The World Cup has reached the knockout rounds with upsets galore and many a favored contender heading home early. But you probably knew that already.
Instead of using some weird metric to rank and/or predict the World Cup, I’ve been itching to get back to my bread and butter: USL analyses. Today, that itch has been scratched.
Back around the ides of May, I wrote a reasonably detailed, two-part progress report on the 2018 USL season about a quarter of the way through it. Right now, there have been 266 of 561 matches played, which means we’re at roughly the midway point of the season. And most importantly, it’s a period where the season has a 48-hour break for me to sit down, write, make spreadsheets, calculate arbitrary percentages and write. And for the really mathematically inclined, it means that every team has played, on average, 16 games. Plenty of data over which I can pore and jump to conclusions.
As before, the two primary metrics I’m tracking are points per game and average attendance, for reasons explained at length in the Q1 progress reports. Also, this report is being deliberately written as a two-part affair due to the sheer lengthiness of the previous two USL pieces. Hopefully it’ll be easier to swallow once I break this in half.
And with that, let’s jump to some conclusions.
Colorado Springs Switchbacks
- Points per Game: 1.333, 9th in West (+.061 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 3,603, 18th in USL (+15.9% from Q1)
Oh hey, the team that I said would be fine and likely competing for the bottom two playoff spots in front of larger crowds is doing just that. Colorado Springs has started to figure things out again and currently sits in ninth by less than .07 points per game behind San Antonio. The club’s goal differential is in the positives, the defense has looked solid and they’ve won three of their last five. While they’re still recovering from a relatively poor start to the season, there honestly isn’t much cause for concern here. Attendance is up 6.3 percent relative to 2017 and they’ve allowed the third-fewest goals in the conference. These are clear, positive signs.
Prognosis: If they don’t make the playoffs, they’ll miss by three points or fewer.
- Points per Game: 1.158, 11th in West (+.067 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 4,962, 11th in USL (-12.5% from Q1)
Fresno is having a very whelming debut season. While attendance is down by a few hundred per game, the club has started winning. And yeah, they’ve started losing as well, but let’s focus on the winning because I’m going to be focusing a lot on losing further down this article. Fresno has gained a position in the PPG standings, moving from 12th to 11th, and honestly might make some noise come September. Their goal differential is in the positives and they’re still averaging roughly 5,000 per game. Yeah, they could be doing better, but this is a team that was hand-assembled by the one and only Frank Yallop, so take the little victories and build for the future. Also, I still don’t like the jerseys and think the secondary fox logo needs to be the primary logo.
Prognosis: They’ll finish roughly one-third the way up the table, which is to say probably 11th or 12th. But that’s fine.
LA Galaxy II
- Points per Game: 0.941, 14th in West (+.275 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 1,148, 30th in USL (+5.6% from Q1)
Los Dos are finally doing proper soccer-related things both on and off the field. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still not a good team or even mediocre, but they’re marginally less depressing to look at than they were in May. And now, speculation time. We got word recently that Toronto FC II is moving down to USL D3 for 2019, which means that they now have the (R) for relegation listed on the standings. Here’s where I promote LA Galaxy II doing the same: LA Galaxy II should do the same thing. USL D3 costs less, and while it might not be up against the same opposition level as USL, it’s likely not that dramatic of a change and won’t be significant enough to impact player development either way. Kids need meaningful minutes, and as long as USL D3 adopts the same rules and regulations for the games themselves as USL, it’ll be fine.
Prognosis: Relegation, but the American style where you choose to do it of your own volition because freedom.
Las Vegas Lights FC
- Points per Game: 1.133, 12th in West (-.117 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 7,523, 5th in USL (-8% from Q1)
- Meme Game: Full Chelis
Here is a summary of all the important events involving Las Vegas Lights FC since Q1: Freddy goddamn Adu scored his first professional goal since 2015, Chelis got himself suspended again and I got into several heated debates over their home jerseys. I maintain, correctly, that they are beautiful masterpieces of kit design, and sit among the greatest jerseys ever worn in the history of the sport. Other people, who I will refer to as Bailey and Dan from the Dallas Beer Guardians for the sake of anonymity, claim that they’re either tacky or stupid or horrible or other negative adjectives that I honestly didn’t bother paying attention to because they’re simply incorrect. Anyway. There’s been a slight decline in PPG which is what happens when Los Dos blows you the actual hell out 7-2, but they beat Colorado Springs and Tacoma Sounders both 4-1. Just like I said before, this team is genuinely entertaining no matter what the score, and the party in the stands keeps on keepin’ on.
