Breaking down which clubs will finish over, or under, the playoff line in the USL’s Eastern Conference.
Since at least 2016, the Eastern Conference in the United Soccer League has been, well, a bit crowded. Two years ago, it came down to the final game of the USL regular season where Orlando City B just edged out Wilmington for what would become the “get thrashed by Red Bull II” sweepstakes. Last year, it was a final game nail-biter that had Bethlehem Steel eek out their first playoff birth off a 1-1 draw against St Louis after ninth-place Orlando City B couldn’t get the job done against their dear friends in Tampa Bay.
All that to say, why don’t we see how this progresses right? The current point difference between the team in 5th (RBII) and 13th (Penn FC) is currently nine. That’s three wins. Starting with five and working down the table to thirteen, let’s figure out how everyone on the bubble can get in, or more importantly, stay in a playoff position.
Key– Team (record) Games Played: Goal Differential: Points:
5. New York Red Bull II (9-8-7) GP: 24 GD:+10 Points: 35
Why they’re in: Red Bull II head coach John Wolyniec has been here before. His Baby Bulls have never missed the playoffs since their arrival in 2016 and it’s looking like their streak is safe again this year. With a free-flowing attack bolstered by Amando Moreno, Andrew Tinari, and Jared Stroud, RBII have no problem scoring. Hassan Ndam is turning into a fine centerback and Ethan Kutler puts in strong shifts out wide. Woly doesn’t have much to worry about, especially with a club that can realistically put games away in a half hour.
Why they’re out: They seemingly can’t find a positive road form. Sure, two recent draws over Louisville and Tampa are great, but you wonder if the loss away to Atlanta United 2 or the draw against Richmond might haunt them. Six of their next ten are away from home and all of them are against teams in this playoff chaos.
Will they make it?: Probably. They’re in a decent enough spot right now, the only thing that’s troubling is they have more games played than a lot of these other clubs.
6. Nashville SC (9-7-6) GP: 22 GD: +5 Points: 34
Why they’re in: With a 7-1-2 home record, the new boys have turned the Music City into a rough place to visit. They have great pieces like Lebo Moloto, Ropapa Mensah, Matt LaGrassa and Matt Pickens, with midseason addition Kris Tyrpak sure to provide a spark. It’s also worth noting Nashville have a few games in hand on the teams right around them in the standings, which should play into their favor.
Why they’re out: Somehow, despite bringing in Brandon Allen, goal scoring for the Tennessee club has been a massive issue. They’ve only scored multiple goals five times this season and have been held scoreless seven times. Stealing a point away or getting tough draws are fine when you’re in the mixer for these final spots but with massive fixtures ahead against teams that can score (vs Steel, @NC, vs RBII) one goal might not cut it.
Will they make it?: It would be more of a surprise if they finish below the line at this point, but I don’t think this is an easy path in for Nashville.
7. Bethlehem Steel FC (9-6-10) GP: 25 GD: +10 Points 33
Why they’re in: Feisty with pace for days, Bethlehem are another MLS 2 side that has a great core of USL talent. Brandon Aubrey plays mostly mistake free in defense and with wingers Santi Moar and Chris Nanco heating up in the last month or so, Bethlehem seem to have momentum on their side, despite a tough loss against Pittsburgh after some encouraging road results. Add in the intensity of their captain James Chambers and the boost of Omar Holness and Steel have the tools to stay in this until the end. While they have the disadvantage of having to set the score to beat, a decently soft remaining schedule might help them out.
Why they’re out: Not capitalizing on results they should have had really might be the downfall here. Early draws at home against Charleston and Cincy as well as a tough loss to Ottawa see Bethlehem losing seven points that would really help out in the current hunt.
Will they make it?: They have chances to directly deny Nashville and Ottawa points in their remaining games. There’s also a vital fixture against Indy XI on October 6th that could really decide things. Early prediction says no.
8. Indy XI (9-7-5) GP: 21 GD: +2 Points: 32
Why they’re in: Thanks to a hot start, Indy have managed to creep into the final playoff spot late in the season, utilizing the old cliche where it isn’t about how you get hot, but when. Undefeated in June, Indy picked up ten of a possible twelve points with their most impressive win a 2-0 win over Nashville on the road. Jack McInerney has found his footing, leading the team in goals with six. Soony Saad and Brad Ring shouldn’t be slept on either as they know what it takes to get a team in the postseason.
Why they’re out: This schedule is a little crazy. Five games in ten days probably will have the league schedulers off of the Indy XI end of season party this year. That window is certainly not pleasant regardless of opponent but Indy play North Carolina, Ottawa, and Pittsburgh in that stretch. Martin Rennie’s men are in a brawl and for a team that didn’t really get a roster formed until January, that might be too big a fight.
Will they make it?: Coupling that ridiculous late season schedule with an unfavorable goal differential and I think Indy is on the outside looking in come October 17th.
