2018 USL Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

The 2018 USL Cup Playoffs have arrived. We break down the Eastern Conference side of the bracket.

After 34 matches, unpredictable action, and some final-day drama, we have reached the most magical time of the year. It’s time for the USL Cup Playoffs! Yesterday, we took a look at how the Western Conference will stack up. Today, the focus shifts East, as the Regular Season Champions look to continue their dominance, while familiar foes plot their demise.

#1 Fussball Club Cincinnati vs. #8 Nashville SC

Saturday, Oct. 20, 4:00 PM Eastern Time, Nippert Stadium

2018 season series:

7/7 FCC 0, NSC 0

8/4 FCC 1, NSC 1

10/13 FCC 3, NSC 3


It was a record-breaking season for FCC, as they set multiple records on the way to the USL Shield. Ending the year on a record-break unbeaten streak has the Queen City chasing their first professional sports championship since 1990. A new stadium deal, MLS promotion, and shattered attendance records have buoyed the team, and given a fanbase still stinging from two consecutive first-round exits more than enough reason to believe that this is their year.

Players to watch

Emmanuel Ledesma: Winning the award for most assists in the Regular Season, the playmaking winger has been the best of a stacked roster this season. His 16 goals and 16 assists will have opposing defenses paying close attention to Number 45.

Fanendo Adi: The Nigerian midfielder was brought to FCC under controversial circumstances. And though expectations were high, the output has been anything but. 3 goals and no assists have left some in Cincinnati wondering if he was worth the price they paid, giving Adi plenty of motivation to light up the post-season.

Evan Newton: The USL Gold Glove winner will hope to repeat his magic, and lift FCC out of the first round. 9 clean sheets and a 0.80 goals against average make Newton one of the best in the league, and has buoyed an already strong backline. With all 3 matches against Nashville ending in a tie, FCC fans will hope he can improve on his single penalty save in the event of a shootout.

Nashville SC

As the other team announced to join MLS, Nashville had high expectations heading into this season. Scoring difficulties and a poor road form saw their season filled with disappointments, but they found a way to put that behind them and make it into the final playoff spot.

Players to watch

Brandon Allen: He has been the leader of NSC’s anemic offense this season, leading the way with 10 goals on the year. He was the only Nashville player to hit double digits in goals, and will be crucial to keeping NSC’s unbeaten streak against FCC alive.

Ropapa Mensah: The Ghanian winger has been a lynchpin in Nashville’s rise up the table, and has led the team in assists (5). Especially in matches against Cincinnati, Mensah has played a key role in generating a cohesive attack. How Ropapa goes, so will Nashville’s playoff lives.

Matt Pickens: Though he didn’t win the USL’s Gold Glove award, the argument could be made that he should have. Pickens boasted a stingy 0.90 goals against average over his 31 appearances, and had 14 shutouts on the year. Where NSC has struggled to score, Pickens has anchored one of USL’s toughest defenses, keeping Nashville in the hunt. Keep an eye on Pickens, as the league’s best goalkeeper may have been overlooked this entire time.

#2 Louisville City FC vs. #7 Indy Eleven

Saturday, Oct. 20, 7:30 PM Eastern Time, Slugger Field

2018 season series:

5/5 LOU 0, IND 1

8/5 LOU 2, IND 2

10/13 LOU 1, IND 0

Louisville City

The defending USL Cup champions had a slow start, lost their coach, and faced the daunting task of trying to repeat as champions. Yet, this Louisville side has managed to avoid those traps en route to a 2nd place finish in the East. With the league’s top scorer and a stacked defensive unit, LCFC are out to prove that 2017 was no fluke.

Players to watch

Oscar Jimenez: While Cameron Lancaster has (rightfully) garnered most of the attention this year, Jimenez has been a huge reason for his success. With a stunning 77 chances created, 10 assists, and only 1 goal, it’s clear that Oscar lives to get others involved. Louisville has, at times, been able to score at-will on opponents, and Jimenez is the man most responsible for that reputation.

Cameron Lancaster: Most strikers hope to score when they take the pitch. In professional soccer, putting the ball in the net can be a cruel mistress that gives and takes away. For Cameron Lancaster, however, the giving never seemed to stop. Louisville’s main striker seemed incapable of missing the back of the net, finishing with a USL regular season record 25 goals. Add in his 21 key passes, and the Englishman is an intimidating figure for any defense to face.

Kyle Smith: While the offense gets all of the attention surrounding Louisville, their defense has been just as solid. That success is thanks, in large part, to the solid play of Kyle Smith. His 88 clearances and 49 interceptions made getting good shots on goal incredibly difficult. Not only did he make life difficult for teams keeping the ball on the ground, but his 52.6% success rate in arial duels meant that crosses, more often than not, came to die. With defense being the key to any USL Cup run, Smith will be the key player holding the back line together.

