1 Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.