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Lower League Round-Up: July 21, 2022

Previewing a USL League Two playoff bracket with tons of Tri State flavor

Ocean City Nor’easters celebrate winning the 2022 Mid Atlantic Division championship in USL League Two.
Photo by Jack Verdeur

USL League Two is arguably the best amateur competition in the United States. The nearly 30 year-old league has grown into one of the most organized, and stable, places for college age talent. The quality of play is enough that many NCAA soccer players from top programs usually spend the summer months on a USL2 team. It’s also no surprise why (up until this year) some Major League Soccer organizations even fielded academy teams in the league.

The amateur league is part of the overall United Soccer League system which also includes the second division USL Championship and third division USL League One. Probably one of the biggest differentiators between USL2 and other national amateur leagues is its strict roster rules. In total, only a maximum of eight players can be over the age of 23 on a team’s 26-man roster while at-least three must be 18 or younger. Officially, team’s are bound by amateur status meaning most, if not all, players can’t be paid.

Looking ahead to the USL League Two playoffs that start this Friday, July 22, is a bit tricky. After months of competition some team’s rosters might be lighter heading into the postseason. Colleges and universities can request a player cease playing or even bring them back to campus for preseason all-together. That means some of the people that got teams to the playoffs might not even be available if they want to keep their NCAA eligibility or remain in good standing with their collegiate program.

Three clubs from New York and New Jersey made the USL League Two Eastern Conference playoffs. Since conference quarterfinal action begins this Friday at two hosting sites it’s a perfect time to learn more about the locals and the match-ups. All the games mentioned will be broadcast live, for free on Eleven Sports.

(Interested in hearing about another national league’s playoffs? Check out last week’s article on the locals competing in the National Premier Soccer League postseason.)

#4 Ocean City Nor’easters vs #5 Long Island Rough Riders

TowneBank Stadium (Newport News, VA) - 5:00 PM EDT

Two of the oldest teams at any level of the United Soccer League are set to clash in the first round of the League Two playoffs. A combined 54 years of history between two clubs seeking their first national amateur championship.

In any other year Ocean City would be a top two seed in the Eastern Conference. The group from South Jersey won the Mid Atlantic Division for the first time since 2013 and finished undefeated for the first time since 2004. To do this head coach Kevin Nuss has created a squad that has allowed the fewest goals (9) in the Eastern Conference and tied for the least in the entire league. German goalkeeper Felix Schäfer has made an impressive 48 saves so far in league play with a save percentage of .889. He’s aided by players like midfielder Nicolas Torres, a full field threat that’s been a constant this season at Carey Stadium. Forward and Harvard University student Alessandro Arlotti leads the team in goals (5), assists (5), and game winning plays this season.

The Rough Riders had little doubt they’d return to the playoffs for a second straight season, something they haven’t done in nearly two decades (2002-2003). The points gap between the Metropolitan Division runner-up and the next best team was nine points. With only two losses in 14 games the Metro’s second postseason berth was essentially locked in for the team. It helps having two players that finished in the league’s top ten for goals scored. Hofstra University alumni and 2021 MLS SuperDraft pick (FC Cincinnati) Matthew Vowinkel finished tied for fourth with 11 goals. Ryan Carmichael was right behind with 10 goals scored in 13 games played.

Both of these teams have professional roots and, in-fact, the Nor’easters only have one team that they’ve battled with more historically (Reading United AC). During the wild west of the 1990s both the Nor-easters (then known as the South Jersey Barons) and Riders competed in pro leagues such as the USISL and USL. The Rough Riders even gave the New York/New Jersey MetroStars a scare in the 1997 U.S. Open Cup where they held the future New York Red Bulls to only a 1-0 win. Whichever squad wins on Friday has lofty historical expectations to meet, whether that’s trying to win their first league title or add another honor to their total.

The winner of this game will play the winner of Lionsbridge FC and Vermont Green FC. That Conference Semifinal will take place on Sunday, July 24, at 7 PM EDT.

#3 Manhattan SC vs #6 Western Mass Pioneers

Lusitano Stadium (Ludlow, MA) - 7:00 PM EDT

New York vs Boston… well technically Ludlow but that isn’t a disrespect to the “Soccer City”. The city hosting multiple games in the Eastern Conference playoffs has a plethora of history to merit the honor. Their hometown team is seeking their second league championship while the visiting New Yorkers are far fresher faces looking to break out.

