New on SocTakes: USL Eastern Conference: Midterm progress report

Indy Eleven - Brickyard Battalion - midterm

Photo credit: Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes

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 Eastern Conference midterm conclusions.

Atlanta United 2

  • Points per Game: 0.733, 15th in East (-.017 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 3,134, 22nd in USL (-14.5% from Q1)

I’m pretty confident in my current opinion of Atlanta United 2: They’re not very good. Two wins from 15, an active six-game winless streak, plus they’re not showing much sign of improving any time soon. They’re only win since the season opener was a 5-4 late comeback win over Toronto FC II. Since then, they’ve been outscored 12-2. Removing that one score from their goal totals leaves them at 11 for, 27 against, with a -16 differential. That is unmistakably not good. Their current pace has them finishing on 25 points or so, which is where Charleston is right now. At least with the postponed game against Ottawa, they avoided making it another seven-game winless streak, and at least the fans are still showing up.

Prognosis: They’ll finish 15th, only ahead of Toronto II, and quite possibly drop to USL D3 for 2019.

Bethlehem Steel FC

  • Points per Game: 1.438, 7th in East (+.438 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 2,254, 25th in USL (+5.7% from Q1)

Bethlehem turned around their season after that five-game streak between wins, and have shot up the standings. They’re the most improved team on points per game in the Eastern Conference, and didn’t lose at all in June. They’re actually putting together their best season yet in terms of PPG. At this point, I’m pretty sure I have more confidence in Brendan Burke as a head coach than I do in Jim Curtin. Maybe the Union should look to their USL team for more than just player development. Off the field, attendance is up from Q1, but not up to 2017 levels. I’m not entirely sure what could be done on that front, but again, I don’t really know if that’s a problem in the eyes of management.

Prognosis: They sneak into the playoffs, but go out in the first round.

Charleston Battery

  • Points per Game: 1.563, 6th in East (-.326 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 3,141, 21st in USL (-12.6% from Q1)

Charleston went on a bit of a tear after some early shakiness, going unbeaten in nine games with a four-game win streak. They’ve since cooled off just a bit, but not to any worrying levels. Their goal differential is still in the positives, their defense is performing well and they’re firmly inside the top eight. Hell, they’re only three points shy of Pittsburgh. Ataullah Guerra is having one of his best seasons in the USL, while Joe Kuzminsky has not only won the starting spot in goal but already has six shutouts. Attendance has returned to roughly where it was last season, which isn’t necessarily bad, but does mean their early achievements on that front have been — at least temporarily — erased. But really, this team is performing at a level pretty close to where they’ve been for most of their history, so there’s no major cause for concern. They’re going to make the playoffs, like they usually do.

Prognosis: Nothing in life is guaranteed except for death, taxes, and Charleston making the playoffs.

Charlotte Independence

  • Points per Game: 1.412, 8th in East (+.037 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 1,854, 29th in USL (+9.9% from Q1)

Charlotte has been weirdly streaky this season. They won the first two, didn’t win the next five, won the next four and haven’t won since. There was a lengthy four-game road trip in there, and they haven’t been shut out since early May, but they still need to find some wins if they’re going to make the playoffs. This team finished fifth in the two seasons prior and at their best this season have looked better than last year. They just haven’t been able to stay good for more than a few games at a time. Their goal differential is just +1, lowest of the current top eight. That said, Cordell Cato and Jorge Herrera have been nothing short of spectacular, both with eight goals through 17 games. The problems lie more on the defensive side. Attendance wise, though, things are very promising. Not only is this their highest average attendance ever, they even broke 3,000 at their most recent weekend home game. At the very least, new investment and increased fan support mean the team’s future is mostly secured. Now it’s time to focus on results and keep those people coming back.

Prognosis: Top five? Maybe. Playoffs? Probably. Worth watching? Definitely.

FC Cincinnati

  • Points per Game: 2.000, 1st in East (+.111 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 24,953, 1st in USL (+3% from Q1)

In the time since the Q1 progress report, FC Cincinnati has been granted an expansion franchise in MLS, and this is officially their final season in the USL. They’re definitely making the most of it. Cincinnati was the first club in the Eastern Conference to hit ten wins, they have a comfortable lead over Pittsburgh and Louisville, and they’re selling hella tickets as usual. Like, hella tickets. Like, their average attendance is a bigger number than the total attendance for 21 teams. It’s higher than MLS’s average attendance right now. Nuts. Emmanuel Ledesma continues to be one of my favorite players to watch, while Danni König has settled in nicely. Both have eight goals already, while Nazmi Albadawi has seven. This team is finally looking like the best team in USL on the field and not just in the stands. And what better way to end their time in USL than by winning the trophy?

