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MURRAY: The 2021 USL League One Playoff Contender Tiers

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 11/04/21, 8:00AM EDT


The first six-team bracket in the league’s postseason is here, who sits where to begin?

Greenville Triumph SC got to celebrate with the League One trophy last year, and they're back among six teams in contention for the title this postseason. | Photo courtesy Greenville Triumph SC

For the first time this season, we’ve got a six-team field in the 2021 USL League One Playoffs, presented by TwinSpires.

That’s added a Quarterfinal round to proceedings as well as a bye to the Semifinals for the top two of Union Omaha and Greenville Triumph SC, giving us an additional weekend of action to look forward to.

The thing about a six-team field, though, is there’s little room for error. Unlike the Championship’s 16-team bracket – where the Conference Quarterfinals offer what look like on paper some real David vs. Goliath matchups – the level of parity in League One can make things close to call right from the start.

So, which teams might go all the way, and which seem destined to fall short? Here’s a look ahead at each team’s contender level as we approach Saturday’s kickoff.

The Favorites

Union Omaha

Regular Season Record: 14-5-9, 51pts
Team Leaders: Greg Hurst, 13 goals; Devin Boyce, 8 assists; Rashid Nuhu, 44 saves

Union Omaha opened the season with three consecutive victories and from there rarely broke stride on the way to a first-place finish that saw it finish six points clear of its closest rival. From the league’s best defense – the only one, in fact to record a sub-1.00 goals against average – to finishing tied for the league lead with 44 goals, los Buhos were a force to be reckoned with.

That’s why they’re at the top of the list here, because game-in and game-out they went and produced in the manner they could. A late-season surge of goals also helped that – Omaha scored 23 times in the final two months of the season, the most of any League One club, and put 17 assists on those tallies.

Is it going to be a parade to a victory parade? Definitely not. The home loss late in the season to Greenville Triumph SC is going to be one that sticks around, but if those two teams end up in this year’s Final back in Nebraska, it could prove a very useful motivator.

After the improvement the side made from Year 1 to Year 2, however, Union should be considered the favorite.

Greenville Triumph SC

Regular Season Record: 12-7-9, 45pts
Team Leaders: Marios Lomis 14 goals, Mohamed, Gavilanes, Walker, 3 assists; Dallas Jaye, 43 saves

The defending title holders are back, and in the nick of time as well.

For a while there, it did not appear Triumph SC’s defense of its 2020 crown was going to be a particularly fruitful one, especially after the club’s run of one win in 12 games that bridged the middle of the season after a strong start.

That feels like an eon ago now, with the side’s 3-0 win against Toronto FC II on September 3 kicking off a superb final two months that saw Triumph SC go nine games without defeat and take victories against both Chattanooga Red Wolves SC and Union Omaha to claim second position. Greenville’s defense is back, too, now with Paul Christensen between the sticks for what is currently a five-game shutout streak.

The champs are here, and they’re ready to rumble.

Challengers to the Crown

Chattanooga Red Wolves SC

Regular Season Record: 11-6-11, 44pts
Team Leaders: Juan Galindrez, 10 goals; Ricky Ruiz, 10 assists; Tim Trilk, 35 saves

What an interesting season it’s been for the Red Wolves. From setting a league record for most games undefeated at 15 to having Ricky Ruiz claim the Assists Champion crown while equaling the league record with 10 assists this regular season, there’s been a lot of excitement and entertainment at CHI Memorial Stadium.

But that excitement came with a potential downside. Chattanooga’s propensity for come back that served as a hallmark during its historic run suddenly paved the way to a late season drop out of the top two after losing four of the club’s last six games.

If there’s a lesson for the Red Wolves here it’s that they have to be engaged from the opening whistle and can’t expect a comeback to land every time. That’s particularly important as the stakes rise in the postseason, where one poor first half can mean the end of the season.

By their underlying numbers, Chattanooga had the best Expected Goal Difference (+14.48xGD) and most Expected Points (47.1xP) in the league according to American Soccer Analysis. Now they’ve got to go out and prove their quality on the field three more times.

Richmond Kickers

Regular Season Record: 11-10-7, 40pts
Team Leaders: Emiliano Terzaghi, 18 goals; Nil Vinyals, 4 assists; Akira Fitzgerald, 88 saves

There are going to be questions about the Kickers ability to rebound and compete in this postseason after the end-of-season defeat it suffered to FC Tucson, which took the destination of Richmond’s first playoff game to Kino North Stadium instead of City Stadium, where the side had lost just once all year.

There are also going to be questions as to whether a team that was a middling as Richmond was most of the year – up some games, down others, but basically ending up about where it should have – can be a contender in a postseason that requires you to win three consecutive games on the road to lift the title.

But the Kickers have in their deck the biggest card any club can play in Emiliano Terzaghi, whose league-record 18 goals only further burnished his reputation after last year’s MVP award. The combination of Terzaghi’s raw +6.65 Goals Added rating alongside that of Jonathan Bolanos (+6.78) made the duo the essential parts to Richmond’s attack. If you’ve got that, you’ve got a shot.

Dark Horses

FC Tucson

Regular Season Record: 11-10-7, 40pts
Team Leaders: Charlie Dennis, 9 goals, 8 assists; Wallis Lapsley, 76 saves

So, you might ask, why is FC Tucson a Dark Horse in this field instead a contender? The answer is how much do you believe in this team?

There’s a whole lot to like, that’s for sure. Charlie Dennis has been great for much of the year, especially in the club’s surge into being a playoff contender as he leads the team in goals and assists. But as spectacular as much of the club’s play has been, it doesn’t feel wholly sustainable, and that’s where the numbers come in.

Tucson’s 44 goals this season came with an Expected Goals mark of 33.98xG, a 10-goal difference. Add in the club’s defense was pretty close to where it should have been – 39 goals conceded excluding own goals and a 38.76xGA mark – and you have a team that might be fortunate in some ways to be here. Going off an average season according to American Soccer Analysis, Tucson’s Expected Points total of 33.13xP over its cumulative performances would have left the side in 10th.

But that’s the regular season, and this is the playoffs. With a team that seemingly can compete with anyone, why can’t Tucson make a run?

North Texas SC

Regular Season Record: 10-8-10, 40pts
Team Leaders: Gibran Rayo, 7 goals; Kalil ElMedkhar, 5 assists; Richard Sanchez, 37 saves

The key question for North Texas SC as it goes into this postseason is which version of this team shows up? Is it the version that’s proven capable of taking on most everyone at different points – in seven of North Texas’ games this season it has logged at least a 2.00 Expected Goals Mark, a sign of the attacking creativity in the side – or is it the one that just can’t get things going and bows out – in another eight, NTSC has been held below 1.00xG in a game.

If it’s the former, then the 2019 title winner is capable of putting a scare into Chattanooga Red Wolves SC, just as it did on August 17 when it took a first-half lead it held until (you guessed it) the inevitable stoppage time equalizer by the Red Wolves. If it’s not, then it could be a short postseason return.

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