The USL PRO regular season has come to an end. The Richmond Kickers won the regular season championship and claimed the Commissioner’s Cup. In most soccer leagues around the world, that would be that. This is America, though, and winning the regular season is not enough.
There must be a playoff. A postseason champion must be crowned, and if you are a fan of the beautiful game, you must watch it all unfold. It does not matter if you are set against the notion of having clubs go through a postseason tournament after a regular season champion has already earned some hardware. It does not matter if you are not an ardent supporter of soccer played at a level designated to be below MLS. You need to watch the USL PRO playoffs if you are any sort of soccer enthusiast.
Here, Reckless Challenge lays out five reasons to watch. We assume that hardcore fans of USL PRO do not need to be convinced. Most of the enumerated arguments are intended to convince American soccer fans, who have yet to be introduced to a wonderful league.
1. It is an opportunity to watch young, talented players that will contribute at higher levels in the future.
United Soccer Leagues has always been stocked with talent. Seriously. Consider this list of former current MLS All-Stars and USMNT players that have made appearances in USL: Herculez Gomez, Graham Zusi, Brad Guzan, Jack McInerny, Tony Beltran, DeAndre Yedlin, Clarence Goodson, Geoff Cameron, and Corey Ashe (I threw this list together quickly, so forgive me if it is incomplete).
So who is competing in the playoffs that might get minutes at a higher level in the future? Let’s begin with some players that are already signed to MLS contracts.
Three of the eight USL PRO playoff teams are affiliated with MLS clubs through a partnership that was reached prior to the regular season. As a part of those affiliations, DC United, Sporting Kansas City, and Philadelphia Union have loaned players to Richmond Kickers, Orlando City, and Harrisburg City Islanders, respectively. Andrew Dykstra, Michael Seaton, and Conor Shanosky all played a part in Richmond’s run to the regular season championship. Christhian Hernandez and James McLaughlin have made contributions for Harrisburg. The biggest names on loan to Orlando have returned to Kansas City, but John Kempin and Christian Duke are still on the squad and have filled their roles admirably.
While we are discussing MLS loans to USL PRO, I would be remiss to leave out Brian Ownby, on loan to Richmond from Houston Dynamo. Ownby ranked among the top 15 scorers in the league this year.
It’s not as if USL PRO would be devoid of talent if it weren’t for MLS loanees. Here are some of the players to watch this Saturday. Jose Angulo, forward for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, won the Golden Boot and tied the league goal-scoring record in the process. Angulo was under contract with the Red Bulls last season. Lucky Mkosana scored goals in droves, including two hat-tricks, for the Harrisburg City Islanders. Matt Fondy averaged a goal per game for the Los Angeles Blues after trialing for San Jose for part of the season. Gibson Bardsley led the Dayton Dutch Lions in goals and assists. Bardsley trialed with Sporting Kansas City in 2012. Jorge Herrera has proven to be an exceptional talent for the Charlotte Eagles. It would not be surprising to see these names and others associated with MLS contracts in the near future.
2. It is a chance to watch a team that might become a part of MLS in the next round of expansion.
Anything could happen, but it certainly appears that Orlando City could become next in a list of USL teams that have made the leap to MLS. Certainly, the club from central Florida is on a short list for possible expansion. It is no secret that the team has MLS aspirations. It appears to have the budget. It seems to be very close to a stadium deal. It outdraws some teams that are already in MLS.
3. There is not a lot of other soccer to compete with the USL PRO playoffs for your viewing time.
If you are reading this piece, I assume that you are more than a casual soccer fan. If that is the case, I also assume that you enjoy watching as much soccer as possible. Why not spend some time watching the playoffs?
Here is the schedule for the first round of the playoffs:
- (4) Harrisburg City Islanders vs. (5) Charlotte Eagles, Saturday, August 24, 2:00 PM EST, Skyline Sports Complex
- (1) Richmond Kickers vs. (8) Dayton Dutch Lions, Saturday, August 24, 7:00 PM EST, City Stadium
- (2) Orlando City vs. (7) Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Saturday, August 24, 7:30 PM EST, Fifth Third Bank Field at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium
- (3) Charleston Battery vs. (6) Los Angeles Blues, Saturday, August 24, 7:30 PM EST, Blackbaud Stadium
I checked the schedules of some of the more popular leagues around the world and discovered that there is not a lot that overlaps with the first round of the USL PRO playoffs. Neither the Premier League nor Bundesliga have any matches that coincide with the USL PRO playoffs. There are a total of two matches between La Liga and Serie A with some overlap, but they both begin around halftime of the City Islanders/Eagles contest. Ligue 1 does have a slew of fixtures scheduled at the same time as Harrisburg and Charlotte, but you can take a break from the French for a day. Besides, if you are a true “Eurosnob”, you probably are not reading this piece anyway.
In a fortunate bit of scheduling, most MLS fans will have plenty of opportunity to spend some time with USL PRO without having to miss their own team’s match. The fixtures between DC United and Toronto FC and between Montreal and Houston are slated for 7:00 PM. The remainder of the MLS matches will not begin until the later USL PRO games are about to go to full time. I do not understand why anyone other than diehard DC United or Toronto FC supporters would feel compelled to watch that contest. DC fans might actually be more interested in the Kickers playoff match, since several DC United prospects are on loan to Richmond (See reason #1 above).
Alas, every one of the five Liga MX games on Saturday coincides with the trio of late matches in USL PRO. At least fans of the Mexican league can catch Harrisburg versus Charlotte in its entirety.
4. The first round match-ups are intriguing.
In a knockout-style tournament that pits the highest seeds against the lowest seeds, it might seem that the results of the first round are little more than a foregone conclusion. It would be a mistake to make that assumption in these playoffs. Three of the supposed underdogs have beaten their first round opponents at one point or another in the regular season, and an “upset” in any of the four games shouldn’t be too surprising.
Orlando City has proven to be very difficult to beat in the Citrus Bowl, where they will host the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the first round. Pittsburgh did just that a few weeks ago in the regular season. In fact, the Riverhounds were 1-0-1 against second-seeded Orlando City this year.
Two of the first round matches feature teams that split their season series. The home team won each game in the Charleston and Los Angeles series. Will the Blues be able to turn the table in the playoffs? Harrisburg and Charlotte won at each other’s stadiums in the regular season. Can the Eagles keep that trend going on Saturday?
The Dutch Lions have never beaten the Kickers. It appeared that they were going to grab a victory in Dayton this season, but missed opportunities and second half mistakes have the game to Richmond. Dayton has proven to be a difficult team to beat this year, but they have yet to prove they have what it takes to play with the Kickers for 90 minutes.
5. Fans in Oklahoma City and Sacramento have something to gain by watching.
Oklahoma City and Sacramento will be the homes to two new USL PRO expansion franchises in 2014. Soccer fans in those cities should be watching the playoffs intently. This is a big window for them to see what it could be like for their teams in the upcoming seasons. It is an opportunity to see what USL PRO is at its highest level of competition. It is a chance to scout future opposition. It is a glimpse at some of the talent that could be headed their way in the off-season.
If I have been at all successful in swaying you to watch the USL PRO playoffs, you’ll need to know how to watch. Well, if you live near one of the cities hosting a game, let me encourage you to attend a match. Clubs sell tickets through their individual websites and at the gate. If you are unable to see a match in person, you can watch live online at USLNation.com.
If you’d like a little more background on the league and the playoffs, check out our post-season awards and most recent Reckless Challenge PROcast. We have also previewed each of the first round matches: Richmond/Dayton, Orlando/Pittsburgh, Charleston/Los Angeles, and Harrisburg/Charlotte.