The regular season is over, and the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs, presented by TwinSpires are here.
So, who’ve you got?
If you’re feeling confident, you can make your own picks in a free-to-play game on the USL App (Download on Apple | Google Play), but if you’re looking for a little guidance, we asked our resident expert Nicholas Murray to look into his crystal ball and predict how this year’s bracket will play out.
Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. FC Tulsa
This is one of four games that kick off the postseason that serves as a first meeting between the two clubs, with FC Tulsa’s move to the Eastern Conference this season putting them on the same side of the bracket as the defending Eastern Conference title winners. There will be at least a little familiarity here, though, with Tulsa players like Lebo Moloto and Bradley Bourgeois having played at Al Lang Stadium before.
It’s hard to overlook what the Rowdies bring to the table, though, in terms of quality and consistency in their lineup. They’re undefeated in their last eight games at their place and tied the Championship’s regular season record with 13 home wins this season. There’s quality in Tulsa’s lineup, no question, but the Tulsa defense that conceded 1.5 goals per game this season is going to be seriously tested, and I’m not sure it stands up to what Sebastian Guenzatti and company have in store.
Score Prediction: Tampa Bay Rowdies 3, FC Tulsa 1
Birmingham Legion FC vs. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
If you watched just their final performances of the season, you could sense a little nervous tension for both Birmingham Legion FC and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in games they knew they had to get a result in. For the Hounds, it manifested in missed chances you’d normally expect them to put away. For Birmingham, it showed in the dearth of scoring chances for a team that usually creates its fair share.
If there are a couple of key stats to guide us here, though, it’s these. First, Birmingham hasn’t lost back-to-back games all campaign – Legion FC is 5-0-2 coming off a defeat and was on a nine-game undefeated run prior to its loss to Louisville City FC on the final day, a sign of how well the side was playing. The other is Riverhounds SC is 0-4 on the road in the Championship Playoffs. This is probably the most evenly-matched game of the first round, but Legion FC finds a way through.
Score Prediction: Birmingham Legion FC 2, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 1
Charlotte Independence vs. Memphis 901 FC
There’s been so much to admire about what Memphis 901 FC has accomplished this season – not just the results to take third place in the Central Division, but the style in which they’ve tried to go about earning those points – that it seems really harsh that they have to go and play a Charlotte Independence side that looks to me like the biggest threat for a title outside the four division winners going in.
The Independence have pretty close to everything you need. A pair of sharp finishers in Dane Kelly and Irvin Parra, veteran quality in Sylvain Marveaux, Christian Fuchs and Gabriel Obertan and a strong core all around the field that includes holdovers from a season ago such as Jake Areman, who has taken a step forward this season. Kyle Murphy, Mark Segbers and 901 FC have had a great season, but this is where it comes to an end.
Score Prediction: Charlotte Independence 2, Memphis 901 FC 0
Louisville City FC vs. Miami FC
With the manner both Louisville City FC and Miami FC want to play, this could be the most exciting game in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Both sides are set up to attack with Cameron Lancaster ably backed by the likes of Brian Ownby – who had a career-high 11 assists this season – and Antoine Hoppenot in the side’s front three and Paolo DelPiccolo and Jonathan Gomez adding to the attacking flair this side brings.
Miami has the same, with Christiano Francois coming off another good year and players like Ariel Martinez, Lamar Walker and super-sub Adonijah Reid able to attack opponents, especially when they get into one-on-one situations. Miami’s also got some local knowledge, too, with Speedy Williams and Paco Craig returning to face their former club. The challenge for both has been avoiding leaking goals at inopportune moments. After their clean display against Birmingham Legion FC last week, LouCity might have figured that out, and they’ll take this one as a result.
Score Prediction: Louisville City FC 3, Miami FC 1
Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Birmingham Legion FC
The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Birmingham Legion FC met last season in the playoffs and gave us one of the big back-and-forth contests of the postseason. Tampa Bay went out to an early two-goal lead, only for Birmingham to find its way back in with goals six minutes apart around the hour-mark before the Rowdies responded again thanks to substitute Lucky Mkosana to pull out a 4-2 win.
I’m not sure we get that level of fireworks this time around – for one, both teams are going to be much more in tune with the threats the other poses – but it’s difficult to see a different outcome. Rowdies move on in a lower-scoring affair.
