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USL Top Five – Late-Season Playoff Surges

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 09/21/18, 12:24PM EDT


Here are five teams that beat the odds to book a trip to the USL Cup Playoffs in previous years

Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC

According to’s playoff projections, there are 12 teams that are sitting at an 85 percent chance or better to be part of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs going into this weekend’s action, while others like Saint Louis FC and Nashville SC have a chance to greatly bolster their chances on home turf on Saturday night.

But while numerous clubs have seen their playoff chances sit in the 90 percent range for a while now, there are others who are hoping a late-season run can allow them to overcome inconsistency and setbacks in the first two-thirds of the season to beat the percentages and find their way into the postseason field.

For those teams, and their fans, here are five clubs that accomplished just that in the USL’s modern era to book a postseason place.

2013 – Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Right-sided player Matt Dallman was key to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC's run to the postseason in 2013, and finished with a then-league record 12 assists in the regular season. | Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s fortunes swung back and forth throughout the 2013 season, with the side digging itself an early hole in the postseason race as the side didn’t take its first victory until its eighth game of the season. That sparked a solid run of form, but back-to-back defeats to the Charlotte Eagles and LA Blues – now Orange County SC – and a scoreless draw with Orlando City SC saw the side’s playoff chances dip back down below 20 percent in mid-July.

Sitting at 5-6-7 on 22 points with eight games to go, the Hounds then produced their best run of form of the season. Four consecutive victories that were capped by a 1-0 road win against Orlando that saw Ryan Kinne score an early second-half goal at the Florida Citrus Bowl and hand the Lions only their second home defeat of the season, and that led the Hounds to a 5-2-1 record the rest of the way that put the side in as the No. 7 seed for the postseason. 

2014 – Harrisburg City Islanders 

Midfielder Jose Barril was among the players who inspired the Harrisburg City Islanders to a strong late-season push - aided by their lucky red socks - that sent the club back to the USL Cup Playoffs for a fourth successive season. | Photo courtesy Harris

Now known as Penn FC, the Harrisburg City Islanders had a disastrous first half of the 2014 regular season with only three victories in their first 14 games that saw the side sitting with less than a 10 percent chance to reach the postseason at the start of July, but that provided the starting point to a wild ride that came down to the final game of the regular season.

The club’s turnaround began immediately as it kicked off the second half of the season with back-to-back victories against the Charleston Battery and Dayton Dutch Lions, during which the side scored seven goals. Led by current Penn standout Lucky Mkosana and Philadelphia Union loanees like Jimmy McLaughlin and Antoine Hoppenot, the side then reeled off four consecutive victories that included a 3-2 win against eventual USL Regular Season champion Orlando City SC. 

The run put Harrisburg in good position, but the drama wasn’t over as the four-game winning streak was followed by a four-game winless streak that saw the side fall three times. A 4-2 victory in the final game of the regular season against the Charlotte Eagles, however, sealed the No. 8 seed, and helped springboard a run to that year’s USL Cup before the side fell to Sacramento Republic FC.

2016 – Orange County SC

Trinidad & Tobago international Trevin Caesar played the hero in Orange County's playoff-clinching victory in the final game of the 2016 USL regular season. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC

The ending to the 2016 USL regular season was the wildest in the league’s modern era and brought about what is currently the only instance of a tiebreaker being required to decide which team would find a place in the postseason and which one would watch the USL Cup Playoffs from home.

In the middle of it all was Orange County SC, which had seen its playoff chances slide to about 20 percent in late July after going 1-4-1 since the middle of June to fall back in the pack in the Western Conference. Consecutive victories against the LA Galaxy II and Tulsa Roughnecks FC helped right the ship, but from there the fluctuations as to whether Orange County would be in or out went up and down as the side alternated wins and losses over almost the rest of the season.

Back-to-back defeats to Sacramento Republic FC saw Orange County’s chances dip back to 20 percent with three games of the season to go, and while Orange County picked up a victory against Real Monarchs SLC in its next outing to jump past a 60 percent chance to reach the playoffs a 1-0 home defeat to Rio Grande Valley FC saw those odds slump once again. One final home game against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC saw Orange County not only need to win, but also overtake the Portland Timbers 2, which had the same record but an edge in goal differential to put in in eighth place as the night began.

