Previewing the 2019 USL Championship play-in matches

For the first time in league history, there will be play-in matches during the USL Championship postseason.

The final regular-season match was played yesterday and the playoff positioning is officially set. In each conference, the 7-10 seeds will face off in play-in matches to move into the full USL Championship playoff brackets. We take a look at those four matches across the league.

Eastern Conference

#7 North Carolina FC vs. #10 Birmingham Legion FC

Season series

5/18: NC 0, BHM 0

7/13: BHM 1, NC 0

Key players

NC: Steven Miller (nine goals, six assists), Alex Tambakis (91 saves, eight clean sheets), Ben Speas (five assists, 66 chances created)

BHM: Matt Van Oekel (11 clean sheets, 77 saves), Prosper Kasim (seven goals, 50 chances created), Mikey Lopez (51 tackles won, 41 interceptions)

Match preview

With a star goalkeeper like Alex Tambakis playing behind a staunch backline, North Carolina FC allowed only 37 goals this season, 7th-fewest in the league. They hold possession and pass the ball well, leading in possession in both matches vs. Birmingham and completing over 80% of their passes this season. Birmingham scored the second-fewest goals in the league, are tied for seventh-fewest shots, and are tied for the second-worst conversion rate. Six of their twelve wins were 1-0 scorelines and ten of their wins came by one-goal margins. They’ve only won one of their last five matches as they earned the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

North Carolina will try to win this match at home by keeping the ball and relying on their solid defense against a poor offense. Legion FC will hope to take advantage of potentially limited opportunities. They may need to strike on a set-piece or a counter-attack to sneak past the higher-seeded club.

Match details

Wednesday, 10/23, at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park

Kickoff at 7 PM Eastern Time

Birmingham Legion FC at North Carolina FC

#8 Ottawa Fury FC vs. #9 Charleston Battery

Season series

3/9: CHS 1, OTT 1

6/26: OTT 3, CHS 2

Key players

OTT: Carl Haworth (ten goals, six assists), Kevin Oliveira (six goals, 32 chances created), Charlie Ward (2,018 passes, 48 interceptions)

CHS: Zeiko Lewis (seven goals, five assists), Joe Kuzminsky (91 saves, eight clean sheets), Jarad van Schaik (83 interceptions, 1,577 passes)

Match preview

Ottawa Fury FC play the standard brand of soccer that Nikola Popovic deploys. They are 10th in the league in passes and you’d be hard-pressed to find a match they didn’t lead in possession. With a midfield that includes players like Ward, Wal Fall, and Chris Mannella, they control the action and tempo of the match before playing the ball to Hadji Barry, Christiano Francois, Carl Haworth, or Kevin Oliveira. Charleston doesn’t have the elite striking talent of years past with Dane Kelly, Heviel Cordoves, or Romario Williams, but they do have veterans like Taylor Mueller and Jarad van Schaik that have been through the fires of the postseason as well as one of the best managers in the game with Mike Anhaeuser.

The Battery will try to go north of the border and keep their hot form going. They have won their two most recent matches by a combined score of 7-1 with only one loss in their last six matches. Fury FC will try to slow the match down and force the visitors to chase the action and then strike when they get a chance.

Match details

Wednesday, 10/23, at TD Place Stadium

Kickoff at 7 PM Eastern Time

Charleston Battery at Ottawa Fury FC

Western Conference

#7 Sacramento Republic FC vs. #10 New Mexico United

Season series

6/8: SAC 3, NM 0

7/24: NM 2, SAC 1

Key players

SAC: Cam Iwasa (16 goals, six assists), Mitchell Taintor (103 clearances, 76 aerial duel wins), Thomas Enevoldsen (13 goals, six assists)

NM: Kevaughn Frater (14 goals, five assists),  Santi Moar (11 goals, 78 shots), Devon Sandoval (12 goals, Sept. Player of the Month)

Match preview

This is a really fun matchup. Republic FC won the 2014 championship in their inaugural season and have been in the playoffs every year of their existence. They enter this match tied for 10th-fewest goals allowed and the 6th-most clean sheets. But, a majority of those clean sheets came with Josh Cohen in goal. He’s playing in Isreal now and Sacramento only has one clean sheet in their last eight matches. New Mexico prefers to press the ball and they don’t mind leaving themselves vulnerable at the back. The hosts will need to be prepared to face consistent waves of attacks from the likes of Frater, Moar, Sandoval, and Chris Wehan.

Sacramento only won one of their last six matches going into the playoffs. Each team won their away match in this series and the crowd in the California capital should make for a great atmosphere on Wednesday night. Can the Republic FC backline hold up against the 8th-highest-scoring team in the league? Will an expansion side take down the established former champions?

Match details

Wednesday, 10/23, at Papa Murphy’s Park

Kickoff at 10:30 PM Eastern Time

New Mexico United at Sacramento Republic FC

#8 Austin Bold FC vs. #9 LA Galaxy II

Season series

5/4: LA 1, AUS 0

8/10: LA 3, AUS 1

Key players

AUS: Andre Lima (14 goals, 76 shots), Sean McFarlane (12 assists, 53 chances created), Diego Restrepo (eight clean sheets)

LA: Ethan Zubak (nine goals), Augustine Williams (seven goals, 120 aerial duels), Kai Koreniuk (nine goals, four assists)

Match preview 

This is a battle of youth vs. experience. Ironically, the expansion side has the experience rather than the team around since 2014. Austin’s key players like Andre Lima, Kris Tyrpak, Amobi Okugo, Jermaine Taylor, and Diego Restrepo are all 27 years old or above, with Lima, Taylor, and Restrepo all over 30. That doesn’t even include 34-year-old Kleber, who is rumored to be suspended for this match and two more after an incident vs. Real Monarchs SLC. On the opposite side, Los Dos boast a notoriously youthful roster that rotates heavily each season.

In the first matchup this season between the sides, Austin registered zero shots on target, despite holding more possession. The second match had more open action with 29 shots combined. In the two matches, LA intercepted 29 passes from Austin and committed 43 fouls. They will try to disrupt the Austin distribution by jumping the passing lanes and they don’t mind getting into a shootout. Los Dos are top 10 in goals scored and goals conceded.  Austin will try to use their experience and physicality to win crosses in the box to their experienced attacking options.

Match details

Wednesday, 10/23, at Bold Stadium

Kickoff at 8: 30 PM Eastern Time

LA Galaxy II at Austin Bold FC

Carson A Merk

Reporting live from Sin City, I have covered both RGVFC and Las Vegas Lights FC since their inceptions. I also write profiles to highlight players from the NCAA to USL to NWSL and everywhere in between.