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 Eastern Conference Q1 progress report.
Atlanta United 2
- Points per Game: 0.750, 15th in East
- Average Attendance: 3,665, 18th in USL
Atlanta Twonited won their first game against the Baby Bulls and I thought, “Maybe this team will be better than I expected.” Then they conceded late against Charlotte to begin a three-game streak of drawn games and I felt less confident. And since then, they’ve lost four in a row by a combined score of 10-2. They’re new to the USL, their roster is young and they have call-ups to deal with. The offense generally looks alright and they already have nine goals in eight games, but their defense is the worst in the conference and none of their keepers look particularly fantastic at the moment. I don’t know how to feel about this team yet.
Bethlehem Steel FC
- Points per Game: 1.000, 13th in East (-.375 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 2,133, 25th in USL (-30.1% from 2017)
Bethlehem have had a slow start to the season, much as they did last year. They currently have a goal differential of zero, only a single goal worse than last season. If they pick up steam soon just like a year ago, they’ll be able to push themselves up the standings pretty easily, and as the weather gets warmer the attendance should also improve. Things aren’t looking particularly great at the moment, but I’m not worried. There’s nothing unusual or anomalous to be found.
- Points per Game: 1.889, Tied 3rd in East (+.201 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 3,594, 19th in USL (+13.5% from 2017)
Charleston lost their third game of the season 5-2 against the Baby Bulls. I’m assuming that after that game, head coach Mike Anhaeuser went and gave them all some sort of pep talk, because they’re undefeated in the six games since and are on a four-game winning streak. It’s their best run of form in years and the fans are responding in turn. Things are trending upward for the Battery, and they’re in for another solid season.
- Points per Game: 1.375, 8th in East (-.125 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 1,687, 28th in USL (+4.4% from 2017)
Charlotte has already had two big wins this season, beating both Ottawa and Cincinnati 4-1. While they did go through a four-game scoring dry spell, they seem to have shed those demons. Jorge Herrera and Cordell Cato are both looking strong, my homeboy Eamon Zayed already has a goal with his new team, and most importantly, they’re selling out games. Now that they’re (almost certainly) going to renovate and occupy American Legion Memorial Stadium, things are looking really solid off the field for the organization. I hope we get to see some massive crowds for Charlotte vs. Charleston or Charlotte vs. North Carolina FC.
- Points per Game: 1.889, Tied 3rd in East (+.451 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 24,235, 1st in USL (+14.3% in USL)
Carrying on with my policy of “no dead horse topics,” let’s talk about some fun things. First up, Cincinnati finally beat Charleston in their opening game of 2018. That leaves only two teams in the Eastern Conference that Cincinnati hasn’t beaten: Nashville (because they’re brand new) and Tampa Bay. Cincinnati will actually play those two teams back-to-back in July. Emmanuel Ledesma is tied for the assists lead with four, the team is tied with the Baby Bulls for the best offense in the Eastern Conference and has only lost twice. Interestingly, two FCC players are tied for first and second in the yellow card standings. Forrest Lasso has five and Dekel Keinan has four. And on a final note, that one guy they said was not healthy enough to play for their team already has three goals for Penn FC. Anyway, Cincinnati is really good, but what else is new?
- Points per Game: 1.750, 5th in East (+.719 from 2017 NASL)
- Average Attendance: 11,203, 4th in USL (+33.4% from 2017 NASL)
Indy has arrived in the USL by winning games, making noise and selling lots of tickets. They’re also ridiculously efficient. Forty percent of their shots have been on target and 25 percent of their shots on target have led to goals. They have twice as many points in the standings as goals scored. And strangely, they’ve been undefeated on the road. Owain Fon Williams is doing great, but we must point out that he’s only faced 18 shots. That’s some incredible defending. Indy is doing everything right, as expected.
Louisville City FC
- Points per Game: 2.000, Tied 1st in East (+.063 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 7,039, 6th in USL (-18.3% from 2017)
Louisville is still really, really good, to absolutely no one’s surprise. Cameron Lancaster has four goals in six games, Greg Ranjitsingh is still excellent and all of those guys who were starting and playing consistently well last year are still starting and playing consistently well. They’re in a minor slump after going undefeated through six to start the season, but it doesn’t seem like anything serious or concerning. They’ve still won all four home games in front of big crowds and they’re probably going to win the East again.
Nashville City SC
- Points per Game: 1.500, 7th in East
- Average Attendance: 11,673, 2nd in USL
Nashville is quietly one of the strongest expansion teams in USL history. Through eight games, they’ve posted five shutouts thanks to Matt Pickens and sit just inside the top eight. We definitely don’t have enough data yet to determine where this team might finish, but they could find themselves in the playoffs as a rookie club. They’re also one of the few teams who have yet to receive a red card. Attendance wise, things are superb. Even excluding their home opener that was moved to Nissan Stadium, they’re still in the top five. Way to go, Nashville.
