It might sound hard to believe, but following Toronto FC II’s 4-2 victory over North Carolina FC on Sunday, July 18, 15 of the 30 weeks of 2021 League One regular season play had been completed. TFC II’s game this Friday against Greenville Triumph SC is the exact midway point of the regular season in terms of total games played, and although there’s plenty of time left for twists and turns, we’ve gained a good understanding of which teams are among the top contenders and which will be in a fight for the final playoff places.
Putting on my professor’s hat, here’s how I grade all 12 League One clubs on their performance through Saturday, July 24.
Chattanooga has developed a real flair for late drama this season, scoring a league-leading eight goals after the 80th minute. Those goals alone have gained the team 12 points that it otherwise wouldn’t have picked up, fueling the Red Wolves to second place in the table.
Jimmy Obleda’s side is one of the most entertaining to watch in League One and at this point can be considered a solid title contender, but there are two things preventing them from reaching a solid A grade. First, the team hasn’t distanced itself from the chasing pack because it draws a bit too often - five of its last six games have ended all square. Second, it struggles to keep clean sheets, which may be a problem come playoff time - the Red Wolves’ lone shutout so far this season was on opening day against North Texas SC.
It’s tough to evaluate Fort Lauderdale, who often look excellent for stretches of games but fail to put together complete 90-minute performances. The soccer on display is certainly entertaining, with the team’s 24 goals ranking as the most in the league so far.
That said, with just two wins in its last 10 matches, and the fact that Fort Lauderdale sits in seventh place despite having played multiple extra games than most of the teams around them in the table, it’s hard to be bullish on the club’s playoff chances.
The team boasts a ton of young talent, and things could click at any moment, but it will need to find consistency, and an upcoming three-game home stretch is perhaps its best remaining opportunity to make a surge up the standings. .
The Flamingos had a solid start to the season, losing only once in their opening seven games. But their form has taken a serious nosedive since then, winning only one of their last six games. The team is still tough to beat, but is tied for the league lead in draws with six. Repeatedly pick up one point instead of three, and you likely won’t be near the top end of the table.
The offensive struggles of last season continue to stick with this team - its 15 total goals are the second-fewest in League One. It’s a really good unit from back to front under Head Coach Carl Craig, and players like Connor Tobin, Aaron Molloy, Derek Gebhard and Jake Keegan are all having strong campaigns. To make a convincing push at the playoff places though, the team needs to create and convert chances with more regularity.
Greenville’s season thus far has been by all means pretty good - but it falls out of the A range because of the incredibly high standard the team set last season. Triumph SC currently sits in third place, not far off the top, but tying games has become a bit too much of a habit. In its last six games, Greenville has won once, lost once, and drawn four times, preventing Head Coach John Harkes’ side from repeating its dominance from last season.
In fairness, a lot of those draws have been quality results. Two of them were earned away against Chattanooga, and one was courtesy of a two-goal comeback against Madison. Triumph SC has also struggled a bit with injuries this year, and even when not fully healthy, this is surely one of the top squads in League One.
It almost certainly figures to qualify for the postseason, so getting healthy and staying that way look like the keys in the Upstate the rest of the way this season.
Not many people would have guessed that at the midway point of the season, the league leaders in shutouts would be the Revolution II. But that’s exactly who it is, and as a result, New England finds itself among the playoff places.
Whereas last year this team was young and talented but inconsistent, Head Coach Clint Peay has done a great job forming a more established identity this season. It still struggles to put in solid performances week in and week out, which is why its form yo-yos a bit. But it has the ingredients to be a playoff team, especially considering its success against its fellow MLS-affiliated counterparts.
The Revolution II own two wins each against Toronto FC II and Fort Lauderdale CF, who sit just below them in the table. Those results could prove decisive come October.
You couldn’t have had a tougher start to the season than NCFC did, but to this team’s credit, it’s showing real signs of promise and improvement. Last week’s 4-0 win against the Richmond Kickers was the best example of that yet, and though NCFC still sits six points adrift in last place, it can draw hope from its recent form and the fact it's played the joint-fewest games of anyone in the league.
Head Coach John Bradford’s team has lost just once in its last five games, and unlike most struggling teams, is quite strong defensively. Bar a 4-2 loss to Toronto FC II, NCFC has not lost any other games by a multiple-goal margin, and boasts three clean sheets in its last four outings.
There’s still lots of work to be done to get this squad where it needs to be, but if you’re already writing off their playoff chances, you could be in for a rude awakening.
At the start of the season, North Texas was perhaps the most difficult team to gauge. The same was true at the one-quarter mark of the season, and it still feels that way now.
