Seven teams have booked their places in the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs after this weekend, while both Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and the Charleston Battery are knocking on the door in the Eastern Conference. Further down the East, though, the race for the playoffs took another fascinating turn with a combination of results that left plenty up in the air ahead of this week’s games.
97 – We start, though, with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which got two goals 97 seconds apart to break open Saturday night’s top-five clash between itself and Indy Eleven that led to a 3-2 victory and one foot in the postseason for the Hounds. Ben Zemanski’s first goal of the regular season and Neco Brett’s 15th arrived early in the second half, while Kenardo Forbes converted from the penalty spot again late on as the Hounds ran their undefeated streak to three games. It’s going to be a fight to the finish as to which of Pittsburgh or Louisville City FC claims the No. 2 seed in the East, but the Hounds can gain the edge on Wednesday night should they cash in their game in hand on the defending USL Cup champions in a visit to Keystone Derby Cup rival Penn FC.
62 – Further east in the Keystone State, it took just 62 seconds for Faris to open the scoring for Bethlehem Steel FC and set a club record for the fastest goal in its history in what turned into a 4-0 romp for the hosts against Toronto FC II at Goodman Stadium, a victory that given the turn of events further down the Eastern Conference standings gave Bethlehem’s prospects of a second consecutive trip to the USL Cup Playoffs a serious boost. The hosts put the game out of doubt early in the second half, putting in an incisive attacking display that its visitors were unable to match. The shot chart for contest illustrates this, with almost every effort by Bethlehem coming from 15 yards and in, while Toronto was generally held to long-range efforts as Tsubasa Endoh was unable to conjure the magic of a week before.
33 – Bethlehem’s win was one of just three by teams in the Eastern Conference sitting outside the top four in the standings over the weekend. One of the others to romp to victory was North Carolina FC, which got a hat trick in just 33 minutes by Donovan Ewolo on Friday night in a 6-1 victory against ATL UTD 2 at Coolray Field that pushed NCFC to the verge of the top eight. Ewolo struck after just three minutes to get things going for the visitors, and while Atlanta got a nice response from Alessandro Castro five minutes later, North Carolina made sure that it wasn’t going to have trouble in picking up a needed victory by racking up a 2018-best five-goal first half to put the game out of doubt by the break. Ewolo was joined by Kyle Bekker and Zach Steinberger in finding the net, both of whom also had strong overall performances. On a weekend when it’s NWSL counterpart the North Carolina Courage raised a championship, NCFC took a big step toward a postseason berth as well.
3 – The other side that took advantage of dropped points elsewhere was the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who claimed their third consecutive victory with a 3-0 win against the Richmond Kickers and as a result moved a point out of the playoffs places with four games to go. The Rowdies’ run of form has seen the side claim more than one-third of its victories this season since September 1 and could be ominous for those further up the Eastern Conference standings as the experience and gameness the side is showing would make it a very dangerous opponent should it reach the postseason. Wednesday night’s visit to Indy Eleven is now one of this week’s pivotal contests in the race for the playoffs, and if the Rowdies can take all three points again they could be well on their way to playoff berth.
6 – While the Rowdies have claimed three consecutive wins overall, Saint Louis FC ended Saturday night with a six-game home winning streak after defeating San Antonio FC 2-0 at Toyota Stadium – Saint Louis in what was the biggest game in the Western Conference this weekend. Given the stakes involved, the contest had the feeling of a playoff game, but when Lewis Hilton bagged a fine finish with 11 minutes to go for the hosts it felt as though it was going to be enough to carry the hosts through to the victory. That proved the case as while San Antonio finished with five shots on goal to Saint Louis’ four, none of them did enough to seriously challenge Tomas Gomez in the STLFC net. When Albert Dikwa provided a second in stoppage time for Saint Louis, the playoffs came firmly into view for the first time in the club’s history.
4 – A place in the postseason is still firmly within the grasp of Nashville SC, but a fourth consecutive game without a win after going winless in the past week at home is showing how difficult it can be to properly take advantage of games in hand when the pressure to produce is on. Nashville dropped to 11th place in the Eastern Conference after its 1-1 draw against a Charleston Battery side that held firm defensively despite playing the final half-hour on Saturday night down to 10 men, and while that means NSC is only a point out of the playoff positions with five games to go there’s now some added urgency for its two games this week on the road against ATL UTD 2 and at home to the New York Red Bulls II. Both are games Nashville can win, especially given New York’s continued winless road form after a 1-1 draw with the Charlotte Independence on Saturday, but the side is still going to need to produce if it’s not to let its prospective playoff place slip away.
