Orange County SC was given a four percent chance to lift the trophy at the 2021 Championship Final when last year's playoffs began before an inspiring postseason run to glory. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Here we are, 459 games down, 13 to go.
As my friend Devon Kerr likes to say, there can be only one.
The 2022 USL Championship Playoffs presented by Hisense begin on Saturday with 14 teams ready to pursue first the Eastern and Western Conference titles and then the ultimate prize at the 2022 USL Championship Final on Sunday, November 13 on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and SiriusXM FC.
There’s reason for optimism for everyone.
How much? Well, that depends on your club, its season so far, and history.
Here’s a look at why every club in the postseason field can win this year’s title, and reasons why they may come up short.
1. San Antonio FC
538.com Title Odds: 27%
538.com SPI Rating: 24.7 (5th)
Why they’ll win: Let’s be honest – there’s something really fascinating going on here with a team that matched regular season records in wins (24) and shutouts (17) and tied for the second-best points mark (77). As we noted earlier this season, San Antonio is a contender unlike any we’ve seen previously in the league’s history, but you can’t discount the fact that at every turn they’ve figured out ways to win. Having only lost once at home all season, and that back in April, the fact the road to the Championship Final runs through Toyota Field is a major plus for a team that is the clear favorite going in.
Why they won’t: You probably don’t need me to remind you what happened to the last two teams to have regular seasons like the one that San Antonio just recorded. FC Cincinnati in 2018 and Phoenix Rising FC in 2019 were juggernauts, until they weren’t, both eliminated in the Conference Semifinals. Add in that the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference has been a poison pill for all that have come before – since the Conference system was introduced in 2015, the side that finished on top of the West has never reached the Championship Final – and there’s a lot of history that San Antonio must overcome in addition to a challenging field of opponents.
2. San Diego Loyal SC
538.com Title Odds: 7%
538.com SPI Rating: 25.5 (4th)
Why they’ll win: As great as San Antonio has been this season, there might not have been a team in the Western Conference this season capable of the heights on the field that San Diego Loyal SC has. Head Coach Landon Donovan’s squad led the West with 68 goals and in Expected Goals at 57.67xG and is better than average in Expected Goals Against at 41.32xGA. You’ll remember the victory SD Loyal took at home to San Antonio in the regular season, one of a collection of notable results that have powered the third-year club to become a proper contender for the first time. Add in the experience of players like Kyle Vassell, Jack Blake and Alejandro Guido and you’ve got a team that can be dangerous any time it steps on the field.
Why they won’t: San Diego’s attack has been consistently outstanding this season. Its defense? That’s been another story. As solid as the side has been defensively in theory, it’s conceded 55 times, the most of any team in the playoff field. That’s led to a league-high 22 points dropped from winning positions over the course of the campaign. In a one-and-done format, the big question for SD Loyal will be whether it can hit the heights as consistently as it must to deliver the club’s first silverware and avoid the miscues that cost it the chance to challenge San Antonio more strongly in the regular season.
3. Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
538.com Title Odds: 2%
538.com SPI Rating: 18.5 (T-12th)
Why they’ll win: If there’s one thing about the playoffs, if you get hot at the right time, you’ll have a chance. Just look at a team like Real Monarchs SLC in 2019, which entered the postseason as a No.4 seed and rode a five-game undefeated run at the end of the regular season all the way to the title. Colorado Springs hasn’t been in that kind of form lately – its victory against El Paso Locomotive FC on October 5 broke a four-game winless run – but it has accumulated four streaks of at least three victories this season. If it picks up the pace now, it can still be dangerous in the coming weeks.
Why they won’t: There are two key factors here. The first is the departure of Hadji Barry to Egyptian Premier League side Future FC, which was a great move in the big picture for both the club and the player, but also took away one of the premier talents in the league at a crucial moment. The other? Colorado Springs just hasn’t shown the ability to beat better teams consistently. It went 0-4-0 against San Antonio FC and San Diego Loyal SC this season. It’s probably going to have to go through both if it wants to win the title.
4. Sacramento Republic FC
538.com Title Odds: 4%
538.com SPI Rating: 22.4 (8th)
Why they’ll win: If there’s a team that was built for this moment, it’s this Sacramento Republic FC squad. Put away the seeding and look at what this team accomplished over this season in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, becoming the first lower-division side in 14 years to reach the Final, defeating three MLS squads along the way. Sacramento is also a team you just can’t count out – its 18 points gained from losing positions were the most in the Western Conference. Would it have been easier with a higher seed? Sure, but there’s no question that Head Coach Mark Briggs and his squad are ready to find more knockout magic in the next month.