New York Red Bulls II
- Points per Game: 1.556, 6th in East (+.181 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 775, 33rd in USL (+22.5% from 2017)
The Baby Bulls have only lost once, eight different players have scored a goal, 10 different players have recorded an assist and the team is on a seven-game unbeaten run. And yet, no one is watching. I mean, not no one — their attendance is up considerably — but it’s still terrible. I will give them credit for this: Their lowest crowd this year is still higher than their 2017 average. But they still haven’t cracked 1,000 for any game. The lack of marketing for this team makes me cross. And yet they’re still going to make a playoffs run, as usual.
North Carolina FC
- Points per Game: 1.143, 11th in East (-.263 from 2017 NASL)
- Average Attendance: 3,379, 17th in USL (-15.5% from 2017 NASL)
I’m going to make a potentially controversial statement here: The USL was stronger than the NASL in 2017. I point to NCFC as evidence for this claim. A number of starters from their final NASL season were kept for the move to the USL, and yet the team is not performing as well as they did last year. While the USL has gotten better in 2018, it’s not by a significant margin. Anyway. Daniel Rios has been great, Kyle Bekker is still good and Austin da Luz is one of the few NASL veterans that’s adjusted to the USL. I’m not entirely sold on Alex Tambakis in goal just yet, but a few more good performances could easily change that. The only thing that actively concerns me is the attendance, but not that much. They’ll probably figure it out.
Ottawa Fury FC
- Points per Game: 1.000, 14th in East (-.188 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 5,326, 12th in USL (-1.9% from 2017)
Ottawa opened their season with a three-game road trip and lost all three. Two of those were blowouts. They’re looking like they might have rallied, and have played noticeably better the past three games. Alarmingly, they’ve scored only five goals so far, and three of those were in the previous two games. They need to find some offense quickly if my prediction of playoffs for Ottawa is to come to fruition. Goalkeeper-wise, Callum Irving faced 16 shots in the two games he played, and saved only seven. He’s been benched in favor of Maxime Crepeau, who has been substantially better. Assuming he keeps up his current performance, Ottawa should be alright.
- Points per Game: 1.111, 12th in East (-.045 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 1,335, 29th in USL (-45.0% from 2017, missing 1 game)
This team confuses me. There’s new ownership and branding, plus the weather has been cooperative, yet attendance is terrible. Losing half the fans from last season is terrible — so terrible that it wasn’t even reported for their most recent game against Ottawa. Watching that replay, I noticed the stands we got a glimpse of were almost completely empty and it was unusually, weirdly quiet. Not a good sign at all. I will say that since it was a Monday night game, a bit of a dip can be forgiven. But looking at the box score for the minor league baseball team, who are the primary tenant of the stadium, they drew 2,946. On a Thursday night. The Harrisburg Senators are averaging north of 3,500 in the same exact venue. Penn FC ranks dead last among independent teams and below five MLS reserve sides. Something desperately needs to change.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
- Points per Game: 2.000, Tied 1st in East (+.875 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 2,238, 24th in USL (-15.2% from 2017)
Pittsburgh are the only remaining undefeated team in the USL. Let that sink in. They are already on pace to surpass last season’s points total by midseason. Including their eight preseason games, they’ve played 16 straight without a loss. This is what happens when you make a big push to rebuild. By points per game, they’re the most improved team in the Eastern Conference. And while the attendance might look bad at first glance, their most recent home game drew 3,123. I blame the Penguins. If they keep up their results on the field, those numbers should rise off the field. Everybody go watch this team, they’re excellent.
- Points per Game: 1.250, 10th in East(+.250 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 4,066, 13th in USL (-12.8% from 2017)
Richmond has been highly inconsistent so far. After losing two to start the year, they went two undefeated. Since then: loss, win, loss, win. And yet they’re still performing better in terms of points per game than last year. They look like two different teams when they’re at home vs. on the road. Fortunately, they’re about to start a three-game home stand which could bump them into the top eight. Attendance wise, they’re down but not by all that much, and their last game drew 5,860. If they can figure out how to win on the road, they could make the playoffs. Could.
Tampa Bay Rowdies
- Points per Game: 1.333, 9th in East (-.323 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 6,151, 9th in USL (+4.4% from 2017)
Tampa Bay is the only team in the East that hasn’t drawn a game this year. Considering that three of their five losses were by a single goal — they’ve won the three games they’ve played at home and spent the past three games on the road — I’ll chalk that up to luck and random chance. Getting blown out by the Baby Bulls and Penn FC sucks, but blowouts happen to the best of us. If they take advantage of their upcoming home games, they’ll be fine. Attendance is still growing steadily, so all good there. Update: Rowdies defender Neill Collins is retiring and immediately taking over as head coach, replacing just-departed Stuart Campbell.
Toronto FC II
- Points per Game: 0.250, 16th in East (-.531 from 2017)
- Average Attendance: 1,236, 30th in USL (+13.5% from 2017)
Because Toronto FC made a deep Champions League run, a lot of TFCII players were called up to the first team. That left a shell team of reserves to try and handle some strong teams. Spoiler alert: They couldn’t handle them. TFCII sits at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with two points, three goals and a -10 goal differential. They’re also playing a handful of games across the border in Rochester, N.Y., the first of which they lost to Pittsburgh. As bad as they were in 2016 and 2017, they’re somehow worse this year. Yikes.
So, that’s the USL Eastern 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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