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Road to the USL Cup: An Introduction

By H. Jose Bosch, 09/28/21, 8:15AM MST


Rising has officially clinched a playoff spot! So … now what.

Each week we’ll update you on the USL Playoff picture and the potential road to the USL Cup Final on Sunday, November 28.

But first, let’s refresh our memory on the 2021 USL Playoffs format.

The postseason features sixteen teams made up of the top four teams in each of the league’s four divisions (Pacific, Mountain, Central, and Atlantic). The top two teams in each division will earn a home playoff match for the first round, regardless of total points. After the first round, total regular-season points will determine the home team.

The first round will feature 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 divisional crossover matches (Pacific vs. Mountain in the West and Central vs. Atlantic in the East) and there will be no re-seeding following the first round

So, as of today (September 28, 2021) here are your playoff teams:


  1. Phoenix Rising
  2. San Diego Loyal
  3. Orange County SC
  4. Tacoma Defiance


  1. El Paso Locomotive FC
  2. Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
  3. San Antonio FC
  4. Austin Bold FC


  1. Louisville City FC
  2. Birmingham Legion FC
  3. FC Tulsa
  4. OKC Energy FC


  1. Tampa Bay Rowdies
  2. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
  3. The Miami FC
  4. Charlotte Independence


Rising’s Road to the Cup Final
Focusing on Phoenix Rising, if the season ended today, the club would have a first-round match up with Austin Bold FC. If Rising gets past the Bold as they did in the first round of the 2019 postseason, the club would play the winner of Colorado Switchbacks vs. Orange County FC at Wild Horse Pass.

That leaves El Paso Locomotive FC, San Diego Loyal, San Antonio FC, and Tacoma Defiance as potential Western Conference Finals opponents. If the season ended today, Phoenix would host the conference final regardless of who the team played.

Beasts in the East
The two teams with the biggest targets on their back in the East are Louisville City and Tampa Bay Rowdies. Two-time champion Louisville City would square off with Charlotte Independence in the first round. The Rowdies would host OKC Energy FC.

Battle for No. 1 overall
Only one team can guarantee home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and it’s the team with the most points in the league. Phoenix Rising is currently at the top of the table to guarantee home field throughout the postseason, but the race is tight.

  1. Phoenix Rising — 56pts (25 matches)
  2. Tampa Bay Rowdies — 55pts (25 matches)
  3. Pittsburgh Riverhounds — 48 pts (27 matches)
  4. Louisville City FC — 48pts (25 matches)
  5. El Paso Locomotive FC — 47pts (23 matches)
  6. Birmingham Legion — 47 (26 matches)

Rising and Tampa Bay are in the driver’s seat to seal the No. 1 overall seed, but with two games in hand on both clubs, El Paso Locomotive FC isn’t far off. The Riverhounds probably have the longest shot of this group, having already played 27 matches.


The playoff bracket is far from complete.

Following this weekend’s matches, Phoenix Rising is still the only club to officially clinch a spot in the playoffs (Louisville City and Tampa Bay should clinch this week). Apart from the Atlantic Division (Charlotte is nine points clear of the next team) the final postseason spots in each division are still up for grabs.

So be sure to catch up with us each week to stay up to date on the playoff picture and Rising’s potential road to the cup final!