The 2020 USL Championship Playoffs kick off tonight, and everyone – from the favorites to the outsiders – is four wins from lifting a trophy. Here’s your Morning Tea for Conference Quarterfinals Saturday.
In certain ways, the loss to the Charleston Battery to end the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ regular season mirrored its defeat to Hartford Athletic to end its 2019 campaign.
Last year, the Rowdies’ defeat meant the chance to host its opening game in the playoffs slipped away and it was forced to head to Louisville City FC instead. This year, the defeat meant the Battery missed out on the chance to finish as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and No. 2 seed overall behind Western Conference leader Reno 1868 FC.
But Head Coach Neill Collins was still able to find the silver lining. After all, as the Group H winner the Rowdies do still have the chance to host their first two postseason games, starting with Saturday’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinal against Birmingham Legion FC.
“At times, because it’s a great club with a great history dating back a long time, you can start taking things for granted,” Collins told Unused Substitute’s Jake Nutting in the club’s weekly Zoom call. “It’s the first back-to-back playoffs the club’s had in eight years. It’s not been a given that you qualify for the playoffs. We’ve got a home game in the playoffs. So, you’ve got to enjoy these moments.”
The Rowdies’ struggles against the Battery – who handed Tampa Bay its only three losses of the season – shouldn’t mask the fact that Collins’ side has traits that see teams fare well at this point of the season. Tampa Bay’s defense was the second-best in the league, conceding only 11 goals in 16 games as goalkeeper Evan Louro recorded seven shutouts.
The side was also among the best in creating opportunities from set pieces, which at this time of year as games tighten can make an important difference to a team’s fortune. Last season’s USL Championship Final-winner Real Monarchs SLC recorded four of the 13 goals in its postseason run off assists from set pieces, including two in the Championship Final against Louisville City FC.
On top of that, if the Rowdies had their difficulties with the Battery down the final stretch of the season, Legion FC had bigger worries. Birmingham won only one of its last six games (1-4-1) and suffered a 3-1 defeat in its regular season finale last Saturday night to a Memphis 901 FC that had long been eliminated from postseason contention. After playing Legion FC to a 1-1 draw earlier this season the Rowdies have some knowledge of what challenges Birmingham will pose, though, and the fact that the postseason can wipe the slate clean for some clubs.
“Form goes out the window because you know guys are playing to stay alive, to keep their season alive,” Collins told Nutting. “We know that Birmingham will come here very resilient, very well-organized, working hard and ready to try and spoil the party. As always, we need is to focus on what we need to do first.”
The opportunity to move into the postseason with a chance to focus only on what’s ahead could also be a positive for the Rowdies as well. Viewed as one of the serious challengers to reach its first USL Championship Final by observers, there’s no doubt within the locker room that the squad has what it needs to succeed over the next four weekends.
“At least for me, this is a win-or-bust year,” Louro told the Tampa Bay Times’ Darek Sharp. “We have the talent, the quality in the group, the mentality. We have everything that we need. I think when the lights come on, we’ll respond.”
- San Antonio FC went 7-0-1 at Toyota Field during the regular season, and despite back-to-back road losses to end the campaign is ready for its first postseason game since 2017 on Saturday night. The San Antonio Express-News’ Greg Luca has more ahead of the club’s Western Conference Quarterfinal with New Mexico United.
- After last season’s playoff exit at the hands of Louisville City FC, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC believes it is “better equipped” to face the challenge its Eastern Conference Quarterfinal brings. Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s John Krysinsky has more on the changes the Hounds have undergone since its defeat just under 12 months ago.
- Hartford Athletic will be without one of the notable players from its successful regular season against Saint Louis FC on Saturday night, with Tyreke Johnson having been recalled from his loan spell by Premier League club Southampton FC.
- The arrival of Montgomery, Ala. native JJ Williams on loan from Atlanta United FC was meant to be the final piece of the puzzle for Birmingham Legion FC, but the close of the regular season wasn’t kind for Head Coach Tom Soehn’s side. The Birmingham News’ Joe Goodman Jr. believes Williams is part of an attack that can certainly get hot this postseason, but that the side is going to need to be more rugged if the season is going to live up to its early promise.
- There’s a positive mood circulating in New Mexico United’s camp ahead of its visit to San Antonio FC, which might be best expressed through Kalen Ryden’s new playoff mustache. The Albuquerque Journal’s Randy Harrison has more on that, and how the club is looking to draw from its Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup experience last year to be ready for this postseason.
- What might it take for Sacramento Republic FC to find an upset of Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday night at Casino Arizona Field? Indomitable City Soccer’s Alicia Rodriguez spoke with local Phoenix writer Owain Evans to get the lowdown before the first playoff meeting between the clubs.