21 – One side that has no such issues with a playoff place is defending USL Cup champion Louisville City FC, which swept to a 4-0 victory against Ottawa Fury FC as Cameron Lancaster reached 21 goals for the season with his fifth two-goal performance of the campaign. That puts the English forward only one goal back of the current USL modern-era regular-season record held by Matt Fondy, who also accomplished the feat for Louisville back in the club’s inaugural season in 2015. Playing the role of Bryan Burke in Fondy’s record-setting season for Lancaster is Oscar Jimenez, who reached nine assists for the season after another pair of helpers against Fury FC, which imploded in having both Nana Attakora and Kevin Oliveira sent off to finish the game with nine men. With a four-goal lead in the race for the USL Golden Boot going into the final three weeks of the season, Lancaster now appears to be playing for history as well as to help Louisville claim a fourth consecutive top-two finish.
29 – As Lancaster looks to break Matty Fondy’s record for goals in a single-season, FC Cincinnati’s Emmanuel Ledesma has also matched one of the other feats from Fondy’s remarkable 2015 campaign thanks to his 14th goal of the season on Saturday night, which sparked a 2-1 comeback victory for FCC against Penn FC that put the side within reach of clinching the 2018 USL Regular Season Championship on Wednesday night when it visits the Richmond Kickers for the USL Game of the Week. With his 14 goals and 15 assists, Ledesma has now officially contributed to 29 goals for FCC this season, matching the total of Fondy – who had 22 goals and seven assists in 2015 – and two-time USL Most Valuable Player Kevin Molino, who had 20 goals and nine assists in 2014 for Orlando City SC. It’s unlikely there are many who’d argue against him surpassing that total in FCC’s final four games of the regular season.
2 – While Ledesma and Lancaster are going to be among the candidates for USL Most Valuable Player at the end of the season, the LA Galaxy II’s Efrain Alvarez bolstered his claim to be the USL Young Player of the Year on Saturday night as he recorded his second hat trick of the season in Los Dos’ 6-1 victory against Real Monarchs SLC at StubHub Center. Alvarez is only the second player this season to record multiple hat tricks this season alongside fellow Los Dos standout Ethan Zubak, and his hat trick made the Galaxy II the lone side in the USL this season to have three double-digit goalscorers with Frank Lopez also sitting on 11 goals alongside Zubak. At just 16 years old, though, the imagination and ability to finish Alvarez shows on a consistent basis is something we’ve rarely seen in the USL at his age.
11 – While Alvarez was having his fun, Real Monarchs SLC’s slump in form continued as it fell into danger of falling out of the top four completely by the end of the regular season. The Monarchs conceded 11 goals across its two-game trip to Southern California after also giving up five goals to Orange County SC last Wednesday night. The Monarchs are still in the top three for the time being in the Western Conference, but with four losses in their past five games overall and the side winless in its last eight games away from Zions Bank Stadium the club’s upcoming two home contests are going to determine whether the side opens the postseason at home – where it is currently 12-1-2 this season – or on the road, where what was a promising campaign has foundered over the past two months.
7,015 – The Silver State Cup ended in the hands of Reno 1868 FC on Saturday night, but not before another compelling contest between the hosts at Greater Nevada Field and Las Vegas Lights FC that this time saw the visitors strike late to deny Reno victory in a 3-3 draw that wrapped up a great inaugural season of the rivalry series. Raul Mendiola’s second goal of the game for Las Vegas in the 90th minute saw honors end even for the second time between the sides this season, leaving 1868 FC’s victory last month as the deciding factor in the awarding of the trophy. The rivalry has certainly seemed to capture the imagination of the fans for both clubs, with an average attendance of 7,015 on hand for the three-game series this year. With Las Vegas now entering 2019 looking for its first victory against its upstate rivals, there are going to be plenty of great storylines to come as this moves into the new season and beyond.