USL Playoff Preview: Expectations Grow on League Favorites

2015 Season: LA Galaxy 2 v Sacramento Republic at StubHub Center Track & Field Stadium on March 29, 2015 in Carson, CA. Photo by Asano/LA Galaxy.

by ANTHONY J. MERCED

The USL playoffs roll on as we approach the Conference Finals with the pressure building on marquee teams Rochester and LA.

While all four teams can claim to be experiencing successful seasons, these two teams in particular have much higher expectations that will weigh heavily heading into their big confrontations. Both teams are the favorites in their conferences but may find themselves heading towards a far more difficult fixture than they anticipate.

Overall, the Rochester Rhinos have made winning look easy in 2015. It’s been written about time after time again this year, but Rochester has experienced only one loss in league competition all season long, making them one of the most dominant teams the league has ever seen. Despite the pressure that has seemingly been placed on their shoulders, they have responded brilliantly, continuing their strong defensive performance and dominating New York Red Bull II in last week’s Conference semi-final.

In the Western Conference, the LA Galaxy II have quickly become one of the top USL teams in the country — and the last remaining reserve team in the postseason. A growing rivalry with Sacramento Republic FC and a second consecutive deep playoff runs have made them one of the more newsworthy teams to follow. With that attention comes the pressure to perform. Players like Ariel Lassiter and Jack McBean are just a few that the MLS mother ship hope could become the future of the franchise. However, much like the Galaxy MLS team, development must come with on the field results, giving them a bit more pressure than their upstart opponents.

Louisville City vs. Rochester — or Does Great Offense Beat Unstoppable Defense

The Eastern Conference final pits the best offense in the league vs. the best defense in the league. USL record goal scorer Matt Fondy will certainly be put to the test against a Rochester defense he has yet to score against. So far this season, Louisville has not enjoyed much success at Sahlen’s Stadium, losing two games without scoring a goal. However, playoff soccer tends to provide more than a few plot twists. Louisville City showed against Charleston that they will not be intimidated in a winner-take-all setting against a well established team. They will need that confidence — and Matt Fondy — to pull apart the Rhino’s defense to advance to the Final.

Bob Liley’s strategy with Rochester will be unwavering. The team will look to suffocate the midfield and not allow much space for Louisville’s more dynamic players to make plays in or near the box. Playing a classic 4-4-2 will also allow for Rochester’s offense to potentially catch Louisville on the counter. Christian Volesky, who has flown under the radar this season, is a player that could burn Louisville if they are not defensively aware of him. Focus, a quality that Rochester has used to dominate the league in 2015, will need to be on point to continue their stellar performance and advance to the Final.

OKC Hopes to Pop LA’s Bubble

Understandably, the LA Galaxy organization certainly sees themselves as one of the top in American soccer. That feeling filters down to the USL team that has some of the most dynamic players in the lower leagues. However, Oklahoma City Energy FC finished season, tied for the best record in the Western Conference while LA finished fifth, having to play an extra game. OKC also went undefeated against LA in two meetings this season. While certainly not flashy, OKC has been able to neutralize players like Lassiter and McBean while enabling their own offense. Head coach Jimmy Nielson’s first season as a head coach has seen him help establish a team that is not only ultra-competitive but also grounded in strong, disciplined defense.

For LA, this is their second trip to the Western Conference Final. Last year, the team failed to advance, losing to eventual champions Sacramento Republic FC. The setting is somewhat similar this season as LA will once again face a first year team looking to add a championship in another fairy tale campaign.

Head coach Curt Onalfo will want to change history this year and send his team to the USL Final. To do so, he will need the good results to continue. Leading into the playoffs, LA was woefully inconsistent trading wins and losses through the final month of the season. Whether or not they can get the proper response from the team’s top players will be the key to LA’s success and whether or not they can get over the hump to play for their first championship.

USL Conference Final Schedule:

Louisville City FC vs. Rochester Rhinos 10/10 at 7:05PM
LA Galaxy II vs. Oklahoma City Energy FC 10/11 at 7PM