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11 Things – The Great Divide

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 07/30/18, 12:42PM EDT

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Weekend victories highlighted gap between contenders, pretenders

You might remember last year when we kicked off the USL Race to the Playoffs – which will kick off again in a few weeks – the information provided by a website called SportsClubStats.com, which following each result of the season mapped a club’s percentage chance of not only making the playoffs, but what seed it would likely claim. After this weekend’s results across the league, those numbers make for fascinating reading in both the Eastern and Western Conferences as the divide between those who have made their hay already and those that need to gain ground was laid out. With a 45-percent split between the top eight in the West and those below the figurative line, the race for the playoffs is still on but the hill is still awfully steep for some.

1. CRUISE CONTROL: The difference between the teams that will be considered among the favorites for the USL Cup when the postseason arrives in October and those that are fighting for the right to be part of the field was illustrated well by Louisville City FC’s 3-0 victory on the road against Ottawa Fury FC, where the visitors to TD Place rarely seemed troubled by the hosts. Louisville controlled much of the flow of the game and was lethal from set pieces as Oscar Jimenez picked up a pair of assists. Even after Louisville went down to 10 men with 13 minutes to go Ottawa failed to seriously make a dent in the visiting defense, and with three wins in the last four the defending USL Cup champions are looking very much like normal service has been resumed.

2. BATTERING RAM: Much the same could be said for the Charleston Battery’s 3-0 victory against the Richmond Kickers, which saw Nico Rittmeyer score his first two goals as a professional and Ataulla Guerra add his 12th goal of the season in a fourth consecutive victory for Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser’s side. Charleston’s resurgence has come through the side sticking to what it knows will work and executing well when the chances arrive, and on Saturday the Battery scored on all three of its shots on goal out of six overall shots for the game. While the Kickers won the battle of the scoresheet with a shooting advantage of 21-6, Charleston remained happy to defend and break forward quickly as it has done effectively throughout the season to put it in strong position near the top of the East.

3. KINGS OF THE HILL: Maybe the most-anticipated game of the weekend was the top-two clash in the Western Conference between Real Monarchs SLC and Phoenix Rising FC, but that too turned into a comfortable victory for the hosts at Zions Bank Stadium as the Monarchs’ standout attacking trio of Chandler Hoffman, Maikel Chang and Sebastian Velasquez all played a major role in a 4-1 victory that reestablished Real as the team to beat in the West. The victory also amplified the homefield advantage the Monarchs boast at their new home venue, where they have won eight consecutive games after a draw in its inaugural contest earlier this season. With an 82 percent chance at the No. 1 seed in the West after Saturday’s win, that’s a scary number for the rest of the conference.

4. TRIPLE PLAY: While the Monarchs were putting a lock on top spot in the West, no side in the conference did more to boost its playoff hopes on Saturday night than San Antonio FC as it claimed a thrilling 2-1 victory against OKC Energy FC that left the side feeling as relaxed as Ever Guzman in one of the field-side seats at Taft Stadium after his late game-winner for the visitors. With three wins in eight days, San Antonio balanced not only its squad but also its production to finally get a season that began with high expectations on track. There’s still work left for Head Coach Darren Powell’s side, but in breaking the club’s winless record against its regional rival it picked up a far clearer path to a return to the postseason.

5. DOWN, MAYBE OUT: The talk coming out of OKC Energy FC prior to Saturday’s game was of optimism about the club’s eight-game undefeated streak that had helped pull the side back from its trying start to the season, but Saturday’s defeat may offer a serious piece of realism about how steep the climb is going to be with 12 games to go and an eight-point gap to make up to the sides in the top eight in the standings. A general rule of thumb is a side’s playoff chances are in serious trouble when the ratio between games remaining and points to be made up reaches the same number, and while OKC isn’t at that point quite yet the club’s home draws against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and Fresno FC in that previous undefeated run are starting to loom large as reasons why Energy FC won’t be in this year’s postseason.

6. SALVAGE AND RESCUE: Another team that was staring down a long road to the postseason on Saturday night was Saint Louis FC, which despite having a man-advantage since the 15th minute still trailed Reno 1868 FC at Greater Nevada Field at the halftime break. In the final 20 minutes, however, the visitor’s pressure finally told as Sam Fink’s stoppage-time goal earned a victory that gave his side hope that a playoff place was still within reach. What will be crucial now is for STLFC to pick up maximum points in its next two home contests against two sides in Las Vegas Lights FC and Seattle Sounders FC 2 that sit below them in the Western Conference standings, but for the upcoming week there remains a glimmer of hope that the season is salvageable.

7. END OF THE LINE: While there was joy for Saint Louis, the end of Reno 1868 FC’s 16-game undefeated streak was a tough one for the hosts, who appeared to have done just enough to hold on despite playing down a man for 75 minutes after Eric Calvillo’s early red card. As disappointing as the defeat might be now, though, there is certainly something to be taken from the game for Head Coach Ian Russell’s side for the road ahead, which sees Reno head to face Real Monarchs SLC in its next outing on August 8. Given Real’s impressive home record, the level of intensity 1868 FC produced on Saturday is going to be needed if it’s to close the gap at the top of the Western Conference.

8. DOUBLING UP: Saint Louis wasn’t the only side to grab a crucial win late, with North Carolina FC accomplishing the same feat to strongly boost its playoff hopes in the Eastern Conference thanks to Wuilito Fernandes’ stoppage-time goal against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. NCFC’s inconsistency has been its major bugaboo so far this season, so for the side to not only pick up back-to-back victories for the first time in the league this season but do so against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference so far this season could be just the moment the side needs to kick on over its final third. The road doesn’t get easier from here with the Charleston Battery the next visitors to Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park, but NCFC is coming alive at the right time in the tightly-packed center of the Eastern Conference standings.

9. HOLDING GROUND: North Carolina’s victory was made more significant by the fact that it was the lone side on Saturday night among the sides battling around the playoff line to claim all three points as contests between the Charlotte Independence and Penn FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies and New York Red Bulls II both ended all square to leave things as compact as they have been at any point of the season. With two points separating the six teams between the Independence in eighth place and Penn FC in 13th in the Eastern Conference, victories are going to be at a premium over the next few weeks, with games like Friday night’s between Ottawa Fury FC and the Rowdies having the potential to have a big impact for the side that emerges a winner, or those on the sidelines rooting for a draw.

10. GRABBING THE HORNS: Rio Grande Valley FC is a serious longshot to reach the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs, but the Toros are having an impact on the race all the same with Saturday night’s 1-0 victory against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC extending the club’s undefeated streak to six games. With two wins in their last three games and a draw against the Swope Park Rangers in-between, Head Coach Gerson Echeverry’s side continues to battle and has improved week-over-week to where it is now getting results that will ruin not only someone’s night, but also larger playoff hopes. With teams like San Antonio and Fresno FC still to make visits to H-E-B Park before the regular season is out, the Toros can’t be overlooked by anyone at this point.

11. RED LETTER DAY: There were certainly mitigating factors, led by travel issues suffered by Nashville SC on the way to upstate New York, but it was hard not to feel a little bit of excitement for Toronto FC II as it finally broke through for its first win of the regular season on Saturday night at Marina Auto Stadium. The Reds have had some bright displays at times undone by defensive errors – according to Opta, Toronto has conceded four times in that manner on six shots – but against Nashville the breaks finally went their way as Matt Srbely first won a penalty kick that led to Luca Uccello opening the scoring and then added a fine effort himself in the second half to give the side a victory that was a long time coming.

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