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If the USL Cup Playoffs Started Today

By JOHN ARLIA - john.arlia@uslsoccer.com, 06/13/19, 9:46PM EDT

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National writer John Arlia creates an alternate universe to predict a postseason champion

Whether it’s March or in our case October, there’s nothing quite like looking at a freshly printed bracket and imagining the possibilities of the postseason drama yet to unfold.

And what’s even better than that feeling is the process of filling out said bracket(s) to test your knowledge of the sport against your friends, co-workers and so-called experts like myself.

At this point, you’re probably (justifiably) wondering why I’m talking about brackets in mid-June with more than half of the 2019 USL Championship campaign still ahead of us.

Well, I’m from New York City and we New Yorkers don’t necessarily have a lot of patience. So, with the Fourth Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup providing the longest break in the Championship calendar between now and October, I decided to take the opportunity to create an alternate universe where the USL Cup Playoffs start today and fill out a bracket four months ahead of schedule.

Let’s have some fun!

Play-in Round

Western Conference

7
Sacramento Republic FC
1
10
Orange County SC
0
We’ve got a tasty all-California clash to kick off the inaugural Play-in Round out West as last year’s top two seeds collide at Papa Murphy’s Park. After reaching the Western Conference Final in 2018, Orange County will be looking to go one step further this time around but runs into a buzzsaw in Sacramento, which boasts a pair of 1-0 victories over OCSC in their two most recent meetings. Sam Werner’s second-half strike secures the same result for Republic FC here as it avenges last year’s opening-round home defeat to the Swope Park Rangers.
8
Reno 1868 FC
2
9
Austin Bold FC
1
Reno knows a thing or two about making the playoffs as an expansion team having done so in 2017, but also knows how important experience is to postseason success after suffering a first-round defeat to OKC Energy FC that season before advancing to the West Semifinals last year. Navigating the playoff waters is the challenge facing Bold FC in this scenario, and even despite the experienced veterans on Marcelo Serrano’s squad I think Austin comes up just short.

Eastern Conference

7
Ottawa Fury FC
5
10
Atlanta United 2
1
ATL UTD 2’s participation in this game is probably the point where you can most question my alternative reality, but Head Coach Stephen Glass’ side has held onto the final spot in the East for longer than any of us thought it would, so why not celebrate a first playoff berth in club history? Unfortunately, much like Saint Louis’ postseason debut in 2018, there won’t be much to celebrate as Mour Samb and Christiano Francois each bag a brace to lead Fury FC to its first playoff win in resounding style.
8
Charleston Battery
0 (4)
9
Saint Louis FC
0 (5)
The Battery’s record of making the postseason every year in the Championship’s history continues in 2019, but unfortunately so does its recent habit of failing to make it out of the first round despite playing at the friendly confines of MUSC Health Stadium. Much like the 0-0 draw on May 11 between the two sides, there aren’t many chances in this one over 120 minutes and Saint Louis keeps its nerve from the penalty spot while Jake Fenlason stops Ian Svantesson’s effort to secure STLFC’s first postseason victory in club history and passage into the main draw.

