It’s officially October, which means the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs are within sight. However, there’s still plenty to play for over the final three weeks of the regular season as playoff contenders look to lock down the remaining 11 postseason berths across both conferences, while those that have already clinched their spot battle for home-field advantage. With many races looking likely to come down to the wire, here are the 10 must-see games that will play the biggest role in finalizing the 20-team playoff field down the final stretch of the season:
Let’s kick things off with potentially the biggest game left on the schedule, which will see 10th-place Birmingham Legion FC take on the 11th-place Charleston Battery in a massive playoff six-pointer on Saturday night at BBVA Field. Legion FC’s loss to the Swope Park Rangers on Monday night left it and the Battery even on points, with Birmingham holding the edge currently on the total-wins tiebreaker. While that means a draw would be good enough for the hosts to stay ahead of the on-charging Battery, Birmingham will be aware that Charleston finishes with three home games against non-playoff sides while it heads to Hartford before hosting New York and Pittsburgh in its final three contests. A win would go a long way for either side’s hopes of slotting into the East’s final postseason spot come season’s end but is almost essential for Legion FC at this point.
Nashville enters the week atop the Eastern Conference and now has a 55-percent chance of a top-two finish, according to fivethirtyeight.com, as Head Coach Gary Smith’s side has benefitted from recent stumbles from Indy Eleven and the New York Red Bulls II. A strong finish to the season could guarantee two or three postseason games at First Tennessee Park, something that seems achievable as the side rounds out its regular-season campaign with three straight home contests, starting with a critical clash against rival Louisville City FC. The two-time defending champions defeated NSC 2-1 earlier this season at Slugger Field and will likely need to repeat that result if they have any chance at a top-four finish. Even if that is out of reach by the time this contest kicks off – LouCity visits Kings’ Cup rival Saint Louis FC three days prior – Head Coach John Hackworth’s squad will still be fighting to stay clear of the play-in round and will love to put a dent in NSC’s top-two bid. It’s always going to be a must-see match when these teams square off, but the raised stakes should make it that much more interesting.
Real Monarchs SLC took the lead in the race for fourth place in the Western Conference standings this past weekend as it earned a comeback victory over Reno 1868 FC at Greater Nevada Field, while Orange County SC and Sacramento Republic FC suffered defeats. However, all three of the sides still control their own destiny to claim that fourth spot as they will engage in a mini round-robin tournament over the final three weeks of the season. The first of those contests will see the Monarchs host an OCSC side that has generally struggled on the road this season but won three of its past four away matches. Meanwhile, the Monarchs have lost just twice on their home turf this season and will want to maintain pole position – assuming they don’t drop points against Austin Bold FC before that – while taking revenge for a 3-1 loss back in August.
After a massive road win over the Portland Timbers 2 last weekend, Austin Bold FC now finds itself in the race for the top four. Bold FC still sits well behind the Monarchs, Republic FC and Orange County on just a 12-percent chance at a fourth-place finish, but Austin should be encouraged that those three all play each other as it likely boosts the side’s chances at avoiding the play-in round. That will certainly give Head Coach Marcelo Serrano’s squad something to play for when it visits Copa Tejas rival El Paso after its trip to the Monarchs. Despite currently sitting above the playoff line, it’s likely Locomotive FC will be fighting for its playoff life at that point after facing Fresno and Reno this coming week. A home win would go a long way to seeing El Paso likely join Austin in the postseason in its debut campaign, but a loss to its rival could give it leave on the outside looking in. A high-stakes affair between two regional rivals? I’m in.
The USL Championship Playoffs may not start for nearly two weeks after this contest, but this could be an elimination game for all intents and purposes when it comes to Western Conference playoff qualification. San Antonio and Portland currently share the same maximum possible points total of 50 and boast the 11th- and 12th-best odds respectively to make the 10-team postseason field, per fivethirtyeight.com. There’s still time for that to change over the final few weeks, but it seems unlikely that the loser of this six-pointer ends the season above the playoff line.
With Indy Eleven sliding down the table after three consecutive defeats and now holding just a 24-percent chance at a top-two finish, this game is taking on more meaning in the race for the East’s third and fourth spots. Fivethirtyeight.com currently gives the New York Red Bulls II (47 percent) the highest odds outside of Pittsburgh and Nashville to reach the top four, just edging out Tampa Bay (46 percent) and Indy (44 percent). While those percentage points are pretty even right now, a winner in this contest would likely shift the scales to one side or the other. However, a repeat of the 0-0 draw the sides played out in May might keep things interesting until the final weekend.
Three days after its trip to the Monarchs, Orange County will head north to take on California rival Sacramento Republic FC in another key clash for positioning around the top six. The sides played out a 0-0 draw near the end of July at Championship Soccer Stadium but it’s unlikely that a point does either a whole lot of good at this point if they want to avoid the play-in round and/or earn home-field advantage in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
North Carolina FC’s victory against Ottawa Fury FC gave it some breathing room over the Canadian side and Saint Louis FC heading into the final stretch of the season, but the work isn’t done yet for Head Coach Dave Sarachan and company. NCFC will host the Red Bulls II and travel to Nashville over its next two matches, which could leave it needing points on the final weekend to secure home-field advantage in the play-in round. If that’s the case, STLFC would likely be the team in position to pass it with a victory at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park on the final Saturday of the season. Things could also go the opposite way for Saint Louis, which faces Louisville, Loudoun and Pittsburgh before then, and Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ side could need a result just to clinch its spot in the postseason.
The most intriguing clash on the final Saturday of the season in the Western Conference will draw a curtain on the unofficial round-robin tournament for fourth place between Orange County, Republic FC and the Monarchs while potentially deciding who joins Phoenix, Fresno and Reno in the top four. Real will again have hosting duties, which should certainly be an advantage given the side’s outstanding record at Zions Bank Stadium over the past two seasons, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Republic FC is coming in with some momentum if it can knock off Orange County at home the previous week. If neutrals like myself get our way, fourth place will be on the line with 90 minutes for the two sides to separate themselves from a dead heat.
The only game on the final day of the regular season could mean everything at the top and bottom of the Eastern Conference standings depending on how results over the next few weeks unfold. Legion FC could host the Hounds needing a result in front of its home crowd at BBVA Field to reach the postseason in its inaugural campaign, while Pittsburgh could come in needing something to secure the top spot in the Eastern Conference and home-field advantage throughout the Eastern Conference Playoffs. That would certainly be the ideal scenario for a neutral as it would force two defensively strong sides have to come out and attack each other, while adding some nervous excitement to those Birmingham fans gathered in the stands.
Tag(s): Nashville SC San Antonio FC Orange County SC Portland Timbers 2 Real Monarchs SLC Sacramento Republic FC Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saint Louis FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Birmingham Legion FC Austin Bold FC North Carolina FC Indy Eleven El Paso Locomotive FC Arlia Editorial