Indy Eleven

Indy Eleven had a rollercoaster off-season, and came dangerously close to closing down. The collapse of the North American Soccer League left the team scrambling to find a place to play, and an (ironically named) eleventh hour deal with USL saved the team. With a matter of weeks to hire a coach, sign players, and conduct a pre-season, fans could have forgiven a forgotten year. But the Eleven persevered and despite inconsistent play, reached the playoffs in their maiden USL campaign.

Players to watch

Jack McInerney: The team leader in goals had a rough start to his Eleven career. The journeyman striker was known early in the season for his red cards, instead of his goals. After sitting on the bench in the middle of the year, McInerney came back strong, finishing with 10 goals out of 24 chances created. He has been the most consistent goal scorer, especially against Louisville, and will be counted on to wreak havoc on the LCFC backline.

Nico Matern: The FC St. Pauli product was a relative unknown upon his arrival to Indy, but hasn’t disappointed in his first year. While his numbers may not look impressive, his command of the defensive midfield is critical to Indy’s game plan. He is strong on tackles, and protects a thin defensive unit well. For the Eleven to use their favored counter-attack, Nico will have to be disruptive and accurate in the center of the pitch.

Owain Fon Williams: There isn’t an award for the most underrated signing, but the Welshman would be a strong candidate if it existed. On loan from the Scottish Championship, Fon Williams has single handedly willed Indy to crucial points and is a major reason for their playoff lives. 91 saves and 11 clean sheets has him as one of the best Eastern Conference goalkeepers this year. While he hasn’t always been perfect, fans have come to expect at least one highlight moment every time he suits up for the Eleven.

#3 Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC vs. #6 Bethlehem Steel FC

Saturday, Oct. 20, 7:00 PM Eastern Time, Highmark Stadium

2018 season series:

8/12 PIT 2, BST 1

9/7 PIT 4, BST 1

Pittsburgh Riverhounds

A new badge and upgraded roster had fans in Pittsburgh excited for the upcoming season. But even the most optimistic of fans couldn’t have predicted the Riverhounds’ regular season success. Pittsburgh has spent most of the season toward the top of the table, even leading the pack for a significant stretch. And while they have faded slightly in recent weeks, their tough defense and explosive counter-attack make this unit one that no one wanted to draw.

Players to watch

Neco Brett: Pittsburgh has been able to compete with almost every team they’ve come against, and Neco Brett is largely to thank for that. The Jamaican midfielder has been in a category to himself on this team, as he finished with 15 goals, compared to the next best scorer with 5. His strong finishing and knack for creating assists will be crucial if the Riverhounds want to take the next step and challenge for a deep playoff run.

Kenardo Forbes: Behind every great striker is a man with pinpoint accuracy, and Pittsburgh has their man in fellow Jamaican Kenardo Forbes. He leads the team with 8 assists, and an incredible 56 chances created. His 81.1% passing accuracy is incredibly good, and his ability to stretch defenses creates nightmares for opposing goalkeepers. No matter who the Riverhounds play, they’ll have their hands full in trying to prevent the Forbes-Brett combination from taking over the match.

Thomas Vancaeyezelle: The French midfielder not only makes the equipment manager cringe, but opposing players as well. The scrappy 24 year old has played in all but one of the Riverhounds’ matches this season, and has developed into a rock in midfield. His 73.5% success rate on tackles, added to a 65.2% success rate on aerial duels, makes him incredibly difficult to get around. His work rate has also been incredible, and has led to 91 clearances and 79 interceptions. Part of what has made Pittsburgh so difficult to play against is their defense, and Vanacaeyezelle is the glue that holds it together.

Bethlehem Steel

It took their final match to clinch, but Bethlehem Steel FC are heading back to the playoffs. This side has had an up-and-down campaign, with struggles that are typical of a MLS-2 side. A rotating roster, combined with an extremely talented group of players that are still fine-tuning their skills, meant that Steel didn’t always play to their ability. However, once the roster freeze brought stability to the ranks, Bethlehem became a scrappy, hard-nosed team that was not afraid to push others around. That quality has led them to the playoffs, and Steel fans are hoping it will carry them even further.

Players to watch

Santi Moar: With 6 goals and 8 assists, Santi Moar has been the most effective weapon Bethlehem Steel have had in attack. His ability to score difficult goals is a useful trait in the rough and tumble post-season, as is his ability to create chances and connect other players to the attack. Steel have one of the least effective attacks out of the playoff field, and will need every ounce of his killer instinct to progress.