Manhattan SC has a fair bit of history behind it despite only joining USL League Two back in 2019. Founded in 1997, the club has grown out of NYC’s Upper West Side into one of the city’s biggest. So much so that their logo has become a regular feature on the side of backpacks or equipment, both on fields and just in public. That didn’t translate to immediate success for Manhattan which is making its playoff debut in 2022. Two previous seasons finishing just under the playoff line culminated with the team winning the Metropolitan Division this year with a 12-0-2 record. Players to watch include Paolo Carroll & Gabriel Silveira, who both lead the team with five goals this season. Additionally, Danish midfielder Valdemar Sadrifar has played professionally in his home country.

Despite being the lower seed the Western Mass Pioneers are really the home team in this game. After reaching the Second Round of the U.S. Open Cup earlier this year, the Pioneers went out and nearly won the Northeast Division for a third straight season. However two losses to start the season and dropping the regular season finale to Vermont Green FC, 0-1, cost them that honor. Instead the team settled with picking up the conference’s second place playoff berth. Head coach Federico Molinari will head into the postseason looking towards players such as Braudilio Rodrigues - who tied for the sixth most goals (10) across the entire league.

Historically, the Pioneers are one of lower division soccer’s pillar teams. Much like Ocean City and Long Island the squad was formerly professional in the late 1990s. The team even won the 1999 USL D-3 Pro League championship with future MetroStars players and brothers Fausto & Martin Klinger. Since dropping into the amateur divisions in 2010 the team has continued to operate at a top level.

The winner of this game will play the winner of Seacoast United Phantoms and Christos FC. That Conference Semifinal will take place on Sunday, July 24, at 7 PM EDT.

That’s it for the immediate locals. But seeing as how the rest of the field matters for the weekend, a quick look at the other two matches won’t hurt.

#1 Lionsbridge FC vs #8 Vermont Green FC

TowneBank Stadium (Newport News, VA) - 7:30 PM EDT

Lionsbridge is the other undefeated team in the Eastern Conference besides Ocean City. The team, led by head coach Chris Whalley, won the newly created Chesapeake Division by 10 points. Its record of 12-2-0 makes it clear why other websites such as Protagonist Soccer rank them at the top of Power Ranking across all of USL League Two. What’s most dangerous about Lionbridge is the roster’s ability to spread scoring around. Nine players have scored three or more goals across the regular season. Players like midfielder Andrew Bennett (St. John’s University) and forward Coleman Jennings (Birmingham-Southern College) have nine assists each (tied for second most in USL2).

Overall, the team from the Virginia Peninsula is deep no matter which players it still has on its roster.

On the other side of the field is Vermont Green looking to continue its Cinderella inaugural season. Based out of Burlington, VT, the team clinched the last playoff spot by beating Western Mass, 1-0, on the final day of the regular season. The Green’s leading goal scorer Diba Nwegbo scored the game winner late in the first half in front of a sellout home crowd of 2,500. Online, the team has enjoyed success thanks to its environmental justice initiatives, stunning kits, and eagerness to take part in social justice. Performance wise on the field they’re solid but have holes. A defense led by Creighton University products Jake Ashford and Owen O’Malley has challenged multiple New England teams this season. But the question is can they match up against one of the league’s best teams behind enemy lines?

#2 Seacoast United Phantoms vs #7 Christos FC

Lusitano Stadium (Ludlow, MA) - 4:30 PM EDT

Seacoast United comes into the playoffs after winning their first Northeast Division title since 2017. Head coach Alex Ryan and his squad finished the organization’s 26th season with a record of 12-1-1. A few players to watch on offense include leading goal scorer Taig Healy (7 goals) and Italian expat Sebastiano Musu (5 goals). In net a unique two goalkeeper setup has allowed both Jassem Koleilat and Holden Brown to shine with stellar performances. Each keeper has played ten games with each being a common substitute for the other mid-match. Seeing the type of team they’ll be playing in Round 1, having multiple options to choose from is a valuable asset for the Hampton, New Hampshire side to have between the posts.

Christos’ first season in USL League Two went fairly well all things considered. The Baltimore, Maryland side, best known for taking a lead against DC United during the 2017 U.S. Open Cup, finished second in the Chesapeake Division behind Lionsbridge FC. On offense the team was fairly respectable scoring… *checks notes* 51 goals in 13 games. Forward Ben Stitz is a huge reason why that number is so high, scoring 15 goals in just 11 games for the team. The University of Pennsylvania graduate student finished second in the league’s golden boot race and is only one of the weapons head coach Eric Bathras has rostered. Despite being a wildcard team in the East, Christos is a viable, smart money bet to make a deep playoff run.