current top eight teams, with Louisville City FC sitting with the smallest odds of the group at a 95 percent chance of qualification. The ninth-place Charleston Battery aren’t far behind, either, with an 80 percent chance of advancing to a ninth consecutive postseason.
That means one slot is still potentially up for grabs, and this Saturday night the four leading contenders to earn that slot will square off as Birmingham Legion FC hosts the Charlotte Independence (8 p.m. ET | ESPN+) and Saint Louis FC hosts Bethlehem Steel FC (8:30 p.m. ET | ESPN+).
Obviously, these are must-win games for all four clubs – and should provide compelling action on ESPN+ – but what does the road beyond Saturday night look like for all four teams, and which one has the best chance to be the last team standing in October?
We looked into our crystal ball to see what each team has to do to reach the 45-point threshold that historically has been the number required to reach the postseason using the categories of must win, result required, and welcome boost, assessing the chances each side has to earn a playoff place over its remaining games this season.
Current Record: 6-10-4, 22pts – 11th place
Fivethirtyeight odds: 20 percent
Points required: 23 in 14 games
MUST WIN: Starting with Saturday night’s contest in Saint Louis, Bethlehem is going to need to hit form quickly as three of its following four games are also going to be must wins. Steel FC will want to take three points at home to Hartford Athletic (8/1) and the Swope Park Rangers (9/1) and faces a crucial six-pointer against Birmingham Legion FC (8/25) that Steel FC will need to take on home turf in between. Later in September, a visit from Loudoun United (9/18) and a trip to Memphis 901 FC (9/28) are also going to be must-win matches. October then brings another six-pointer against the Charlotte Independence (10/6) before a visit to ATL UTD 2 (10/9) that will require all three points if Steel FC is to keep itself in the picture.
RESULT REQUIRED: Bethlehem’s last two games of the season are both on the road against playoff contenders when it visits Ottawa Fury FC (10/12) and the Charleston Battery (10/19). Steel FC might not need victories out of these contests, but by this stage securing at least a point in both games could just see the side over the finish line.
WELCOME BOOST: Road trips to face four of the top five teams in the current Eastern Conference standings are going to be a major test for this side. If Bethlehem can get anything out of visits to Nashville SC (8/10), North Carolina FC (9/7), Indy Eleven (9/14) and the Tampa Bay Rowdies (9/21) it would go a long way to a playoff spot.
OVERALL OUTLOOK: Having reached the postseason the past two years, Steel FC would be disappointed to miss out this time around. With meetings against all three of the sides they’re battling for a spot, the ball is in their court, but going from an average of 1.1 points per game in the club’s opening 20 games to 1.6 per game over its final 14 is going to be a steep hill to climb with little margin for error.
Current Record: 5-10-4, 19pts – 13th place
Fivethirtyeight odds: 6 percent
Points required: 26 in 15 games
MUST WIN: Legion FC hasn’t fared badly on the road this season, and that’s good because five of the contests it’s going to need to take three points from are away from home down the stretch. Up first among these is the six-pointer on the road at Bethlehem Steel FC (8/25), but that’s followed by visits to Loudoun United FC (8/28) and ATL UTD 2 (9/4) that are also must wins. The quintet is completed by visits to the Swope Park Rangers (9/30) and Hartford Athletic (10/9). At home, Birmingham is going to have to take care of business against Memphis 901 FC (8/17), and a six-pointer against Saint Louis FC (9/13) in addition to Saturday’s clash with the Independence.
RESULT REQUIRED: Picking up points against clubs above it in the standings is going to be imperative, which means Legion FC will likely need to take something from its visit to Ottawa Fury FC (8/2) and its home contests against Indy Eleven (9/20) and the Charleston Battery (10/5).
WELCOME BOOST: Birmingham will do well to take points from its road trips to the conference-leading Tampa Bay Rowdies (8/10) and fellow playoff contender Nashville SC (9/17), but it also ends the season with two tough home contests against the New York Red Bulls II (10/15) and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (10/20). If any of the results above have fallen through, both of those games could see Birmingham needing points for a postseason berth.
