USL Playoffs: One player to watch on each of the 16 teams

Jul 21, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; FC Barcelona defender Gerard Pique (3) defends Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Ariel Lassiter (46) as he heads to the goal in the second half of the game at the Rose Bowl. FC Barcelona won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend, the United Soccer League kicks off their 2016 playoffs. Whether it’s an ex-MLSer on the comeback, or a phenom from across the pond, there is elite level talent amongst the 16 teams.

The USL’s playoffs are upon us. This weekend, 16 teams will begin the quest for the USL Cup. The matches are available live in HD on YouTube, with the USL Cup final broadcast October 23rd in primetime on ESPNU. With the NASL struggling to keep teams afloat, the USL has a chance to take over as the clear-cut second league in North American Soccer.

They are already the closest affiliated with MLS, with most teams fielding their own USL clubs. Attendance was on the rise this campaign in a major way, as was the skill level of the players making up the rosters.

The talent in the USL is a great mix of players looking for a second chance after a bumpy MLS career, an undrafted free agent wanting to show they belong, or an international player wanting the opportunity to showcase their skills in the United States. To increase your viewing pleasure of the 2016 USL Playoffs, I’ve highlighted one player, per team, that you should keep an eye on.

Sacramento Republic FC’s Cameron Iwasa

Sacramento is known for having one of the loudest fan bases in all of the USL. The guy who makes them cheer the most is second year man Cameron Iwasa. A fourth round pick in the 2015 Superdraft by the Montreal Impact, Iwasa signed with his hometown club after being released in the MLS preseason. Iwasa does not shy away from a big moment, or a long distance shot, scoring multiple big strikes to electrify the crowd. This year, he finished the regular season with 12 goals and three assist for the Western Conference champion Republic.

Sep 4, 2015; Sandy, UT, USA; Mexican National Team midfielder Javier Aquino dribbles the ball while defended by Trinidad & Tobago forward Trevin Caesar (11) during the second half at Rio Tinto Stadium. The match ended in a 3-3 draw. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Orange County Blues’ Trevin Caesar

The Blues rely on Trinidad and Tobago international forward Trevin Caesar to energize their offense. The quick footed Caesar is equally not afraid of going back to win a ball in the midfield, or firing a shot on goal when the team needs his scoring. He finished the year with an even ten goals, but none bigger than the brace he scored in the regular season finale to clinch a playoff spot for Orange County. His international experience and confidence in the midfield are a huge boost to the Blues.

October 1st at 10:30pm EDT from Bonney Field in Sacramento. Watch it live HERE

Feb 15, 2015; Austin, TX, USA; Columbus Crew midfielder Ben Speas (C) shoots the ball against Austin Aztex goalkeeper Cody Laurendi (L) during the second half at Mike A Myers Stadium. Columbus won 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

OKC Energy FC’s Cody Laurendi

The big bearded goalkeeper has played a lot of soccer for someone only 28 years old. He’s played in Belgium, the NASL with Puerto Rico and Fort Lauderdale, and the USL with LA Galaxy 2, Austin Aztex, and now the OKC Energy.

No matter where he is playing, one thing is the same, his consistent great play in goal. This year, he allowed under one goal per match, and pushed a team that often struggled to score, into the playoffs. He also recently earned his first call up to the Puerto Rican national team.

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Rio Grande Valley FC’s Charlie Ward

Clockwork is the easiest way to describe Englishman Charlie Ward. Not only was he one of only three USL players to play every second of their team’s regular season matches, he also makes the Toros’ offense tick. Statistically, he only finished with two assists, but if you watch a match, he will be the first player you notice for Rio Grande Valley.

He works constantly in the midfield, collecting passes from the back line and distributing them to the attacker he deems in the best position. A former Stoke City and Aston Villa youth player, Ward is also a very willing defender, in addition to his offensive prowess.

