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USL Eastern Conference First Round Playoff Preview

The field is set, and the chase for this year’s USL Cup begins on Friday! Get ready for the upcoming slate of Eastern Conference First Round fixtures with our Playoff Preview!

MLS: Tampa Bay Rowdies vs Philadelphia Union
Tampa Bay’s Stuart Campbell
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The march towards the Cup begins Friday night. Each match provides a different storyline and level of intrigue for the conference as a whole. Below, we break down both sides of the fixture to see who has the edge to advance to the next round!

#1 Louisville City FC v #8 Bethlehem Steel FC

Season Series

Bethlehem Steel FC 1-3 Louisville City (August 20th)

Louisville City 2-2 Bethlehem Steel FC (September 15th)

#1 Louisville City

Elo Rating/Rank: 1185, 1st

Record: 18-6-8

Goal Difference: +27

Home Record: 11-2-3

Goal Difference at Home: +18

Record Against Playoff Teams: 9-4-5

Shutouts: 12

Player to Watch: George Davis IV

With three goals in his last five matches, George Davis IV has helped solidify Louisville’s spot atop the Eastern Conference, and the USL as a whole in terms of Elo rating. During 2017, of Davis IV’s 19 shots on target, over a third of them have found the back of the net. Look for George Davis IV to be involved in any attack for Louisville.

#8 Bethlehem Steel FC

Elo Rating/Rank: 1101, 7th

Record: 12-12-8

Goal Difference: +1

Road Record: 6-7-3

Goal Difference on the Road: +1

Record Against Playoff Teams: 4-8-3

Shutouts: 6

Player to Watch: Santi Moar

Santi Moar has been one of Bethlehem’s more consistent attackers on the season. Of his 37 shots on the season, 20 of them have been on target, 54% of his total shot output. Moar recorded a brace in Bethlehem’s recent 4-2 win over Toronto FC II, and he will hope this scoring prowess will transfer into the postseason.

Thoughts: With just two losses in their final ten matches of the regular season, Louisville appear to be riding all the momentum into the playoffs. The side has the highest Elo rating in the league, and are the heaviest favorites of the First Round matches in the league. While the September 15th meeting between these two sides was very close —Bethlehem actually lead 2-0 after 60’— I believe this match will be controlled by Louisville from the start.

Elo Prediction: Louisville is projected to advance at 68.3% per Elo Ratings.

Our Prediction: Louisville City 3-1 Bethlehem

#2 Charleston Battery v #7 New York Red Bulls II

Season Series

New York Red Bulls II 2-1 Charleston Battery (May 28th)

Charleston Battery 1-1 New York Red Bulls II (August 12th)

#2 Charleston Battery

Elo Rating/Rank: 1154, 2nd

Record: 15-8-9

Goal Difference: +20

Home Record: 10-1-5

Goal Difference at Home: +25

Record Against Playoff Teams: 10-3-4

Shutouts: 13

Player to Watch: Heviel Cordoves

The Battery forward became the go-to striker towards the end of the regular season, scoring six of his nine goals in the final five matches of the season. In his 30 matches played in on the year, Cordoves has 42 shots, 22 of which have been on target. Charleston will look to Cordoves to help lead the attack throughout the postseason.

#7 New York Red Bulls II

Elo Rating/Rank: 1093, 10th

Record: 13-14-5

Goal Difference: -3

Road Record: 3-8-5

Goal Difference on the Road: -11

Record Against Playoff Teams: 4-9-2

Shutouts: 6

Player to Watch: Florian Valot

Much like Cordoves on the opposite side of the pitch, Florian Valot has gone into a scoring fest in the last five matches of the season, having been responsible for six goals. Interesting fact, Valot scored the first goal of the Baby Bulls’ season back in March, and the final goal of the regular season last Saturday versus Rochester.

Thoughts: When NYRB II bested Charleston back in May, it ended a seven match unbeaten run for the Battery. To close out the regular season, Charleston went unbeaten in four of their last five matches, whereas NYRB II have lost three of their final five matches. It will be up to the Baby Bulls to limit the Battery attack, because when Charleston has scored multiple goals in a match this season, they have never lost.

Elo Prediction: Charleston is projected to advance at 65.5% per Elo Ratings.

