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ARLIA: Projecting the Playoff Field with Four Weeks to Play

By JOHN ARLIA - john.arlia@uslsoccer.com, 09/24/19, 3:00PM EDT

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Which teams make the cut and which avoid the play-in round? Who is left out?

With just four weeks remaining in the regular season, the race for the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs is heating up. Seven teams have already clinched their spot in the postseason, and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC will join them, but there still isn’t generally a lot of clarity about the races around the playoff lines and where teams will finish in the final standings outside of Phoenix Rising FC topping the Western Conference. In order to see where this playoff race is heading, I decided to look ahead and predict the outcomes of the remaining 87 games on the schedule. After playing out that process, here’s how I have the final 2019 USL Championship standings shaking out:

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Western Conference

Phoenix Rising FC
y - 1. Phoenix Rising FC (22-3-5 - 71pts)
Projected Final Record: 25-3-6 - 81pts

The end of Phoenix’s record 20-game winning streak gives it one less thing to fight for over the final stretch of the season, but Rising FC will surely be looking for Open Cup revenge in New Mexico and there’s still one more Dollar Beer night on tap in October. Given those motivations, Phoenix seems likely to rebound quickly and surpass FC Cincinnati’s single-season records for wins (23) and points (77). The only thing I see keeping Rising FC from winning out is a trip to a Portland side that nearly ended the streak when they last met at Casino Arizona Field on June 29.

2. Fresno FC
x - 2. Fresno FC (16-5-8 - 56pts)
Projected Final Record: 19-6-9 - 66pts

The Foxes have already clinched their first postseason berth, but there’s still plenty to play for down the stretch as Fresno looks to lock up home-field advantage through the Western Conference Semifinals. Four points from a two-game Texas road trip should help to that end before sealing the deal on home turf with wins over Tacoma and LA before a visit to a potentially desperate Orange County side fighting for a fourth-place finish on the final weekend.

3. Reno 1868 FC
3. Reno 1868 FC (16-9-5 - 53pts)
Projected Final Record: 19-10-5 - 62pts

Reno would likely have to sweep its remaining four games to give Fresno a run for second place, which isn’t something I see happening given potentially tricky home contests with the Monarchs and Locomotive FC coming up before a trip to Silver State Cup rival Las Vegas Lights FC. I’ve got Las Vegas summoning its Cashman Field dominance for a win on that occasion, but Reno holds serve on home turf and in its season-ending trip to Tulsa.

4. Sacramento Republic FC
4. Sacramento Republic FC (13-11-5 - 44pts)
Projected Final Record: 17-12-5 - 56pts

Republic FC will face four teams fighting for playoff positioning over its final five games but has the benefit of playing three of those contests at Papa Murphy’s Park where the side is 8-3-3 so far this campaign and has won three straight games. I see that success continuing over the final few weeks of the season with SRFC collecting nine points from three home wins, including a crucial California clash with Orange County on the penultimate weekend of the season. That should give the side just enough of a cushion to claim fourth despite a defeat on its season-ending trip to Real Monarchs SLC.

5. Orange County SC
5. Orange County SC (12-8-9 - 45pts)
Projected Final Record: 15-10-9 - 54pts

Orange County should be able to carry its winning streak into October as it visits Rio Grande Valley FC and hosts OKC Energy FC in its next two games, but I wouldn’t expect that run to continue beyond the side’s trip to Real Monarchs. OCSC’s road form has been nothing to write home about and even if it’s improved lately, I’m not ready to predict points coming back from trips to Utah or Sacramento the following week. A home win over a Fresno side that has nothing left to play for on the final day doesn’t seem out of reach, but it won’t be enough to cross the finish line in fourth.

6. Real Monarchs SLC
6. Real Monarchs SLC (12-10-7 - 43pts)
Projected Final Record: 15-12-7 - 52pts

The Monarchs finish with a brutal schedule of five games against teams currently in the top seven of the conference. The good news is that three of those come at Zions Bank Stadium, where the side has been nearly unbeatable over the past two years, but with a projected zero points coming back from its trips to Reno and Phoenix the Monarchs’ top-four hopes seem out of reach. Collecting nine points from its remaining three home games though sees it just edge out New Mexico on the total wins tiebreaker to avoid the play-in round.