October 1st at 8:30pm EDT from H-E-B Park Training Complex. Watch it live HERE

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC’s Devala Gorrick

Bringing a wealth of European training and experience, Devala Gorrick turned in an incredible 2016, his second year with Colorado Springs. The 29-year-old West Virginia native was an all-star in the Thai Premier League, and also spent Academy time in the Bundesliga as a teenager.

Gorrick ended the season with a USL high 13 clean sheets. He made 81 saves, and finished second in goals against average, with 0.72. He is the perfect backstop for a Switchbacks side that is not afraid to play physical soccer. Outside of soccer, he is an award-winning filmmaker and producer, and also an aspiring actor.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2’s Kyle Greig

Representing the only playoff team from north of the border, Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2’s Kyle Greig is a proven goal scorer in the USL. He started his career in the league with Wilmington, before scoring 16 goals over two seasons with OKC Energy FC.

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This season, the collected, crafty Wisconsin native has hit another gear offensively, scoring 11 goals and tallying three assists in his first season with Whitecaps FC 2. He captained the club to the top of the Western Conference table for a good portion of the year, and will look to have them finish the season on top as well.

September 30th at 9pm EDT from Switchbacks Stadium. Watch it live HERE

Aug 23, 2016; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Whitecaps forward Masato Kudo (9) passes the ball against Sporting Kansas City FC defender Amer Didic (55) during the first half at BC Place Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Swope Park Rangers’ Amer Didic

Amer Didic has transitioned seamlessly from college to the pros. The Bosnian born, Canadian raised defender made the USL Team of the Week six times, the most of any player in the league. He’s a strong, mobile player on the backline, who rarely gets too far out of position. He also scored his first professional goal this weekend in the club’s regular season finale.

LA Galaxy 2’s Ariel Lassiter

The one they call the Goal Puppy. Other than having one of the best nicknames in soccer, Ariel Lassiter is one heck of a scorer.

The son of former professional Roy Lassiter, Ariel has a great touch for finding the net, whether it’s a last second tap past a charging keeper, or a rocket from outside the penalty area. Los Dos made a run through the USL Playoffs, all the way to the USL Cup final as a 5 seed, same as this year.

They lost that match to Rochester, but the Goal Puppy did net the game’s first tally. Even after Jack McBean left the club for a loan with Coventry City, Lassiter kept the young Galaxy side pushing towards a return to the playoffs. This is a popular dark horse pick to win it all, and if they do, it will largely be because of the play of their star Ariel Lassiter.

September 30th at 8:30pm EDT from the Swope Soccer Village. Watch it live HERE

May 28, 2016; Harrison, NJ, USA; New York Red Bulls forward Brandon Allen (21) in action against the Toronto FC at Red Bull Arena. The New York Red Bulls won 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

New York Red Bulls II’s Brandon Allen

NYRB2 had arguably the most prolific season in the USL’s history. They broke the record for points, wins, and goals scored. The player leading that side was Brandon Allen. He fell one goal short of the Golden Boot with 15, and added four assists as well.

He combines well with fellow young star Derrick Etienne Jr. to propel the high-flying Red Bulls attack. Allen is comfortable with both feet, and is a great all around forward, eyes open for the best option, shot or pass.

Aug 1, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando City SC defender Tyler Turner (2) defends Columbus Crew defender Waylon Francis (14) during the first half at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando City B’s Tyler Turner

The 20-year-old defender has been on the USMNT radar for years. He’s played for the U-17, U-18, U-20, and U-23s, sometimes serving as a captain over the years as well. He was the 2014 USL Rookie of the Year for Orlando City, and has continued to develop into a premier defender since then. He added four goals this season, and was a big part of OCB’s push to take the final playoff spot.

October 2nd at 4pm EDT from Red Bull Arena. Watch it live HERE

Jun 17, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Dynamo forward Chandler Hoffman (17) dribbles the ball during the first half against the Austin Aztex at BBVA Compass Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Louisville City FC’s Chandler Hoffman

Voted the 2016 USL Midseason MVP, Chandler Hoffman continued to showcase his skills in the second half. An MLS and USL seasoned veteran at the age of 26, Hoffman has been great, taking over for last year’s Golden Boot winner and MVP, Matt Fondy, who departed Lou City for the NASL.

