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USL’s Week Ahead – Playoff Race Nears Climax with Key Games in East, West

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 10/02/18, 5:01PM EDT

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Seven places remain up for grabs in 2018 USL Cup Playoffs with two weeks to go in regular season


Fifth-place Indy Eleven and sixth-place Bethlehem Steel FC square off in one of the big games in the Eastern Conference playoff race this Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven

TAMPA, Fla. – With two weeks to go in the 2018 USL regular season and the first piece of silverware of the season claimed by FC Cincinnati, the spotlight returns to the playoff races in both the Eastern and Western Conference that both see crucial contests arrive in the coming seven days. The Western Conference features prominently on Wednesday night as third-place Sacramento Republic FC takes on the seventh-place Swope Park Rangers at Papa Murphy’s Park with the Rangers looking for a win to clinch their third successive trip to the postseason. Also on Wednesday night, the fifth-place Portland Timbers 2 and sixth-place Reno 1868 FC square off at Portland’s Merlo Field with a chance at a top-four finish available for the side that emerges victorious. The weekend’s action turns attention to the Eastern Conference, where fifth-place Indy Eleven can clinch its place in the postseason with victory against sixth-place Bethlehem Steel FC and eighth-place North Carolina FC plays host to the 10th-place New York Red Bulls II in a playoff six-pointer. Elsewhere on Saturday night, a top-three clash sees third-place Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC look to end first-place FC Cincinnati’s 21-game undefeated streak as FCC tries to surpass the Richmond Kickers’ USL modern-era record of 22 consecutive games without defeat in its final two games of the regular season.

All 561 regular-season games, the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs and the 2018 USL Cup can be accessed via USLSoccer.com’s Match Center.

USL RACE FOR THE PLAYOFFS

Seven places are up for grabs in the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs with two weeks remaining in the regular season. Get an inside look at where each team stands, who is in line for homefield advantage and a high seeding in the playoff field with projections from fivethirtyeight.com and find out which teams fans think will be left standing at the end in our interactive poll

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Photo courtesy Mike Manganello / Tampa Bay Rowdies

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2018 USL Regular Season champion FC Cincinnati takes on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in the third and final meeting between the Eastern Conference contenders this regular season on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium. | Photo courtesy Erik Schelkun / FC Cinci

Wednesday, Oct. 3
Penn FC vs. Charlotte Independence

FNB Field, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania | 6:30 p.m. ET
The Charlotte Independence (9-11-11, 38pts) will look to keep their USL Cup Playoffs hopes alive as they visit Penn FC (9-14-8, 35pts), with the hosts on the brink of mathematical elimination. The Independence are undefeated in their last five games but have been unable to gain ground on the rest of the pack in Eastern Conference playoff contention due to three consecutive draws that included a 2-2 result against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. Penn has suffered four consecutive defeats after its loss to Riverhounds SC, which pushed it to the brink of elimination after a disappointing run of home form.

ATL UTD 2 vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies
Coolray Field, Gwinnett, Georgia | 7 p.m. ET
The Tampa Bay Rowdies (11-13-7, 40pts) open a two-game week by visiting ATL UTD 2 (5-17-8, 23pts) with Tampa Bay likely needing to take victory in both contests to keep its chances at a place in the USL Cup Playoffs moving forward. The Rowdies had a three-game winning streak snapped last Wednesday night in a 2-0 loss to Indy Eleven that put the side four points out of the playoff positions with three games to play. A matching victory to the 1-0 result at Al Lang Stadium against Atlanta that began ATL UTD 2’s current four-game losing streak on Sept. 15 would be an ideal result for the visitors to take back to the Sunshine State.

Real Monarchs SLC vs. OKC Energy FC
Zions Bank Stadium, Herriman, Utah | 9 p.m. ET
Real Monarchs SLC (17-12-3, 54pts) will try to snap a seven-game winless streak when it plays host to OKC Energy FC (12-14-6, 42pts), which while eliminated from playoff contention is on a three-game undefeated streak as it enters the midweek contest. Energy FC got a club-record 11 saves from goalkeeper Cody Laurendi in a 1-0 victory against Las Vegas Lights FC on Saturday night, a mark that placed Laurendi tied for the second-most saves in a game this regular season. The Monarchs slid to fourth place in the Western Conference as they fell 2-0 to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC for the side’s third consecutive defeat. With both the Portland Timbers 2 and Reno 1868 FC only two points behind Real going into the week’s action, victory is imperative for the hosts as they look to claim a home game in the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs.