Prognosis: Early favorite for champion.

Indy Eleven

  • Points per Game: 1.667, 5th in East (-.083 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 10,315, 3rd in USL (-7.9% from Q1)

Indy is still looking strong and drawing well. While their road undefeated streak is over, they’re still solidly a playoff contender, and their early season pace is essentially unchanged. Owain Fon Williams deserves to be in the conversation of best goalkeeper in the USL, while Ayoze, Soony Saad, Jack McInerny and Justin Braun have been part of a potent offensive machine. I subjectively find it better for teams to have multiple dangerous goal scorers rather than relying on just one or two guys, and this is a perfect example of such a team. And considering how quickly this team came together after last season’s chaos, they should feel incredibly pleased with the results so far.

Prognosis: Chad Irvine is a nerd.

Louisville City FC

  • Points per Game: 1.733, 3rd in East (-.267 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 7,454, 6th in USL (+5.9% from Q1)

Louisville’s head coach James O’Connor has replaced Jason Kreis at Orlando City, and this makes me feel uncertain for Louisville’s immediate future. In the interim, Luke Spencer, Paolo DelPiccolo, and George Davis IV have been appointed joint head coaches, and their first test comes this weekend. If these three guys can continue the system implemented by O’Connor in the interim, they’ll continue to be almost unstoppable. But that’s a tall order in an unusual situation. Off the field, attendance is moving up again, and the club will soon be breaking ground on their own stadium. As soon as they find a permanent replacement head coach, their future is secure.

Prognosis: If the Cerberus Coach works, they keep winning. If it doesn’t, they’re screwed for a little while.

Nashville SC

  • Points per Game: 1.733, 4th in East (+.233 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 10,012, 4th in USL (-14.2% from Q1)

Nashville started off strong and I speculated they might sneak into the playoffs. I’m changing that now: Nashville is going to finish top 4 and host a playoff game. Brandon Allen and Lebo Motolo both have five goals already, Ropapa Mensah has four and Matt Pickens is probably an MLS-caliber keeper. The dude has eight clean sheets from fifteen starts, and has played every single minute of his team’s existence. That’s nothing short of extraordinary. Nashville’s defense has been the second best in the entire league, allowing only 10 goals in total. With Boluwatife Akinyode, Justin Davis, Ryan James and Michael Reed, they’re shutting down the most potent offenses we’ve ever seen in USL history with ease. When Nashville joins MLS in 2020, I would actually be more surprised if they didn’t keep a lot of these guys. Same thing goes for Gary Smith. He definitely deserves another shot at MLS with the results he’s gotten. Attendance wise, the numbers have dropped a little bit, but they’re still averaging north of the 10,000 listed capacity of First Tennessee Park. Not much else to say other than Nashville is almost certainly going to keep winning a lot of games.

Prognosis: Don’t be surprised to see them in the championship game.

New York Red Bulls II

  • Points per Game: 1.294, 10th in East (-.261 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 772, 33rd in USL (-0.4% from Q1)

Performance wise, the Baby Bulls have slipped from their early season form. If I had to point to any result in particular, it’s losing 3-0 to Bethlehem, Pittsburgh and Ottawa. They won just once in the month of June. Strangely enough, they have one of the biggest discrepancies between home form and road form. All five wins have come at home, while they’ve managed just six points from nine road games. Normally, home field advantage comes from having a loud and passionate fanbase making it hard for visitors to get comfortable. I don’t think that’s the case here. Their average attendance is under 1,000 still, and it has essentially not changed since Q1. Here’s an interesting factoid: Don Garber was the first season ticket holder for NYRB2, since he actually lives not far from where they play. I wonder how many games he’s actually been to.

Prognosis: If a team loses in the forest but there’s no one there to see it, does it still affect the Eastern Conference standings?

