Expansion sides Austin Bold FC and New Mexico United are vying for a playoff spot in their inaugural season. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
Since the season kicked off on March 8, we’ve seen some things that were expected and plenty that was unexpected in the 2019 USL Championship campaign. As we approach the business end of the season with just five weekends remaining until the USL Championship Playoffs, here are five key questions that we should be paying attention to as this year’s 20-team postseason field takes shape.
Before the season began, I predicted that New Mexico United would be the only 2019 expansion side to make the postseason in its inaugural campaign. That take, like NMU itself, has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride this season and currently looks unlikely to bear fruit as we enter this weekend with three expansion sides currently in the playoff places. Austin Bold FC (74 percent) and New Mexico (92 percent) sit three points clear of the playoff line on 40 points apiece and have strong odds to be included in the Western Conference field, according to fivethirtyeight.com.
El Paso Locomotive FC (51 percent) is just favored to join them, despite currently sitting outside of the top 10 places in the standings. In the East, things are looking a little bleaker for Birmingham Legion FC (45 percent) after its home loss to playoff rival Saint Louis FC on Saturday as it tries to hold onto 10th place ahead of the Charleston Battery. With five weeks remaining, there’s still plenty of time for things to change in the standings but each of the four expansion sides in contention will need a strong finish to see their first postseason action.
The New York Red Bulls II and Indy Eleven became the first two teams in the Eastern Conference to clinch a postseason berth with wins this past weekend and now sit tied atop the standings with New York currently holding the edge on goal difference. However, Indy is favored to occupy the top spot come season’s end (50 percent) according to fivethirtyeight.com as it holds a game in hand over New York (28 percent). With the Tampa Bay Rowdies (nine percent), Nashville SC (seven percent) and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (six percent) all still in the mix should the top two falter, it’s very possible that we could see the race for home field come down to the final weekend.
You may remember – and still dislike me because – I said before the season that Louisville City FC wouldn’t complete its three-peat. Well, the back-to-back champions are currently locked in on making the postseason (>99 percent, per fivethirtyeight.com) but have certainly struggled to replace the goals of Cameron Lancaster and Ilija Ilic, while having their fair share of struggles in defense and with injuries. Yet, LouCity sits in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings and is still within four points of fourth-place Nashville with five weeks to go. If Head Coach John Hackworth’s side can get healthy and create some momentum down the stretch to push into fourth, that would be a major boost as Louisville didn’t have to play a single road game during the last two postseasons. Avoiding the Play-In Round with a top-six finish is certainly the first target but playing a postseason game at Slugger Field one last time is a close second.
Phoenix Rising FC forward Ben Spencer celebrates scoring in the club's Championship record 20th consecutive victory against the LA Galaxy II. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orellana / Phoenix Rising FC
We know all about Phoenix Rising FC’s winning streak that now spans a Championship record 20 consecutive games, during which the team has outscored its opponents 62-15. Having already clinched home-field until the USL Championship Final, Phoenix is undoubtedly the class of the Western Conference and is essentially a lock to claim the Championship’s regular season title. But what will be intriguing to watch over the next five weeks is how long this run continues and how Rising FC reacts when (if?) it finally comes to an end. Phoenix won’t have too much to play for over the final weeks if the streak is over and regular season title is in hand, so Head Coach Rick Schantz will have a job on his hands to keep everyone motivated and playing their best come late October.
The top three in the Western Conference will likely shake out some combination of Phoenix, Reno 1868 FC and Fresno FC, but that leaves seven spots still up for grabs in a race to the finish that seems likely to come down to the final weekend. The difference between fourth and 14th place in the West is currently just eight points, meaning the likes of Las Vegas Lights FC and El Paso Locomotive FC not only have time to climb above the playoff line but could even manage a top-six finish with a strong run-in. It seems we have a new fourth-place team every week, so it’ll be interesting to see if anyone can make that spot – and the home playoff game that comes with it – their own.