Even though the Harrisburg City Islanders were coming into their fourteenth season in 2017, they were still looking forward to a few firsts. It was going to be their first season at Division II and their first season playing all of their home matches at FNB Field. After struggling their way through 2016, the season got off to a strong start as the City Islanders won two of their first three matches. But after that...
Well the rest of the season didn’t really meet expectations. Harrisburg ultimately missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season as their 37 points from 32 matches was only good enough for eleventh place in the Eastern Conference. They were just 8 points shy of a playoff spot.
Let’s break down some of the highs and low of the City Islanders’ season.
The Winning Streaks
While Harrisburg didn’t get a lot of wins this season, they did manage to string most of them together. Their unquestionably best run came at the end of the season where they managed to rattle off wins over Toronto, Ottawa, and Saint Louis (x2) and they came five seconds away from topping FC Cincinnati. They managed to collect more than a third of their points for the season during that stretch.
The City Islanders also managed to get their act together around the end of June, starting with their biggest win over the season. Harrisburg’s upset victory over Louisville City FC looks even better when you consider all that Louisville has managed to accomplish since then. Harrisburg managed to ride the momentum from that upset to wins over Toronto, NYRB II, and Richmond, with only a loss to Rochester in between.
The Losing Streaks
Harrisburg’s playoff chances for 2017 were ultimately doomed by the two poor runs that they endured in the middle of the season. The first run stretched from April 18th until June 20th when they went winless over ten matches. That’s almost a third of the entire season. The City Islanders were only able to earn four points during this two month period.
Unfortunately for them, Harrisburg was able to “top” this with their run from July 18th through September 6th. They went winless over eight matches this time, but more importantly they went scoreless for six matches during that period. They were ultimately outscored 15-0 during that six match stretch. Thankfully they were able to shake off this poor run of form in September.
Despite the City Islanders having their fair share of hard times during the season, they managed to greatly improve the atmosphere on City Island during the matches this year. They were helped by the fact that they would be playing a full slate of games there in 2017, as compared to the 2016 experiment that saw them play five “home” matches over in Lancaster. Keeping the games in one place lead to a big bump in attendance as well. The average attendance jumped from 1,547 per match in 2016 to 2,429 per match in 2017.
It looked like this jump in attendance helped boost morale for Harrisburg, and they played significantly better on the island this year compared to last year. In their ten Harrisburg matches last year, the City Islanders could only manage a single victory. In 2017 they managed to win seven matches at home on their way to an impressive 7-4-5 record at FNB Field.
Too Many Injuries
I wanted to make a list of injured players to display in this section, but it felt the the entire team picked up an injury at some point during the season. I’m only slightly exaggerating.
How different would the season have been if veteran Islanders like Aaron Wheeler, Mo Dabo, and Cardel Benbow didn’t miss so much time due to injury? Or if new signees like Manolo Sanchez, Pedro Ribeiro, Jonny Mendoza, and Lee Nishanian were available for selection in more matches? And let’s not forget that eventual leading scorer Ropapa Mensah missed more than a few matches early in the season after picking up an injury at Richmond. How many more goals would he have scored?
That many injuries is a lot for any team to overcome. This was one situation where being an affiliated team could have come in handy. Harrisburg could have used a few young guys to plug in while other players got back to 100 percent.
Improvements over 2016
Let’s throw out a few more areas where Harrisburg is trending upward. The City Islanders played two extra games in 2017, but they also managed to get two more wins than last year. That helped them bump up their points-per-game average, but only by a little bit. They showed some defensive improvement by only allowing 47 goals in 2017 compared to 54 goals in 2016. But they declined offensively as they only scored 28 goals in 2017 compared to 37 in 2016.
Harrisburg did a much better job of matching up against quality opponents in 2017 compared to 2016. Last year they only managed two wins over playoff teams and both came against Orlando City B early in the season. This year they improved that to four thanks to victories over Louisville, Bethlehem, and NYRB II (twice).
Harrisburg had a pretty down year in 2016, but at least they managed to beat Pittsburgh for the Keystone Derby Cup that season. They had no such luck in 2017 as Pittsburgh took back the cup thanks to a 3-0 victory in Harrisburg. Pittsburgh ended up lower on the table at the end of the season, but that’s not much of a consolation.
Harrisburg also had a chance to take home the newly created Old Guard Shield. However, they only managed a single win over the teams in contention for the trophy (Charleston, Rochester, Pittsburgh, and Richmond) and their final defeat of the season at Charleston helped secure the shield for the Battery.
Obviously any season that ends with the team having a losing record and missing the will be a bit of a let down. But rather than focusing on the negatives, let’s think about some positives for 2018.
The City Islanders only needed another eight points to make the playoffs, and I think if they had stayed healthy through 2017 they could have gotten there. It’s also a promising sign that their connections through new majority owner George Altirs helped them discover young talent like Ropapa Mensah and Abass Mohammed. By combining these resources with some returning USL veterans from the 2017, I think Harrisburg has a good chance to be competitive going into 2018.