Our Prediction: Charleston Battery 3-2 New York Red Bulls II

#3 Tampa Bay Rowdies v #6 FC Cincinnati

Season Series

FC Cincinnati 1-1 Tampa Bay Rowdies (April 19th)

Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-0 FC Cincinnati (July 6th)

#3 Tampa Bay Rowdies

Elo Rating/Rank: 1152, 3rd

Record: 14-7-11

Goal Difference: +15

Home Record: 11-1-4

Goal Difference at Home: +19

Record Against Playoff Teams: 5-5-7

Shutouts: 12

Player to Watch: Georgi Hristov

Tampa Bay’s leading goal scorer finished his regular season tally with thirteen goals, tied for eighth in the USL Golden Boot Race. Seven of those scores game in the final ten matches of the season for the Rowdies.

#6 FC Cincinnati

Elo Rating/Rank: 1105, 6th

Record: 12-10-10

Goal Difference: -2

Road Record: 4-8-4

Goal Difference on the Road: -16

Record Against Playoff Teams: 4-8-4

Shutouts: 7

Player to Watch: Mitch Hildebrandt

The Cincinnati goalkeeper will have to be on top of his game come Saturday, as the Rowdies have only been shut out four times all season, and have not been held goalless in a match since July 1st, in a 2-0 defeat to Charleston. FC Cincinnati are 2-8-3 when giving up more than one goal in a match, highlighting the crucial importance of tight defending.

Thoughts: Al Lang Stadium has quickly become one of the toughest environments to play in for visiting teams, and the Rowdies can attribute much of their success this year to playing well at home. With only one loss at home all season— Charleston’s 3-2 triumph over Tampa back in April— the Rowdies are nearly unstoppable in St. Pete. In fact, Tampa Bay have never been held goalless at home this season. With only four wins against fellow playoff clubs, I think FC Cincinnati struggles to get things going on the road, and the Rowdies book their ticket to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Elo Prediction: Tampa Bay is projected to advance at 63.6% per Elo Ratings.

Our Prediction: Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-0 FC Cincinnati

#4 Rochester Rhinos v #5 Charlotte Independence

Season Series

Rochester Rhinos 4-0 Charlotte Indpendence (April 29th)

#4 Rochester Rhinos

Elo Rating/Rank: 1139, 4th

Record: 14-7-11

Goal Difference: +8

Home Record: 9-2-5

Goal Difference at Home: +12

Record Against Playoff Teams: 7-5-3

Shutouts: 14

Player to Watch: Jochen Graf

Jochen Graf barely edged his defender teammate—Wal Fall—in leading the team in goals on the season, with ten. Graf has really gotten hot in the final few weeks of the season, having scored the four of the last six goals by the Rhinos. Much like Valot of NYRB II, Graf has the distinct honor of being a goalscorer in the first and last match of the Rochester regular season.

#5 Charlotte Independence

Elo Rating/Rank: 1132, 5th

Record: 13-10-9

Goal Difference: +12

Road Record: 6-6-4

Goal Difference on the Road: +0

Record Against Playoff Teams: 6-8-2

Shutouts: 6

Player to Watch: Enzo Martinez

Leading the Eastern Conference in goals with 16, Enzo Martinez is one of the reason’s for Charlotte’s success this season. Which is why it is surprising to find the Independence without a home playoff match at the end of the season. Martinez has not scored in over a month —September 2nd where he tallied a brace versus Richmond was the last time he found the back of the net. For Charlotte to have any chance of moving past the Rhinos in the first round, Martinez needs to return to his goalscoring form.

Thoughts: A few months ago, I would have said that Charlotte had a spot in the top four sealed. Oh, how they have fallen in these last few weeks. With the chance to host a playoff match for the first time in their history, results slipped away from the Independence, who lost their final five matches of the regular season—granted, they all came against Eastern Conference playoff clubs. Now, a 2016 first round rematch against Rochester awaits. Their only meeting this year saw Rochester prevail, 4-0. The key to Charlotte’s success in this fixture has to be on offense. When the Independence scored multiple goals in a match this season, they won 11 games. However, Charlotte has not scored multiple goals in a match going all the way back to August 26th, I think their season reaches an end on Saturday.

Elo Prediction: Rochester is projected to advance at 58.1% per Elo Ratings.

Our Prediction: Rochester Rhinos 2-1 Charlotte Independence

What do you think of the First Round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs? Which clubs are you picking to advance the conference semifinals? Who will represent the East in the USL League Final? Let us know in the comments below!