North Carolina FC

  • Points per Game: 1.200, 12th in East (+.057 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 3,702, 17th in USL (+9.6% from Q1)

There’s a team that plays in Cary, N.C. that has been absolutely electric all year. They’ve only lost once, have a 13-point lead over their closest opposition, have a goal differential of +18, and are only getting better. That team is the North Carolina Courage in the NWSL, and they’re on the cusp of eliminating teams from shield contention roughly halfway through the season. Their male counterparts, North Carolina FC, have not been anywhere near as good. Daniel Rios and Kyle Bekker have been the two standout attacking players so far. Rios has eight goals in 14 games while Bekker has seven assists and 25 chances created. Alex Tambakis has been good enough in goal, and his defense hasn’t done much to help. The problem is that this team has two different forms. There’s the team that beat Ottawa 4-2 at home and looked fantastic all game, and there’s the team that was bossed around by Cincinnati for ninety minutes. On any given gameday, either team could show up, and that’s not how you make the playoffs. At times like this, I start wondering if Colin Clarke is still the right man for the job as head coach. He’s been in charge since 2011, coaching the team in all seven NASL seasons they played. It’s one of the longest spells for any active coach in USL. That said, the state of D2 soccer is in a very different place than it was in 2011, and I’m not sure he’s keeping up with the rising tide. I’ve talked with some NCFC fans about this, and the general consensus is that they’d like to see someone different in charge in the not-so-distant future. Right now, I agree. Can Paul Riley coach both teams? Asking for a friend.

Prognosis: NCFC isn’t very good. #analysis

Ottawa Fury FC

  • Points per Game: 1.200, 13th in East (+.200 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 4,714, 12th in USL (-11.5% from Q1)

Ottawa has been pretty average so far this season, and I honestly don’t feel like writing another lengthy paragraph that says the exact same thing I’ve said nearly a dozen times already. Instead, speculation time. Is Ottawa likely to join the Canadian Premier League? At this point, I’m definitely leaning “yes”, especially given recent rumours (like rumors, only Canadian) that there have been discussions on exactly that. I think it makes a lot of sense. They’re the only fully professional team in Canada that isn’t part of MLS, they’ve been very well run their entire existence, and they would be an immediately strong addition to the new Canadian league. We know that the Canadian Soccer Association wants a team in the capital city (they were part of the initial list of eight cities, and the other seven have been confirmed), and there’s not really any point to try and start a team from scratch when you have the Fury right there. Is it a step down from USL in quality? We won’t know until a ball is kicked in CPL play. And yet, my gut tells me it probably won’t be, at least not significantly. There are a lot of Canadian players putting up results throughout the USL, and I figure quite a lot of them will head closer to home if given the opportunity. I can only imagine that Ottawa would find the travel much easier throughout Canada than having to go all the way down to Tampa every year.

Prognosis: Oh, Canada.

Penn FC

  • Points per Game: 1.375, 9th in East (+.264 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 1,913, 27th in USL (+43.3% from Q1)

I’m a lot less confused and concerned by Penn FC now than in May. Their performances on the field have been much, much better, they’re on a five game unbeaten streak with three wins, and the fans are finally showing up. In terms of points per game, they’re the second most improved team from Q1 after Bethlehem Steel, and they’re now firmly in contention for playoffs. Lucky Mkosana has his mojo back, and is having his best season in years back in Harrisburg with five goals already. Tommy Heinemann, despite what Cincinnati says, is fit and functional, and he’s been doing really rather well. Richard Menjivar has emerged from relative obscurity to become a solid attacking midfielder, with three assists and 25 chances created. Both goalkeepers Romuald Peiser and Sean Lewis have been good, and the team has only conceded 18 goals. Attendance wise, my worries have been mostly alleviated. Their most recent weekend home game drew a crowd of 4,507 against Toronto II, and Penn FC won thanks to a ridiculously late 90+7 minute penalty. Even their most recent midweek game, a Tuesday evening game against Richmond, brought out 2,114 fans. That’s much, much better. If they keep this trend up on and off the field, they’re in excellent shape. Now if only their jerseys were the same color as their new crest.

Prognosis: Promising postseason possibilities for Penn FC.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

  • Points per Game: 1.867, 2nd in East (-.133 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 2,240, 26th in USL (+0.1% from Q1)

