USL Power ratings: Sept. 10, 2018

As always, fun times in the USL. Real Monarchs no longer a lock for top of the West? More official playoff eliminations? Let’s gooooo. Don’t forget to follow the site on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for all the content on USL, US Soccer, and Nashville SC.

Table Power

This rating method counts only opposition played and points attained in a given game – it is best used as a proxy for how the table is likely to play out at the end of the year.

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USL East power rankings:

  1. Cincinnati 3.08 – 77 projected points
  2. Louisville 2.49 – 62 projected points
  3. Pittsburgh 2.39 – 60 projected points
  4. Charleston 2.36 – 59 projected points
  5. Indianapolis 2.20 – 55 projected points
  6. Nashville 2.05 – 51 projected points
  7. NYRB 1.95 – 49 projected points*
  8. Bethlehem 1.93 – 48 projected points
  9. Ottawa 1.77 (+1) – 44 projected points
  10. North Carolina 1.76 (-1) – 44 projected points
  11. Charlotte 1.68 (+1) – 42 projected points
  12. Penn 1.58 (-1) – 39 projected points
  13. Tampa Bay 1.53 – 38 projected points*
  14. Atlanta 1.24 – 31 projected points
  15. Richmond 1.07 – 27 projected points
  16. Toronto 0.62 – 15 projected points

*This method doesn’t include non-conference games, so NYRB2 and Tampa Bay, which tied LA Galaxy II and beat Real Monarchs respectively, should end up with slightly fewer (by about one) and more (by about two) points than projected, respectively. One game is within the margin of error that unbalanced schedules provide. 

The gulf between Cincinnati and everyone else continues to widen, even though FCC didn’t finish its victory over Louisville City (they’ll resume with a 1-0 lead in the 38th minute Tuesday) to count as an even greater positive. Louisville City, Pittsburgh, and Charleston remain basically in lock-step behind them. Indy also moved up in the raw numbers but stayed about the same distance behind that trio to keep a lock on fifth.

Nashville, Red Bulls, and Bethlehem also remained in lock-step, but moving slightly down this week, preserving the order and approximate distance between them, as well. On current form, they have pretty good distance on everyone below them, and should be comfortably the final three teams into the playoffs. Among that group, Nashville has the easiest schedule remaining (only Atlanta and Tampa, which aren’t sniffing the playoffs, have comparably easy remaining slates), so they should be able to keep top pecking order among the three, though they’ve given away too many points for fourth or fifth to look realistic.

Behind that group, Ottawa and North Carolina flipped positions, as did Charlotte and Penn, but barring a huge change in form, none of them (I have probably the most faith in Ottawa out of that group, as I’ve been maintaining for a while now, because they’ve played much better after a horrible run of form to start the year, but they’re giving that away lately) are competing for a playoff spot in any meaningful way.

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USL West power rankings

  1. Real Monarchs 2.65 – 65 projected points*
  2. Phoenix Rising 2.63 – 65 projected points
  3. Orange County 2.59 – 64 projected points
  4. Sacramento Republic 2.40 – 59 projected points
  5. Swope Park 2.21 (+2) – 54 projected points
  6. Portland Timbers 2.20 – 54 projected points
  7. San Antonio 2.20 (+1) – 54 projected points
  8. Reno 1868 2.16 (-3) – 53 projected points
  9. St. Louis 2.01 – 49 projected points
  10. Fresno FC 1.67 – 42 projected points
  11. LA Galaxy II 1.64 (+2) – 40 projected points*
  12. OKC Energy 1.61 – 40 projected points
  13. Colorado Springs 1.60 (-2) – 39 projected points
  14. Rio Grande Valley 1.40 (+1) – 34 projected points
  15. Las Vegas Lights 1.35 (-1) – 33 projected points
  16. Seattle Sounders 1.07 – 26 projected points
  17. Tulsa Roughnecks 0.89 – 22 projected points

As above, Real Monarchs’ projected points don’t include a loss to Tampa Bay – they should end up about two points below the projection. Similarly, LA Galaxy II’s draw against NYRBII is not accounted for, but it’s close enough to the expectation that it doesn’t affect the projected point total.

One team is the story of the week after beating the top two sides in the projected table and making a huge leap itself: San Antonio FC beat Real Monarchs Monday, and followed that up with a victory over Phoenix Rising Saturday. Even though they only gained one position out of it, their raw number went from “hard cap at eighth in the West” to “within a thousandth of a point from fifth place” in the blink of an eye.

Monarchs also followed that up with a loss to Rio Grande Valley, making for a very intriguing battle at the top of the conference. The teams right in that region have approximately even strength of schedule in the remaining handful of games – and remember, the West has fewer to play than the East, with as few as five still to play for OC – so the final order should come down to some exciting moments in the final days (plus Real losing to an awful Tampa team in the rare non-conference game).

That’s also true down the table, where the order of Nos. 5-9 is a bit more exciting than who’s actually going to be in or out of the playoffs. Though St. Louis’s knocking off Reno keeps them in reasonable striking distance in that ninth – it still looks like that’s where they’ll end up. They do have a relatively easy schedule could help them throw a wrench in the works, but the gap that’s opened up is a sizable one.

I’ve been touting Swope Park Rangers as a team with some upside in recent weeks, and that’s starting to come to fruition a bit. I do think they’ll stay on top of that triumvirate currently projected to finish on 54 points (though San Antonio’s leap and their possessing of the easiest remaining schedule among the three could affect that).