9. Ottawa Fury (9-4-10) GP: 23 GD -7 Points: 31
Why they’re in: Canada’s capital team has been quietly making everyone that overlooked them (which was everyone in USL, it seems) eat their words for awhile now. Ottawa have rode a solid defense and some gritty wins (1-0 over Steel, 1-0 over Indy, 2-0 over Nashville) to be in a good position to make a late push. Add in that they have a lot of games coming up against teams in this grouping and they might be a nice dark horse pick.
Why they’re out: Ottawa haven’t been great against playoff teams. Out of their 12 matches so far against those clubs, the Fury have only secured three points. That’s a whopping 23 points left on the table. Throw in a really rough start that saw Ottawa winless in six including alarming scores of 0-5 and 1-4 and maybe the early season hangover gives them migraines at home in October.
Will they make it?: Probably not. Unflattering results against playoff sides and an eyesore of a goal differential really makes this a hard sell.
10. North Carolina FC (8-8-6) GP: 22 GD +5 Points: 30
Why they’re in: Currently the hottest team in this group, North Carolina are on an absolute tear. Five games unbeaten including a big 2-1 win over Pittsburgh and a nice set of draws against Bethlehem and Charleston sees North Carolina streaking into crunch time. Daniel Rios is on fire with 12 goals, Kyle Bekker has 10 assists, and this team is feeling themselves and might be able to really do some damage late.
Why they’re out: North Carolina have an odd mix of playoff and non-playoff teams coming up. Eight of the last twelve games for them are against teams in this list. If they get ahead of themselves or mistake any of their games in hand as expendable, this won’t be as much of a sure bet as it might seem.
Will they make it?: If this side doesn’t start looking ahead of themselves, yes. I think they’re a good pick for 6th.
11. Charlotte Independence (7-9-7) GP:23 GD -7 Points: 28
Why they’re in: Plenty of chances to grab points against teams around them in the standings and some guys returning from injury might help out. That and it’s hard to persuade me that Mike Jeffries isn’t coaching for his job right now. Andrew Dykstra has done a good bit for this team in goal, they just need the offense to wake up a bit.
Why they’re out: Winless in four with what may be the hardest schedule remaining, Charlotte haven’t done themselves many favors. Factor in a somewhat older squad and this almost feels like a done deal.
Will they make it?: The Jacks, like a lot of teams down on this end of things, need a lot of help I don’t see coming. That and an abysmal road form and it’s better luck next year everyone.
12. Tampa Bay Rowdies (7-10-6) GP: 23 GD: -2 Points: 27
Why they’re in: Not to be harsh, but they shouldn’t even be here in the first place. They have the depth and the talent to get in the playoffs and be a really dangerous low seed. The attacking names are deep with players like Joe Cole, Georgi Hristov, Junior Flemmings, and Leo Fernandes. If they can figure out a defensive shape, it’s a deadly team.
Why they’re out: Switching managers in mid-season is not a death knell for a club. Making your new manager the guy that was previously your best defender is certainly a curious decision and might’ve hurt this team in the short term more then they realized. Neill Collins was the anchor at the back, and without him,the Tampa Bay Rowdies have looked a bit more like the Atlantic Ocean Rowdies. Poor road results finally seeped into poor home results and the Rowdies might be marooned this year in pretty shocking fashion.
Will they make it?: The Rowdies are the only club I can see pulling a miracle like this. They’re not out of it, but it’s probably too little and too late. Shockingly, no.
13 Penn FC (6-8-8) GP:22 GD: -3 Points: 26
Why they’re in: They’ve done well to stay in the hunt as of late, and the form against the big name clubs in the East is more unlucky than bad. They just played Cincy to the wire and were unlucky to not grab a point. Ken Tribbett has had the comeback season of the year in USL and Lucky Mkosana is the best forward the City Island has seen since Aaron Wheeler. Nothing will come easy, but you’re not delusional for thinking there’s a chance here. They also have nine home games to close out the season, which could see them invite other teams to take Penn FC lightly at their own peril.
Why they’re out: Penn FC has been consistently middle of the road this year. They’ve gotten plenty of draws and some good results against teams close to them (beat Bethlehem twice, beat Tampa Bay, drew Pittsburgh), but it hasn’t looked good as of late. Winless in five with an absolutely packed September, the only thing making up for that stretch is it’s all at FNB Field. Seven of those nine games are against teams in this article though, so that may not bode well for Penn FC.
Will they make it?: Weird things have happened on the Harrisburg City Island before, but this would be a tall order even for the general craziness over there. Strong steps forward in the first year with a lot of new personnel, but the former two time USL champions are going to have to wait to get back to the dance.
How wrong am I? The plan is to do another one of these in September and October, so feel free to keep receipts and hold this all against me! Surely, something will happen and I’ll have a different outlook in September so check back then.
Photo courtesy of James Thomas/Charlotte Independence