USL Western Conference Playoff Preview

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by ANTHONY J. MERCED

Let’s be honest: the USL Western Conference was chaos in the 2016 regular season. For that reason alone, fans should expect the unexpected in the playoffs which will pit teams against each other that are far more evenly matched than the standings reveal.

The Sacramento Republic were able to pull off a regular season championship on the last day of the season. Partially it was their own doing with a win over the Tulsa Roughnecks, but they did get help from Colorado Spring who lost to the Orange County Blues. Still, a win is a win and the Republic will raise the Western Conference trophy for the second time in three seasons. They will host all of their playoff games and have a chance to bid on hosting the final should they reach it.

The field is stacked in the West as any prediction will more than likely come with an equally strong counter argument. Orange County Blues could very well make it to the Championship game as easily as Sacramento or Rio Grande.

That makes the West incredibly exciting for playoff soccer.


 

WESTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINAL PREVIEW:

Sacramento Republic FC (1) vs. Orange County Blues FC (8):

Sacramento’s 11-game unbeaten run from late July was a large part of what gave the Republic the top spot in the West. Paul Buckle’s work in shoring up the team’s defense turned them into a side that bled goals late in games to one that became solid and confident. Hosting at Bonney Field will also be a plus as they are one of the best attended teams in the lower divisions.

Orange County Blues are coming in hot but inconsistent. OC does have wins over Colorado Springs and Los Dos in recent weeks but have not pulled out a win over the Republic yet this season. They have been able to keep the score close as all three fixtures were decided by just one goal or less.

Rio Grande Valley FC (2) vs. Oklahoma City Energy FC (7):

The Toros have to be seen as an overachiever in 2016, finishing second in the West after a strong second half of the season. Rio Grande has only suffered two losses since June 18th, propelling them from a midtable side to a true USL contender. Through that time was an incredible change to the team’s defensive shape. An eight game stretch in the middle of the season saw the Toros go without allowing a goal. Their recent two victories returned them to their shutout ways and should be strong defensively in the playoffs.

OKC Energy FC is certainly limping into the playoffs. After a strong start to the season the Energy have lost their energy and not won a game in their last six fixtures. They have also surrendered more than one goal in each of their last five games. Expect the Toros to be favorites given recent form.

Colorado Springs Switchbacks (3) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 (6):

The Switchbacks are an all-or-nothing side this season with a dynamic attacking style that certainly makes them one of the more dangerous sides in the playoffs. They’ve also been quite effective against their opponents Vancouver with a strong 2-0 win just three weeks ago. Despite finishing third, Colorado Springs feels like a top of the Conference side. If not for their loss in the last week of the season, they would have finished second and placed pressure on the Republic’s fight for first.

Vancouver has taken a bit of a stumble since their strong start to 2016. Like many MLS2 sides, the Whitecaps FC 2 have lost players to the first team and seen results suffer. The team only has one win in their last six games and could be one of the easier sides to topple in the tournament. Unless Vancouver can find their undefeated form that kicked off the season, they may be facing an early exit from the competition.

Swope Park Rangers (4) vs. LA Galaxy II (5):

The battle of MLS2 sides rounds out the quarterfinals. Swope Park Rangers, the USL affiliate team of Sporting KC, are one of the hottest teams in the West with six wins on their last seven games. That run took them from outliers to strong contenders in the playoffs. Rangers recently toppled LA Galaxy II who have had their offense stripped and are poised to do the same thing again this weekend.

Los Dos cooled off after a hot start to the season but have rebounded to be a very dangerous side in the postseason. The team did lose leading goal-scorer Jack McBean to a Coventry City loan but have found goals from different areas. LA Galaxy have one of the more developed academies and been able to replenish their side, making them competitive. Los Dos were finalists last season and looking to lock up their first USL Championship.