From the perspective of New York Red Bulls II, the final four for USL Cup 2016 has worked out rather well. The II team thought it had earned the right to host USL Cup - if it could get to the final - when it won the league's regular season title. But USL reneged on that promise when (we're guessing) it realized it might be blowing its chance to have a crowd of 30,000 in Cincinnati or 11,000 in Sacramento on primetime TV.
So instead of determining hosting rights for the final based a team's on-field performance for the regular season, USL has asserted its right to pick the host it thinks will put on the best show for ESPN U. And that decision made NYRB II's task in these playoffs a little harder: the team no longer only had to win through to the final to host the big game at Red Bull Arena, it also had to hope that the Western Conference finalist was a team that wasn't going to be an obviously bigger and better attraction for the TV cameras on October 23.
So far, so good for NYRB II. It is in the Eastern Conference final. It has its shot to win through to USL Cup. And, as luck would have it, the only team in the final four that would be an obviously better candidate to host the Championship game than the Red Bulls is Louisville City: the team NYRB II must beat to get to the Cup final.
The sound you hear is USL HQ cheering on Louisville City. From the perspective of USL's priorities, Louisville has to be the league's choice to win through to USL Cup. Consider the attendances for the last round of these playoffs. All four of the Conference finalists hosted their respective Conference semifinals, so we got a sense of the sort of post-season crowd each can draw.
|New York Red Bulls II vs Rochester Rhinos||Red Bull Arena||1,229|
|Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 vs Oklahoma City Energy||UBC Thunderbird Stadium||1,308|
|Swope Park Rangers vs Orange County Blues||Swope Soccer Village||2,181|
|Louisville City vs Charleston Battery||Louisville Slugger Field||6,581|
Oof. Louisville's crowd was bigger than the other three Conference semifinals combined. By a lot. The aggregate total crowd for the three games outside Louisville was 4,718. The difference between Louisville's crowd - 6,581 - and the total announced crowds at all three other matches was 1,863: a larger number than the average regular-season home attendance for Swope Park Rangers (1,753), Vancouver Whitecaps 2 (1,779), and NYRB II (589).
USL HQ will weep in Louisville City doesn't make the USL Cup final.
Once A Metro will not, because Once A Metro does not work for USL and is all-in for NYRB II, whether it has a crowd of 50 or 500 or 50,000.
Western Conference Final: Swope Park Rangers (4) vs Vancouver Whitecaps 2 (6)
8:30 pm, Eastern; Saturday, October 15, 2016; @ Swope Soccer Village
Swope Park saw off Orange County Blues in the Conference Semifinals with just nine men. It was a gutsy performance which bodes well for the team's prospects in this game, and beyond. Amer Didic and Oumar Ballo look as solid a center back pairing as there is to be found in USL. Ominously, as noted by Nicholas Murray for uslsoccer.com, Swope Park has yet to lose a game when Didic and Ballo are its starting CBs. 'Keeper Adrian Zendejas has also attracted positive attention since his mid-season move to SPR.
Defensive solidity allowed Rangers to hold out against Orange County Blues despite playing a man down from the 69th minute and two men down from the 88th minute. Dane Kelly's 105th-minute winner did the rest.
Of course, both the players sent off - Tommy Meyer (suspended for six games) and Ever Alvarado - will be missing from the Western Conference Final. And one should not overstate the defensive virtues of a team that manages to lose two players to red cards in one game.
VWFC 2 'keeper Spencer Richey came up big for his team in its Conference semifinal against Oklahoma City Energy. Vancouver had the wherewithal to take a two-goal lead over OKC, but lacked the resolve to withstand the Energy's push to get back into the game. But for Richey, OKC would have wrapped up the game well before Daniel Haber grabbed a late winner for Vancouver.
All told, if SPR can keep all its players on the pitch, home advantage and a stubborn defense should see the Kansas City reserve team through to the final.
From NYRB II's perspective, it doesn't make a huge difference which of these teams wins this game. They are both MLS reserve teams, operating on similar principles to those of the Red Bulls' reserves: develop players for the first team. Both sides have talented players, both sides could trouble NYRB II. And both sides have unexceptional attendance records that would seem to make USL's choice regarding the host venue for USL Cup a little harder.
The II team plays in Red Bull Arena, which is a superior facility to either Swope Soccer Village (Sporting Kansas City's training facility) or UBC Thunderbird Stadium (a college football stadium, with all the concessions to its primary purpose - gridiron lines on the turf - that implies). But either SPR or VWFC 2 could, in principle, switch to playing in their parent club's stadium for the final.
USL is going to pick its best option for a positive appearance on national television to host USL Cup. And if NYRB II is evaluated against either of these teams, it would appear to have a solid shot at getting home advantage for the big game.
If the II team makes USL Cup, it should be happy enough to take its chances against either of these teams, both on the field and in the off-field beauty contest that will decide who hosts the match.
OaM's pick: Swope Park Rangers
Eastern Conference Final: New York Red Bulls II (1) vs Louisville City FC (2)
6:30 pm, Eastern; Sunday, October 16, 2016; @ Red Bull Arena
Louisville's second Conference Final in its second year of existence is testament to the team's quality over its first two seasons. The last of the independent USL clubs in this year's playoffs, LCFC carries the hopes of its league in more ways than one. It is the only team left that won't have USL sweating attendance for its Championship game, and it is not a reserve team for a squad in MLS.
We may well look back on 2016 as an anomalous year, but if the lightly-supported MLS reserve teams consistently overrun the independent clubs in USL, it may present the league with a problem over time: it's best teams won't get much support because they are, by definition, secondary to their parent clubs; the robust support for independent clubs may dwindle if they start to be viewed as not very good, or at least not good enough to get by MLS reserves on the regular.
So USL will cheer on Louisville, while OaM cheers on NYRB II.
In the Conference semifinals, the Red Bulls recorded their first-ever win over Rochester Rhinos, and needed a penalty shoot-out to do it. It was a back-and-forth 3-3 draw over 120 minutes followed by a 5-4 shoot-out: it was a nail-biter for both sets of fans and a simply thrilling soccer match if you judge soccer matches by what happens on the field and not how many people turn up to watch them.
Louisville's semifinal was a scrappy 1-0 win over Charleston Battery. Enthralling to those invested in either side, less captivating for the neutral.
This Conference final sees NYRB II take on the role Rochester had adopted previously. The Red Bulls are the team Louisville City has never beaten, and therefore the favorite. Louisville has the tools to break down NYRB II. Kadeem Dacres is a standout threat in attack, and a former NYRB U-23 player (he counts II-team back-up 'keeper Rafa Diaz as one of his best friends).
NYRB II is the best team in USL this season, but that doesn't mean it will be the best team over 90 minutes against Louisville. Matches between these teams have been close this season, and this Conference Final should be no different.
OaM's pick: NYRB II, natch.