Photo credit: Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes
We’re now roughly one-quarter through the 34-game USL season, meaning most teams have played somewhere between 7 and 10 games each. As of right now, 147 of 561 matches have been played, which is 26.2 percent of the season completed. This is close enough to 25 percent for me, and I assume it’s close enough for you as well.
Quick aside, USL teams have added two games per season, taking them from 32 to 34. While generally speaking, I like having more soccer and having more games played, the number 34 is so much less satisfying than 32. Thirty-two is a power of two number, so it’s easy to divide up as much as one pleases. Thirty-four, however, is a semiprime, which means that it’s the multiple of two prime factors, 17 and two. This displeases me greatly, perhaps more so than the benefit I derive from two additional games per team.
Now back to your irregularly scheduled rambling.
For the season preview, I listed attendance and the 2017 record. Since directly comparing records gets weird when teams haven’t played the same number of games, I’m not going to do that here. We’ll be looking at points per game, which makes more direct comparisons possible. For attendance, I’ll be borrowing from Mike Pendleton’s lovely attendance tracking graphics, because I can’t be bothered to make a fourth spreadsheet for this story. Oh, and we’ll be going alphabetically through the teams, mirroring the layout from my season preview. And with that, let’s begin our USL Western Conference Q1 progress report.
Colorado Springs Switchbacks
- Points per Game: 1.273, 10th in West (-.102 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 3,108, 22nd in USL (-8.3% from 2017)
In my preview, I mentioned two specific things: continuously rising attendance, and a potential return to 2016 form. So far, the opposite has happened. The team is currently on its slowest points pace in the past three seasons, and attendance has dipped slightly. However, it was really, really cold in Colorado Springs through March and April, and they still managed to keep crowds north of 2,500. More importantly, their two most recent games drew crowds of 3,830 and 4,039. So really, not much to worry about at the moment. If summer weather can bring with it bigger crowds and better results, they’ll be fine and likely competing for the bottom two playoff spots.
- Points per Game: 1.091, 12th in West
- Average Attendance: 5,361, 11th in USL
Fresno is very quietly getting things together in all the right ways. The team is starting to mesh better, results are coming gradually and support is solid. While they’ve only won two games, they lead the league in draws with six, and they’ve yet to lose a game by more than one goal. I don’t think they’re playoff bound just yet, but they’re moving in the right direction for an expansion team. They also have one of the best logos I’ve seen in years as their secondary logo. I strongly encourage them to adopt that as their primary crest.
LA Galaxy II
- Points per Game: 0.667, 15th in West (-.240 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 1,087, 31st in USL (-10.5% from 2017)
Conceding nearly two goals per game? Check. Sitting near the bottom of the Western Conference? Check. Barely anyone there to see it? Check. It’s business as usual for Los Dos, except that the offense is looking much better. Fifteen-year-old Efrain Alvarez and teammate Ethan Zubak both scored hat tricks against Saint Louis FC, and the constant roster rotation isn’t disrupting their attacking play as much as expected. But really, the point of this team isn’t to win games or trophies, it’s to develop players. So, whatever, I guess.
Las Vegas Lights FC
- Points per Game: 1.250, 11th in West
- Average Attendance: 8,175, 5th in USL
- Meme Game: Even Danker
Y’all. This team. Where do I even begin? The mascot is an Elvis impersonator, they have live llamas at most events, Chelis got himself ejected and suspended for referee abuse, and the fans absolutely love it. Even when the team is losing, they’re still one of the most exciting, genuinely fun to watch teams in the league, and I’m loving every moment of it. Just as I said in my preview, keep doing exactly what you’re doing, my dudes.
OKC Energy FC
- Points per Game: 0.333, 17th in West (-1.198 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 3,863, 16th in USL (-8.6% from 2017)
A month ago, I wrote an article entitled “What’s going on with Energy FC?” I think we’re due for a sequel. Back then, the team had lost four games in a row. It has since extended to eight games. Eight. The team has only scored three goals all season, and hasn’t scored at all since March. That’s 519 minutes since their last goal and counting. This is the worst streak in the club’s history. Only two teams in modern USL history have lost eight or more consecutive games: FC Montreal in 2016 and Antigua Barracuda in 2012-13. These are two teams you never want to be compared to. Even last year’s Timbers 2 had a better start to the season, with a win, draw and five total goals through nine games. Yes, that Timbers 2 that I called “the hottest garbage I’ve ever seen in USL history.” This week, they play twice, once in the Open Cup against NTX Rayados in Dallas and once at home against Colorado Springs. They desperately need to win these two to turn their season around.