Why they won’t: Look around the landscape of teams you’d consider serious contenders, and what do most have in common? A player it has been able to count on to finish. Sacramento’s leading scorers in the league this season are Maalique Foster and Rodrigo Lopez, whose seven goals are currently outstripped by players from Loudoun United FC, Atlanta United 2, Monterey Bay F.C., Hartford Athletic, and Indy Eleven. Someone is going to have to step to the fore in the final third to deliver the goals Republic FC will need to claim a second title.
5. New Mexico United
538.com Title Odds: 2%
538.com SPI Rating: 21.2 (10th)
Why they’ll win: New Mexico United is back in the postseason after missing out a season ago and provides one of the real riddles as to what it is. Is it a team that has underperformed defensively and overperformed in attack? That’s what the numbers tell us when we compare the Goals scored (49) and conceded (40) and United’s Expected Goals (42.98xG) and Expected Goals Against (38.81xGA) marks this season, but it doesn’t feel that way if you’ve watched enough New Mexico games this season. Look closely, there’s a team here that on its day can be dangerous – and it lost only three times away from home this season.
Why they won’t: Form going into the playoffs can be what you make of it, but the reality is New Mexico’s first half of the season was what ended up getting the side here. The good news for United is it seemed to figure out a formula for success with a five-game undefeated run to close the season. As with Sacramento, though, the side’s attack feels like a flaw that must be rectified to compete with the favorites.
6. Rio Grande Valley FC
538.com Title Odds: 3%
538.com SPI Rating: 22.5 (7th)
Why they’ll win: It might have taken Rio Grande Valley FC until the final day of the regular season to officially seal its playoff berth, but for those who’ve been watching this side closely, the run of form it built in September was the breakthrough for a side that had been better than its record might have indicated previously. The Toros have found the right balance at the right moment in addition to some eye-catching performances. After an underperforming regular season, they could be the biggest dark horse in the field.
Why they won’t: If the Toros are going to take silverware, they’re going to have to win on the road. While Rio Grande Valley FC claimed six away victories this season, they all came against teams that aren’t part of the playoff field. The gauntlet this side is going to have to run is daunting.
7. Oakland Roots SC
538.com Title Odds: 1%
538.com SPI Rating: 18.5 (T-13th)
Why they’ll win: You’ve seen this story before, remember? A late surge to get into the playoffs, followed by one of the all-time upsets in the Championship’s postseason and taking the eventual title winners to a penalty shootout before being eliminated. If there’s anything we’ve learned about Roots SC in two years, it’s that you can’t rule them out, even as slim as the odds might be against a Cinderella run.
Why they won’t: Oakland’s second-half surge included some spectacular results, including road victories against San Diego Loyal SC – Roots SC’s opening opponent on Sunday night – and Phoenix Rising FC. The harsh reality, though, is Oakland’s four road victories were the fewest of any team to reach the postseason. The odds of matching that total over the next four weekends seems remote.
1. Louisville City FC
538.com Title Odds: 25%
538.com SPI Rating: 28.4 (2nd)
Why they’ll win: It says something about LouCity’s 2022 campaign that even with the on-field standard the club has set – seven consecutive Eastern Conference Final appearances, three Championship Final appearances and two titles – this was the best regular season in club history. The No. 1 seed has depth, a great defense, and a top goalscorer in Wilson Harris. Oh, and did we mention Cameron Lancaster’s back? That will rekindle memories of 2017, when he returned late in the season from injury and scored the winner for the club’s first title.
Why they won’t: LouCity’s dominant campaign hasn’t been without misfires, and as good as its primary challengers are in Memphis 901 FC – which took victory at Lynn Family Stadium in September – and the two-time defending Eastern Conference title winner Tampa Bay Rowdies, there can’t be any letdown in the level for Head Coach Danny Cruz’s side.
2. Memphis 901 FC
538.com Title Odds: 8%
538.com SPI Rating: 23.7 (6th)
Why they’ll win: Since Ben Pirmann was promoted to become 901 FC’s Head Coach, the trajectory the club has taken on the field has been a steady ascent to this moment. After reaching the playoffs last year – and seeming happy enough with that accomplishment – Memphis went and brought in an even more talented squad this season that has achieved club records and seen individuals like Phillip Goodrum and Aaron Molloy thrive. There’s going to be no time like the present for this group to make its mark after earning victories against both Louisville City FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the regular season.
