In regulation, extra time and the penalty shootout, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC first-year goalkeeper Jahmali Waite came through with key saves to lead the underdogs into the Eastern Conference Semifinals. | Photo courtesy Birmingham Legion FC
After a home-heavy run of results on Saturday night, the 2022 USL Championship Playoffs presented by Hisense saw the first two visiting teams advance on Sunday. It included the game of the Conference Quarterfinal round – one that almost equaled a Championship Playoffs record – and another stellar underdog display by one of last year’s surprise packages.
Here are four things we took away from the action.
There was no getting away from the impact Edward Kizza had in No. 5 seed Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC advancing past No. 4 seed Birmingham Legion FC on Sunday night in the Eastern Conference – two game-tying goals and a shootout ending score will do that – but the Hounds had goalkeeper Jahmali Waite in large part to thank for getting the visitors at Protective Stadium into that position.
The first-year pro who competed collegiately for the past two seasons at the University of Connecticut and in USL League Two for both Reading United AC and the Ocean City Nor’easters came through with multiple crucial saves before delivering in the shootout for his side. In fact, Waite’s saves in the opening two rounds of the shootout to deny Birmingham’s Alex Crognale and Bruno Lapa had him in line for the headline before Legion FC’s Trevor Spangenberg’s heroics sent the shootout into extra frames.
Waite came into wide open goalkeeping situation with the Hounds at the start of this season with the departure of Danny Vitiello to Sacramento Republic FC and has grown impressively over his first year. Last month his play saw him earn his first call-up to the senior Jamaica Men’s National Team, and now the 23-year-old has another big performance to add to his highlight reel.
Oakland Roots SC already had the formula for springing a road upset against a possession-heavy opponent. You only needed to look back at last year’s Western Conference Quarterfinals and the side’s upset of No. 2 seed El Paso Locomotive FC to see how solid defensive organization, a great goalkeeping display and some timely finishing could lead to another postseason victory for the underdog.
That proved the case on Sunday night as No. 7 seed Roots SC ended No. 2 seed San Diego Loyal SC’s season in the Western Conference with a 3-0 victory that saw the visitors capitalize on its chances and frustrate SD Loyal’s attack to advance. Goalkeeper Paul Blanchette delivered at key moments in a five-save shutout before Charlie Dennis put Oakland ahead on its first shot of the game nine minutes before halftime. When Lindo Mfeka capitalized on a defensive mistake seven minutes into the second half it was always going to be difficult for San Diego to rally.
Oakland now gets the task of taking on No. 1 seed San Antonio FC in the Western Conference Semifinals on Friday night where it will try to emulate its performance this weekend. After taking eventual title-winner Orange County SC to a penalty shootout last year at the same stage before falling, Roots SC at least has a blueprint for how it can deliver another road upset.
For Birmingham Legion FC, Sunday night had everything except the outcome they were looking for at the end. The sight of most of the club-record crowd of 10,227 fans at Protective Stadium crowding around the goal during the penalty shootout – beautifully captured by the video crew – is going to be one of the memorable images of this year’s postseason.
In a strange way, as great as a victory would have been for the hosts to send them onto a trip to Louisville City FC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the ups and downs that transpired over the 120-plus minutes of regulation and extra time and ensuing penalty shootout was exactly the sort of drama that leaves you wanting more. Seeing fan sentiment after the game, this was a moment in which Legion FC landed firmly in the city’s sporting consciousness. That spells a bright future ahead for a talented squad and its leadership.
A sellout crowd at San Diego Loyal SC's Torero Stadium was part of a collection of outstanding atmosphere across the USL Championship Playoffs on opening weekend. | Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC
The club-record crowd at Birmingham Legion FC wasn’t the only phenomenal atmosphere on display around the Conference Quarterfinals this weekend. Sellout crowds at Sacramento Republic FC (11,569) and San Diego Loyal SC (5,714) were added to by passionate crowds at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC (7,036), Memphis 901 FC (6,010) and the Tampa Bay Rowdies (5,947) in the opening weekend.
Overall, 46,503 fans were on hand over the six games, an average of 7,751 per game. After a regular season that saw overall attendance rise by 30 percent across the Championship and League One from the 2021 season, this weekend illustrated the Championship’s rising visibility within its cities and delivered brilliant action that showed the league’s on-field growth.
With San Antonio FC and Louisville City FC set to join the fray next weekend, we should have more of the same to look forward to with four compelling contests on the slate for Friday and Saturday night.