Pure Power

This rating method uses almost an opposite philosophy: focusing only on goals scored for/against in each game, without attention to individual results. It looks at the quality of offensive and defensive performance against each given opponent, with a home/road component attached. It’s more effective for predictive purposes in single games, rather than necessarily projecting the end-of-year table.

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Orange County SC takes over the No. 2 spot in the USL after a big loss for Phoenix and OCSC’s recent return to form. Pittsburgh makes a big leap after not only a win against a decent Bethlehem Steel team, but a shellacking to the tune of 4-1.

The big gainer this week though, was weirdly Indy Eleven, which got a 3-0 win over New York Red Bull – a nice scoreline no doubt, but hardly something that should seriously move the needle after a home game. It was, however, Indy’s best home win of the year (primarily because they’ve been a pretty poor home team), and when you consider Red Bulls were one of the teams moving behind them – six-pointer! – while Fresno and Reno both took losses to teams below them in the power rankings… the picture starts to come together.

San Antonio predictably moves up the table, but wins against Real Monarchs and Phoenix Rising weren’t as impactful as I’d otherwise expect. Down the table, Penn FC’s loss to Atlanta United 2 not only bumped them from an outside shot to contend for the playoffs (barring a major change in form), it dropped them in the rankings in a big way.

Looking at the pure power marks, you can see some tiers solidifying themselves (albeit with some volatility in there, of course): Cincinnati stands alone, then the two best teams in the Western Conference, then Nos. 2 and 3 in the East, then a comfortable gap: I think you could say the top five are in a category to themselves, given that gap, There’s not much differentiation from Monarchs down to Charleston, then from Steel through Red Bulls is a tier of its own.

That’s, conveniently, 16 spots (i.e. the number of playoff teams), though that it includes nine teams in the East and seven in the West throws a minor wrench into the works of a nice simple cutoff. Of course, this isn’t a projected table rather than a power rank, so at least one of the best 16 teams as things stand today will be out of the playoffs. Sucks to suck, I guess. After that, things progress at a pretty even rate until you get to the worst four teams – and particularly the worst one team – in the league.

What it means for Nashville SC

Nashville stabilized with a road draw (ironically in as unstable a fashion as we’ve seen them get a result all year) at North Carolina FC. It wasn’t the ideal result, of course, but it allows them to maintain that No. 6 spot in the projections and No. 7 spot in the power rankings with seven games to play.

Those final seven games are:

  • v. No. 13 (proj. East)/19 (pure power) Tampa Bay (a notably bad road team, but honestly one that scares the crap out of me because it can score)
  • v. No. 4/9 Charleston (a potential six-pointer if NSC takes care of business next Tuesday)
  • @ No. 14/28 Atlanta United 2
  • v. No. 7/16 NYRBII (another notably bad road team)
  • @ No. 15/33 Richmond (the worst team in USL by a large margin)
  • v. No. 16/32 Toronto FC 2 (the second-worst team by a decent margin)
  • v. No. 1/1 FC Cincinnati

That’s five should-wins (two of which wouldn’t be catastrophic if they were draws), one game that’s a potential six-pointer and should be extremely competitive, and the best team in USL. Going 3-1-3 in the home stretch would be about the expectation for NSC, and would see them finish on 51 points (about fifth place in the East, outside shot at fourth). Any better, and the season is an unmitigated success.

Anything worse (but within the realm of realistically predicted outcomes), and they’re bound for a first-round exit against the No. 1 seed (Cincinnati) or No. 2 seed (Louisville or Pittsburgh, though an regular-season loss to Charleston would see them have a chance to finish second – and they’re by far the least-scary potential option in that spot). That would be a decent first season for a squad that was outspent by the vast majority other independent USL teams – and finished in the standings only behind teams that outspent them (and well ahead of Tampa Bay, which probably spends more than every non-Cincy independent team combined. That sounds like hyperbole but it’s not. They have no excuse to be as bad as they were this season with an insane payroll like that).

It’s not what you want as a fan, but it’s a successful first season, especially with the hopes that the team will do an FCC-style scorched-Earth strategy in 2019, its final go-round in the USL.

Playoffs?

Cincinnati was officially in the playoff last week, and Toronto FC II’s loss to Ottawa sends them officially in the other direction: the max points they can finish with tops out at 36, and there are already nine teams in the East with more than that. The next point Richmond fails to gain (i.e. the next loss or draw) should see them join those ranks, with eighth-place Nashville already on 39 and the Kickers then topping out with 38. Saturday’s game against Ottawa means only a Richmond win can keep them alive for ninth place (currently in possession of that very Ottawa team), though obviously they’re going top finish in one of those bottom three spots when it comes down to it.

Pittsburgh (or Louisville, if they manage to come back and upset FCC in the continuation of Saturday’s game) should be next to clinch, though with all but the bottom three spots still technically available to them, there’s still a couple weeks to go before that stuff will become official.

In the West, we’re not quite at anybody being officially in, but we’re extremely close: with OC on 54 points and both Real Monarchs and Phoenix Rising on 53, the worst any of them could theoretically finish is tenth (they lose out and everyone behind them win out – not technically possible with every game to be played having at least one team that drops points, but there are too many permutations to figure it out. I would bet at least one of them is technically in at this point). San Antonio and/or St. Louis dropping points this week while any of the top three earn points should see at least one earn its berth in an official sense. The mid-week between Real and St. Louis can serve both of those functions.

On the bottom end, both Seattle and Tulsa are officially out of the running, with RGV a single non-win from joining them, in any practical sense.

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