31 weeks down, one to go. The playoff stakes are clear in both conferences. Pittsburgh and Sacramento have sewn up the top seeds in the East and West, respectively. Memphis is all but assured to get the fourth seed in the East and earn a home playoff match; the West’s top four is locked in.
On the Eastern bubble, it’s either Miami or Detroit, both of whom won in Week 31. The West, meanwhile, is a mess; five clubs are feasibly in contention for the last two seeds.
There was plenty of outcry against playoff expansion when the USL Championship announced that this year’s format would include 16 teams, but it’s only led to excitement down the stretch. Say what you will about “devaluing the regular season,” but the last match day is about to be a blast.
Who’s trending up or down ahead of Week 32, and what tactical choices are driving those trends? Let’s dig in.
1.) Pittsburgh (+1)
Result: W 2-0 at Tampa Bay
Last time they faced Tampa Bay, the Riverhounds' 5-3-2 press denied any and all offensive flow against the Rowdies' back four. This time around, with Pittsburgh visiting Al Lang stadium, things started with an offensive tilt, as Albert Dikwa nabbed his league-best 20th goal just moments into the affair. The Golden Boot leader ran far post as his strike partner and a central midfielder crashed to the near side, and the normally-organized Rowdies got their wires crossed. Music to Bob Lilley's ears; no other manager can camp deep for nearly 90 minutes quite like him.
And camp deep, Pittsburgh did. One of Edward Kizza or Dikwa often dropped into the midfield from the striker spot to form a steely 5-4-1. Danny Griffin put in an immensely great performance shuttling from side to side as the truest No. 6 in the midfield. Eventually, with Tampa Bay pressing bodies forward, Pittsburgh got their chance on the counter and sealed the game.
This was a titanic match, and Pittsburgh fans will hope it presages much-sought playoff success. Lilley has managed many a good regular season team, but none as good as this one. Now, he needs to turn the top seed into a run in the postseason.