7. New Mexico United
7. New Mexico United (10-9-10 - 40pts)
Projected Final Record: 14-10-10 - 52pts

I’m not sure there’s a worse time for New Mexico to host Phoenix than this coming weekend with Rising FC coming off its first defeat since May 4 and still having its home penalty shootout defeat to United in the Open Cup on the back of its mind. Even with a defeat this weekend, I think New Mexico is in good shape as it should be favored to win each of its remaining four games, which all come against teams currently sitting below the playoff line, but its 14 wins leave it sitting in the play-in round as it loses out on the total wins tiebreaker to the Monarchs.

8. El Paso Locomotive FC
8. El Paso Locomotive FC (10-9-9 - 39pts)
Projected Final Record: 12-11-11 - 47pts

Locomotive FC currently sits in a good position – above the playoff line with the most games remaining of any team around it in the standings – but still has some work to do down the stretch to earn a postseason spot. A tough three-game run (at Sacramento, vs. Fresno, at Reno) awaits but taking a single point from that should be enough as long as El Paso sweeps its final two home games against playoff contenders Austin and Portland.

9. Austin Bold FC
9. Austin Bold FC (12-11-7 - 43pts)
Projected Final Record: 13-14-7 - 46pts

Bold FC’s poor away form (2-7-4) could make for a nervy finish for fans of the expansion side as Austin wraps up its inaugural campaign with a four-game road trip. Suffering defeats in the first three of those contests against Portland, Real Monarchs and El Paso – which is the most feasible scenario I can see –  would make for a tense trip to Tacoma on the final Saturday of the season, but I think Bold FC does just enough to get over the line.

10. San Antonio FC
10. San Antonio FC (10-11-8 - 38pts)
Projected Final Record: 12-12-10 - 46pts

San Antonio enters the week outside of the playoff places and will need to pick up all three points on the road – something it has only done twice this season – when it visits Tulsa on Wednesday. That will give Darren Powell’s side a chance even if things don’t go their way when they host Fresno and travel to Las Vegas for their following two games. A road point in Portland will be a massive get ahead of a home win on the final day over Colorado Springs that just sees SAFC edge out the LA Galaxy II on the total wins tiebreaker.


Eastern Conference

1. Indy Eleven
x - 1. Indy Eleven (17-6-5 - 56pts)
Projected Final Record: 21-7-6 - 69pts

Indy boasts better than a 50-percent chance to finish atop the Eastern Conference according to fivethirtyeight.com as it sits with the highest maximum points available total of any team vying for the top spot. The Eleven have a busy run-in with four of six games coming on the road, but I think they should be able to navigate road wins in Atlanta and Ottawa and take care of business at home to finish 4-1-1 and make a spot in the USL Championship Final run through Lucas Oil Stadium.

2. New York Red Bulls II
x - 2. New York Red Bulls II (17-8-5 - 56pts)
Projected Final Record: 20-8-6 - 66pts

After a winnable home date with Charleston on Friday night, the Red Bulls II play their final three games away from the friendly confines of MSU Soccer Park. Trips to North Carolina and Birmingham could prove tricky but I think New York exacts revenge on Dave Sarachan’s side for its midseason home defeat before dropping its only points over the final run-in against Legion FC.

3. Nashville SC
x - 3. Nashville SC (16-7-7 - 55pts)
Projected Final Record: 19-7-8 - 65pts

Nashville may seem to be at a disadvantage in the race for the top four because it has just four games remaining, but Head Coach Gary Smith’s side will play three of those games at home and should be the more rested squad for most of those contests. With those conditions in mind, I expect NSC to take 10 points from a possible 12 down the stretch, including a signature win over rival Louisville City FC, to clinch home-field advantage in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

4. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
4. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (14-4-10 - 52pts)
Projected Final Record: 18-5-11 - 65pts

The Hounds, like Indy, hit the road for four of their final six games of the campaign but crucially host the contest between the two in what could be a decider for the top spot come season’s end. While I do think the Hounds pick up three points in that match at Highmark Stadium, a loss on the road against Memphis 901 FC and a draw with Saint Louis FC result in Pittsburgh sitting below Nashville on the total wins tiebreaker.

