Countdown to USL Cup: Void of individual accolades, resolute Rangers have title in sight

For the second straight year, the Swope Park Rangers are on the precipice of USL Cup glory. The back-to-back Western Conference champions advanced to this exact stage in 2016, only to fall short of a league title in their inaugural season. With unfinished business still at hand, the Rangers will travel to face Louisville City in the 2017 USL Cup Final on Monday, airing live nationally at 8 p.m. CT on ESPNU.

During the week leading up to the championship match, is visiting seven relevant storylines surrounding the biggest game of the United Soccer League season. In Part Five, we examine why SPR head coach Nikola Popovic may have new a source of bulletin board material for the final.

The United Soccer League unveiled its 2017 All-League Teams on Thursday morning, recognizing 22 of the top performers during the regular season.

In a vote that involved team management and a league-wide media panel, an All-League First Team and Second Team were announced that included selections from 14 different USL clubs.

On both teams, interestingly enough, the back-to-back Western Conference champions were MIA.

Hours later, the 2017 USL Awards Finalists were revealed, pegging three finalists in each of the following categories: Coach of the Year, Defender of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.

Yet again, no representation from the Swope Park Rangers.

Despite a 17-win regular season that saw SPR finish fifth in the overall table with 58 points and emerge as champions of the West, head coach Nikola Popovic’s men will enter Monday’s USL Cup Final void of individual accolades.

As the team-centered mantra goes, sometimes the sum is greater than its parts. Indeed, that principle could be applied to this very Rangers team — the same team that has become the first to make consecutive appearances in the USL Cup Final.

Even so, Thursday’s announcement reflects an oddity never before seen. For the first time in league history, a USL Cup finalist will not be represented on the USL All-League First Team or Second Team.

To be sure, SPR had its fair share of candidates for inclusion. SPR goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas kept 10 clean sheets and posted a 0.90 goals against average, both of which outperformed All-League Second Team selection Earl Edwards Jr. of Orlando City B (nine shutouts, 1.13 goals against average).

In attack, Rangers forward Kharlton Belmar has directly contributed to 18 goals, scoring 15 and assisting three. That’s more than two All-League Second Team forwards, Juan Pablo Caffa (nine goals, eight assists) and Corey Hertzog (14 goals and two assists).

Louisville City FC defender Paco Craig was a member of the All-League First Team and a finalist for USL Defender of the Year. Louisville also has candidates for Coach of the Year (James O’Connor) and Rookie of the Year (Richard Ballard). The latter received the nod ahead of SPR defender Colton Storm, who started 22 more games and played 1,513 more minutes than Ballard while also leading all Rangers defenders with 230 duels, 69 tackles and 47 interceptions.

Arguable snubs aside, the Swope Park Rangers still remain in contention for the grandest prize of them all. Twenty-eight of the other 30 USL clubs cannot make the same claim. Whether Popovic uses Thursday’s announcements as bulletin board material or not, SPR will be relishing their second crack at the USL Cup against a Louisville outfit equally determined to lift the title as vindication for a dominant regular-season campaign in the Eastern Conference.

Monday's USL Cup Final will kick off at 8 p.m. CT inside Louisville Slugger Field, airing live on ESPNU. All Rangers fans are invited to the official watch party for the match at No Other Pub in the Kansas City Power & Light District, with drink specials and giveaways beginning at 7 p.m. CT.