Score Prediction: Tampa Bay Rowdies 2, Birmingham Legion FC 1
Louisville City FC vs. Charlotte Independence
It’s a point of pride at Louisville City FC: In the club’s history, it has always reached the Eastern Conference Final in the postseason. Well, this feels like the year that run comes to an end. There’s still a lot to admire about what Louisville has done this season, but its propensity to give up cheap goals has been a thorn in its side all year and almost cost the side the Central Division title.
The Independence, meanwhile, have shown they can win all manner of ways in the final third of the season. Once up to full steam with its midseason additions, Charlotte went 10-1-1 in its final 12 games of the season and only conceded two goals in that lone defeat on the road to Birmingham Legion FC, a game that came after crucial home wins against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Miami FC. The Independence edge this one, just.
Score Prediction: Charlotte Independence 2, Louisville City FC 1
Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Charlotte Independence
There will be no lack of familiarity between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Charlotte Independence should they square off for the fifth time this season. Each team took a pair of victories at home during the regular season, including a fascinating 2-0 win for the Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium on August 28 when they last met that saw the Independence go strongly for the first 55 minutes – outshooting Tampa Bay comfortably – before seeming to punch themselves out, leaving second-half substitute Steevan Dos Santos to capitalize on a pair of goals.
That’s not likely to be the way this potential matchup plays out – for one, the mid-summer head will have dissipated at least a little bit at Al Lang Stadium – but I still think the Rowdies come through because as well as the Independence have played over the final two months of the season, this is still Tampa Bay and their home turf. The Rowdies didn’t drop a point in a game they led at home this season, and Charlotte only gained four points away from home in games they trailed in. If Tampa Bay gets the opening goal, it’s good night, Independence.
Score Prediction: Tampa Bay Rowdies 2, Charlotte Independence 0
El Paso Locomotive FC vs. Oakland Roots SC
If there’s been one thing true for more than a year now, it’s that El Paso Locomotive FC doesn’t lose at Southwest University Park. Certainly, there have been bumps in the road away from home – especially recently with heavy defeats to the LA Galaxy II and Rio Grande Valley FC as the club’s back line has been banged up – but put Head Coach Mark Lowry’s side in front of a packed house at home and they will produce.
That’s going to be difficult for Oakland Roots SC to match up with here. While the visitors have had a sterling first season in the Championship, it doesn’t seem likely they would be able to withstand what El Paso is capable of in the way it can attack in waves when hitting top gear.
Score Prediction: El Paso Locomotive FC 3, Oakland Roots SC 0
Orange County SC vs. Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Orange County SC is rolling into the playoffs on a five-game winning streak that helped it earn a first home playoff game since 2018, took victory on the road against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC during this regular season, and has a nice, balanced lineup that looks solid all around. So why is it that they don’t feel as good as they appear?
It’s a serious quandary, and the answer may lie in the fact that unlike counterparts elsewhere on the bracket, OCSC just doesn’t seem to be able to put teams away when given the chance. Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC hasn’t been the same since Michee Ngalina’s departure for Los Angeles FC, but they do have a Head Coach in Brendan Burke that knows how to pull off road upsets in the postseason and they still have a lot of talent around Hadji Barry. Somehow, against all the numbers, the Switchbacks pull of the win in extra time.
Score Prediction: Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC 2, Orange County SC 1 AET
San Antonio FC vs. San Diego Loyal SC
If there’s one thing the underlying numbers to the 2021 regular season told us it was San Antonio FC was in a way one of the biggest underperformers of the campaign. The side consistently produced chances but didn’t consistently put them away – see the 1-1 and 0-0 draws at home to FC Tulsa and Austin Bold FC late in the season for evidence. But there is a determination and a physicality this side brings that can provide an edge, and that may be the big difference in this matchup.
San Diego Loyal SC has made progress this year, no question, but the biggest challenge it has faced has seemingly been mental. While the side got up for some games – most notably against Phoenix – it also came up short in others. Individual talent can take you a long way, but this feels like a bad matchup for Head Coach Landon Donovan’s side against a team with a chip on its shoulder.
