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SPOTLIGHT - One X-Factor for Each Conference Quarterfinalist

By JOHN ARLIA - john.arlia@uslsoccer.com, 10/25/19, 11:11AM EDT

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Who could make the biggest difference between elimination and survival on Saturday and beyond?

Sixteen teams remain in the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs as we head into the Eastern and Western Conference Quarterfinals on Saturday, with each side sharing the same goal of winning four straight matches to raise the trophy on November 17. 

Navigating through the bracket will take a combination of determination, talent and togetherness, as well as a postseason hero or two that steps out of the shadows and into the spotlight along the way.

With that thought in mind, I decided to spotlight one player from each team that I believe will be its x-factor and could make the difference between a lengthy postseason run or an early exit.

Western Conference

Team
Player
Phoenix Rising FC
1 Phoenix Rising FC
Zac Lubin - GK
Zac Lubin
It’s easy to look at all the firepower that Rising FC has at its disposal – led by three 15-goal scorers in Solomon Asante (22), Adam Jahn (17) and Junior Flemmings (15) – and look at one of those guys as the key to victory, but I’d argue the most important piece to Phoenix’s hopes of going one better than it did in 2018 stands between the posts. Lubin won the No. 1 job away from Carl Woszczynski early in the season and rarely surrendered his spot in the lineup, recording 13 clean sheets while conceding just 25 goals in 29 appearances.

Despite being one of the league’s top goalkeepers this season, the 30-year-old is occasionally prone to an error – as we saw in Phoenix’s recent 2-1 home defeat to Real Monarchs SLC – and hasn’t had the postseason pressure on him as Woszczynski played every minute of last year’s run to the USL Championship Final. If Rising FC wants to get back there and take home the trophy this time around, Lubin will have to be the calming presence at the back and make the big save when called upon as Phoenix does leave itself vulnerable at times given its propensity to attack.
Team
Player
Reno 1868 FC
2 Reno 1868 FC
Seth Casiple - M
Seth Casiple
Forwards Corey Hertzog (18 goals) and Danny Musovski (11 goals) get a lot of the credit for Reno’s third-ranked offense that netted 72 goals during the regular season – and rightly so – but not enough of the acclaim goes to standout midfielder Seth Casiple. The 26-year-old, who has been with 1868 FC since its inaugural season in 2017, pulls the strings from the center of the park and led Reno during the regular season with 78 key passes – tied for sixth-most in the Championship.

Casiple is also very dangerous from dead-ball situations, having provided four of his seven assists during the regular season from set plays and scoring once directly from a free kick. If Reno adds to the first postseason win it picked up last season, don’t be surprised to see Casiple be a big reason why.
Team
Player
Fresno FC
3 Fresno FC
Jemal Johnson - M
Jemal Johnson
In the first half of the season, it felt as though Jemal Johnson was firing home a trademark belter from distance every other week. However, that feeling has long since dissipated as the attacking midfielder has struggled to find his range in recent months. Johnson’s last goal came from the penalty spot in a 2-1 victory over New Mexico United on July 13 and he hasn’t scored in open play since a 3-2 win against San Antonio FC on June 21.

While Jaime Chavez (12 goals) and Qudus Lawal (10 goals) have stepped up to supply the finishing touch in the second half of the season, Johnson will need to reassert himself for Fresno’s Conference Quarterfinal matchup with El Paso Locomotive FC, especially with Lawal absent due to suspension. The 34-year-old, who finished the campaign with seven goals and four assists, certainly has the quality to change a game and will have to play a big part for the Foxes during their first postseason trip.
Team
Player
Real Monarchs SLC
4 Real Monarchs SLC
Jack Blake - M
Jack Blake
After being an unused substitute in last year’s stoppage-time defeat to Reno 1868 FC in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, Blake will be anxious to make an impact from the center of the park this time around and help the Monarchs end their run of back-to-back home playoff losses. The 25-year-old Englishman had his best statistical season in the Championship this year, recording eight goals and an assist in 25 appearances.