Portland Timbers 2 vs. Reno 1868 FC
Merlo Field, Portland, Oregon | 10 p.m. ET
The fifth-place Portland Timbers 2 (16-12-4, 52pts) play host to sixth-place Reno 1868 FC (14-7-10, 52pts) with both teams in with a chance to make the move to fourth place ahead of Real Monarchs SLC. Reno is looking to pick up at least one point to clinch its place in the postseason after taking 10 points from 12 in its four-game homestand that concluded with a 2-0 victory against Tulsa Roughnecks FC this past Saturday night, and with three games remaining would be guaranteed of fourth place should it win out. Portland is coming off a 1-0 defeat to third-place Sacramento Republic FC this past Saturday, but would jump past the Monarchs should it take victory and Real fail to defeat OKC Energy FC earlier in the evening.

Seattle Sounders FC 2 vs. LA Galaxy II
Cheney Stadium, Tacoma, Washington | 10 p.m. ET
The LA Galaxy II (10-15-6, 36pts) will try to build on an impressive victory last time out as it visits Seattle Sounders FC 2 (5-20-5, 20pts) with both sides looking to end their regular seasons on positive notes. Los Dos took a 6-1 win against Real Monarchs SLC as Efrain Alvarez recorded his second hat trick of the season to lead the side to victory. The Galaxy II are one of two teams this season alongside FC Cincinnati to have three players with at least 10 goals in Alvarez, Ethan Zubak and Frank Lopez having reached double figures. Seattle is looking to break a four-game losing streak that continued this past Saturday with a 3-1 loss to San Antonio FC, and with four game to go in the regular season will have a busy final two weeks of the campaign.

Sacramento Republic FC vs. Swope Park Rangers
Papa Murphy’s Park, Sacramento, California | 10:30 p.m. ET
Sacramento Republic FC (16-7-8, 56pts) can clinch a home game to open the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs when it takes on the Swope Park Rangers (14-10-8, 50pts), who can book their third trip to the postseason with a win on the road. Republic FC took the first meeting between the teams earlier this season and more recently has won four of its last five games after a 1-0 win against the Portland Timbers 2 on Saturday night that moved the side into third place. The Rangers had a bye week after playing to a 1-1 draw with Tulsa Roughnecks FC on Sept. 22, but the two-time defending Western Conference champion is three points from clinching its place in this year’s postseason as victory in Sacramento would move the side clear of ninth-place San Antonio FC.

Friday, Oct. 5
Toronto FC II vs. Louisville City FC

Lamport Stadium, Toronto, Ontario | 8 p.m. ET
Louisville City FC (16-6-9, 57pts) will try to remain on course for second place and potentially be out for a little revenge when it visits Toronto FC II (4-23-4, 16pts). Toronto claimed a 4-1 victory when it visited Louisville’s Slugger Field last month in one of the recent strong performances put in by the Reds, who are coming off a 2-1 victory against the Charleston Battery at MUSC Health Stadium this past Saturday thanks to goals by Ayo Akinola and Jordan Hamilton. Louisville will want to avoid a repeat of the previous meeting as it holds second place on the total wins tiebreaker from third-place Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, but should Louisville close the season with three consecutive victories it would be assured of a fourth consecutive top-two finish in the Eastern Conference.

Fresno FC vs. Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Chukchansi Park, Fresno, Calif. | 8 p.m. ET
Fresno FC (8-12-12, 36pts) and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC (11-16-5, 38pts) meet with pride on the line for the two side already eliminated from playoff contention in the Western Conference. The Switchbacks picked up a morale-boosting victory in their last outing as a six-save shutout by Moise Pouaty and goals by AJ Ajeakwa and Marty Maybin earned a 2-0 win against Rocky Mountain rival Real Monarchs SLC, which should provide some confidence going to face a Fresno side that suffered a 2-1 defeat to Rio Grande Valley FC last Saturday night. The Foxes are winless in their last six outings following that result and will try to produce a late-season turnaround as they host their final two games of the club’s inaugural season over the next two weekends.