Hoffman’s scoring touch made sure the Louisville City attack didn’t fall off. They finished the second highest scoring team in the league behind NYRB2, and Hoffman finished with 14 goals.

Richmond Kickers’ Yudai Imura

Yudai Imura arrived in Richmond last year, after impressing the club in a three day pro combine tryout. Hailing from Musashino, Japan, Imura has brought high pressure, and non stop action to the Kickers midfield. He finished this season with 10 goals and three assists, both led the team.

October 2nd at 7pm EDT from Louisville Slugger Field. Watch it live HERE

FC Cincinnati’s Sean Okoli

The 2016 USL Golden Boot winner, Sean Okoli leads the expansion Cincinnati club heading to the playoffs. His finishes were consistent, and sometimes unbelievable, even finding his way onto ESPN’s Top Ten which his early season scissor kick. After being moved from Seattle Sounders to New England Revolution, Okoli landed in the right spot.

He’s shown the ability to create offense, obviously finding the net himself, or freeing up teammates with his movement. Often playing in front of huge crowds in the Queen City, FC Cincinnati will be a tough out at home. Recently, MLS commissioner Don Garber has been rumored to be visiting the club, possibly about a future expansion. If and when that happens, you better believe Sean Okoli will be a big part of that leap.

Jun 17, 2015; Charleston, SC, USA; Orlando City midfielder Eric Avila (12) dribbles the ball as Charleston Battery midfielder Maikel Chang (12) defends during the first half at Blackbaud Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Charleston Battery’s Maikel Chang

Playing for one of the oldest soccer team’s in the United States, Maikel Chang brings youthful enthusiasm and creativity on the pitch. One of the club’s three Cuban players, Chang is great with the ball on his feet in the midfield, often providing the final unlocking pass, or getting it back to tap in a timely goal.

He finished 2016 with six goals, and six assists, earning the team’s MVP and offensive player of the year. Charleston’s defensive brand of soccer, combined with Chang’s creativity in the middle of the pitch make Charleston a possible sleeper to get to the USL Cup final.

October 2nd at 4pm EDT from Nippert Stadium. 

Jun 15, 2016; Rochester, NY, USA; Rochester Rhinos goal keeper Tomas Gomez (18) makes a stop as New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) looks on during the second half of a U.S. Open Cup game at Rhinos Stadium. New York won 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Rochester Rhinos’ Tomas Gomez

Tomas Gomez took over for 2015 USL Goalkeeper of the Year Brandon Miller. All Gomez did was earn the club’s second straight Golden Glove award, finishing with a .69 goal against average. Rochester is the reigning USL Cup champion, and they got there last year, and back to the playoffs this year, largely due to their defense and goalkeeping.

He was drafted by the Columbus Crew in the 2015 MLS Superdraft, but spent the 2015 season on the San Jose Earthquakes’ roster. After his release, he joined the Rhinos, and proceeded to shut teams out, and help them to a top four finish in the Eastern Conference.

Oct 18, 2014; Chester, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union forward Brian Brown (17) celebrates his goal as Sporting KC goalkeeper Eric Kronberg (1) looks on during the first half of the match at PPL Park. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Charlotte Independence’s Brian Brown

Jamaican Brian Brown brought a track record of goal scoring to Charlotte. He was the 2014 Golden Boot winner of the Red Stripe Premier League in his native country. He has scored in all three tiers of the North American soccer pyramid: the MLS, NASL, and now USL.

He finished this season with nine goals and five assists. The Jamaican international will need every bit of his offensive arsenal to lead the Independence to an upset of defensive stalwart Rochester at home.

October 1st at 6:05pm EDT from Rochester Rhinos Stadium

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