While one assist may not feel like a lot for a midfielder that likes to join in on the attack, that had to do more with his teammates’ finishing than it did his passing ability. Blake completed 84.9 percent of his passes at a rate of 60.6 passes per 90 minutes and ranked second on the team in key passes (44) and Big Chances Created (7). If he can get on the ball consistently and set up the likes of Douglas Martinez (16 goals) and Maikel Chang (13 goals), the Monarchs will be a tough team to slow down.
Team
Player
Orange County SC
5 Orange County SC
Michael Orozco - D
Michael Orozco
Orozco’s arrival in Orange County near the end of June helped settle down a defense that struggled mightily at the beginning of the season – it conceded 11 times in the side’s opening four games – and propeled the 2018 Western Conference finalist up the table and back into the postseason. The former United States Men’s National Team center back recorded 34 clearances, 22 interceptions and seven blocks in 17 appearances during the regular season, while also chipping in on the attacking end with two goals and two assists.

Orozco’s veteran presence, which has seen him feature in pressure-packed tournaments like the Concacaf Gold Cup and Olympic Games, should be a calming influence for this Orange County side and his experience and physicality should help as he prepares to match up with some of the West’s top forwards. Orozco will line up against Real Monarchs SLC leading scorer Douglas Martinez in the Conference Quarterfinals before potentially seeing the big bodies of Adam Jahn (Phoenix Rising FC) or Andre Lima (Austin Bold FC) coming his way in the Semifinals. Orozco’s ability to keep those guys quiet will determine how far Orange County can advance in the postseason.
Team
Player
El Paso Locomotive FC
6 El Paso Locomotive FC
Jerome Kiesewetter - F
Jerome Kiesewetter
El Paso Locomotive FC reached the postseason in large part due to its defense, which kept the second-most clean sheets in the Western Conference (13) and matched Phoenix Rising FC for the fewest goals allowed (36) on this side of the bracket. While having that ability to stifle opposing attacks will certainly come in handy during the postseason, Locomotive FC is going to need to find some sort of offense if it’s going to keep its inaugural campaign chugging down the tracks. El Paso scored the fewest regular-season goals of any team to avoid the Play-In Round (42) and got nearly 30 percent of those from Jerome Kiesewetter.

The former United States Men’s National Team forward notched 12 goals in 25 appearances after joining the side in April and might’ve made a run at a 20-goal campaign if not for a mid-season injury that kept him on the sidelines for six weeks. Kiesewetter’s scorching form that saw him tally 10 goals in his first 10 games for Locomotive FC probably wasn’t sustainable, but a return of two goals since his mid-August return isn’t enough for a player of his quality. If he can get firing again in the postseason, El Paso can make a serious run. If he can’t, then its time in the postseason may be short-lived.
Team
Player
Sacramento Republic FC
7 Sacramento Republic FC
Sam Werner - M
Sam Werner
Werner, who made 32 appearances and 25 starts in the regular season, was a bit of a surprise absence from Head Coach Simon Elliott’s starting lineup for Wednesday night’s 2-1 victory over New Mexico United in the Play-In Round but made the difference as a second-half substitute as he set up Thomas Enevoldsen for the game-winning goal with eight minutes to go.

A pacey left-footed winger, Werner brings the ability to attack defenders in one-on-one situations and unsurprisingly led Republic FC with 113 attempted dribbles during the regular season, successfully completing 49 of them. Werner also contributed six goals and four assists during the campaign and could play a big role in Republic FC’s attack moving forward as Sacramento looks to extend its postseason run beyond the opening weekend.
Team
Player
Austin Bold FC
8 Austin Bold FC
Xavier Baez - M
Xavier Baez
If you were watching Austin’s Play-In Round victory over the LA Galaxy II, you would have seen why Baez’s presence is so important to this Bold FC side. The midfielder set up Ema Twumasi’s opening goal in the ninth minute, winning the ball high up the field with a sliding challenge before showing the composure to pick his head up in the box and pick out his teammate with a lovely weighted layoff. On the night, Baez completed 88 percent of his passes and recorded two Big Chances Created – the most of any player featuring in the opening round.

