Photo courtesy Orlando City SC
Every year, the USL Cup Playoffs throws forward a new hero, or heroes, as the drama of the postseason plays out. Sometimes it’s a player that further burnishes their reputation as one of the top players in the league. Other times, it’s a chance for someone to take center stage for the first time. It could even be that one shining moment that sees a player capture center stage, only for that moment to flicker away.
Here are five performances that changed the direction of a game, and proved critical to their team’s victory on the night. With three weekends remaining in this year’s playoffs, there may be another potential name to add to this list by the time the USL Cup is awarded on Nov. 13.
Photo courtesy Rochester Rhinos
When he came on with 10 minutes to go and the Rochester Rhinos trailing the LA Galaxy II by a goal in the 2015 USL Cup, having yet to record a shot on target, Asani Samuels was effectively a final roll of the dice for Rochester Head Coach Bob Lilley. After his stoppage-time equalizer had sent the game to extra time, and a 113th-minute goal had proven the game-winner, Samuels became the unlikely hero in one of the most dramatic playoff games in the USL’s history.
The tall center forward had only played five minutes previously in the postseason as the Rhinos’ attack had been led effectively by Steevan Dos Santos. But with Ariel Lassiter’s second-half goal threatening to give Los Dos victory and spoil the Rhinos’ chances of adding the USL Cup to their USL Regular Season Championship, Samuels stepped forward. His first came in the 91st minute as he rose to power home Jonny Mendoza’s corner kick and send the crowd at Capelli Sport Stadium into celebration. His second, almost a mirror image of the first only this time from Forbes’ delivery, gave the hosts the victory, and a championship to celebrate the Rhinos' 20th anniversary season.
Photo courtesy Orlando City SC
Given the way Orlando City SC had dominated the 2012 regular season, losing just once on its way to finishing 16 points clear of the field for the USL Regular Season Championship, there weren’t many that gave the No. 5-seed Wilmington Hammerheads FC a chance as they headed to the Citrus Bowl with a place in the USL Cup on the line. Thanks to a two-goal performance by Hammerheads forward Corey Hertzog, however, Wilmington pulled off one of the bigger upsets in USL Cup Playoffs history.
The crowd of almost 8,000 fans at the Citrus Bowl had hardly taken their seats when the upset bid began. An early penalty kick gave Hertzog the chance to put the visitors ahead, and he put his chance away, and then five minutes later the forward set up a second as Luke Holmes scored to make it 2-0. After Hagop Chirishian made it three for the Hammerheads on the half-hour mark, Orlando pushed everything into attack, and pulled a goal back just before halftime. Hertzog’s second of the game provided the insurance goal just before the hour-mark, however, as he took advantage of a defensive mistake and buried his finish. Orlando tried to mount a comeback, but Hertzog’s performance allowed the visitors to claim a remarkable victory.
Brandon Allen had already cemented himself as one of the league goal-scorers in the USL, having achieved All-League First Team honors prior to suiting up for the USL Cup to cap his rookie season. His subsequent hat trick against the Swope Park Rangers capped a remarkable year for the eventual USL Rookie of the Year, and allowed him to set a new single-postseason record for goals as well.
Allen opened his night with an assist, however, as he intercepted a pass by the Rangers’ Tyler Pasher and quickly sent in a cross that found Derrick Etienne Jr. for the opening goal. The former PDL standout then tallied himself six minutes before halftime as he tucked home a finish into the right corner of the net. The Rangers pulled a goal back in the second half, but as the visitors pushed forward at Red Bulls Arena, Allen benefited on the counterattack. His second of the night came off a rebound with five minutes to go, and then three minutes later a low cross by Stefano Bonomo completed Allen’s hat trick and a memorable night for the Red Bulls II.
Photo courtesy Orlando City SC
Dwyer’s appearance in the 2013 USL Cup served as a curtain call with Orlando, with which he had taken a share of the USL Golden Boot in the regular season with 15 goals before being recalled from his loan by Sporting Kansas City. With Long Tan suspended after being sent off in the Lions’ victory against the Charleston Battery in the previous round, however, the request came for Dwyer to return for the USL Cup against the Charlotte Eagles in a game that would end up making league history as Orlando took a 7-4 victory in front of 20,886 fans at the Florida Citrus Bowl.
The Eagles themselves got a remarkable performance on the night with Christian Ramirez scoring a pair of goals, the second of which put Charlotte ahead 3-2 in the 58th minute. But Dwyer, by then already on a brace after goals in the 33rd and 42 minutes, completed his hat trick to level the score from the penalty spot three minutes later, and then added a fourth for good measure in the 69th minute. The Lions wouldn’t again relinquish the lead, and while Dennis Chin would add a pair of goals of his own, and Adama Mbengue another, the current U.S. international grabbed center stage in a historic four-goal display that still stands as a USL Cup Playoffs record.
Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
Sacramento Republic FC’s inaugural season couldn’t have been more successful. The club had attracted massive crowds first to Hughes Stadium and then to Bonney Field as it soared to second place in the USL regular season standings. But at halftime of the club’s playoff semifinal against the LA Galaxy II, the side was trailing by a pair of goals, with the other first-year California club preparing to spoil the party.
Enter Rodrigo Lopez, and the Miracle at Bonney. The Republic FC playmaker began the comeback with 20 minutes to go, converting from the penalty spot after Ivan Mirkovic had been brought down in the area. Republic FC was awarded a second chance from the spot after a handball on a cross by Emrah Klimenta, and Lopez fired down the middle to level the score. With extra time looking, Lopez himself was then taken down 25 yards from goal in stoppage time. With all eyes on him once again, Lopez’s free kick looped over the defensive wall and into the top-right corner of the net, capping a remarkable rally and earning Republic FC a trip to the USL Cup in its inaugural season.