Orange County SC
- Points per Game: 1.700, 4th in West (+.356 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 3,074, 23rd in USL (+19.6% from 2017)
Here’s something I find unusual: I completely forgot to write a segment on Orange County SC in my preview piece and literally no one noticed (or at least no one mentioned anything to me). I added one later after the piece had been live for over a day when I finally realized my mistake. Anyway, this team has turned things completely around from last year. Thomas Enevoldsen is looking like he just might be the best attacking player on the team, and Andre Rawls has been an absolute beast, tied for the league lead in saves and clean sheets. Braeden Cloutier is proving himself as a head coach and is almost certainly drawing the attention of a few MLS teams by now. Off the field, the average attendance is growing at a fantastic pace, already triple their average from 2016. By just about every metric, they’re already on pace for their best ever season. Excellent, excellent work.
Phoenix Rising FC
- Points per Game: 2.100, 2nd in West (+.288 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 6,566, 8th in USL (+7.2% from 2017)
Phoenix might just be the one team in the West capable of overtaking the Butterflies. Their offense is the best in the league so far, even without Didier Drogba’s four goals in four games. Solomon Asante is proving himself as a constant threat and both keepers are putting up consistent numbers. Off the field, attendance is still growing, averaging 366 “above capacity.” They even pulled a crowd of 7,332 for their most recent home game. Everything is going exactly as they hoped.
Portland Timbers 2
- Points per Game: 1.700, tied 4th in West (+1.231 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 1,840, 27th in USL (-27.1% from 2017)
T2 has already guaranteed a better record than last year, simply by winning five games. Simply in terms of change in points per game, they’re the single most improved team in USL by a substantial margin. For me, the single biggest catalyst for improvement is new head coach Cameron Knowles. Loads of players were re-signed, and yet they’re consistently looking good. Not only that, but they’re getting results on the road. T2 are probably going to make the playoffs, but more importantly, their players are playing in a positive environment. Now they have time to focus on proper branding.
Real Monarchs SLC
- Points per Game: 2.444, 1st in West (+.351 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 2,111, 26th in USL (-18.1% from 2017)
In my USL preview, I said to expect more good things from the Monarchs, and they’ve certainly provided. They’re the first team to hit 7 wins this season and they’ve been consistently strong against any opposition. Furthermore, no single player has been a vital component without whom the team struggles. They’re managing heavy squad rotation with ease. Also, that new venue is open, it looks absolutely fantastic and the team has more professional facilities dedicated to it than most of the top independent teams. This is how you run an MLS reserve team in the USL. The only thing I don’t understand is why people aren’t showing up to their games.
Reno 1868 FC
- Points per Game: 1.300, 9th in West (-.544 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 3,891, 15h in USL (-30.0% from 2017)
Reno started the season with a bit of a sophomore slump, going winless through their first four games. But since then, the team has found the same sort of form they had last year with three consecutive shutouts and a win against Sacramento. Antoine Hoppenot has continued to do his thing, and the team is still finding the back of the net consistently despite the loss of Dane Kelly. While the attendance isn’t looking great, those early season games were colder than expected and attendance is already trending upward. Reno is almost certainly going to be just fine this year.
Rio Grande Valley FC Toros
- Points per Game: 0.889, 13th in West (-.205 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 5,657, 10th in USL (-20.0% from 2017)
RGV has been rather unlucky so far this year. All three losses have been by a single goal, and they went winless through the first five games. They’ve only been shutout twice. If they can stop conceding late goals and fix their own goal problems, they’ll be alright. Maybe not a playoff team, but definitely capable of making things interesting come September. Attendance might be down, but they’re still north of 5,000 so I’m not too worried.
