USL 2016 Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by ANTHONY J. MERCED

The 2016 USL regular season is complete and we now look to October as 16 teams will compete in a single elimination tournament to decide the 2016 USL Champion.

Eight teams from the Eastern and Western Conference will play against each other leading to the winners of each Conference playing in the Championship game.

The Eastern Conference has been one dominated entirely by New York Red Bull II. It has been a historic season, setting benchmarks in wins, points and goals. It also solidified the notion that despite being developmental teams, MLS2 sides are here to compete. Other notable qualifiers are FC Cincinnati who impressed in their first full season and Orlando City B who eked in on the last day.

EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINAL:

New York Red Bull II (1) vs. Orlando City B (8):

Front runners New York Red Bull II will host Orlando City B at Red Bull Arena in one of the more lopsided fixtures of the first round. Orlando City B did get back on their winning ways after four straight losses this past weekend but they have a mighty steep hill to climb against New York. Orlando did manage a tie against Red Bull II back in June but their return meeting in August at Red Bull Arena was a 5-1 drubbing.

New York comes in with superior offense and defense but may have a weakness in the backline. Aaron Long, who played a majority of the season with the II team, was called up to assist with injury woes on the first team. This leaves some holes should Tim Schmoll or Zach Carroll show signs of wear. Still, expect John Wolyniec’s side to be the favorites and push through at home on Sunday.

Louisville City FC (2) vs. Richmond Kickers (7):

Louisville City’s second year has been just as successful as their first. Despite losing Matt Fondy to the NASL, Chandler Hoffman came in to be a strong replacement and the team’s defense also improved significantly from 2015. Against Richmond in 2016 Louisville didn’t allow a goal in two games and won their most recent meeting 2-0.

Richmond had a bit more of a turbulent ride to the USL playoffs but could still be a dark horse in the tournament. The Kickers were just as stingy as Louisville this season surrendering, one less goal. However, they have not been a major offensive threat. They’ll need to keep Louisville off the scoreboard and hope for a counter opportunity to force an upset at Louisville Slugger Field.

FC Cincinnati (3) vs. Charleston Battery (6)

FC Cincinnati were record breakers of their own in 2016, setting the all-time attendance record for a lower division team. To reward that dedication, John Harkes’ side finished third and now face stiff competition against USL veterans Charleston Battery. Cincinnati rode a five game unbeaten streak into the end of the season. They’ve surrendered only one goal over that time frame and look confident entering the playoffs.

Charleston is in a bit of a slump. They’ve lost three of their last five games and haven’t had a shutout in nearly a month. The Battery will hope to put the month of September behind them and remember that they did not lose to FC Cincinnati in 2016. Can the Battery pull off an upset at Nippert Stadium? Either way, it will surely be one of the most attended games of the first round.

Rochester Rhinos (4) vs. Charlotte Independence (5)

Rochester had a down year by comparison to their dominant 2015 campaign but they are still a big threat to come out of the Eastern Conference. They will host the dangerous Charlotte Independence who have not fared well against the Rhinos in regular season play with two games played and only one point taken by Charlotte with no goals scored.

Bob Liley’s side is always a nightmare for opposing offenses and the team’s nine game unbeaten run will only add to their aura. Expect a compact and disciplined performance by the Rhinos who are looking to defend their 2015 USL Championship.