Welcome to the latest edition of USL Round Table. Just when you thought the USL Championship and USL League One playoff races couldn’t get any more interesting, they kinda did. So you’re kinda wrong. It happens.
Anyway, with about five matches to go for each club in the USL Championship, we’ve got loads of action in both conferences to cover. Let’s get going!
We’ll start with the West, per usual. Phoenix is still winning, so nothing new there. Fresno FC and Reno 1868 are in second and third, so that hasn’t changed either. After having won both of their last two games, Sacramento Republic, Real Monarchs SLC, and Orange County SC are fourth through sixth with six matches remaining. All three of them can feel relatively good about their chances of reaching the playoffs, even if they’re essentially out of the running for a first-round bye.
Things are still tight at the playoff line. After Orange County, no teams are safe by any stretch of the imagination. Austin Bold certainly didn’t expect to be this close to the edge a couple of weeks ago, but after taking just one point from their past three matches, they’re in serious danger of missing out, especially if they continue in their poor form. They’re in seventh position on 40 points from 29 matches. The team behind them, New Mexico United, have turned their poor form around and also sit on 40 points. They, however, have a game in hand on Austin, and are thus likely to steal the Bold’s seventh-place spot.
Just one point behind New Mexico, LA Galaxy II are trying to hold onto a top ten finish. They’ve earned 39 points after 28 matches, and they hold a two-point advantage over San Antonio FC, who are on the hot seat in tenth. OKC Energy are level on points at 37 with the Alamo City’s USL club, but Energy have played 29 matches to San Antonio’s 28. El Paso Locomotive will like their chances of getting on the right side of the cutoff line, with 36 points after only 27 matches. Portland Timbers II and Las Vegas Lights are holding onto hope in 13th and 14th, each with 35 points.
In the East, everything is chaos. Saint Louis FC is wreaking havoc on the conference’s top teams after adding New York Red Bulls II to their list of recent casualties. They already beat Nashville SC earlier this month and have now won five in a row. That incredible turnaround has placed them on the right side of the playoff picture, but more on that later.
Despite NYRB II’s loss to Saint Louis, they’re clinging precariously to first place in the East. Indy Eleven has been closing in fast with their plethora of games in hand, but those are running thin now. Both clubs sit on 56 points, with NYRB II having played 29 and Indy having played 28. Both of those two have clinched playoff spots, but will be gunning for a first-round bye that can only be obtained through a top-two finish.
The two clubs behind them, Nashville SC and Tampa Bay Rowdies, are equally keen on the spoils of the top two and are definitely within striking distance. Nashville eked out a 1-0 win at the death against Birmingham Legion to get to 54 points from 29 matches, and Tampa Bay have 53 points from 29 matches. Both of the aforementioned have also claimed playoff spots. Behind them are Pittsburgh Riverhounds, who have 51 points but hold two games in hand over the two clubs in front of them. North Carolina FC and Louisville City occupy sixth and seventh and look like they’re both solidly in the playoffs and out of the chase for a first-round bye. Ottawa Fury and Saint Louis helped their playoff causes this week, as they look to defend eighth and ninth from Birmingham Legion. The only club that really can challenge Legion’s claim to the tenth and final playoff berth is Charleston Battery, who are four points adrift and have a game in hand.
Nashville host the Riverhounds tomorrow (Sat 9-21, 7PM Central) in a crucial battle that could throw Nashville right back in the mix for the Eastern Conference title, but just as easily could put Pittsburgh in prime position to kick the Boys in Gold outside the top four. Later that evening, Fresno will look to solidify 2nd place in the West in a tough test at home against Phoenix Rising (Sat 9-21, 9:30PM Central). That’s probably the last chance anyone has of stopping Phoenix’s winning streak before they take all that momentum into the playoffs, so that’s another important factor at play. Both these matches will be live streamed on ESPN+.
In USL League One, desperation is setting in. While the players of North Texas SC celebrate their regular season title and Lansing Ignite can officially breathe a sigh of relief, a few teams are watching their playoff hopes die in front of their very eyes. While Orlando City B is still the only club who are officially out of the running, Toronto FC II and Richmond Kickers can more or less be considered out as well. FC Tuscon are still in the running, five points back with a game in hand on fourth place, but it feels like they need a modern miracle to jump from seventh to fourth place over the course of four matches.
Forward Madison look a lot more secure in fourth than they did last week, as Chattanooga Red Wolves and South Georgia Tormenta have repeatedly blown chances to challenge for the final playoff spot. Neither club has won a single game in their last five, and they’re both in a tough position now as a result. All three clubs are down to just three matches left to play, and because of this, both Tormenta and Red Wolves know that any dropped points will be lethal.
With that said, a big League One match to keep an eye on this week is Chattanooga Red Wolves’ golden opportunity to put pressure on Madison against bottom feeders Orlando City B (Sat 9-21, 6PM Central). Keep in mind that Madison face league-leading North Texas the next day.
That’s what up this week in the USL Championship and USL League One! Exciting times in both leagues as the playoffs loom and more and more dreams are either realized or dashed to pieces. Let me know in the comment section or on SmallWorld Social how you feel the rest of the season in each league will play out, and don’t forget to show your club some love!
As always, watch local soccer, unify those around you, and seek out diversity!