Conference Quarterfinals

1
New Mexico United
2
8
Reno 1868 FC
1
Just imagine the scene: More than 15,000 fans packed into Isotopes Park, waving flags and cheering as New Mexico takes the field for its first postseason game in club history. That atmosphere should be enough to carry the home side to victory, but factor in United’s high-powered offense going up against an 1868 FC defense on short rest and you have to like New Mexico’s chances. Kevaughn Frater and Santi Moar grab a goal apiece in the first half to power NMU to victory and reverse its 2-1 loss at Greater Nevada Field on April 20.
4
El Paso Locomotive FC
2
5
Fresno FC
1
AET
The teams with two best defensive records in the Western Conference clash for the first time in their history at Southwest University Park. Fresno FC fell 14 points shy of the playoff places in its 2018 inaugural season, but Head Coach Adam Smith’s side has proven much tougher to beat in Year Two. Meanwhile, Locomotive FC heads into the playoffs on a hot streak thanks the goalscoring of former U.S. international Jerome Kiesewetter. With two defensively strong teams making their postseason debuts against each other, it’s no surprise chances are few and far between over the opening 90 minutes and we need extra time to settle the tie. As they say, stars show up in the big moments and Kiesewetter delivers victory for El Paso.
3
Portland Timbers 2
1
6
OKC Energy FC
3
Energy FC returns to the postseason after a one-year absence as a six seed, which proved to be lucky in 2017 when the club reached the Western Conference Final under now-Hartford Athletic Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen. This time the road begins with a trip to Portland and a matchup with T2’s high-powered attack in the first ever home playoff game at Providence Park. A pair of goals from Deshorn Brown helps OKC rekindle some of that 2017 magic and get revenge for its 3-2 regular-season loss at Taft Stadium.
2
Phoenix Rising FC
2
7
Sacramento Republic FC
1
The two teams we all expected to be at the top of the Western Conference standings when the season began get dealt a brutal draw with this quarterfinal clash. Republic FC and Rising FC have played to scoreless draws in each of their past two meetings – both at Papa Murphy’s Park – but I don’t see that happening the way both sides have played in the attacking third of late. Sacramento’s short rest eventually comes back to bite it in the second half as Solomon Asante’s penalty kick is enough for a spot in the next round.
1
Tampa Bay Rowdies
1
9
Saint Louis FC
0
After claiming the regular-season crown, the Rowdies begin their quest for more silverware against a Saint Louis side that earned a 1-1 draw with Tampa Bay at World Wide Technology Soccer Park on March 23. With this clash of top-five defenses shifting to Al Lang Stadium, the Rowdies will be favored in what should be another low-scoring contest. Sebastian Guenzatti, who netted the equalizer from the penalty spot in the two sides’ first meeting of the season, nods home Caleb Richards’ cross late in the second half to send the fans home happy.
4
Indy Eleven
2
5
Louisville City FC
0
Back-to-back defending USL Cup champion Louisville City FC begins its quest for a three-peat against Indy Eleven in a rematch of last year’s meeting – won 4-1 by Louisville – at the same stage. However, this time LouCity doesn’t have the luxury of playing at home after an up-and-down regular season marred by injuries. That proves to be a problem against Indy, which has not lost at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2019 (3-0-3) and has conceded just once on its home turf. Dane Kelly and Tyler Pasher score either side of halftime and Louisville’s reign ends, just as I predicted back in February.
3
Nashville SC
0
6
North Carolina FC
1
AET
Nashville SC, which was my USL Cup pick back in March, returns to the postseason for the second straight season but this time does so as a home favorite with the pressure of its move to Major League Soccer looming in the near future. NSC doesn’t get a lot of help with its draw against North Carolina FC, which has shown its ability to knock off top squads – even away from home – in the regular season. It takes 120 minutes, but Head Coach Dave Sarachan’s squad does it again as Steven Miller’s strike in extra time sends the visitors through.
2
New York Red Bulls II
3
7
Ottawa Fury FC
1
After cruising past ATL UTD 2 in the Play-In Round, Fury FC finds itself in a much tougher situation as it crosses the border to take on the high-flying Red Bulls II on short rest at MSU Soccer Park. Ottawa probably should have topped New York in its lone regular-season meeting, but Jared Stroud’s stoppage-time equalizer earned the visitors to TD Place a point back on May 8. Stroud, who scored the winner in New York’s 1-0 home win over Ottawa last August, continues to assert his dominance over Fury FC and the Red Bulls II advance without too much trouble.

