Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
When the New York Red Bulls II claimed the 2016 USL Cup, they became the third No. 1-seed to claim the championship in the league’s modern era. In fact, the lowest seed to win the USL Cup over the past six years was the No. 3 Charleston Battery, who took the championship in 2012.
But that doesn’t mean lower seeds in the playoffs haven’t had a big impact on the journey to the championship. As we get ready for the 2017 USL Cup Playoffs, here are five underdog victories that provided a major shock around the league.
In its final season in the USL before making the move to Major League Soccer, Orlando City had already claimed a third USL Regular Season Championship behind the standout performance of Kevin Molino, whose 20 goals and nine assists led the league in both categories on his way to a second Most Valuable Player award. Everything seemed set up for the Lions to end their USL era with a championship, but the Harrisburg City Islanders – whom Orlando had defeated in a penalty shootout in the 2011 USL Cup – had other ideas.
The City Islanders had already shown they had a measure of Orlando in the regular season as they took a 3-2 victory at the Skyline Sports Complex, but with the Lions having gone 13-0-1 on home turf in the regular season pulling off an upset seemed a remote possibility. Five minutes before the halftime break, however, current Reno 1868 FC forward Antoine Hoppenot got on the end of a through-ball by Jamiel Hardware and rifled home his finish into the top-right corner from the top of the penalty area.
Harrisburg’s Nick Noble and a defense that included current OKC Energy FC standout Coady Andrews and FC Cincinnati’s Matt Bahner made the goal stand up as the City Islanders went on to reach the 2014 USL Cup, where they finally fell to Sacramento Republic FC.
In its second season, OKC Energy FC had taken a big step forward to not only sit as the No. 2-seed in the Western Conference, but also get the opportunity to host for the right to head to USL Cup after a dramatic penalty shootout victory the round prior against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. But the LA Galaxy II were proving to be road warriors in 2015, having already defeated California rival Sacramento Republic FC 1-0 earlier in the postseason.
As in its previous two wins in the postseason, it didn’t take long for Los Dos to strike. Ariel Lassiter’s third goal of the playoffs gave the Galaxy II just seven minutes in, and in the 23rd minute the visitors doubled their lead as Andre Auras put home an outstanding free kick from 25 yards out into the left corner of the net. Energy FC tried to rally in the second half, and was tossed a lifeline when Coady Andrews scored in the 66th minute, but Los Dos withstood the late pressure to become the first team owned by an MLS organization to reach the USL Cup.
FC Cincinnati had swept into the USL on a wave of excitement in the stands, setting both single-game and season-long attendance records at Nippert Stadium, and impressive performances on the field that saw the side in contention for second place in the Eastern Conference late in the season. FCC welcomed another record crowd for its first playoff game in club history, but then the Charleston Battery then spoiled the party.
Charleston had welcomed Cincinnati to the league in the opening game of the regular season, notching a late goal at MUSC Health Stadium to take a 1-0 victory in FCC’s inaugural contest, and then earned a point on the road in its first visit to Nippert Stadium. With Cincinnati having taken four wins out of five to end the regular season, though, the hosts were favorites going into the clash, and that edge was emphatically driven home midway through the first half when Eric Stevenson’s 30-yard blast into the top-right corner gave FCC the lead and brought the house down in the stands.
The Battery battled back into the game, though, and five minutes before halftime notched an equalizer as a long throw-in by O’Brian Woodbine found Chris Tsonis at the top of the six-yard area, and despite a challenge by Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt the Battery forward flicked his header home. Charleston put on more pressure in the second half, and moment after Romario Williams had been denied by Hildebrandt from the left side of the penalty area, Zach Prince nodded home the ensuing corner kick to put the visitors ahead. Charleston then held firm late, bringing an end to FCC’s year.
There have been dramatic endings in the USL Cup Playoffs before, Rodrigo Lopez’s stoppage-time winner for Sacramento Republic FC against the LA Galaxy II in 2014 a notable example, but nothing that came before was quite as sensational as the comeback victory OKC Energy FC pulled off against Rio Grande Valley FC to bring a dramatic conclusion to the Toros’ inaugural season.
RGVFC had been strong at home all season in its first year in the league, and when the side took the lead through Ruben Luna in the 33rd minute everything appeared to be going according to plan. After finding its way into the postseason late in the year, OKC found a way back into the game as Linus Olsson scored with 17 minutes to go, but the Toros’ response was immediate as Eric Bird restored the lead just three minutes later with a sweet volleyed finish from the top of the penalty area.
That could have been it, and almost was, until Energy FC’s second half substitutions paid off in a bigger fashion than even Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen could have imagined. A long flip throw-in by Michael Harris from the halfway line two minutes into stoppage time sparked the comeback, bouncing once as the Toros failed to clear before it came to Colin Bonner, who headed past the advancing goalkeeper and into the open net to level. Before the crowd could catch its breath, Bonner struck again as his stooping near-post header from a corner kick on the right stunned the crowd and sent OKC through.
Having earned the top seed in the Western Conference for the first time in its history, Sacramento Republic FC was looking to make a run at a second USL Cup in three seasons when it opened its third postseason campaign against California rival Orange County. After 120 minutes of enthralling, but scoreless action in front of almost 11,000 fans at Papa Murphy’s Park, it ended up being Josh Cohen’s night as the visitors sprang a massive surprise in a penalty shootout.
The two sides had faced off late in the regular season, when Republic FC took a 2-1 victory to bolster its claim for top spot in the Western Conference. Orange County had needed a late miracle of its own to even get into the playoffs, scoring twice in stoppage time to earn the final place in the playoffs against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC to overtake the Portland Timbers 2 on goal differential.
But Orange County proved up for the challenge against Sacramento as Cohen recorded a pair of saves in regulation and overtime, while the visitors were able to carve out their own chances to take victory in regulation. In the end, however, it came down to the shootout. With the game tied 2-2 after two rounds, Cohen made a big diving save to deny J.J. Kovals shot to the left corner to put Orange County on top. Dusan Stevanovic, Orr Barouch and Didier Crettenand then held their nerve, and sent OCSC into the next round.