USL Playoffs: Conference semifinals are wide open

After a first round that produced more than a fair share of surprises, eight USL survivors move into the conference semifinals.

Four lower-seeded teams prevailed, including No. 6 Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2, No. 7 OKC Energy, and No. 8 Orange County Blues FC in the Western Conference. Crashing out was regular-season conference champ Sacramento Republic FC, runner-up Rio Grande Valley FC, and third place Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. Also eliminated was 2015 championship-game finalist Los Angeles Galaxy II, which labored to a fifth-place finish and was blanked by Swope Park Rangers, 3-0.

The Eastern bracket started more formfully, though a league-record crowd of 30,187 at Nippert Stadium witnessed a stunning triumph by the lesser regarded yet more experienced Charleston Battery in the playoff debut of FC Cincinnati.

The winners advance to the conference finals next weekend, with the winners of those games set to square off Oct. 23 (at a venue to be decided) in the championship game.

As of Thursday night, no changes to the USL playoff schedule had been caused by the landfall of Hurricane Matthew into Haiti, Cuba and eastern Florida.
USL Conference Semifinals
Eastern Conference
No. 1 NY Red Bulls II vs. No. 4 Rochester, 7 p.m. ET.
The regular-season champions took care of business in their playoff opener by beating Orlando City B, 4-0. Aaron Long tallied twice as NYRB II dominated to the tune of 20-6 in shots. The Rhinos weren’t greatly troubled, either; goals by Wal Fall and Steven Fortes dos Santos in the first 23 minutes set them on their way to a 3-1 victory.

In three regular-season meetings neither team could prevail. They played a pair of 0-0 ties at Red Bull Arena in the first half of the season, and a month ago battled to 1-1 finish in Rochester. One-half of NYRB II’s six ties came against Rochester and on only one other occasion (May 1 at Charlotte) did it fail to score a goal. Thus the Rhinos have a real chance to keep the run of upsets going. And they are the defending USL champions.

If Red Bulls II has a bogey team, Rochester is it. In addition to the three deadlocks this season, in the 2015 conference semis the Rhinos eliminated RB II, 2-0, at Rhinos Stadium. One more parallel: both teams are in good form. The Rhinos haven't lost in their last 10 games, RBII is undefeated in its last 11. Yet the only game it hasn't won in that span is the 1-1 tie  at Rochester.
No. 2 Louisville City vs. No. 6 Charleston, 7:30 pm.
The other Eastern semi is also a 2015 playoff rematch; Louisville City won the 2015 semifinal, 2-0, in extra time. LCFC also needed extra time last week in its quarterfinal to beat Richmond Kickers, 2-0, with goals by George Davis II and Chandler Hoffman. The Battery steeled its nerves in a raucous setting against FC Cincinnati and snagged a dramatic victory on a late own goal.

LCFC's quarterfinal win extended its undefeated streak to six games and ended a 10-game scoring drought for Hoffman, whose 14 goals topped the squad during the regular season.

In their head-to-head games this year, Louisville came out on top with a 2-0 win at Charleston in late May -- Kyle Smith notched a goal and an assist -- and a 1-1 tie played at Slugger Field on July 9. Charleston will be missing defender Quinton Griffith for the semifinal; he's playing for Antigua & Barbuda in the Caribbean Cup qualifiers.

Charleston head coach Mike Anhaeuser says his team won’t drop deep this time around.

“You can’t sit back on Louisville because they’re too good with the way they pass the ball through the middle with [Aodhan] Quinn and then get the ball to their outside backs, and of course with Hoffman in the middle it’s the same way it was last year,” said Anhaeuser. “They’re crossing the balls in, and if you don’t get pressure on those crosses, they’ve got guys coming in that seem to be putting it in.”
Western Conference
No. 6 Whitecaps FC2 vs. No. 7 OKC Energy, 3 p.m.
Both of these underdogs can take pride in their quarterfinal victories, both of which required comebacks. WFC2 knocked off a more experienced Colorado Springs team, 2-1, and OKC Energy scored twice in stoppage time to stun a Rio Grande Valley FC team, 3-2, that had amassed a plus 23 goal difference during the regular season.

WFC2 started three teenagers last week and 15-year-old sensation Alphonso Davies is available, as are Brett Levis and Cole Seiler. Making his comeback from injury last week was Will Seymore, who appeared in 25 of their first 27 matches. Not available is Marco Bustos, scorer of both goals in a 2-1 Whitecaps defeat of OKC in the regular season finale two weeks ago. Bustos is one of four Whitecaps summoned by Canada for friendlies during the FIFA international window.

Coached by former Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, OKC hung tough at Toros Stadium until on-loan striker (from FC Dallas) Colin Bonner came off the bench. Shortly after his entry in the 68th minute, Eric Bird scored to restore the Toros’ one-goal lead but Bonner banged in two goals after the 90th minute.

OKC goalkeeper Cody Laurendi has declined his first national team call-up by Puerto Rico to play in the semifinal. He posted 12 shutouts and a 0.92 goals-allowed average during the regular season.
No. 4 Swope Park Rangers vs. No. 8 Orange County, 4 p.m.
Swope Park extended the tenure of head coach Marc dos Santos for at least one more week by beating Galaxy II, 3-0, after more than an hour of goalless play. Kris Tyrpak’s goal in the 76th minute and two added-time goals by substitute Mark Gonzalez assured Dos Santos of at least one more game before he takes up as head coach of NASL expansion team San Francisco Deltas.

The Blues’ only match with Rangers this season produced a 3-0 away defeat in late July but they are riding the momentum of two huge victories. A 4-0 thumping of Colorado Springs in the last regular-season match ended a five-game losing streak and edged them into the playoffs on the third tiebreaker, goals scored; and a shootout dismissal of Sacramento earned by a Josh Cohen save and five kicks without a miss.

Defeating Sacramento also ended a run of playoff failures. All previous postseason appearances had ended in losses: Harrisburg City Islanders in 2011, Charleston Battery in 2015, and LA Galaxy II last year.
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