Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County Blues FC
TAMPA, Fla. – A historically close playoff race, and a former champion looking to reclaim its throne. Here’s what we learned from the final week in the USL regular season:
1. ORANGE SUNRISE: There have been tight-fought battles for a berth in the USL Cup Playoffs before, but none has matched the drama that unfolded on Saturday night that left Orange County Blues FC as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference on goal differential ahead of the Portland Timbers 2. Trevin Caesar’s two late goals in the Blues’ 4-0 win against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC not only made good on his goal to finish with the club’s scoring lead, but also jumped his side past T2 in the most dramatic fashion possible to set off a big celebration at the final whistle.
2. TOUGH ON T2: The swing in fortune, while remarkable to see happen, was very harsh on the Timbers 2, who had been in pole position to earn a playoff berth with their fifth consecutive victory for most of the night after San Antonio FC’s loss against Rio Grande Valley FC. The silver lining for the team and its players, though, is the inspiration the side can take from the way it played down the stretch – led by Villyan Bijev – and hopefully turn that into a strong offseason and a better start to the 2017 season.
3. SAFC SHUTDOWN: Of the three teams with the best chance to advance as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, it always seemed like San Antonio FC – while in the box seat to start the weekend – had the toughest assignment on the road at Rio Grande Valley FC, and so it proved as the Toros struck late to take a 3-0 victory. The end of the club’s inaugural season certainly brought disappointment for the club and its fans, but with a full offseason to build for 2017, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see SAFC making a similar leap forward that this season’s playoff teams Charlotte and Vancouver managed in their second seasons.
4. OUT OF THE FIRE: Orlando City B showed signs of improvement in its defeat to FC Cincinnati in Week 26, but still didn’t have the result to go with it as it faced a do-or-die clash on Sunday against Bethlehem Steel FC. While there was an element of good fortune to the side’s 2-0 win to secure the No. 8 seed ahead of Wilmington at Goodman Stadium, however, OCB showed much greater resilience as it held off the host after taking an early lead to book its place in the playoffs. While the task facing the side now is a massive one in the regular-season champion New York Red Bulls II, the fact the side will play the game at all says something about the team’s ability to come through when the chips were down.
5. HAMMERED: After their 2-0 victory against the Richmond Kickers on Saturday night, Wilmington Hammerheads FC had to be feeling reasonably good about its situation. After all, Orlando hadn’t won since July, and while they were playing a Steel side that had also hit some major road bumps in the past two months, the visitors still needed to win to overtake them. After Sunday’s result, though, it’s likely that reality hit home, and that reality is the Hammerheads didn’t do quite enough themselves to earn a place in the postseason. Dropped points, including recently at Harrisburg, and sub-par performances – two 4-1 losses to Pittsburgh spring immediately to mind – left Wilmington on the outside looking in.
6. BACK ON TOP: The primary beneficiary of Orange County’s performance on Saturday – outside of the Blues themselves, of course – was Sacramento Republic FC, which claimed the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with a thorough 4-0 victory against Tulsa Roughnecks FC at ONEOK Field. Cameron Iwasa notched his 12th goal of the season, setting a single-season club record, as the side wrapped up a victory with three goals in the opening 45 minutes. Republic FC is now on an 11-game undefeated streak to enter the playoffs, and with the Western Conference’s road to the 2016 USL Cup now set to go through Bonney Field, the side now has its sights firmly fixed on a second championship in three seasons.
7. COMING INTO RANGE: Form can be a fickle thing when it comes to the one-and-done nature of the postseason, but if the Swope Park Rangers can carry the momentum they’ve built into Friday night’s playoff opener against the LA Galaxy II, the dark horse challenger for the title may be apparent. The Rangers finished off the season with a solid 2-0 win against Seattle on Saturday, and now have six wins in their past seven games entering the postseason. Los Dos have also shown they know how to win in the playoffs over the past two seasons, which should make the clash one of the more intriguing of the conference quarterfinals.
8. RIO BRAVO: On the other side of the bracket, Rio Grande Valley FC again burnished its credentials as a contender for the Western Conference Championship with its 3-0 victory against San Antonio FC. Alongside FC Cincinnati in the East, the Toros have put up one of the strongest expansion seasons in the USL’s history. With both an attack that has an embarrassment of riches – five different players finished the season with at least six goals, and five had at least three assists – and a defensive unit that ended the season with the best goals-against average in the conference, the Toros have a confidence about them that should leave opponents feeling slightly nervous.
9. FEELING BULLISH: It could have been easy for the New York Red Bulls II to take their foot off the pedal on Saturday night in Charleston, with everything locked up in terms of the USL Regular Season Championship and No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but the ability to dial is back doesn’t seem to be in the team’s repertoire. That says a lot about the mentality not only within the club as a whole, but also that’s been instilled in the side by Coach John Wolyniec, who has shown the ability to push the right buttons and get the most out of his charges throughout a record-breaking season. After a conference semifinal berth a season ago, the Red Bulls II will have their foot on the accelerator as they head into the playoffs.
10. RIVER CITIES REUNION: With the brackets in both conferences now set, the speculation of how each matchup might play out is already underway. Arguably more fun, though, is looking ahead to what might be in the conference semifinals, particularly in the Eastern Conference, where there is the potential for Louisville City FC and FC Cincinnati to square off one more time this season. With the way the regular-season series between the River Cities Cup rivals went this year, a home win for both this Sunday would set up a contest that both clubs and fan-bases would certainly relish.
11. WHO’S THE UPSTART: Since 2012, the USL Cup has seen one low-seeded side each season that has made a run on the road to the final, the most recent being Western Conference No. 5 seed the LA Galaxy II a season ago. With the field now set for this season, another piece of fun speculation could be to see which side might be the one to make a run from the lower half of either the East or West brackets. Los Dos could be that side again as a No. 5 seed, while both Charleston and Richmond have the history that wouldn’t make an upset or two out of the question. This is the time of the upsets, after all.