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USL Cup Playoffs - Who to Root For - Attack-Minded

By JOHN ARLIA - john.arlia@uslsoccer.com, 10/18/18, 4:58PM EDT

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New York, Swope Park, Bethlehem and Real Monarchs SLC bring high-octane offenses into postseason


Real Monarchs SLC, Bethlehem Steel FC, the Swope Park Rangers and New York Red Bulls II combined to score 234 goals during the regular season.

The final section of our four-part series that looks at the teams in the postseason field ahead of the start of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs this Friday night examines a group of sides that scored goals for fun during the regular season. 

New York Red Bulls II

Record: 13-8-13, 52 points, No. 5 seed in East
FiveThirtyEight.com USL Cup Odds: 2% 
Next Game: 10/20 at Charleston Battery

Player to Watch: Andrew Tinari. The 23-year-old midfielder was a crucial cog in the side’s attack all season long as the Red Bulls II scored 71 goals, tied for second-most in the league and just one behind leaders FC Cincinnati. Tinari finished second in the USL in chances created with 102 – 46 more than any of his teammates – and recorded seven goals and three assists to help his side back to the postseason.

NBA Comparison: 2007-08 Phoenix Suns. The Run-n-Gun Suns, led by the trio of Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire, were known for their potent, up-tempo offense as the side finished third in the NBA in scoring with 110.1 points per game. Phoenix finished the season with the fifth-best record in the West but crashed out in the first round of the playoffs much in part to a lackluster defense that ranked in the league’s bottom third. That porous defense also made Suns’ games must-see TV given their wide-open, high-scoring nature.

The Red Bulls II were involved in the USL’s highest-scoring matches this season as their 34 contests featured 130 goals – an average of 3.8 per game. New York’s opening-round matchup against the Charleston Battery should provide more fireworks as their regular-season series was the third-highest scoring in the league this year, with New York claiming a 5-2 victory in March before playing out a 4-4 draw in August. The Red Bulls II will hope its defense, which conceded the most goals of any playoff team (59), has turned a corner after surrendering just five goals in its final five regular-season contests. 

This is your team if: You want to see goals, goals and more goals.

 

Real Monarchs SLC

Record: 19-12-3, 60 points, No. 4 seed in West
FiveThirtyEight.com USL Cup Odds: 2% 
Next Game: 10/20 vs. Reno 1868 FC

Player to Watch: Maikel Chang. The 27-year-old Cuban midfielder was a consistent creative threat for the Monarchs, leading his side with 68 chances created, nine assists and 23 shots on target over 32 appearances.

NBA Comparison: 2007-08 Dallas Mavericks. The previous season, the Mavericks finished with the NBA’s best record at 67-15 but were stunned in the opening round of the playoffs by the No. 8-seed Golden State Warriors. Dirk Nowitzki helped his side return to the postseason in 2008 by leading the team in scoring with 23.6 points per game, but once again Dallas failed to advance to the second round. The Mavericks eventually put it all together and beat LeBron James’ Heat to claim an NBA championship in 2011, but can the Monarchs avoid another playoff disappointment and accelerate that timeline? 

Real won the 2017 USL Regular Season Championship but made a quick exit in the franchise’s USL Cup Playoffs debut as it suffered a penalty shootout loss on its home turf to Sacramento Republic FC. The Monarchs will be eager to redeem themselves this time around despite entering postseason play after a blip in form. The Utah side won its final two regular-season matches but had failed to win any of its prior seven contests. Head Coach Jamison Olave will hope his team – which had 17 different goalscorers contribute to its 55-goal haul - has righted the ship in time to make a deep playoff run.

This is your team if: You enjoy watching an attractive style of soccer and want to see a talented squad reach its full potential.

 

Bethlehem Steel FC

Record: 14-12-8, 50 points, No. 6 seed in East
FiveThirtyEight.com USL Cup Odds: 2% 
Next Game: 10/20 at Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Player to Watch: Santi Moar. The 25-year-old Spaniard was the creative force behind Bethlehem’s attack, leading his side with six goals, eight assists and 48 chances created in 33 appearances.

NBA Comparison: 2016-17 Milwaukee Bucks. Much like Bethlehem, these Bucks relied heavily on some talented youngsters to earn the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. A 22-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo and a 21-year-old Jabari Parker averaged over 20 points per game to lead Milwaukee back into the postseason after a one-year absence. The young Bucks didn’t have quite enough firepower to get out of the first round, however, as they fell to the Toronto Raptors in six games.

Steel FC Head Coach Brendan Burke has integrated several teenagers into his lineup this season, with USL 20 Under 20 selection Michee Ngalina tying for the team lead with six goals. 17-year-old Brenden Aaronson also contributed to the team’s offensive success, recording five assists in 16 appearances. Steel FC finished level with Reno 1868 FC on 56 goals – tied for ninth-most in the league this season – and will hope its offense can make an impact in the playoffs after the side was shut out 4-0 by eventual USL Cup champion Louisville City FC in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal last year.

This is your team if: You typically support youth movements. Bethlehem has started one of the youngest squads in the league this season and will hope that its youthful exuberance can carry the club to a first USL Cup Playoffs victory in franchise history and beyond.

 

Swope Park Rangers

Record: 15-11-8, 53 points, No. 7 seed in West
FiveThirtyEight.com USL Cup Odds: <1% 
Next Game: 10/20 at Sacramento Republic FC

Player to Watch: Hadji Barry. The 25-year-old Guinean forward was a consistent attacking threat in the second-half of the season, scoring in a USL-record eight straight games over the span of August 19 to September 22. Barry recorded a team-best 17 goals on the season but also played a providing role at times, creating 42 chances and recording five assists in 33 appearances.

NBA Comparison: 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook carried the Thunder’s offense by recording the first of back-to-back triple-double campaigns as the dynamic point guard averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game. Despite Westbrook’s best efforts, Oklahoma City managed just the sixth seed in the Western Conference and fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Houston Rockets after reaching the conference final in two of the previous three campaigns. Kevin Durant’s departure to Golden State played a significant part in that drop-off as the Thunder regressed during the regular season on both sides of the ball, scoring 106.6 points per game and conceding an average of 105.8 to their opponents. 

The Swope Park Rangers have come up just short in each of their last two postseason runs, falling in the USL Cup to Louisville City FC last year and the New York Red Bulls II in 2016. The Rangers will be hoping that the third time is the charm after squeaking into the playoff places on the final weekend of the regular season. Swope Park was the No. 4 seed in each of the last two postseasons, but never had to play against a higher-seeded team in its run to back-to-back Western Conference crowns. This Swope Park side will have the challenge of playing away from home this year and will need to be more-organized defensively to make another deep run. The Rangers finished in the top-half of the league in goals with 52 but are the only team in the postseason field with a negative goal differential (-1) after conceding 53 times.

This is your team if: You like attacking sides that value possession of the ball. Swope Park led the USL in maintaining possession in the regular season (56.75 percent) and completed the league’s most passes (14,198).

 

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