USL First Division Playoff Round-Up
Montreal Impact, Rochester Rhinos, and Vancouver Whitecaps all advanced to the United Soccer Leagues First Division playoff semifinals after their quarterfinal victories this past weekend.
With Commissioner's Cup winners Puerto Rico Islanders receiving a first-round playoff bye, the Caribbean outfit have been joined in the last four by the three clubs that finished just below them in the USL-1 standings, and who all failed to get past the first hurdle of the postseason this time last year.
The most exciting and eventful series involved third-place Montreal Impact and sixth-place Seattle Sounders. Both teams were involved in two highly-charged emotional contests in the regular season, and the anticipated bad blood was in full evidence during the two-game aggregate goals series. The Sounders, who were looking to defend their USL-1 championship title for the final time before joining Major League Soccer next year, made a good start with a 2-1 home win in the first leg on Friday. Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar and a Leighton O'Brien penalty gave Brian Schmetzer's side a slim advantage, with Stefano Pesoli scoring for Montreal. Both teams finished the game in Tukwila, Washington, with ten men after Pesoli and Seattle's Kevin Sakuda were both issued red cards. The animosity continued after the match, with Impact head coach John Limniatis angrily confronting Sounders fans outside the Starfire Sports Stadium.
The drama continued in the second leg on Sunday, as Montreal pulled off a thrilling 3-1 win to take the series 4-3 on aggregate at Saputo Stadium. In a match that had a further four red cards shown by the end of the contest, all of the game's goals came in the second half. Montreal's David Testo and Seattle's Roger Levesque scored before the hour mark, then substitute Rocco Placentino pulled the Impact level in the series with a quarter of an hour remaining. After Alcaraz-Cuellar missed a retaken penalty for the Sounders with ten minutes left, substitute Antonio Ribeiro became Montreal's hero when he knocked home the decisive winner in stoppage time.
Fourth-place Rochester continued their fine tradition in the USL-1 playoffs by overcoming fifth-place Charleston Battery 2-1 on aggregate. Though the series may not have been as eventful as the other two quarterfinal match-ups, the contest remained in the balance until the very end on Sunday. The Rhinos effectively earned their spot in the semis with two late goals in Friday's first leg at their PAETEC Park home. Steve Guppy and Matthew Delicate scored the decisive goals in Upstate New York.
It was on the Battery to turn the series around at their Blackbaud Stadium home in South Carolina on Sunday, and despite an early strike by Osvaldo Alonso, Rochester held on to advance to the next round after a 1-0 Charleston win.
The Whitecaps, who finished a point behind Puerto Rico in the table, secured their ticket to the semis with a 5-4 aggregate victory over seventh-place Minnesota Thunder. Teitur Thordarson's side started their playoff campaign in positive fashion with a 2-0 home win in the first leg on Friday night. Despite concerns over the condition of the Swangard Stadium pitch during the week, the Whitecaps took a two-goal lead to Minnesota after a Jonathan Greenfield own goal and late strike by substitute Justin Moose gave The Blue & White the upper hand.
Vancouver built on that lead in the second leg in Blaine, Minnesota, with Alfredo Valente silencing the National Sports Center Stadium crowd when he scored after just three minutes on Sunday. The Whitecaps led 2-1 at halftime after Martin Nash restored the visitors' lead, with Luchi Gonzalez equalizing in the first half for the Thunder. Eduardo Sebrango struck early in the second half to give the Whitecaps a 5-1 aggregate lead, but Minnesota bravely fought back to win the match and make the aggregate scoreline respectable. Melvin Tarley, Stephen deRoux, and a late penalty from substitute Frederico Moojen meant Minnesota claimed the morale victory of a 4-3 result to end their season.
This coming weekend, Puerto Rico will play Rochester in one semifinal, while Canadian arch-rivals Vancouver and Montreal will square off in the other semi. The Islanders will visit Rochester in the first leg on Friday before hosting the Rhinos in Puerto Rico for the second leg on Sunday. In the other semi, the Whitecaps will start the series in Montreal on Friday evening before the decisive second leg brings both Canadian clubs back to Swangard for a Sunday afternoon kickoff.
The semifinal winners will then meet in the USL-1 championship final on Saturday, October 11, with the highest-seeded club having the option to host the final.