The 32-year-old, who made more than 200 appearances for legendary Liga MX side Chivas de Guadalajara, is the type of savvy veteran that every team needs this time of year and, as he showed on Wednesday night, is plenty of picking the right pass as he recorded three assists and ranked second on the team with 36 key passes in the regular season. Austin will need Baez to continue his strong play in the Quarterfinals and if he does, Bold FC could spring an upset.

Eastern CONFERENCE

Team
Player
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
1 Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Joe Greenspan - D
Joe Greenspan
The Hounds may not be playing the purest version of “Lilleyball” this season as the side’s attack has certainly taken a step forward with the additions of Steevan Dos Santos and others, but Pittsburgh’s success is still built off a sturdy defense that led the Championship with 17 clean sheets during the regular season. Nine of those came in the side’s final 11 games, including a run of seven straight, as Head Coach Bob Lilley’s squad clamped down opponents in trademark fashion on its way to claiming the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

One of the key pieces of that backline has been Joe Greenspan, who recorded the fourth-most clearances in the Championship this season (151) and won an impressive 179 of 258 duels in 32 appearances. The center back will be tasked with tracking Birmingham forward Brian Wright on Saturday night and then could be see a Semifinal matchup with either Louisville’s Luke Spencer or Tampa Bay’s Sebastian Guenzatti, all of whom provide a physical test. If Greenspan can help Pittsburgh keep its defensive domination going, the Hounds could protect home field advantage all the way to the USL Championship Final.
Team
Player
Nashville SC
2 Nashville SC
Lebo Moloto - M
Lebo Moloto
Going into this season, all the talk surrounding Nashville SC was about the new attacking trio of Daniel Rios, Cameron Lancaster and Kharlton Belmar (yes, I was guilty of it too...). While Rios has come through with 20 goals for the second straight season – having reached that plateau last season with North Carolina FC – Moloto has played a major role in NSC’s rejuvenated attack that finished in the top 10 league-wide with 59 goals on the season. The center attacking midfielder tallied five times in 31 regular-season appearances and was one of just five players in the Championship to record double-digit assists on the campaign.

Nashville still tends to rely on its league-leading defense, which conceded just 26 times in 34 games, and can stagnate at times in the attacking third. Moloto is typically the key to unlocking opposing defenses as his 66 chances created also led NSC, and he could play a pivotal role if Head Coach Gary Smith’s side finds itself in another tight contest as it did in the 2018 Conference Quarterfinals against FC Cincinnati.
Team
Player
Indy Eleven
3 Indy Eleven
Dane Kelly - F
Dane Kelly
It’s odd to think of the Championship’s all-time leading goalscorer as an x-factor, but after the difficult campaign that Dane Kelly has endured that’s exactly what he is. The Jamaican forward recorded 10 goals and four assists in 32 appearances, but those numbers lose a bit of their luster when you look at the underlying ones. Kelly led the Eleven with 73 shots but converted at a rate of just 13.7 percent, finding the back of the net once every 202.9 minutes or a little over once every two games.

The veteran also led the league in Big Chances Missed with 24, which shows that Kelly is still getting into the right positions and can get behind defenses with his speed but has been lacking the clinical finishing we’ve come to associate with him. The silver lining, however, is that Kelly found the net three times in the Eleven’s final two games of the regular season, giving Indy hope that its frontman could be finding his form at the perfect time.
Team
Player
Louisville City FC
4 Louisville City FC
Brian Ownby - M
Brian Ownby
Ownby battled through injuries for the second straight season, scoring two goals and adding four assists and 34 chances created in 20 appearances for the two-time defending champion. While those numbers don’t necessarily pop off the page, they serve as a strong reference point when comparing the forward to his postseason alter ego.

