USL PRO Feature
Wednesday August 1, 2012
Orlando City may have cruised to regular season title during the 2012 USL PRO season, but the remaining five playoff spots are still being hotly contested.
The situation has only become tighter after the Los Angeles Blues’ 2-0 victory against Pittsburgh Tuesday night, which ties the Blues with Charlotte, three points off Richmond’s pace in the hunt for the final slot.
Before the victory, L.A. had won only two of its previous nine games (with no draws). Head Coach Charlie Naimo is hoping his side can get a better return of points in its last four games, and the Blues have every chance to do so with all four games being played at home. The team should also be confident going into its next two contests as it faces Antigua Barracuda FC, the only team the Blues defeated in the aforementioned period of games.
Also vying for the last playoff spot are the resurgent Charlotte Eagles. With a game in hand on L.A. and Richmond, Mark Steffens’ squad has as good a chance as any to sneak into the playoffs. Charlotte has games remaining against each of the bottom three sides, with two games against Wilmington thrown in. Having Trinidad and Tobago international Darryl Roberts up front always gives them a chance to score goals, but they lost three key points (and saw the end of a six-game winning streak) in their last game against Richmond.
The Richmond Kickers currently occupy the final playoff spot, and face a unique next four games. They start out at home against Antigua and Harrisburg, before closing out the regular season with two games at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium against the Barracudas. Longtime Head Coach Leigh Cowlishaw acknowledged that veterans such as keeper Ronnie Pascale, defender Sascha Goerres, midfielder Michael Burke and forward Matthew Delicâte will play a key role on and off the field.
“We are fortunate to have many players who gone through this process numerous times,” Cowlishaw said via email. “Our more experienced players are thoroughly enjoying this moment of the season as they know if we can continue our momentum we have a good chance to qualify and make an impact in the playoffs.
“We regrouped as a team several weeks back to make sure everyone was committed to the process, understood their role and discussed ways for the entire group to improve. Since then we won four of our last six games and look to continue the momentum. Playing Antigua at home as opposed to traveling to the island are two very contrasting environments and we will prepare accordingly.
“For now we need to collect three points on Friday and continue to keep the pressure on all the other teams around us in the standings.”
Last year’s finalists, the Harrisburg City Islanders face perhaps the toughest remaining schedule of any of the competing clubs. They host Orlando City and Charleston, followed by three road games against teams fighting for their playoff lives in Richmond and L.A., which they meet twice to close the season. With the right results, the City Islanders do have a chance to reach third place in the standings, and with Nick Noble putting in a strong season in goal, including three shutouts in his last four games, Harrisburg could be a dangerous side should they hold their nerve down the stretch.
Like Harrisburg, the Wilmington Hammerheads are on 30 points, but have played an extra game. They have struggled on the road this season with only one win, and they will need to increase that number as two of their four games are away from home. It’s now or never for the Hammerheads as they play home-and-away series’ with playoff contenders Charlotte and Charleston. Luckily, the Hammerheads possess two of the league’s most dynamic strikers in Andriy Budnyy and Corey Hertzog and have every chance of getting the points they need.
Currently in third place, the Charleston Battery have a chance of usurping the Rochester Rhinos in second place and earning a first-round playoff bye. The Battery will go for it as they have done all season – they have not drawn a single match. They have two games in hand on the Rhinos, but all their matches will be battles as they face Wilmington twice as well as Harrisburg, Rochester, and Dayton. With Nicki Paterson and Jose Cuevas in midfield, they will control games, just as they control their own playoff destiny.
The Rochester Rhinos may be fourth overall in scoring, but they are currently second place in the USL PRO standings. For the Rhinos it comes down to one thing: their defense. No player has scored more than five goals, but they have an experienced defensive spine to carry them through games. Goalkeeper Kristian Nicht and defender Georgios Kyriazis have German Bundesliga and Greek Super League experience respectively, and they are joined by Troy Roberts, who made 61 appearances in MLS for the LA Galaxy. This kind of experience will be vital in helping the team focus during the home stretch against Orlando, Charleston and Rochester, and securing a bye into the semifinals along with the Lions.