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Ranking the biggest upsets of a No. 1 seed in USL Championship Playoffs history

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 10/22/23, 10:10AM EDT


Where does Detroit City FC’s victory in Pittsburgh sit among the most surprising results?

No. 8 seed Detroit City FC's victory against No. 1 seed Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC ranks as arguably the biggest upset in USL Championship Playoffs history. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Saturday night was one we’ve never seen before in the history of the USL Championship Playoffs.

Since the league moved to two conferences in 2015, the Eastern Conference had never seen three lower seeds advance from the Conference Quarterfinals round in the same postseason.

Victories on the road for No. 5 seed Louisville City FC and No. 7 seed Birmingham Legion FC delivered drama, but No. 8 seed Detroit City FC’s 1-0 win against No. 1 seed Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC was the result of the night.

Through a blistering finish by 20-year-old DCFC Academy product Dominic Gasso, tenacious defending and a crucial late save by Nathan Steinwascher, Le Rouge advanced in dramatic fashion at Highmark Stadium.

DCFC’s odds of +475 at DraftKings made it the biggest underdog of the weekend, and the side was picked in just 17 percent of brackets in the USL Championship Bracket Challenge, the lowest mark in any matchup.

So, where does that result rank in upsets of No. 1 seeds in USL Championship Playoffs history?

Here are seven times a No. 1 seed has been eliminated having previously earned at least 20 points more than the underdog that sent it packing in the postseason.

7. – No. 5 Wilmington Hammerheads FC 4, No. 1 Orlando City FC 3
August 31, 2012 | Florida Citrus Bowl
Point Differential: 20

Orlando City SC's Dennis Chin and Jamie Watson after the Lions were upset by Wilmington Hammerheads FC in the 2012 USL Championship Playoffs. | Photo courtesy Orlando City Sc

The first great upset in USL Championship history, Wilmington Hammerheads FC stunned defending title holder Orlando City SC in the 2012 Semifinals. The Hammerheads scored twice inside the first 10 minutes through Corey Hertzog and Luke Holmes and added a third on the half-hour mark via Hagop Chirishian. After Orlando had pulled a goal back right before halftime, Hertzog restored the three-goal margin in the 59th minute, which proved key as Jamie Watson and George Davis IV both scored in stoppage time before time ran out on the Lions.

6. – No. 7 Rio Grande Valley FC 3 (4), No. 1 Phoenix Rising FC 3 (3)
November 6, 2021 | Casino Arizona Field
Point Differential: 20

Phoenix Rising FC wasn’t as dominant as it had been in the prior two seasons as it sat on top of the Western Conference standings in 2021, but it was still hard to envision Rio Grande Valley FC springing a surprise despite a three-game winning streak to clinch a playoff berth. The Toros took the lead in the 19th minute through Baboucarr Njie with one of the all-time postseason goals, and while Phoenix took the lead on goals by Solomon Asante and Arturo Rodriguez, a spectacular free kick by Rodrigo Lopez with 19 minutes to go sent the game to extra time. Asante put Phoenix back on top in the first period of extra time, but RGV FC responded again as Elvis Amoh scored from the penalty spot, and the Ghanaian then scored the clinching goal in a shootout as Phoenix had two shots saved by Colin Miller to key their elimination.

5. – No. 8 Sacramento Republic FC 1 (3), No. 1 Real Monarchs SLC 1 (1)
October 20, 2017 | Rio Tinto Stadium
Point Differential: 21

With a revamped squad featuring some top veteran talent, Real Monarchs SLC had put together the second-highest points total in the Championship’s regular season to that point under Head Coach Mark Briggs. Against Sacramento Republic FC, it didn’t matter. Luis Espino put the visitors ahead early in the second half, and while Chandler Hoffman gave the hosts a lifeline with a penalty kick in the 86th minute, it was one of only two shots on target the Monarchs registered over 120 minutes. That carried into the penalty shootout, where Sacramento was perfect, and the Monarchs scored only once in four tries to bring their campaign to an end.

4. – No. 4 Real Monarchs SLC 2, No. 1 Phoenix Rising FC 1
November 1, 2019 | Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex
Point Differential: 24

Phoenix Rising FC’s 2019 regular season still stands as the best by the numbers in USL Championship history. The side’s 78 points, 89 goals and 20-game winning streak are marks that are hard to top. The side finished 18 points clear at the top of the West, but the side met its match in a Real Monarchs SLC side that came through in a remarkable road display. Phoenix took the lead through Junior Flemmings in the 25th minute, but the Monarchs hit back quickly through Jack Blake and Maikel Chang to hold a halftime lead. While Rising FC recorded 25 shots, only five found the target as Monarchs goalkeeper David Ochoa helped his side take a huge road win on the way to lifting the title two weeks later.

3. – No. 5 New York Red Bulls II 1, No. 1 FC Cincinnati 0
October 27, 2018 | Nippert Stadium
Point Differential: 25

FC Cincinnati rewrote the USL Championship’s record book in 2018, setting new highs in points (77) and wins (23) while ending the season on a 23-game undefeated streak. Its goal of ending the season with a league title came to an end in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, however, as the New York Red Bulls II put in an outstanding defensive display to allow Amando Moreno’s early goal to stand as the winner. Cincinnati was limited to only three shots on target as Fanendo Adi was outdueled by New York’s Hassan Ndam all night, sealing the side’s fate.

2. – No. 8 Harrisburg City Islanders 1, No. 1 Orlando City SC 0
Sept. 13, 2014 | Disney Wide World of Sports
Point Differential: 25

Orlando City SC had posted a record-setting campaign in its last in the USL Championship and was on a 13-game home winning streak before the Harrisburg City Islanders brought it all crashing down. An excellent finish by Antoine Hoppenot five minutes proved the difference for the visitors as Orlando’s attack led by 20-goal scorer Kevin Molino could only register two shots on target. To this day, no team that moved up to Major League Soccer from a lower division has claimed the league title in the year prior to their “promotion.”

1. – No. 8 Detroit City FC 1, No. 1 Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 0
October 21, 2023 | Highmark Stadium
Point Differential: 26

Having drawn three of the four meetings in the regular season since Detroit City FC joined the Championship in 2022, a tight contest was always on the cards, but the numbers said Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC were heavy favorites after claiming the Players’ Shield for the first time. The Hounds had conceded (29) only one goal fewer than Le Rouge had scored (30) in the regular season, but through a defense that blocked six of Pittsburgh’s 13 shots and Dominic Gasso’s lone shot on target for the visitors, Detroit pulled off the win. The 26-point gap between the two sides in the regular season is the largest in an upset of a No. 1 seed in Championship Playoffs history, and could be hard to top in seasons to come.

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