5. Tampa Bay Rowdies
x - 5. Tampa Bay Rowdies (16-6-8 - 56pts)
Projected Final Record: 18-6-10 - 64pts

Projecting the Rowdies to go unbeaten over their final four games feels a little tricky with a trip to Louisville on deck, but Tampa Bay should be confident after a big win this past weekend over Bethlehem. A home date with Indy also lies in the distance for Neill Collins’ squad, which I think ends in a draw, and ends up being a crucial result in the big picture as the Rowdies ultimately come up two points short of a top-three finish.

6. Louisville City FC
6. Louisville City FC (14-7-8 - 50pts)
Projected Final Record: 16-8-10 - 58pts

Louisville’s 5-3 win over New York this past weekend was the most impressive result of the side’s eight-game unbeaten run, but I’m still not sold that a top-four finish is within reach. An upcoming three-game stretch that sees Tampa Bay visit before trips to Saint Louis and Nashville should tell us just how close this side is to reaching the heights of the past two seasons. Back-to-back wins against Swope Park and at Memphis to close out the season should give the side momentum moving into the postseason, though.

7. North Carolina FC
7. North Carolina FC (13-9-8 - 47pts)
Projected Final Record: 15-10-9 - 54pts

North Carolina’s downward spiral of late has put it into the play-in round and I don’t foresee the side sweeping its final four games to climb back up to sixth given the difficulty of its remaining schedule. All four of its remaining opponents are currently in the postseason field, but thankfully for Dave Sarachan’s side it seems to play up to the level of its competition and will get to improve on an 8-1-5 home record with three of the final four contests coming at WakeMed Soccer Park. I’m giving NCFC the benefit of the doubt with home wins over Ottawa and Saint Louis to keep the side in position to host a play-in game.

8. Ottawa Fury FC
8. Ottawa Fury FC (12-8-9 - 45pts)
Projected Final Record: 14-10-10 - 52pts

Fury FC’s recent two-game winning streak has given it a bit of a cushion above the playoff line, but that could be reduced over the coming two weeks as it heads to North Carolina on Saturday for a crunch clash for positioning before hosting Indy the following Wednesday. While I don’t expect Ottawa to take anything from those two contests, Fury FC goes 2-0-1 over its final three games against the Swope Park Rangers, Bethlehem Steel FC and the Charlotte Independence – all of which sit outside the playoff picture – and earn hosting duties in the play-in round.

9. Saint Louis FC
9. Saint Louis FC (11-10-8 - 41pts)
Projected Final Record: 13-11-10 - 49pts

Saint Louis seems to be in a good position to reach the postseason for the second straight season as it plays three of its final five games on home turf and will watch happily as the two threats to its spot in the playoff field, Birmingham Legion FC and the Charleston Battery, do battle at BBVA Field in early October. Since one team will have to drop points, that should give STLFC a little more wiggle room than it already has. Wins over non-playoff sides Atlanta and Loudoun to go along with home points against Louisville and Pittsburgh don’t hurt either.

10. Birmingham Legion FC
10. Birmingham Legion FC (11-12-6 - 39pts)
Projected Final Record: 13-13-8 - 47pts

Birmingham Legion FC won’t be happy to have seen the Battery take a late win over North Carolina this past weekend, but the expansion side still sits in a good spot with four weeks to go. Legion FC should be able to extend the current one-point gap before the two sides meet at BBVA Field in a massive playoff six-pointer on October 5 as Charleston heads to first-place New York on Friday before Birmingham heads to last-place Swope Park on Monday. I think Legion FC follows up a win over the Rangers by taking all three points in its contest with Charleston and is able hold off the late-charging Battery – who win all three home games against Loudoun United FC, Memphis 901 FC and Bethlehem Steel FC to close the regular season – with draws in Hartford and home to New York to secure the spot via the total wins tiebreaker.

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