Saturday, Oct. 6
Indy Eleven vs. Bethlehem Steel FC

Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Indiana | 7 p.m. ET
Fifth-place Indy Eleven (13-10-9, 48pts) can clinch its place in the postseason with victory against sixth-place Bethlehem Steel FC (13-12-7, 46pts), but would be overtake by its visitors should Steel FC come out on top in the third and final meeting between the clubs this season. Steel FC took a 2-1 victory in its last visit to Lucas Oil Stadium on May 19 and a repeat performance would go a long way toward securing a second consecutive trip to the postseason as it would move into fifth place with one game remaining. Bethlehem is coming off a 0-0 draw against Ottawa Fury FC last Sunday in it most recent outing, while Indy suffered a 3-0 defeat to FC Cincinnati that was closer than the scoreline might indicate, but back on home turf the Eleven will be looking to lock up a trip to the USL Cup Playoffs at the first attempt.

North Carolina FC vs. New York Red Bulls II
Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary, North Carolina | 7 p.m. ET
Eighth-place North Carolina FC (12-11-8, 44pts) and the 10th-place New York Red Bulls II (10-8-13, 43pts) meet for a playoff six-pointer with each side sitting with three games to go in its regular season. North Carolina jumped past the Red Bulls II this past Saturday in a 3-2 victory against the Richmond Kickers that saw Kyle Bekker record two goals and one assist to lead his side to victory. The Red Bulls II, meanwhile, claimed a third consecutive draw as they held ninth-place Nashville SC to a 1-1 result at First Tennessee Park, but the side is still looking for its first road win of the season. After the sides played to a dramatic 2-2 draw when they first met this season, there could be plenty of fireworks again in the return fixture with playoff chances on the line.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC vs. FC Cincinnati
Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania | 7 p.m. ET
2018 USL Regular Season champion FC Cincinnati (23-3-6, 75pts) will continue its pursuit of the longest undefeated streak in the USL’s modern era but could get a serious test from third-place Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (15-4-12, 57pts) in the third meeting between the sides this regular season. Cincinnati rallied in the final 10 minutes of their most recent meeting on Sept. 1 as goals by Dekel Keinan and Fanendo Adi found victory at Nippert Stadium, but since then the Hounds have gone on a five-game undefeated run to book a first home playoff game at Highmark Stadium in the club’s history. Cincinnati’s undefeated streak reached 21 games on Saturday night after a 3-0 win against Indy Eleven that set a new league-best with 10 consecutive victories and would surpass the Richmond Kickers’ record set in 2013 of 22 games undefeated should it avoid defeat in its final two games of the regular season.

Richmond Kickers vs. Nashville SC
City Stadium, Richmond, Virginia | 7 p.m. ET
Nashville SC (11-9-11, 44pts) will try to move into the top eight in the Eastern Conference when it visits the Richmond Kickers (6-22-4, 22pts) for their home finale. Nashville enters the week in ninth place with three games to go after playing to a 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls II last Saturday, but would be guaranteed a place in the top eight should it repeat the 4-0 victory it took against Richmond when the teams last met on August 28, which would sent Nashville past seventh-place Ottawa Fury FC – which is on a bye – in the standings. Richmond will look to put in a big final performance before its home fans to close the season having suffered a 3-2 defeat to another playoff contender, North Carolina FC, this past Saturday in a game it twice took the lead in.

Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Charlotte Independence
Al Lang Stadium, St. Petersburg, Florida | 7:30 p.m. ET
The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Charlotte Independence return to action for the second time in Week 30 both hoping their playoff hopes remain alive after their midweek outings, with Tampa Bay looking to send off Owner Bill Edwards with a victory in its final home game of the season following the club’s purchase by the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday. The Rowdies and Independence played to a 2-2 draw when they met on June 27 but given the situation for both in the playoff race nothing less than three points will do in the penultimate game of the regular season for both.