Sacramento Republic FC
- Points per Game: 1.800, 3rd in West (+.363 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 11,569, 3rd in USL (+0.0% from 2017)
Sacramento is off to a great start in 2018. They’re third in the Western Conference, third in points per game in the West and third in league attendance as they continue their sellout streak from last year. They’ve had a bit of luck go their way, but still have a problem keeping games under control in the final half hour or so. A bit of defensive stability could take them to the championship game. But really, they’re gonna be fine as is. The two new hires in Todd Dunivant and Simon Elliott have both looked like great additions already, and the team continues to show everyone how it’s done.
Saint Louis FC
- Points per Game: 1.400, 8th in West (+.275 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 3,941, 14th in USL (-13.8% from 2017)
I wondered back in March whether Anthony Pulis inherited his father’s ability to eke out results, and so far, it’s looking pretty good. Saint Louis have managed to turn losses into draws late in the game on several occasions already. They’re not playing a high-scoring, free-flowing, beautiful brand of soccer, but they’re getting it done one 1-0 win and 1-1 draw at a time. The only real outlier was that chaotic howler in Los Angeles, where two children scored hat tricks for Los Dos. Anyway. Things are working as anticipated and I’m expecting them to finally make the playoffs.
San Antonio FC
- Points per Game: 1.444, 7th in West (-.493 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 6,998, 7th in USL (-2.2% from 2017)
San Antonio haven’t replicated their season-opening form from last year, but they’re not looking all that bad either. They’ve been a low-scoring, get-it-done style of team since their debut, and it’s really business as usual in 2018. They’ve only lost twice and they’re riding a four-game unbeaten streak. Attendance-wise, San Antonio continues to do great, and that tiny dip will have disappeared by midsummer. They also have the benefit of a three-game home stand in June to help them move up the table. I don’t think this team will finish as high as last year, but they’re gonna make the playoffs and hopefully make some noise in October.
Seattle Sounders FC 2
- Points per Game: 0.778, 14th in USL (-.191 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 3,513, 20th in USL (+240.0% from 2017)
S2 is a team with two different stories on and off the field. Results wise, they’re losing a lot. They lost a lot last year, they lost a lot in 2016 and they’ve already lost six games this season. But they’re a reserve team and they’re actually not playing half bad. One particular bright spot is Felix Chenkam, already sitting on four goals and looking better and better each game. John Hutchinson is doing his best with the constant player rotation and call-ups to MLS, and I don’t think this team will struggle all season. That said, I don’t think they’re making the playoffs. Off the field though, the move to Tacoma is paying off in spades. Attendance is way, way up, ahead of six independent teams and behind only one other MLS reserve side. If they get their own stadium and Tacoma-specific branding soon, they’ll be north of 5K easily.
Swope Park Rangers
- Points per Game: 1.667, 6th in West (-.146 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 924, 32nd in USL (-9.0% from 2017)
The increasingly inaccurately named Swope Park Rangers are pretty good. Kharlton Belmar leads the USL in scoring with eight goals so far, Hadji Barry is tied for the lead in assists with four and the team has only lost twice. Any team that can go to Phoenix and leave with a point is at minimum a pretty good team. Statistically speaking, they’re not quite as good as last year, but they’re in the top eight and will likely stay there all season. Attendance-wise, the move to suburbia has lowered their already paltry attendance even further, which is unfortunate but also expected.
Tulsa Roughnecks FC
- Points per Game: 0.556,16th in West (-.882 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 3,318, 21st in USL (-13.8% from 2017)
Tulsa is in for a long, looooong season. Their defense allows the most shots and goals in the Western Conference, their offense has been the second worst in the West and Fabian Cerda is not superhuman enough to compensate. He actually leads the league in saves — tied with Andre Rawls in Orange County — simply because he’s faced so many shots already. The team as a whole leads the league in red cards with four already. Whenever a team loses a number of starting players, it hurts, and Tulsa is hurting badly. It’s not going to get much better over their remaining 25 games, either.
So, that’s the USL Western Conference at roughly one-quarter completion. I hope you enjoyed this mess and I hope you’re enjoying the USL. It’s already been a lot of fun and there are still hundreds more games left to be played.
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.
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