Why they won’t: Memphis’ goal differential in the regular season was +34. It’s Expected Goal Differential was +12. The combination of overperformance both in front of goal and defensively could be a sign of a team that had an awful lot go right for it during the campaign. Those are the sort of things that can get exposed in the postseason, where the margin between success and failure becomes that much finer.
3. Tampa Bay Rowdies
538.com Title Odds: 10%
538.com SPI Rating: 29.2 (1st)
Why they’ll win: For the past two years, the Rowdies have owned the Eastern Conference postseason. That didn’t turn into the Championship Final victory they hoped for, but after seeing Leo Fernandes deliver a career season with a league-leading 28 combined goals and assists, everything seems to have come together at just the right time for Head Coach Neill Collins’ squad. Sebastian Guenzatti has found his form, the side has momentum with four consecutive victories, and Mike Pendleton has Baker Street at the ready.
Why they won’t: The Rowdies are in form, but their road as the No. 3 seed is much trickier than in the past two seasons. Tampa Bay lost on the road at both Memphis 901 FC and Louisville City FC during the regular season, and they could have to defeat both away from home to earn a return trip to the Championship Final.
4. Birmingham Legion FC
538.com Title Odds: 5%
538.com SPI Rating: 25.6 (3rd)
Why they’ll win: There’s an awful lot to like about Legion FC. They have quality throughout the lineup – Jonathan Dean might finally be getting the recognition he deserves as a great outside back – and in Enzo Martinez they have a player that can change a game on his own. The side ranked third in Expected Goals in the league (58.35xG), so the chances should be there, and players like Juan Agudelo, Prosper Kasim and Marlon can put them away.
Why they won’t: When Birmingham has been on its game, it has delivered some impressive displays – it became the first team to defeat Sacramento Republic FC on the road this season in July and went toe-to-toe with San Antonio FC earlier this month before falling. The problem has been consistency, especially with a defense that has become leaky in the past two months. The last time the side got Monday donuts was on August 15 after a 1-0 win against San Diego Loyal SC. That’s a long time for a squad that on paper should be among the best defensively in the league.
5. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
538.com Title Odds: 2%
538.com SPI Rating: 21.6 (9th)
Why they’ll win: Among its squad, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC has two double-digit goalscorers (Russell Cicerone and Albert Dikwa), two players with at least nine assists (Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz), one of the best coaches in the league’s history (Bob Lilley) and a strong balance between experience and youth. All those ingredients add up to a side that can be dangerous every time it steps on the field, and capable of making a run.
Why they won’t: As dangerous as Pittsburgh looked on paper, it just didn’t materialize on the field consistently this season. The club’s longest winning streak was three games, and only four of the side’s 16 victories came against teams that made the playoffs. This is a side that beat the teams it should but wasn’t able to beat the cream of the crop consistently. That doesn’t bode well for postseason success.
6. Miami FC
538.com Title Odds: 2%
538.com SPI Rating: 20.1 (11th)
Why they’ll win: You know the saying: defense wins championships. It might have flown under the radar given San Antonio FC’s exploits, but Miami matched the West’s No. 1 seed with 17 shutouts this season, also equaling the Championship’s regular season record. There is title-winning pedigree here thanks to players like Paco Craig, Speedy Williams and Florian Valot, and Miami was a far better road team than at home – its 10 wins away from home tied for second-most in the league – making the South Florida side a potential dark horse on this side of the bracket.
Why they won’t: Miami’s attack was about as average as you could find in the Championship with Kyle Murphy the only player to reach 10 goals and the side’s shot conversion rate sitting at 15.41 percent. As good as Miami has been defensively, it’s going to take a lot to repeat the sort of defensive run Orange County had a season ago against the potential path of Tampa Bay (73 goals), Louisville (65 goals) and Memphis (67 goals) to get to the Championship Final.
7. Detroit City FC
538.com Title Odds: <1%
538.com SPI Rating: 16.0 (14th)
Why they’ll win: Detroit City FC is the biggest outsider to claim the Championship Final according to the odds, and you know what? That’s exactly how they like it. Le Rouge proved all the preseason skeptics wrong with their regular season success in their first season in the second tier. With a stellar defensive unit and players like Maxi Rodriguez and Assist Champion award winner Antoine Hoppenot looking to drive the side further up the field, the underdog tag is one that fits this side perfectly.
Why they won’t: As superb as Detroit’s story has been this year, the side’s attack just doesn’t quite feel potent enough to deliver the sort of run that’s going to be required this season. In 18 of the club’s 34 regular season games, it registered an Expected Goals mark of 1.01xG or less. The side’s first two-game losing streak of the campaign in its final two outings wasn’t a good sign either.