There’s the North Texas which beat both Greenville and Madison by three goals at home, and there’s also the North Texas which lost 3-0 to the New England Revolution II. A big part of the team’s success seems to be whether they have First Team players on loan that day, like Kalil ElMedkhar, Eddie Munjoma, and Nkosi Tafari among others.
There are plenty of talented full-time North Texas players, but the results just don’t seem to arrive with the same frequency when they’re on their own. The disparity in the team’s home and away form is a perfect encapsulation of that - North Texas has League One’s best home record, but its worst away record. It’s the only team yet to pick up a point on the road, having gained all 15 of its points at Globe Life Park. This team feels better than its 11th-place standing suggests, but unless it can figure out how to get results outside of the Lone Star State, the playoffs would appear to be out of reach.
Richmond hasn’t lived up to its high preseason expectations yet. With only one win in its last seven games, the team is firmly mired in the mid-table scrum, and is the only team to lose to North Carolina FC this season - twice.
Still, there’s no need for this team to hit the panic button ahead of the second half of the season. On paper, this roster is still one of the most talented in League One. The challenge has proven to be finding a system that gets the best out of both attack and defense at the same time.
At the start of the year, Darren Sawatzky preferred to set up his stall in a compact shape that limited opposition space in the final third, and that made Richmond very hard to beat or score against - but it also limited the potential of the team’s quality attacking players. In an effort to remedy that issue, Sawatzky has recently tinkered with the formation, leading to more goals but a leakier defense.
That’s perhaps best exemplified by a 3-2 win over North Texas and last week’s 2-2 draw with South Georgia Tormenta FC, both of which were solid performances, but not quite as good as you’d expect from a team that was very clear about its title ambitions at the start of the season. This writer still believes the Kickers have a strong chance of reaching the postseason, but finding a balanced system to allow all of the team’s players to shine is the key for the rest of the way.
Who really knows what to make of this Tormenta team? A seven-game winless run to start the season was followed by a four-game winning streak, but that was followed by another four-game winless run. That latter streak snapped when Tormenta pulled off an incredible 3-2 comeback win away against Greenville, but the team then blew a two-goal lead of its own at home the following weekend to tie Richmond.
With 17 games under its belt (the most of any team at the moment), South Georgia is actually a fair bit past its midway point. It sounds a bit simple to say their focus for the stretch run should be to find a way to play at their best more often, but that’s really what it is - we’ve seen Tormenta play good soccer enough times that it’s fair to expect that of them on a more consistent basis.
In the face of some pretty immense obstacles, Toronto FC II has put together a respectable campaign thus far. Its record of 5-6-4 has it right in the middle of the table, and ahead of an imminent return home to Canada, well-positioned for a run at the playoff places.
That’s happened despite a shortened preseason in the high heat of the Arizona desert and playing the entire first half of its season either on the road or at one of two temporary home bases. Garrett McLaughlin has been flat out excellent, scoring eight goals to place him in a tie for second in the Golden Boot race. Like most League One teams, one of the Young Reds’ biggest issues is consistency, but there’s a lot of potential in this squad.
Tucson sits in 10th place at the moment, but that can be a bit deceiving - the team is only four points behind fourth-placed Tormenta FC, and has played four fewer games than its counterparts in South Georgia. The picture for the second half of the season looks promising as well. The team seems to have turned a corner under interim Head Coach Jonathan Pearlman.
In its last four games, Tucson won twice, fought back away to Chattanooga to draw, and suffered a narrow home defeat to league leaders Union Omaha. The addition of Tobenna Uzo to the frontline looks a really solid one, bringing a true center forward presence in the penalty area in addition to the team’s array of talent in the attacking midfield and wing areas.
If there’s one place this team still worries me, it’s at the back, where it has conceded the third-most goals in the league thus far. Tucson’s playoff chances are still very much alive, but they’ll need to tighten up defensively if they’re to get over the line.
If you’re an Omaha fan, you don’t have much to complain about this season. Los Buhos are unbeaten in their last eight games, winning four and drawing four to rise to top spot in the table. Couple that with the fact that Omaha’s nine remaining home games are the most of any team in League One, and it’s hard not to view this side as the front-runner to finish with the best regular season record.
Omaha has by far the league’s stingiest defense - it has allowed 10 goals in 13 games, while the three teams tied for second-fewest goals have all let in 16. Greg Hurst has been every bit as good as advertised with eight goals so far, and goalkeeper Rashid Nuhu leads the way in the Golden Glove race. There’s been nothing about this team so far to knock its grade below a full A.