USL Championship playoff X-Factors with four teams remaining

Quick Hit
  • With only four teams left in this year’s USL Championship playoff field, we’re looking at one X-Factor for each team as they try to move towards a title

And then there were four. The USL Championship playoffs are down to the Conference Finals, and every team left has a real chance to win it all. What factors will make or break the final stretch for the remaining contenders? Let’s talk about that.

San Antonio FC

X-Factor: Red-hot finishing

In their 3-0 win over the Oakland Roots in the Conference Semifinals, San Antonio generated just four shots on target and converted on all but one. Is that clinical finishing sustainable? The team ranked 19th out of 27 USL teams for conversion rate in the regular season, but their forward group is talented.

The quality of the chances relative to the quantity is the key question. Because of their low-possession, transition-centric style, most of San Antonio’s looks come against undermanned defenses and unprepared goalkeepers. Versus the Roots, the West’s #1 seed took advantage of a transition chance to gain a 1-0 lead in the first few minutes of the game, adding their other goals late after Oakland had to press up to try and equalize. If San Antonio goes down and can’t feast on a desperate opponent, things could go differently.

Colorado Springs Switchbacks

X-Factor: Super subs

Trailing or deadlocked for much of the last round against the Sacramento Republic, the Switchbacks got over the line thanks to their substitutions. Isaiah Foster, a teenaged fullback, entered on the wing and injected a much-needed sense of pace and creativity. Later, veteran forward Aaron Wheeler lent an extra dose of physicality as a hold-up striker. Together, the twosome diversified Colorado Springs’ offense and let them dominate the final third down the stretch.

Colorado Springs has reached the Conference Final thanks to a strong starting eleven, but having unique and game-changing options off the bench is essential to their success. Brendan Burke is on the fringe of the USL Coach of the Year conversation for a reason, and his ability to leverage skilled substitutes in a pointed manner can carry his team to the title game.

Louisville City

X-Factor: The Wynder brothers

The big question for Louisville coming into their playoff debut was their shape in the back. Switching between a back four and back three with regularity, they opted for the latter this weekend, and no one was more important to the setup than Joshua Wynder. He set the tempo as a distributor at center back, defended nicely, and even scored in the penalty shootout.

Not to be outdone, his elder brother Elijah transformed the game off of the bench. Recalled from loan to USL League One’s FC Tucson midseason, he sat behind the striker in an adjusted 4-2-3-1 and pressed with great aggression to keep Pittsburgh deep in their own half. Elijah’s positioning on an 83rd minute corner opened up Josh’s shot, creating the rebound goal for a teammate. Minutes later, Elijah drew the tying penalty.

The 17-year-old Josh will start in the Conference Final, but 19-year-old Elijah can be a game-changer off of the bench. Their collective performances are key for Louisville City.

Tampa Bay Rowdies

X-Factor: Balance in the midfield

In their postseason run, the Rowdies have preferred a two-man pivot of Nicky Law and Lewis Hilton behind a front line composed of four attackers. Law is a classic No. 10 and Hilton is a deep-lying string-puller, but together, they lack the steel and energy to dominate the ball. Against Memphis in the last round, that led to a 60-40 edge in possession for 901 FC, and Tampa Bay was outshot 13-6.

Things significantly improved when Yann Ekra entered the match in the second half. Ekra is a hard-nosed box-to-box midfielder who’s been with the Rowdies since 2019, and he settled down the match with his heady defensive positioning and late-arriving attacking runs. Will Ekra start against a rampant Louisville midfield next week? I doubt it, but Neill Collins ought to ponder the idea, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him affect the game if Tampa Bay is bowled over through their center.