Pittsburgh’s unbeaten streak ended at 11 games in USL with a 1-0 loss at home to Nashville. They immediately regrouped and are on a four-game active unbeaten streak with just the one loss all season. They have allowed just seven goals. Incredible. They have more points at midseason than they finished with in 2016, and are eight points shy of last season’s total. Neco Brett and Kevin Kerr spearhead a powerful offensive core which combines local veterans, Bob Lilley’s old firm from Rochester and smart signings. Daniel Lynd and Kyle Morton have been absolute studs in goal, with a total of 10 clean sheets in 15 games. Ten! Even attendance is looking better, with a crowd of 3,652 at their most recent home game. And now, to hop on my soap box. PEOPLE OF PITTSBURGH! HEAR ME, HEAR ME! THE RIVERHOUNDS ARE A REALLY GODDAMN GOOD TEAM, AND YOU SHOULD BE GOING TO THEIR GAMES! HOCKEY SEASON IS OVER, BASKETBALL SEASON IS OVER, AND THE PIRATES ARE ASS THIS YEAR! THERE ARE NO EXCUSES, GO TO THEIR GAMES AND WATCH YOUR EXCELLENT LOCAL SOCCER TEAM IN THE MIDST OF A HISTORICALLY DOMINANT SEASON!

Prognosis: They might not lose again.

Richmond Kickers

  • Points per Game: 0.933, 14th in East (-.317 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 4,059, 15th in USL (-0.2% from Q1)

Leigh Cowlishaw has stepped down as head coach in Richmond, and the team has a new coach for the first time since 2000. Cowlishaw has been involved with the Kickers in some capacity ever since their inception in 1993, and was the longest-serving head coach in USL history. As a player, he was a constant presence from day one, and won the USISL playoffs and the Open Cup with the Kickers in 1995, playing in 148 games before his retirement at the end of the 1999 season. In his first season as head coach, the Kickers finished second in their division in the A-League, and won the regular season title the next year. He guided the club to back-to-back regular season titles in 2006 and 2007, complete with a playoff championship in 2006. The Kickers won the USL Second Division again in 2009, cementing them as one of the strongest D3 clubs in America at the time. Cowlishaw even temporarily came out of retirement in 2007, playing four more games from then through 2009. Most recently, the Kickers finished atop the USL Pro table in 2013 in a season where they only lost once. He has now taken the role as director of soccer, with yet another Kickers alumnus getting the head coaching job. David Bulow played 105 games for Richmond from 2006-13 while also coaching Richmond’s youth teams. While his coaching debut didn’t go that well against North Carolina FC, he has the endorsement of Cowlishaw, a solid roster, and nearly half a season to prove himself.

Prognosis: End of an era, but also maybe the start of a new one.

Tampa Bay Rowdies

  • Points per Game: 1.267, 11th in East (-.067 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 6,009, 9th in USL (-2.3% from Q1)

Immediately after I finished writing the Q1 report, Stuart Campbell resigned as head coach. Like, hours after I submitted my draft. Neill Collins retired to take the head coaching job, not as interim, but with some degree of permanency. At first glance, not much has changed in their results, with only one win in the last nine. That said, a number of games that might have been losses under Campbell have become draws under Collins, including two in recent weeks where the Rowdies scored in the last 10 minutes. With the recent addition of Stefano Bonomo, the Rowdies now have another proven goal scorer to help out Georgi Hristov and Joe Cole. They also signed Dominic Oduro (not that one, the other one) from FC Golden State Force after a solid run in the Open Cup. They might actually be able to salvage this season and sneak into the playoffs. Attendance wise, things continue to be excellent in St. Petersburg, and the plan to expand Al Lang even further looks like it’s happening even if the Rowdies don’t join MLS.

Prognosis: Let’s see how Neill Collins handles the transition from player to coach.

Toronto FC II

  • Points per Game: 0.188, 16th in East (-.063 from Q1)
  • Average Attendance: 926, 32nd in USL (-25.1% from Q1)

Nothing is going right for the Toronto FC organization in 2018. The MLS team looks nothing like the juggernaut from last year, and the attempts to fix it left their USL side even worse. In sixteen games, they have three draws without a win. Three points in 16 games. There’s no sugarcoating this. They’re approaching 2013 Antigua Barracuda levels of futility here, and are making last year’s hot garbage Timbers 2 look competent by comparison. While normally struggling MLS 2 teams don’t change coaches until the offseason, Laurent Guyot and TFC II have “mutually separated,” with a “director of high performance” coming in to take over the reserve side. In four games in charge, they’ve lost three and drawn one by an aggregate score of 6-13. Not a great start. News recently broke that they’re officially dropping to USL D3 for 2019. Maybe next year they can finally win a game.

Prognosis: Yikes.

My Western Conference midterm progress report can be found here. I hope you enjoyed this sprawling, rambling analysis of the USL Eastern Conference at roughly the halfway mark.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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