Faris Moumbagna: What Faris lacks in numbers, he more than makes up for in his ability to change a game. The speedy winger is extremely difficult to handle and can be expected to make an impact no matter when he’s brought into the game. Bethlehem Steel have been known to favor a physical, methodical pace that makes them difficult to break down. Having Moumbagna in their back pocket should give them confidence that they can shake things up, especially if they are chasing a game late.

Matthew Mahoney: Despite the typical turnover of an MLS-2 roster, Matthew Mahoney has managed to remain a solid, year-round contributor to the team’s cause. His 33 appearances, 31 of which were starts, are most on the Steel, and it’s not hard to see why his name kept appearing on the team sheet. He had a stellar year in the back, contributing 135 clearances, 77 interceptions, and an over 80% success rate on tackles. He is the cornerstone of Bethlehem’s defensive stone wall, and will be counted on to keep up with one of USL’s best offensive units.

#4 Charleston Battery vs. #5 New York Red Bulls II

Saturday, Oct. 20, 7:00 PM Eastern Time, MUSC Health Stadium

2018 season series:

3/31 CHS 2, NY 5

8/25 CHS 4, NY 4

Charleston Battery

The four-time champions were largely overlooked in preseason previews, and their players, coaches, and fans didn’t seem to mind. While other teams were taking up the headlines, Charleston put together another consistently strong performance, and have looked like a side capable of competing with the best in USL. A strong defense and high powered offense have this balanced unit primed to batter opponents that are still oblivious to their strength.

Players to watch

Ataulla Guerra: Ataulla Guerra has epitomized Charleston’s season. He has led the team in goals, assists, shots, and chances created, while maintaining a relatively low profile. He is dangerous on the ball, and his 15 goals and 5 assists show that he isn’t a one-trick pony. Guerra will be looking to strike early and often, to help Charleston break New York’s press.

Joe Kuzminsky: You wouldn’t be mistaken if you have noticed a pattern to the playoff sides. While some of them have flashy highlight-reel attacking players, they almost all have top-level goalkeeping to balance it. Kuzminsky, with 12 clean sheets out of 23 appearances, has given Charleston that balance. His command of the defensive area, including how he keeps his defenders organized, give opposing sides very little to work with. Combined with incredible saves and leadership beyond his years, this is one player that can give the Battery the boost they need in the playoffs.

Gordon Wild: Guerra’s partner-in-crime has taken advantage of Ataulla’s new found attention to create some havoc of his own. Second in goals, shots, and chances created, Wild has made a statement that he is ready, willing, and able to lead a USL front line. In the playoffs, the unexpected players are often the ones that make the difference. Keep an eye on Gordon, as he has the ability to get the goal Charleston might need to march closer to a 5th title.

New York Red Bulls II

New York Red Bulls II is the enigma of the Eastern Conference. At times, the Baby Bulls seemed capable of dropping 7 goals against any opponent. Other times, though, RBNY appeared destined to give up just as many. That inconsistent play nearly doomed one of USL’s youngest sides, as the kids learned to play at the USL level. With good coaching, some help from other teams in the playoff hunt, and the famous Red Bull pressing system, NYRBII corrected the ship and sailed into a respectable finish in the middle of the playoff places.

Players to watch

Andrew Tinari: There are some players who were born to amaze and create on a soccer field. Andrew Tinari is one of those players. 7 goals and 3 assists may seem as though Tinari has had a pedestrian season in midfield. And while New York would certainly like more scoring, they have no complaints about his passing ability, as he led New York with 102 chances created. Every time he’s on the field, expect a crowd of opposing shirts to try and suppress his knack for playing the right ball.

Jared Stroud: While not always as flashy as Tinari, Jared Stroud has been just as dependable in New York’s high intensity press. With a system that relies on quick ball movement to succeed, Stroud has been a dependable force in the final third. His 56 chances created are good for second on the team, but he leads the way with 11 assists, showing an accuracy with his ball placement. Add in 7 goals, and Stroud has been an all-around threat New York will count on to launch their upset bid.

Evan Louro: Most of the players on this list have the potential to impact their match in a positive way. Unfortunately, this is one player to watch for his tendency to have the opposite effect. Louro has only 3 clean sheets in his 26 appearances, and has looked shaky at times. His 59.8% save rate is nothing to write home about, and Louro is clearly one of the weaker parts of this Red Bull team. If New York is undone in this matchup, it will most likely come from the back end of the pitch. However, playoff soccer gives birth to unlikely heroes, and none would be more unlikely than Louro.

Main photo courtesy of Matthew Ballard

Richard Rainwater

Richard is a passionate soccer fan, who can be found in the heart of Brickyard Battalion on match days. You can follow him @da_safety_guy on Twitter, and see his work on BGN Written throughout the season.