USL Preview: Western upstarts clash for conference title

Whatever happens in the Western Conference title, a surprise team will be its representative in the USL championship game. The first round took out first-place Sacramento Republic FC and 2015 USL finalist LA Galaxy II, and after the semis left standing are Sporting Kansas City;s second team, Swope Park Rangers, and its counterpart from Vancouver Whitecaps.

USL Western Conference final
Saturday
No. 4 Swope Park Rangers vs. No. 6 Whitecaps FC 2, 8:30 pm. ET
 
As Swope Park is only team of the top four Western seeds to survive the first round and with home-field advantage for this game, logic would point to Sporting Kansas City's second team as the favorite.

However, VWFC2 won both regular-season meetings, and posted one of those first-round upsets to advance to the conference semis, in which it scored in the 89th minute to beat OKC Energy FC, 3-2, last weekend.

So as the playoffs in this conference have been from the get-go, this final looks wide open. Top seed Sacramento Republic lost to no. 8 Orange County Blues FC, which took Swope Park into extra time last weekend but failed to win despite playing against nine men. Dane Kelly’s goal in the 105th minute rescued Rangers after red cards were issued to Ever Alvarado and Tommy Meyer.

Alvarado received the typical one-game suspension and is eligible for the USL Cup final if Rangers gets there, but the league smote Meyer with a six-gamer for making contact with a match official.

Swope Park forward Mark Anthony Gonzalez led the team with a dozen goals during the regular season and hasn’t slowed down in the playoffs. He scored his third postseason goal against the Blues as Rangers once again delayed the departure of head coach Marc Dos Santos, who is destined to coach the expansion San Francisco Deltas (NASL) when his USL duties are done.

The victory also extended the sensational run of Rangers keeper Adrian Zendejas, who since joining the team in June is a perfect 7-0-0, with a microscopic 0.41 goals-allowed average.

Whitecaps FC2 has ignored its playoff inexperience -- this is its first appearance -- and relatively low seed to reach this stage. Klanz Froese and Kyle Greig each have two goals in the playoffs and the fifth that downed OKC Energy came from Daniel Haber, who bagged his eighth (including playoffs). Greig leads the team with 13.

Canadian U-20 Marco Bustos, who scored two of his seven regular-season goals in VWFC2’s 3-2 defeat of Swope Park at Thunderbird Stadium June 12, missed the OKC game to represent his country. His status for the conference final is uncertain though the team expects him to return in time.

Vancouver also won the game at Swope Park, 2-1, played in late April, and in the interim both teams have evolved considerably

“We can watch those games, the two previous ones, and take certain things from them,” said goalkeeper Spencer Richey, taken by Vancouver with the 61st pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft. “We can take confidence that we got the two results, but also the same way, if a team scouted a game from us over the summer, we're a totally different team now to what we were then. It's a long year. Teams go up and down in form and we're a classic case of that, and so are they.”
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