Conference Semifinals

1
New Mexico United
2
4
El Paso Locomotive FC
1
New Mexico and El Paso, separated by just over 250 miles, see their regional rivalry reach new heights as the final remaining 2019 expansion sides battle for supremacy and a spot in the Western Conference Final. Despite the gravity of the game, things are chippy at the start as a carryover from May’s 2-2 draw at Southwest University Park that saw Santi Moar and Yuma sent off for an altercation in the second half. Jerome Kiesewetter, who scored twice in that first meeting, puts the visitors ahead early to stun the home crowd but Kevaughn Frater leads the comeback as New Mexico takes advantage of some tired legs in the second half.
2
Phoenix Rising FC
3
6
OKC Energy FC
0
After springing an upset the previous round in Portland, Energy FC heads to Casino Arizona Field with plenty of confidence for its Semifinal matchup with Phoenix Rising FC. That disappears inside the opening five minutes as Adam Jahn – who spent the end of the 2018 season on loan in OKC – heads home Junior Flemmings’ cross to give the home side the lead. Rising FC, which has scored an outrageous 21 goals in seven home games this season, has little trouble from there as Head Coach Rick Schantz’s squad returns to the Western Conference Final for the second straight season.
1
Tampa Bay Rowdies
1
4
Indy Eleven
0
AET
After shutting out their opponents in the conference quarterfinals, the Rowdies and Eleven meet in a clash of the top two defenses in the Championship. The two sides played out a scoreless draw at Lucas Oil Stadium on May 1 and not much changes here as the venue shifts to Al Lang Stadium, with goalkeepers Evan Newton and John McCarthy stealing the show over the opening 90 minutes. The Rowdies finally open the scoring in the first half of extra time through Leo Fernandes and McCarthy sees a shot ring his crossbar in the second extra session, but Tampa Bay holds on.
2
New York Red Bulls II
1
6
North Carolina FC
2
North Carolina FC travels to MSU Soccer Park for the second time this season, having already secured a 2-1 victory over the Red Bulls II on May 24 despite playing the final half-hour with 10 men. With revenge and a trip to a fourth consecutive Eastern Conference Final on the line, New York falls behind early once again – this time to goals from NCFC forward Donovan Ewolo and midfielder Ben Speas – and can’t find the back of the net until it’s too late despite outshooting the visitors by double-digit attempts.

Conference Finals

1
New Mexico United
2 (4)
2
Phoenix Rising FC
2 (5)
If I thought the New Mexico/El Paso rivalry would reach new heights in their semifinal matchup, just imagine the anticipation and build-up between both fanbases for this Western Conference Final between New Mexico and Phoenix. The previous two meetings between the sides have been must-see TV, with Rising FC rallying three times for a 3-3 draw in Championship play on March 16 and New Mexico edging Phoenix in penalties nearly two months later after playing to a 2-2 draw over 120 minutes of Open Cup action. This game lives up to the billing and sees Jamaicans Junior Flemmings and Kevaughn Frater exchange first-half goals before Solomon Asante and Chris Wehan do the same in the second 45 minutes. After two scoreless extra-time sessions, Phoenix turns the tables in a penalty shootout as Zac Lubin denies Josh Suggs in the fifth round after Kevon Lambert’s goal, which sends Rising FC to its second consecutive USL Cup and ends New Mexico’s historic campaign.
1
Tampa Bay Rowdies
2
6
North Carolina FC
0
North Carolina looks to take its Cinderella run all the way to the USL Cup but in order to do so, it must knock off the Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium for the second time this season. Head Coach Dave Sarachan’s side ended Tampa Bay’s 13-game unbeaten start to the regular season with a 3-1 victory on June 8 and will believe it can get another result this time around. Like they did in that first meeting, the Rowdies carry the majority of the play, but this time make the most of their opportunities as goals from rookie Juan Tejada and Sebastian Guenzatti carry the home side into its first USL Cup.

2019 USL Cup

1
Tampa Bay Rowdies
2
2
Phoenix Rising FC
1
AET

The Rowdies enter their first USL Cup with both home-field advantage and additional rest after Rising FC needed a penalty shootout to advance to its second straight title game. However, Tampa Bay’s young roster doesn’t have the widespread experience on this big stage that Phoenix does after its 1-0 loss to Louisville City FC in 2018. Those early nerves get the best of the Rowdies and a poor defensive clearance allows Adam Jahn to put the visitors ahead just before the half-hour mark. Tampa Bay starts to turn up the pressure in the second half and gets a deserved equalizer through midfielder Andrew Tinari. After the teams trade chances late on the game heads to extra time, where substitute Brandon Allen heads home the game-winning goal to secure his second USL Cup – having previously won with the Red Bulls II in 2016 – and Tampa Bay’s first in front of the adoring home crowd at Al Lang Stadium. Tampa Bay wins via extra time.

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