Prognosis: I wonder how long management tolerates Chelis’ actions before he gets la patada.
OKC Energy FC
- Points per Game: 1.000, 13th in West (+.667 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 3,964, 16th in USL (+2.6% from Q1)
OKC doesn’t suck anymore! The eight-game losing streak came to an end just days after I wrote the Q1 report (although technically it was nine because they lost to NTX Rayados in the Open Cup in what was, frankly, an embarrassing mess of a game) by beating Colorado Springs 1-0. Since then, they’ve actually won three more games, and drew Tulsa, so there’s hope for them yet! In fact, those three wins constitute an active winning streak, beating the Portland Saplings, Rio Grande Valley Football Club Toros of Edinburg and Los Dos by a combined 6-2 scoreline. By points per game, they’re actually the most improved team in the Western Conference. Maybe Steve Cooke is finally settling in up there, or maybe they’re regressing to a much less horrifying mean. All I know is I no longer avert my gaze when Fotmob shows a notification from an OKC game, and this is a welcome change.
Prognosis: Honestly, who knows? I’d like them to make the playoffs but they need to continue not sucking for like, more than three weeks. Reply hazy, try again.
Orange County SC
- Points per Game: 1.688, 4th in West (-.013 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 3,013, 23rd in USL (-2% from Q1)
Everything is quietly going really well for Orange County this season, which is to say they’re doing fantastic work despite few people noticing. But I notice! And not just out of guilt for forgetting them in the USL season preview. Thomas Enevoldsen has nine goals this season, tied for first in the league, while Andre Rawls is tied for second with seven shutouts. And they’ve not only been good, they’ve been consistently good. They haven’t gone winless for more than two consecutive games all season and they haven’t lost at home since March. All the important numbers are way, way up from last year, and they’re on track to surpass their 2017 points total at around 25 games. In the Q1 report, I speculated that Braeden Cloutier might be drawing the attention of MLS teams. I’m willing to expand on that to say both Cloutier and Oliver Wyss, a guy with a really long title that really just means GM, should be viewed as potential replacements for some of the underwhelming/disappointing management teams in MLS. While OCSC fans will rightfully want them to stay and keep things up as long as possible, I can’t help but think that these two might be doing a better job with that unnatural disaster in the Bay Area than the recently appointed powers that be.
Prognosis: This is a genuine top-five team. Unless something super weird and depressing happens, they’re making the playoffs easily.
Phoenix Rising FC
- Points per Game: 1.944, 2nd in West (-.156 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 6,505, 8th in USL (-0.9% from Q1)
Phoenix Rising head coach Patrice Carteron, the winningest coach in Arizona United/Phoenix Rising history, is gone. He’s buggered off to Egypt to manage Al Ahly SC. Honestly, I can’t really see why the man he replaced, Hossam El-Badry, felt the need to quit. Al Ahly was comically dominant in the Egyptian Premier League last season, winning 28 of 34 league matches and losing only two. The club only lost the CAF Champions League by a single goal in 2017. As best as I can tell, the group stage elimination in the 2018 CAF Champions League was the death knell, but I don’t see how Carteron can really make much of an improvement here. Al-Ahly has won the league three seasons in a row with a grand total of six losses. But that’s an entirely different story. God, Egyptian soccer is stupidly unbalanced. More relevantly, his interim replacement in Phoenix, Rick Schantz, seems to be doing just fine. He’s coached Phoenix to four consecutive shutouts, including three wins, and the club hasn’t lost since May 26. Chris Cortez has been remarkably consistent, with three goals in the past six games alone. Phoenix currently has the best offense and highest goal differential in the conference. The club managed to somehow hold onto a 1-0 lead against Orange County despite playing down a man for 55 minutes. That red card alone is an anomaly, one of only three issued to Phoenix players all season. This a well-built, well-run and unusually well-disciplined machine. Off the field, the club continues to average north of the stated “capacity” of their stadium by over 300, and haven’t had crowds much below 6,000 at worst. Everything is still going right for Phoenix, and I don’t think the loss of Carteron is going to significantly damage their season.
Prognosis: Easy top-three team. Strong candidate for the top seed. Likely championship contender.