Last year, Ownby netted three goals and recorded two assists in four games during the 2018 USL Championship Playoffs. Playing at the top of the lineup as a false nine for Head Coach John Hackworth’s side during the final stretch of the regular season, it seems as though Ownby will have his chance to shine in the postseason spotlight again. Coming close to replicating his performances from a year ago will give LouCity fans hope of completing a three-peat.
Team
Player
Tampa Bay Rowdies
5 Tampa Bay Rowdies
Juan Tejada - F
Juan Tejada
It’s always interesting to see how rookies react to their first postseason action and there’s no way to really predetermine how effective they are going to be when they take the field. The 22-year-old Tejada produced an impressive debut campaign, netting 10 goals in 31 games in his first professional season after playing his way onto the roster and then into the starting lineup in preseason. The Panamanian enters the postseason without a goal in his last four starts, last finding the back of the net in a two-goal performance and 3-1 win over the Charlotte Independence on September 7.

It’ll be interesting to see if Head Coach Neill Collins uses Tejada from the start or as a substitute, given his high-energy style of play and potential to give the Rowdies a spark, and how the forward will respond in the big moment. He hasn’t flinched thus far in the pros, so there’s certainly the potential for a Juan Soto-esque postseason moment (or a couple of them) for the breakout star.
Team
Player
New York Red Bulls II
6 New York Red Bulls II
Jordan Scarlett - D
Jordan Scarlett
If the New York Red Bulls II want to reach the Eastern Conference Final for the fourth consecutive year, they’ll have to get things organized at the back in a hurry after conceding 17 goals over their final five games of the regular season (0-4-1). Despite that horrific stretch at the back, New York still managed to concede eight fewer goals during the campaign (51) than it did a season ago (59). As one of the elder statesmen on a very young team, Scarlett will be charged with keeping the back line organized after leading New York with 89 clearances, 67 interceptions and 23 blocks during the regular season.

When he commits himself into a challenge, he usually comes out on top, having won 47 of 65 tackles on the season and 194 of 311 duels. If Scarlett can help limit the oppositions opportunities against goalkeeper Evan Louro, New York can get back to looking like the team that sat in the top two for most of the campaign.
Team
Player
Charleston Battery
9 Charleston Battery
Jarad van Schaik - D
Jarad van Schaik
The Charleston Battery may be happy to be hitting the road in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals after falling at home the previous two seasons, but if the former USL Championship Final winner is going to get back to the glory days it’s going to have to be resilient in defense. That will be especially true in the early stages of Saturday’s Quarterfinal against Nashville SC as the side tries to find its legs after surviving 120 minutes and a penalty shootout against Ottawa Fury FC. Jarad van Schaik will play a key role to that end, anchoring Charleston’s backline alongside Taylor Mueller and trying to shut down the aforementioned 20-goal scorer Daniel Rios.

Van Schaik led the Battery with 83 interceptions in 32 regular season games, while also amassing 89 clearances and winning 39 of 64 tackles and 160 of 242 duels to help Charleston keep eight clean sheets. The center half got off to a strong start on Wednesday night, making 10 clearances and keeping his nerve to convert the game-winning penalty kick, and will hope to build on that as the Battery look to advance beyond the Quarterfinals for the first time since 2016.
Team
Player
Birmingham Legion FC
10 Birmingham Legion FC
Anderson Asiedu - M
Anderson Asiedu
If you watched Birmingham Legion FC’s Play-In Round victory over North Carolina FC, it was impossible to ignore the impact Asiedu had on the contest. The central defensive midfielder showed off his impressive engine, covering every blade of grass as he worked to break up the play and help Legion FC transition into counterattacks. In 14 regular season contests with Birmingham, Asiedu made 108 recoveries, 14 interceptions and won 24 of 34 tackles while also spending time on loan with fellow Championship side ATL UTD 2.

Asiedu will certainly continue to be busy as Legion FC continues its postseason run and will likely be faced with the challenge of tracking down Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC standout midfielder Kenardo Forbes on Saturday night, which will make for a fantastic individual matchup to look out for.

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