OVERALL OUTLOOK: Legion FC has the hardest road to the playoffs needing an average of 1.7 points per game to reach the magic number of 45 points. Given the club’s recent uptick in form it’s not an insurmountable challenge, but there’s a reason Legion FC is billing Saturday’s game against the Charlotte Independence as the biggest of its season. If the side doesn’t win there, then it will need to spring some surprises to be part of the postseason field.
Current Record: 5-7-9, 24pts – 10th place
Fivethirtyeight odds: 31 percent
Points required: 21 in 13 games
MUST WIN: After this Saturday’s game, the Independence will need to spoil the party when it visits Loudoun United FC for its inaugural contest at Segra Field on Aug. 9, but then the side enters a stretch where it might have to tread water before a big finish starting in late September. The Independence could need to rack up a four-game winning streak in home games against the Swope Park Rangers (9/21) and Hartford Athletic (9/28), a six-pointer on the road against Bethlehem Steel FC (10/6) and a visit to Memphis 901 FC (10/12) to put it in position to return to the playoffs.
RESULT REQUIRED: There are some tough games ahead for the Independence, but the good news for the side is a good portion of them are at home. Getting points out of home games against Louisville City FC (8/3), Nashville SC (8/17), the Charleston Battery (8/30) and the Tampa Bay Rowdies (9/7) would keep the Independence moving toward their goal, with the chance Charlotte could also need something from its home contest with Ottawa Fury FC on Oct. 19.
WELCOME BOOST: There are only two seriously tough road trips left for the Independence, but if they get any points out of visits to Indy Eleven (8/25) and the New York Red Bulls II (9/13) it would not only be a serious boost to the club’s playoff chances, but also a marker that it could be upset-minded when the postseason rolls around.
OVERALL OUTLOOK: The Independence’s turnaround in form under Mike Jeffries has been remarkable, and you can argue the talent in the squad is the best of the four teams in this group. That said, avoiding major bumps in the road at home for the rest of the season is going to be central to holding off the challenge of the other three contenders.
Current Record: 5-6-6, 21pts – 12th place
Fivethirtyeight odds: 53 percent
Points required: 24 in 17 games
MUST WIN: As its remaining schedule unfolds, Saint Louis may not need to put together one big winning streak over its second half of the season, but it will need to pick up wins consistently to make good on its games in hand. Home contests against Memphis 901 FC (8/7), the Charleston Battery (8/10), Hartford Athletic (9/1) and ATL UTD 2 (9/28) are all going to require victories, as will the crucial road six-pointer against Birmingham Legion FC (9/13) and visits to Memphis 901 FC (9/21) and Loudoun United FC (10/8).
RESULT REQUIRED: STLFC isn’t going to need to win all 10 of its remaining home games and picking up points off visits from Ottawa Fury FC (9/4) and Nashville SC (9/7) in a busy week would be a solid return. So too would earning home points against the New York Red Bulls II (9/18) and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (10/12), while the visit of Louisville City FC for a Kings’ Cup contest on Oct. 5 is also going to be one Saint Louis will want to take at least a point from.
WELCOME BOOST: There appear to be four tough road games in STLFC’s seven away contests remaining on the schedule. If Saint Louis can get anything from its visits to the New York Red Bulls II (8/2), Indy Eleven (8/18) and Ottawa Fury FC (8/24) it would be very useful, and the side will likely know what it needs when it goes into its final game of the regular season against North Carolina FC on Oct. 19.
OVERALL OUTLOOK: With 10 of its 17 remaining games at home, there’s good reason to make Saint Louis the favorite to finish on top of this group of four. Finding a turnaround in its league form – starting on Saturday in a six-pointer against Bethlehem Steel FC – will determine whether the potential the club showed to be a title contender during its 5-2-2 start to the season was a true indicator of the club’s ability, or a mirage.