Score Prediction: San Antonio FC 2, San Diego Loyal SC 0
Phoenix Rising FC vs. Rio Grande Valley FC
When Rio Grande Valley FC first went to face Phoenix Rising FC this season, it was looked on as a potential litmus test for the Toros. At that point, they’d only lost three games out of 14 as they reached the midway point of the campaign with a 7-3-4 record, comfortably moving toward the playoffs.
Phoenix then handed them a 3-1 defeat that was as comfortable as the final score suggests, and it seemed to start the slide into problems RGVFC had over the second half of the season before they salvaged a playoff place with three consecutive wins to start the season. Rising FC hasn’t been at its sharpest at home of late, certainly, but this is a game the hosts should still claim comfortably as they begin their pursuit of the only silverware they’ve yet to claim.
Score Prediction: Phoenix Rising FC 2, Rio Grande Valley FC 0
El Paso Locomotive FC vs. Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
El Paso Locomotive FC went undefeated against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC this season, but that doesn’t necessarily give a true reflection of how the four-game series between the sides went, with El Paso ending with a 1-0-3 record that saw Colorado Springs hold a halftime lead in their final meeting at Southwest University Park before El Paso put in one of its patented second-half performances to surge to victory.
Locomotive FC should still get through this encounter as well, although with Hadji Barry present – who scored twice in four games against El Paso – it should be an intriguing game. But, that homefield advantage is a big factor, and the home undefeated streak chugs on.
Score Prediction: El Paso Locomotive FC 2, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC 1
Phoenix Rising FC vs. San Antonio FC
With the talent both sides possess, this has all the makings of a classic game. On one hand you have the defending Western Conference title holder in Phoenix Rising FC looking to ward off a serious challenger to that throne in San Antonio FC and there are both playmakers – Phoenix’s Santi Moar, Solomon Asante and Aodhan Quinn vs. San Antonio’s Jose Gallegos, Nathan Fogaca and Cam Lindley – and stoppers – Phoenix’s Kevon Lambert and James Musa vs. San Antonio’s Mohammed Abu and Kortne Ford – on both sides.
This also feels like the sort of game that can bring the best out of Rising FC. The physicality and intensity San Antonio brings is something Phoenix is going to have to match, and they have players that are more than prepared to step up to the mark. This may go to extra time, but Rising FC just edges it on home turf, where they’re 3-1-0 against San Antonio all-time.
Score Prediction: Phoenix Rising FC 3, San Antonio FC 2 AET
Phoenix Rising FC vs. El Paso Locomotive FC
So, here we are again, one year later. The venue and some of the faces might be different, but a rematch of the 2020 Western Conference Final is what we have to look forward to if all this comes true. It should be another fine contest, with the newcomers both teams have brought in – including Aodhan Quinn and Darren Mattocks for Phoenix and Luis Solignac and Diego Luna for El Paso – adding quality to both squads.
This year, though, the script flips. Locomotive FC is a better, sharper team in the attacking third this year than they were a year ago, when they were unable to capitalized on a strong second-half performance to come away with a win. In Year 3 – as it was for Louisville City FC after consecutive Conference Final defeats in its first two seasons – it’s Locomotive FC’s moment to take that next step and move on.
Score Prediction: El Paso Locomotive FC 2, Phoenix Rising FC 1
Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. El Paso Locomotive FC
So, it comes down to two teams that equaled the league record for most home wins in a regular season this campaign. Both the Tampa Bay Rowdies and El Paso Locomotive FC won 13 times on their home turf this year going into the playoffs, and unfortunately for El Paso that’s where the potential difference lies here. Historically, Real Monarchs SLC in 2019 has been the only visiting team to win a Championship Final, and while that jinx has been broken, it’s still a hard record to go again.
The Rowdies have been aiming for this spot ever since last year, in pursuit of a title they believed would be theirs. Tampa Bay finished with the second-most wins in a regular season, too, taking 10 victories on the road, a consistency El Paso wasn’t able to match. Sebastian Guenzatti, Leo Fernandes and Steevan Dos Santos put in the performances the hosts need, and Tampa Bay lifts the title before its fans.
Score Prediction: Tampa Bay Rowdies 3, El Paso Locomotive FC 1
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC FC Tulsa Charlotte Independence Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Birmingham Legion FC Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC Playoffs News San Diego Loyal SC The Miami FC Oakland Roots SC