Portland Timbers 2
- Points per Game: 1.529, 7th in West (-.171 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 2,696, 24th in USL (+46.5% from Q1)
The Saplings have seen a massive turnaround from last season. Not only are they playing properly good soccer, they’re even bringing in more people to see it than the previous two seasons. Cameron Knowles is proving himself as an above-average or better coach, and his team is on track for its best-ever finish. I don’t think the Timbers management told him that they need to make the USL playoffs, but it’s definitely a positive externality of proper management and coaching. It’s also a sign that the Timbers are going to continue to be good in MLS for a while. And this 2 team is one of the few I don’t expect to drop to USL D3, unless they decide to pinch as many pennies as possible.
Prognosis: Likely making the playoffs, probably as a 7th seed.
Real Monarchs SLC
- Points per Game: 2.313, 1st in West (-.132 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 1,895, 28th in USL (-10.2% from Q1)
Let’s talk about Mark Briggs for a quick tangent. Mark Briggs, head coach of Real Monarchs ever since Mike Petke got promoted last March, is currently on administrative leave due to his ongoing domestic assault case, and has been since May 29th. Since then, the team has been coached by RSL legend Jamison Olave, and the efficient machine that is the Butterflies continues to win games. The team is currently on a stronger pace than last year’s runaway season, and that’s legitimately terrifying. They’ve only lost three times this season, and never by more than two goals. Olave now has three wins from his first four games in charge with a 6-3 aggregate scoreline. This team is the strongest in the league, and it’s not even all that close. To match the Monarch’s points-per-game pace, Cincinnati would need to be more than five points better than they currently are. Their defense is the second best in the conference, their goal differential is third best and they’re the only team in USL with more than 10 wins. Everything that Dell Loy Hansen has done to grow his organization is working nearly perfectly. And yet, no one is turning up to games. Not really no one, but still, not very many people considering the stadium seats 5,000 in a suburb with 51,000 people. I don’t understand this at all, unless their marketing for USL games is worse than what FC Dallas does here.
Prognosis: Hide your kids, hide your prospects and hide your draft picks ’cause they’re scoring on everybody out here.
Reno 1868 FC
- Points per Game: 1.647, 5th in West (+.347 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 4,402, 13th in USL (+13.1% from Q1)
Reno started the year in decidedly not-good fashion, and then, on April 21, they decided to stop being not good and to start being good again. It worked. Reno is now on a 13-game unbeaten streak and they’ve won three of their last five. They’ve gained five positions in the Western Conference points-per-game table since Q1, tied with only OKC for biggest mover. And yet, there aren’t many standout individuals on the team this year, save for maybe Antoine Hoppenot. He’s tied for second place in the assist leaders table with 7, which is pretty good, but still indicative of the lack of reliance on any one player in particular this year. This is exactly how a team should be built, in my mind, so that on any given day they can get a positive result. Attendance wise, they’re still down relative to last year, but up from Q1 to halfway. I’m still not worried about that.
Prognosis: Another championship contender, assuming their inevitable regression isn’t too mean.
Rio Grande Valley FC Toros
- Points per Game: 0.750, 16th in West (-.139 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 5,203, 10th in USL (-8.1% from Q1)
- Name: Too long and kinda stupid
I no longer think RGVFC is unlucky. At this point, I’m pretty sure they’re just bad. They’ve won just once this season, which was preceded by a three-game losing streak and followed by an active 10-game winless streak. They’ve been shut out in four of the last five, and they’ve scored a grand total of four goals since their lone win in April. They have the second-worst offense in the conference, with no signs of improvement any time soon. The only positive note, if one considers this positive, is that they lead the league in draws with nine. Nine out of sixteen drawn. Gerson Echeverry has not inspired much confidence in his coaching abilities. But hey, the fans are still showing up, so at least they have that going for them, which is nice.
Prognosis: Tie Fighters engage.
- Points per Game: 1.611, 6th in West (-.189 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 11,444, 2nd in USL (-1.1% from Q1)
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to mourn the loss of Sacramento’s sellout streak. Born on June 18, the year of our lord Two Thousand and Sixteen, the sellout streak lived a bright and vibrant life that was tragically cut short on Saturday, the 23 of June, just days after its second birthday, due to 99 tickets which went, unfortunately, unsold. While our hearts may be filled with sorrow, may we draw comfort from the timeless adage; the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Following the ceremony, there will be a reception to celebrate the sporting achievements of the departed, including sixth place in the points-per-game table at a pace surpassing that seen the previous season.
Prognosis: Press F to pay respects.
