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USL Round Table – Sept 21-27

Welcome back to another edition of USL Round Table! We’re inching ever closer to the playoffs in both USL Championship and USL League One, so the climax of each league’s playoff push has arrived. Let’s start off in the Western Conference of the USL Championship.

Phoenix Rising already won. By a lot. They literally could not rise any higher than the position they’re already at. So at this point, nobody cares about them unless they’re a Phoenix fan. Until the playoffs begin, and then nothing about the regular season is significant.

Anyway, until then, we’re going to ignore them. Fresno FC and Reno 1868 are in, and almost certainly in that order, occupying the second and third spots in the West. Orange County SC, riding an impressive hot streak of six straight wins, are now in fourth, albeit a precarious position. They have 45 from 29 matches, and Sacramento Republic are just one point behind them with 44 after the same amount of matches played. Behind those two, Real Monarchs are in sixth with 43 points from 29 games, and Austin Bold’s fall from fourth place not too long ago sees them into seventh, taking 43 points from 30 matches.

None of the aforementioned clubs are safe, per se, but they’re in much better shape than the three other clubs ahead of the playoff line. Those three, in order, are New Mexico United (40 points, 29 matches), LA Galaxy II (40 points, 29 matches), and El Paso Locomotive (39 points, 28 matches). Right behind them are three clubs with 38 points apiece. The best-positioned of the three to move into the top ten are Portland Timbers 2, having played only 29 matches. They sit in 12th, while 11th-placed San Antonio FC and 13th-placed OKC Energy have played 30. Behind OKC, the chances of playoff dreams coming true are slim, but Las Vegas Lights are holding onto hope with 35 points from 30 matches.

In the East, things just continue to become more chaotic and unpredictable as time passes. We’ll get to the fight for first place later, but for now, Ottawa Fury have continued to put themselves in a good position to qualify for the playoffs. They’re in eighth with 45 points, while Saint Louis FC have 41 and Birmingham Legion are clinging to playoff life in tenth with 39 points. They’re even on points with Charleston Battery, who sit in 11th, but Legion do have a game in hand. Outside of 11th, Memphis 901 FC, Bethlehem Steel, and ATL UTD 2 are effectively out of the running at this point.

Anyway, to the top of the Eastern table. Since New York Red Bulls II’s loss to Saint Louis FC last week, they’ve proceeded to throw away two more perfectly good chances to distance themselves from the pack of clubs hungry for a first-round bye and the Eastern Conference title. They gave up five goals in a loss to Louisville City last weekend and split the points with Charleston Battery when they gave up a goal at the death in a home match.

They’re still on top of the league, though, at least for now. Because their main threat for the past couple of weeks, Indy Eleven, has also failed to capitalize on excellent opportunities to break away. They followed up their loss to Birmingham Legion last Friday with a second straight loss, this time against a clearly-subpar Atlanta United 2 side that had no business beating them. To be fair, they’ve played a brutally high number of matches in the past few weeks, but they still need to do better if they want the title. It’s still in reach, as they trail NYRB II by just a point with two games in hand. But there are challengers coming from behind.

Tampa Bay Rowdies, Nashville SC, and Pittsburgh Riverhounds occupy third through fifth places and have all already qualified for the playoffs, but that’s not enough for any of the three of them. They’re gunning for a top two spot, and after the results this week brought along, they’re right in the mix. Tampa Bay Rowdies 56 points alongside Indy Eleven, which puts each of them just a singular point behind Red Bulls II. Indy have played 29 matches, while the Rowdies have played 30. Meanwhile, NYRB II have played 31, so they could very well find themselves dropping from league leaders to third place at a moment’s notice.

But their fall might not end there, as Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Nashville SC are still around, too. They ground out a 0-0 draw on Saturday in Nashville, despite Pittsburgh being down a man for a large portion of the match. That result plus a Riverhounds win over Memphis 901 FC on Tuesday puts the two sides level on 55 points, with Pittsburgh holding a game in hand over the Boys in Gold (29 games to Nashville’s 30).

So Pittsburgh are only a point back from Indy Eleven, those two being the clubs with games in hand on the rest of the top five. Nashville are just one point shy of Tampa Bay, those two being the clubs with 30 matches played. And NYRB II are a point ahead of Indy/Tampa and two ahead of Nashville/Pittsburgh, but have played 31. What a crazy, confusing, complicated, and ultimately, beautiful finish this will be.

On that note, plenty to keep an eye on this week in the Championship. Tampa Bay travel to a tough Louisville City side that are looking to officially secure their place in the playoffs. The Rowdies will have to treat that match as a must-win, though, because the competition for a top four spot is fierce. That match takes place at 6 PM Central on Saturday, September 28. On that same date and time, Pittsburgh Riverhounds host Indy Eleven as the two clubs with games in hand in the East’s top five do battle. It’s nearly impossible to understate how crucial three points would be for both sides, and the other three clubs within that top five will be praying for a draw. Both those matches will be live streamed on ESPN+.

In USL League One, it’s down to Forward Madison versus Chattanooga Red Wolves for the fourth and final playoff position.

North Texas SC clinched the regular season title a while back, with Lansing Ignite and Greenville Triumph clinching playoff spots more recently. Forward Madison have been on the right side of the line for some time, but haven’t been able to put the Red Wolves away. Their draw on Friday with now-eliminated FC Tuscon didn’t help matters, but they did get a crucial victory over North Texas. Chattanooga, meanwhile, seem to have found their form, bagging a 2-1 victory over Orlando City B to stay in the playoff mix.

Right now, the Red Wolves are four points adrift of Madison, but have a game in hand. That game comes in the form of a home meeting with Richmond Kickers on Saturday; if they win, they’ll put themselves within a point of the playoffs, leaving everything to play for on the final day. A loss or a draw on Saturday, due to tiebreaker rules, would eliminate them from the playoffs. So it’s all-or-nothing, Round 1 for the Red Wolves, and we’ll wait and see if there’s last-minute drama next week.

The aforementioned Chattanooga-Richmond game is certainly the highlight of this week’s USL League One offerings, and it’ll kick off at, you guessed it, 6 PM Central on Saturday the 28th. Decisions, decisions on which match to watch… lots of good ones to choose from!

Of course, if one of these clubs in the Championship or League One is local to you, go support them in person! Otherwise, happy streaming on ESPN+, and good luck deciding which one to watch! See you on the other side of the excitement next Friday.

Watch local soccer (especially right now!), unify those around you, and seek out diversity!

Blessings,

Danny

By danny kotula

danny kotula is an aspiring sports writer and play-by-play commentator. unfortunately, he is not good at either one. his interests include watching soccer and listening to obscure music genres, and those aren’t even his most boring ones. he was born in Tacoma, Washington but has called South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, California, Georgia, and Costa Rica home over the course of his life. he generally knows where to put a comma, which is by far his most redeeming quality. he is writing this in third person as if he were famous enough for someone to write him a biography, but don’t be fooled. he’s not famous.

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