Tulsa Roughnecks FC vs. Rio Grande Valley FC
ONEOK Field, Tulsa, Oklahoma | 8 p.m. ET
Tulsa Roughnecks FC (3-16-12, 21pts) plays host to Rio Grande Valley FC (7-12-13, 34pts) in its penultimate home game of the season with both sides looking to end their seasons on a positive run. The Toros have certainly made a solid turnaround recently with three wins in their last five games that included a 2-1 victory against Fresno FC this past Saturday as Carlos Small scored a late winner at H-E-B Park. The Roughnecks haven’t been as fortunate and suffered their second loss in their last three games this past Saturday when they fell 2-0 to Reno 1868 FC.

San Antonio FC vs. Las Vegas Lights FC
Toyota Field, San Antonio, Texas | 8:30 p.m. ET
San Antonio FC (13-12-7, 46pts) continues its late bid for a place in the USL Cup Playoffs when it hosts Las Vegas Lights FC (7-17-7, 28pts). San Antonio took a 3-1 victory against Seattle Sounders FC 2 in the first game of a three-game homestand to close the regular season that SAFC may need to sweep to have a chance at a postseason berth. Lance Laing had a goal and assist in that victory while Ethan Bryant became the youngest goalscorer in SAFC history at just 17 years and one month with a brilliant finish in the first half. Las Vegas could provide a trickier opponent, however, with the side unfortunate to fall 1-0 to OKC Energy FC in its last outing this past Saturday as it was held scoreless on home turf by an 11-save shutout by Energy FC goalkeeper Cody Laurendi.

Orange County SC vs. Seattle Sounders FC 2
Champions Soccer Stadium, Irvine, California | 10 p.m. ET
Orange County SC (19-7-6, 63pts) will try to hold onto first place in the Western Conference standings when it hosts Seattle Sounders FC 2, which returns to action for the second time in the week. Orange County has scored five goals in each of its past two outings after a 5-3 win against Las Vegas Lights FC last Wednesday night that saw its big attacking trio of Thomas Enevoldsen, Michael Seaton and Aodhan Quinn all find the back of the net. With two games remaining, Orange County will potentially need to win out and hope Phoenix Rising FC falters in one of its three remaining games to have a chance at top spot in the West.

LA Galaxy II vs. Sacramento Republic FC
StubHub Center, Carson, California | 10:30 p.m. ET
California rivals the LA Galaxy II and Sacramento Republic FC both return for their second games this week when they meet for the final time this regular season with Republic FC potentially having a chance to clinch a home playoff game in the postseason with a win in Southern California. Sacramento could also be out for revenge as it visits Los Dos after the Galaxy II romped to a 4-1 win when the sides last met at Papa Murphy’s Park on August 18 in a game that saw the visitors score all four of their goals in the first half.

Phoenix Rising FC vs. Reno 1868 FC
Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex, Phoenix, Arizona | 10:30 p.m. ET
Second-place Phoenix Rising FC (19-7-5, 62pts) will try to maintain its path to top spot in the Western Conference when it plays host to a Reno 1868 FC side that will head to the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex after its midweek clash against Portland. Rising FC pulled away late in its last outing for a 2-0 win against Saint Louis FC that saw Billy Forbes score an 82nd-minute winner before Chris Cortez became the fifth player in the USL’s modern era to reach 50 regular season goals for his career. Phoenix enters the week one point behind Orange County SC, but has a game in hand it will make up in the final week of the regular season to give it the inside track to a first-place finish should it defeat Reno.

Sunday, Oct. 7
ATL UTD 2 vs. Charleston Battery

Coolray Field, Gwinnett, Georgia | 4 p.m. ET
ATL UTD 2 returns to action for a second time in Week 30 to play host to the Charleston Battery (13-5-14, 53pt), who would clinch homefield advantage in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs with a victory. The Battery took victory in each of its prior two meetings with Atlanta, including a 3-0 win at Coolray Field on April 24 that saw Gordon Wild score twice for the visitors. Charleston is looking to rebound from a 2-1 defeat to Toronto FC II this past Saturday, but is still looking a lock for fourth place with a five-point cushion on fifth-place Indy Eleven as both clubs enter their final two games of the regular season.

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