Saint Louis FC
- Points per Game: 1.294, 10th in West (-.106 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 4,156, 14th in USL (+5.5% from Q1)
Saint Louis is a bit of an enigma this year. After an early six-game unbeaten streak, they went six without a win, followed by two shutout victories before going winless the next two. There’s only been one blowout loss, the 3-6 fiasco against Los Dos in which Efrain Alvarez and Ethan Zuback both scored hat tricks. I want to say that things will probably be fine, and given their blowout-averse tactics, that’s probably warranted, but I’m still not sure. They definitely need to stick with Anthony Pulis for at least the rest of the season, barring some unforeseen spiral of death. This team hasn’t had much in the way of consistency from year to year, with four different head coaches in four seasons, so maybe Pulis the Younger just needs more time to settle in. The decline in points per game isn’t all that dramatic, either. In the stands, things are definitely moving in the right direction, with their two most recent home games drawing 5,432 and 4,284 respectively. If they keep that up, they might find their stadium a bit on the small side by season’s end.
Prognosis: It’ll be fine. Probably.
San Antonio FC
- Points per Game: 1.400, 8th in West (-.044 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 6,985, 7th in West (-0.2% from Q1)
San Antonio has remained consistent, with only a resurgent Reno bumping them down one spot in the standings. Points per game wise, they sit a bit lower than I expected, with that four-game unbeaten streak ending at five games, and have won just two of their last six. That said, they weren’t shut out in any of those six, so the offense is clearly working to some degree. But that degree has only been good for fifteen goals in fifteen games, simply not good enough when they’re conceding slightly more than a goal per game on average. They still have a decent shot at the top eight, but I’m a lot less confident in their soccer than I was at preseason or Q1. Honestly, I think if San Antonio doesn’t make the playoffs, Darren Powell might find his seat becoming hotter. Off the field, attendance has barely moved, with that 0.2 percent representing a grand total of 13 fans per game. They even cracked 7,000 at the start of June. All good there.
Prognosis: I wonder how Alen Marcina likes Des Moines.
Seattle Sounders 2
- Points per Game: .786, 15th in West (+.008 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 3,483, 19th in USL (-0.9% from Q1)
Sounders 2 have remained consistent throughout the first half of the season. The only problem is that they haven’t been consistently good. They’ve won just one of their last eight. The team looks completely different at home versus away, with all three wins in Tacoma and two total points on the road. Seattle is level on points with Tulsa right now, which is definitely not a good place to be. John Hutchinson hasn’t seemed as completely lost as Ezra Hendrickson was last season, so maybe they’ll improve. But my money’s on both of those numbers staying more or less the same for the remainder of the season. At least the people in Tacoma seem to like it. Just need to finish that new stadium and rebrand.
Prognosis: Can they break the spell of the typical?
Swope Park Rangers
- Points per Game: 1.750, 3rd in West (+.083 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 933, 31st in USL (+1% from Q1)
The Swope Park Rangers still don’t play in Swope Park, but they still get results. Paulo Nagamura is catching on quickly in his first head coaching position, and his team has been both consistent and good. The club remains undefeated at home thanks to Kharlton Belmar. He alone is responsible for more than a third of Swope Park’s goals, tied for the USL lead with nine. I doubt he spends much more time in the USL, as that’s the sort of performance that warrants a call-up to the first team. Off the field, the Rangers have drawn fewer people all season than the league’s average attendance by over a thousand. That’s pretty bad, and looks even worse on broadcast. Maybe a drop to USL D3 and a return to Swope Park could help those numbers.
Prognosis: If Belmar stays, they keep winning. If Belmar leaves, who honestly knows?
- Points per Game: 0.647, 17th in West (+.092 from Q1)
- Average Attendance: 3,228, 20th in USL (-2.7% from Q1)
It took Tulsa 16 games to win their first of the season, leaving Toronto FC II as the only team in USL without a win. That’s positively dire, and cost head coach David Vaudreuil his job last week. At their current points per game pace, this season might end up worse than their 21 loss campaign in 2016. There’s no positive way to spin this. Tulsa is barely playing soccer at this point. Michael Nsien at least began his interim spell with that one win, and if he can salvage something of this season, he might actually get the permanent coaching job. It’s borderline impossible to do worse than Vaudreuil did here this year. Attendance wise, Tulsa is down from Q1 but not by much. More worrying is the 16.2% drop compared to 2017. Things need to change in Tulsa.
Prognosis: Blow it up and rebuild.
I hope you enjoyed this sprawling, rambling analysis of the USL Western Conference at roughly the halfway mark.
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.
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