New York Red Bulls II won't have to worry about any team in the USL Western Conference unless it makes the USL Cup final. And if gets to the final, NYRB II ought not to be too concerned about who it is facing: it had a good regular season, and it will be at the conclusion of a good post-season. Whatever the best of the West proves to be: the II team will be up for the challenge.
But there is one aspect of this year's playoffs that might help any NYRB II fan looking for a rooting interest in the USL West's playoffs: hosting rights to the final, which will be decided by the league after consideration of criteria not-entirely related to performance on the field of play. It used to be the case that the team with the best regular-season record hosted the USL Cup final. That is no longer true. This year, USL will pick the host venue based on unpublished "guidelines" issued to all playoff-qualified teams. And those guidelines seem to have a lot to do with determining which venue is going to look best on the ESPN U broadcast of the Cup final on October 23.
This is the first year USL has used this approach to selecting the host of its biggest game, and it was a decision reached after NYRB II had clinched the regular season title - which used to guarantee hosting rights to the Cup final. So, though it may be understandable that USL wishes to have its big game look as good as it can on TV, it is also understandable if the Red Bulls - and their fans - feel a little cheated by the late change to the league's rules of competition.
But NYRB II still has a shot at hosting the final. As far as we know, the final will be hosted by the team that can put on the best show for TV. The II team plays at Red Bull Arena: one of the USA's premier soccer-specific facilities. It also plays in front of some of the smallest crowds in USL. That is NYRB II's biggest problem with regard to hosting the final: the nagging possibility (probability, based on the only evidence we have to date) that no one will turn up to watch it at the stadium.
So to host the final, NYRB II has to qualify for it - a challenge in itself - and either start to draw much healthier attendance, or be up against a team whose game-day show is even less ready for prime time than Red Bull Arena when the Back-up Bulls are on the field.
For NYRB II fans, there is a clear answer to the question of which team they might want to see prevail in the Western Conference playoffs: Orange County Blues.
The contest to host the final has become a beauty contest, and Orange County Blues stand out as the least beautiful option among the Western Conference playoff teams. The team's problems with access to its home venue University of California, Irvine's Anteater Stadium) cost it the hosting of its first playoff game last season - which it lost, 2-0, to LA Galaxy II. And though their average attendance is (says a dogged Wikipedia effort to track these matters) close to double that of NYRB II, OC Blues basically pull in around 1,000 people per game. Would there be a Cup final bump? Sure. But only if UCI isn't using the field that day.
So if you're a NYRB II fan, root for the team in the West that looks like it might give the reserve Red Bulls their best shot at hosting USL Cup. And the best of the West from that perspective is Orange County.
Here's a look at the first round match-ups in the Western Conference playoffs, from a II-team fan's point of view.
Swope Park Rangers (4) vs LA Galaxy II (5)
8:30 pm, Eastern; Friday, September 30, 2016; @ Swope Soccer Village, Kansas City, Missouri.
Watch on USL You Tube Channel.
A battle of two MLS reserve teams, neither of whom draws great crowds. But Swope Park Rangers was attracting close to 2,000 people per game during the regular season, and has (perhaps) the option of switching a final to Children's Mercy Park - Sporting Kansas City's home stadium.
LA has lower average attendance, but this one feels like a wash for NYRB II: two middling Western Conference teams that can probably get a decent crowd to a well-equipped MLS stadiums for a big game. Both LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City are scheduled to play at home in MLS on October 23 - the day of the USL Cup final - but they will each kick off at 4:00 pm. The USL final is scheduled for 8:00 pm. In principle, either club could stage a double-header on October 23.
But LA has the better-rated academy feeding its reserves, and there's always a chance that something might keep Swope Park Rangers stranded at the KC training facility for the Cup final. So we're backing KC's reserves in this one.
OaM's pick: Swope Park Rangers
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC (3) vs Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 (6)
9:00 pm, Eastern; Friday, September 30, 2016; @ Switchbacks Stadium, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Watch on USL YouTube Channel.
No contest: the Switchbacks are a little better than VWFC 2, and they have been averaging around 3,000 in attendance.
On October 23, Vancouver Whitecaps have a 4:00 pm kick-off at home in MLS, so there is double-header potential for VWFC 2 if it gets to the USL Cup final. But that is a future consideration. For now, root for an early playoff exit for one of the better teams in the West.
OaM's pick: Vancouver Whitecaps 2
Rio Grande Valley FC (2) vs Oklahoma City Energy FC (7)
8:30 pm, Eastern; Saturday, October 1, 2016; @ H-E-B Park, Edinburg, Texas
Watch on USL YouTube Channel.
RGV FC is a good team: it almost won the West and kept 16 clean sheets during the regular season. There is no reason to be rooting to play the Toros in USL Cup unless you are actively rooting for NYRB II to host the match - which we are.
Though RGV FC is effectively Houston Dynamo's B team, it is a "hybrid affiliate": the Dynamo manages the team on the field; the Toros' ownership manages its commercial operations. So chances are that RGV FC is not switching a final to BBVA Compass Stadium on October 23. Chances are the Toros will try to fill their own stadium if they make the final. And in the regular season, they were getting crowds of less than 2,000 people (on average) to games.
No contest: OKC Energy has to go.
OaM's pick: RGV FC
Sacramento Republic FC (1) vs Orange County Blues FC (8)
10:30 pm, Eastern; Saturday, October 1, 2016; @ Bonney Field, Sacramento, California
Watch on USL YouTube Channel.
Win, Orange County. Do it for NYRB II.
OaM's pick: the mighty Blues of Orange County.