Things started off well for Orange County, which took the lead against Colorado Springs and then got news that Phoenix Rising FC had done the same against Portland, but by halftime T2 had taken a 3-1 lead and was looking done and dusted with a two-goal edge in goal differential and in goals scored. A glimmer of hope arrived for OCSC with 18 minutes to go when Chris Cortez scored for Phoenix, but with less than five minutes remaining Portland was still in the playoffs. Then, Trinidad & Tobago international Trevin Caesar came alive for Orange County, scoring twice in three minutes to put his side up by three goals, and ahead on goal differential. A fourth goal in stoppage time by Orr Barouch sealed things as Orange County went from almost a 4-1 underdog to a playoff place in the span of 90 minutes.

2017 – New York Red Bulls II

Midfielder Florian Valot was one of the leaders for the Red Bulls II as they surged over the final third of the 2017 regular season to book their place in the postseason. | Photo courtesy Ben Solomon / New York Red Bulls II

For a certain time it was looking as though the defending USL Cup champion wasn’t going to get to defend its title in the 2017 USL Cup Playoffs as the New York Red Bulls II had major ups and downs over the first two-thirds of their season, The side had already reached double-digits in losses over its first 21 games of the regular season to sit with around a 15 percent chance of reaching the playoffs when August rolled around as two three-game losing streaks had put the side off the playoff pace.

The turnaround began with a small piece of history for New York, however, as it took its first regulation victory against the Rochester Rhinos, and that kicked off a six-game undefeated streak that saw it rack up four goals apiece in victories against FC Cincinnati and the Tampa Bay Rowdies at MSU Soccer Park. 

That streak came to an end with a 4-2 loss to Cincinnati, but the Red Bulls II rebounded strongly in their next outing to win their fifth game in the previous eight contests by defeating Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC at home.

The Red Bulls II then headed to Florida for a pair of games, and while it fell 3-2 to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the first game of the trip a hat trick by Stefano Bonomo in a wild 6-5 victory against Orlando City B pushed the side back into the playoffs as it went 6-2-2 over the home stretch to make its final outing of the season academic. The momentum New York built paid off in the playoffs as it defeated both the Charleston Battery and Tampa Bay Rowdies on the road as the No. 7 seed before falling to eventual USL Cup champion Louisville City FC in the Eastern Conference Final after a penalty shootout.

2017 – OKC Energy FC 

Forward Jose Angulo caught fire down the stretch of the 2017 regular season, scoring seven goals in four consecutive wins to earn a place in the postseason for Energy FC. | Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC

OKC Energy FC had major struggles in the first half of the 2017 USL regular season as it claimed only five victories, with two of those coming against a Portland Timbers 2 side that finished last in the Western Confernce with only three wins all season. As it faced up to the second half of the year the club’s playoff odds were hovering at about 10 percent, a major hill to climb for a side that had reached the postseason in each of the previous two seasons.

That position was reached after a five-game winless streak that was capped by a 1-1 draw on the road against San Antonio FC, but it’s arguable that Miguel Gonzalez’s equalizer four minutes into second half stoppage time at Toyota Field that earned Energy FC a point was a turning point for the side. Gonzalez struck twice in the club’s next contest, as did Jose Angulo, as Energy FC took a 4-3 victory against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.

Victories against top playoff contenders Reno 1868 FC and Real Monarchs SLC at Taft Stadium followed soon after, but Energy FC’s chances took another downturn as it won only one of its five games following the win against the Monarchs – including a defeat to in-state rival Tulsa Roughnecks FC – to again put itself under pressure to reach the postseason. Energy FC managed that, however, as it reeled off five wins in its last six games – including victories in four consecutive games to close the regular season that saw Angulo find the net seven times.

Energy FC carried the momentum of its 9-3-3 close to the regular season into the postseason, where it advanced to the Western Conference Final before falling to the Swope Park Rangers. 

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