The Tampa Bay Rowdies' Lucky Mkosana produced one of the most memorable substitute performances in the USL Championship Playoffs during the 2021 postseason. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Sometimes it’s a well-known name whose resume speaks for itself.
Other times, it’s the fleeting instance of glory that gives a player his moment in the sun.
Be it a last roll of the dice, a calculated tactical decision, or a move that’s forced by circumstance, there have been some remarkable performances delivered over the history of the USL Championship Playoffs by substitutes.
Edward Kizza’s heroics helped Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC advance on Sunday night to this year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, joining a varied collection of players who’ve made a crucial impact in their club’s postseason history off the bench.
Orlando City SC goalkeeper Sean Kelley wasn’t expecting to play a role in the first USL Championship Final 11 years ago. Instead, he became the game’s MVP.
After making only two appearances behind 2011 Championship Goalkeeper of the Year Miguel Gallardo, Kelley began the Lions’ clash with the Harrisburg City Islanders on the bench but was called into action in the 48th minute when Gallardo was sent off for denial of a goalscoring opportunity.
Kelley recorded three saves in a see-saw battle that saw both sides lead before going to a penalty shootout, but there the Kentucky native came through. Saves in the first two rounds gave the Lions an early edge, and in the fifth round Devorn Jorsling converted to send Orlando to its first league title.
Trailing by a goal in the 2015 USL Championship Final, the Rochester Rhinos were looking for someone to salvage their season. In Asani Samuels, they found an unlikely hero.
The first-year pro from Jamaica had only appeared for 185 minutes in his first season for Head Coach Bob Lilley’s side but had scored a pair of goals. Coming on with 10 minutes to go against the LA Galaxy II, Samuels doubled his season total in the next 40 minutes.
The two goals were almost identical, with Samuels using his 6-foot-5 frame to rise above the defense and head home in the second minute of second-half stoppage time to level the game off Jonny Mendoza’s corner kick. Then with seven minutes to go in extra time he repeated the feat, this time off a delivery by Kenardo Forbes to lift the Rhinos to victory and to earn Samuels the game MVP honors.
Colin Bonner only scored four goals in his lone season in the professional ranks. The last two delivered one of the most dramatic endings in postseason history.
Loaned to OKC Energy FC after being drafted by FC Dallas in 2016, Bonner scored a pair of goals in just over 500 minutes of action during the regular season as Energy FC earned the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference for the postseason. Facing No. 2 seed Rio Grande Valley FC – which had held the upper hand on OKC in the regular season, not conceding a goal in three meetings – Bonner was brought on with his side down a goal midway through the second half.
After the Toros regained the lead with 14 minutes left after Linus Olsson had initially given Energy FC a lifeline, the game ticked into stoppage time with the visitors behind. Then in the span of two minutes, Bonner first got on the end of a flip throw-in by Michael Harris from the halfway line in the second minute of stoppage time, and then put home a winner off a scramble in front of the six-yard area after a corner kick a minute later. It was the last professional goal he would score and sent OKC on in thrilling fashion.
Over his time in the USL Championship, Cameron Lancaster has become a certified league and Louisville City FC legend, boasting a strike rate that sits as the best among players with 50 regular season goals in their careers.
Five years ago, however, that wasn’t yet the case for the English striker. After injury ended his season after just one game in 2015, by the time the 2017 USL Championship Playoffs arrived the former Tottenham Hotspur player had recorded 11 goals in 53 appearances across the regular season and playoffs. He was an unused substitute in LouCity’s Eastern Conference Semifinal and came on as a second-half substitute in the Conference Final against the New York Red Bulls II, which LouCity claimed in a penalty shootout.
With the Championship Final against Sporting Kansas City II scoreless as it entered its final minutes, though, the touchpaper on Lancaster’s future was lit. Brought on midway through the second half, his lone shot of the game delivered an 88th-minute winner off a cross by Speedy Williams, earning LouCity its first league title and providing a key moment for what is now a remarkable career.
Even going back to early in his career with the Harrisburg City Islanders, Lucky Mkosana has been a player who could be relied on when needed to find a way to impact a game off the bench. That was one of the motivations for the Tampa Bay Rowdies when they acquired the Zimbabwean midway through the 2019 season from Louisville City FC.
Two years later, against his former club, Mkosana delivered what might serve as the greatest highlight of a stellar professional career in the manner he’s become known for.
With Tampa Bay trailing LouCity by a pair of goals when he entered with nine minutes to go, it took only two minutes for Mkosana to make his mark with a seeing-eye finish that went through a crowd and found the bottom-right corner of the net. Then came one of the most dramatic goals in Championship Playoffs history when in the sixth minute of second-half stoppage time the Rowdies kept play alive after a set piece and Aaron Guillen found Forrest Lasso for a header back into the six-yard area where Mkosana was on the spot to score.
The 35-year-old has scored 23 goals as a substitute across the regular season and playoffs in the Championship for his career. The two that sent the Rowdies to extra time and an eventual Eastern Conference title might be the most memorable.
When you’re introduced into a game with 90 seconds to go before second half stoppage time, the expectations of any impact might be slim. For Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s Edward Kizza, it took less than half that time to bring his side back from the brink.
Via Opta’s scorekeeping, Kizza scored a mere 38 seconds after being brought on to level the game for the Hounds against Birmingham Legion FC on Sunday night, and then repeated the feat with the Hounds first shot in extra time in the 116th minute. Having scored only once in 10 appearances and 243 regular season minutes, the second-year pro from Uganda – on loan with Pittsburgh from the New England Revolution – flipped the script on prior postseason heartbreaks for the Hounds under Head Coach Bob Lilley, converting in the 10th round of the ensuing penalty shootout to send his side through.
After falling in penalty kicks in 2018 and then extra time in 2019, the Hounds had been snake-bit in Lilley’s tenure. Kizza’s performance ensured at least one more game this postseason.