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11 Things – Here Come the Playoffs

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 10/15/18, 11:45AM EDT

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Newcomers, hot streaks and record regular-season numbers culminated in Week 31

561 games down, 15 to go.

The curtain fell on the 2018 USL regular season on Sunday evening, capping a fascinating weekend that saw the final four places in the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs secured and the bracket be set for the road to the championship. Here are 11 numbers to take away from the past weekend, and the regular-season as a whole.

124 – Saint Louis FC finished scoreless in the first game of its USL history back in 2015, an inauspicious start to what became a regular tale of disappointment that concluded each of the club’s first three years. This past Saturday night, in the 124th regular-season contest of the club’s history, STLFC finished without a goal again, but this time it provided a far happier ending. Saint Louis’ 0-0 draw with OKC Energy FC may have seen the hosts fail to find the net at Toyota Stadium – Saint Louis, but it earned the point the club needed for its first trip to the USL Cup Playoffs and set off mass celebrations among players and fans that spilled onto the field at the final whistle. The guidance of Head Coach Anthony Pulis and the club’s leadership produced a first postseason game in club history for one of the best-regarded supporter groups in the country – it was notable to see how many fans from other groups congratulating the St. Louligans following the game – and turned the page from those previous years.

23 – In history of a different kind, FC Cincinnati completed its rewriting of the USL’s modern-era record book as it rounded out its regular-season with a thrilling 3-3 draw against Nashville SC that saw the visitors at First Tennessee Park and set a new USL modern-era record for consecutive regular-season games without defeat as its undefeated run reached 23 games. FCC’s outstanding run over the final two-thirds of the regular season has seen them now sit with the most wins (23) and points (77) in a USL regular-season to overtake the 2016 New York Red Bulls II in both categories, and its records of 10 consecutive victories and 23 consecutive games without defeat are going to take some surpassing after arguably the finest regular season in the league’s modern era.

3 – Thanks to its remarkable regular season, Cincinnati knew it would enter the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals as the No. 1 seed. What it didn’t learn until Sunday night was that its opponent to kick off the postseason would be the side it had played the previous night as victories for Bethlehem Steel FC and the New York Red Bulls II pushed both sides up the Eastern Conference standings and Nashville SC into the eight position. With FCC and NSC having played to a draw in each of their three meetings this season, the clash offers up a potential classic with Nashville having ended the regular season conceding only 31 goals, second-lowest in the league, while Cincinnati led the league with 72 goals. Saturday’s game at Nippert Stadium is going to be a must-see.

6 – While FC Cincinnati is entering the postseason undefeated in its last 23 league contests, there’s an argument that the side at the opposite end of the Eastern Conference bracket – defending champion and No. 2-seed Louisville City FC – is the hottest team going into the postseason after it ran its winning streak to six games with a 1-0 win against Indy Eleven at Slugger Field. Finding a way to earn a result against its rival even when there was nothing on the line could prove important for Louisville, which will square off with Indy again this Saturday to open the postseason as the two sides suffered the same fate as Cincinnati and Nashville thanks to Bethlehem and New York’s victories. As Head Coach John Hackworth said on Saturday before knowing the Eleven would be the side’s first opponent in the postseason, “It’s not about style, it’s not about how we play. It’s strictly to just win. And those guys in the locker room know that better than anybody in this league.”

101 – The game-winner for Louisville against Indy Eleven on Saturday came on Cameron Lancaster’s 25th goal of the season, which set the new mark in the league’s record book after the English forward had surpassed former teammate Matt Fondy’s total of 22 goals in the 2015 season last Tuesday night against North Carolina FC. Those 25 goals came on 101 shots, which while it led the league saw Lancaster finish the season with a conversion rate of 24.8 percent, an impressive rate for the volume of shots the English forward took. Lancaster has shown himself capable of scoring in all different manners this season and is going to be one of the key pieces in a squad that will look to make history as the first back-to-back USL Cup champions.

1 – If there’s anything to be said for good karma going into the postseason then that will surely be on the side of Sacramento Republic FC, which saw Matthew Harding score in the first minute of its contest against Las Vegas Lights FC on Saturday night in for Sacramento Republic FC. Harding’s goal didn’t count on the scoreboard, but the feeling the 15-year-old Make-A-Wish Foundation gave everyone who saw it either in person at Papa Murphy’s Park on across the internet was an unforgettable one that could help carry Republic FC forward. Certainly, it seemed to give Sacramento a little bit of good fortune as it wrapped up the season with a win that edged Republic FC past Phoenix Rising FC into the No. 2-seed in the Western Conference, and with the 2014 USL Cup champion on a four-game winning streak going into the playoffs they’re riding a positive wave of momentum right now. 

17,171 – Sacramento’s opponent in the Western Conference Quarterfinals will be the Swope Park Rangers, who swept into the postseason on Sunday afternoon on the back of a 5-1 victory against the LA Galaxy II that made it the defending Western Conference champions the final side into the field. It also produces a rematch from last year’s playoffs, a game that the Rangers won on their home turf, and with Swope Park having recorded a league-leading 17,171 passes in the regular season, completed at an 82.7 percent clip which was good for second in the league, it’s going to make for an interesting tactical game between two teams that value the ball and have the firepower to produce when they get into the attacking third.

1,612 – Swope Park’s five-goal outburst on Sunday night was the last big contributor to the 1,612 goals that were scored in the 2018 USL regular season, an average of 2.87 per game for the year as the league saw notable numbers outside Cameron Lancaster’s scoring record. Among them was FC Cincinnati’s feat of becoming the first side in the modern era to have four players reach double-digits in goal as Corben Bone’s brace on Saturday against Nashville saw him join Nazmi Albadawi, Danni Konig and Emmanuel Ledesma in passing the 10-goal threshold. There were 18 hat tricks over the season – including two apiece for the LA Galaxy II’s 2018 USL 20 Under 20 duo of Efrain Alvarez and Ethan Zubak – more than in any previous year, and the quality more than matched the quantity as the league’s top marksman made their impact felt on social media and ESPN’s SportsCenter throughout the past seven months.

4 – It wasn’t just goalscorers who put up big numbers, as while Emmanuel Ledesma set a USL single-season record with 16 assists he was one of four players who surpassed the previous mark of 12 held by Matthew Dallman (Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, 2013) and Chris Wehan (Reno 1868 FC, 2017) this season. The playmaking ability of North Carolina FC’s Kyle Bekker – who finished the year with 13 helpers – will be missed in the upcoming postseason as NCFC finished just short of the top eight in the East, but the likes of Orange County SC’s Aodhan Quinn (14 assists) and Reno 1868 FC’s Antoine Hoppenot (13 assists) will be players to watch out for when the postseason kicks off this weekend.

28 – With Quinn and others like Thomas Enevoldsen leading the way, Orange County SC enters the postseason as the favorite to represent the Western Conference at the 2018 USL Cup, but the club’s 28-percent chance of coming through the bracket and reaching its first championship game according to fivethirtyeight.com is an indicator of how open this postseason can be. With the top seed having been knocked out in its first game of the Western Conference Playoffs each of the past three seasons, including when Orange County fell to the LA Galaxy II in 2015 in the Western Conference Semifinals after earning a bye through its first-place finish, there’s plenty of chance for more mayhem this postseason.

16 – So we’re down to the final 16 teams in with a chance at claiming first a conference championship, and then the goal every team set itself at the start of the season. After more than 54,000 minutes of action across the United States and Canada, we’re down to the most exciting moment of the year. The question now is which teams will rise, and which will fall on the road to USL Cup?

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