Welcome back to Round Table! This is the second edition of the USL version of Round Table, where USL Championship and USL League One are under review. For those who are new, this is a series of blogs that will post weekly to SmallWorld’s feed and recap the pro and semi-pro American soccer leagues that are under way this fall, with the exception of MLS. Since last week, the playoff conversation in each of the two USL leagues has only grown more intriguing, so let’s crack on and check out the USL Championship picture.
Looking at the Western Conference will give you a similar picture in the top four to what we saw last week. Phoenix Rising still lead the conference, and have now opened so large a gap over 2nd-place Fresno FC that they’ve clinched a playoff spot, the first club in either conference to do so in 2019. Reno 1868 sit in 3rd, and Austin Bold are five points behind them in 4th. It’s still a tight race after that, but Real Monarchs, who sit in 5th, are only two points behind Austin and have a game in hand on most of the conference. Behind them is a logjam of clubs desperately seeking to stay above the playoff line: OKC Energy are in 6th with 37 points, equal with Monarchs, but have played 27 matches when most of the league has only played 25 or 26. Orange County FC and LA Galaxy II earned crucial wins this past weekend and have moved up to 7th and 8th on 36 points. Portland Timbers II are alone in 9th on 35 points, and three clubs are even on 34 points fighting for that coveted 10th and final playoff spot. All three were in much better positions before this week, but lost over the weekend. Sacramento Republic will feel somewhat safer, as they have the highest goal differential of the three and also have a game in hand on the other two. San Antonio will feel especially disappointed in themselves after being ridiculed in what should have been an easy opportunity for three points. They lost 5-1 to bottom-feeders Tacoma Defiance, who sit in last position on 20 points. New Mexico United slide to 12th after a 2-0 loss to Orange County.
Meanwhile, in the East, multiple heavyweight matches took place that have muddled the battle for tops even further. Indy Eleven could only manage a draw against rivals Louisville City a week ago, but made amends with an enormous 1-0 win over current league leaders New York Red Bulls II on Wednesday. Under normal circumstances, this would have opened the door wide for Tampa Bay Rowdies to sweep in and take control of the East, but they fell at home by a score of 2-1 to Nashville SC. That marquee win for Nashville puts them on 51 points, good for a precarious position in 2nd place. NYRB II lead with 53 points, while Indy Eleven occupy 3rd place with 50 points. They still have control of their own destiny, however, having played 3 fewer matches than both Nashville and NYRB II. Tampa Bay Rowdies are in 4th on 49 points from 26 matches, giving them a game in hand on NYRB II and Nashville. Pittsburgh Riverhounds lurk quietly in 5th on 47 points with a game in hand on the Rowdies and two games in hand on the top two. To help us make a bit of sense out of all that, if every club in the top five were to win all their remaining matches, Indy Eleven would win the East by six points, Pittsburgh and NYRB would each sit six points back, Rowdies would be one point further, and Nashville one point behind them. At the playoff line, Birmingham Legion helped their case with a resounding 5-0 win against ATL UTD 2, but they could still be in danger of missing out if Saint Louis FC and Charletson Battery, occupying the 10th and 11th positions, make good use of their games in hand.
Some important Championship matches this week include a chance for Reno 1868 to get level on points with Fresno FC when they do battle over second place (Saturday 9-7, 9PM Central). In the East, Saint Louis hosts Nashville SC in an important match for both sides. The hosts are intent on a playoff spot, while the Boys in Gold are looking to secure a place at the top of the table, with hope still alive of an Eastern Conference regular season title in Nashville (Saturday 9-7, 7:30PM Central). All USL Championship matches are streamed live by ESPN+.
In the USL League One, three teams look like relatively safe bets to progress to the four-team playoffs. Those are North Texas SC (essentially a guarantee at this point), Lansing Ignite, and Greenville Triumph, who respectively fill out the top three. Rounding out the bottom of the table are 9th place Toronto FC II, who seem destined for mathematical elimination over the next two weeks or so, and Orlando City II, who have already reached that point. Between the top three and bottom two, however, there should be an excellent fight for just one playoff spot. South Georgia Tormenta and Chattanooga Red Wolves each had golden opportunities to move into 4th place, but Forward Madison is allowed to hold onto that right after both Tormenta and Red Wolves lost their matches this week. All three clubs sit on 32 points, but now, each of them have played an equal amount of matches, and Madison hold the advantage in goal differential. FC Tuscon were the benefactors of Chattanooga’s inability to move into the playoff zone, as their 1-0 home win cut their defecit from fourth place to just one point. They also hold a game in hand over the three clubs above them. Richmond Kickers are a dark horse at this point, considering they are seven points off the playoff pace right now. They do, however, have two games in hand on the three clubs in fourth through sixth and have won three of their last five.
At this stage, every USL League One match is important, but this Friday’s meeting between Forward Madison and Tormenta is a fantastic redemption opportunity for the visitors from Statesboro, GA. A win would put them into 4th and knock one of their biggest playoff rivals down a peg in the late stages of the season (Saturday 9-7, 7PM Central). That match will be live streamed on ESPN+.
That’s all for this week in the USL Championship and League One. As I’ll encourage you to do in pretty much every post, go support these clubs as the playoff race heats up and be a part of the excitement around your local community.
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