Greenville Triumph SC manager and sporting director John Harkes joins co-hosts Kevin Johnston and John Lenard ahead of his expansion side’s inaugural USL League One match at South Georgia Tormenta FC.
The former U.S. men’s national team captain touches on the current state of the USMNT, FC Cincinnati’s hot start and what it’s like having his son, Ian Harkes, play for the club that his father grew up supporting. The conversation then pivots to the Triumph’s preparations for the 2019 season.
Welcome back to the finale of our four-part 2019 USL Championship mega preview! It’s been a long, long journey and we appreciate you sticking around for the ride.
This time, we’ll be wrapping things up with the last nine teams to cover in the Eastern Conference. If you haven’t been following along, or want to look back at the previous installments, click the links below:
Memphis is the last of the seven freshman teams to get covered, and they’re doing a lot of things right. First up, they’re locally owned by sports people, with Tim Howard as a minority partner. They’ve hired former Orlando City assistant Tim Mulqueen as head coach and former Detroit City head coach Ben Pirmann as assistant, both making their respective debuts at those positions in the professional game. They’ve also announced a delightful neon-inspired logo and an area-code inspired name, mixing the American and European naming styles in a very fun way.
Onto the roster, where they’ve already made a lot of noteworthy signings. Up top, the most recognizable name is Heviel Cordoves, a former Cuban international who defected and joined the Charleston Battery in 2013. He’s a fairly proven USL scorer who knows this league, and seven goals from 16 starts with Richmond last year shows he’s still got it.
In midfield, they’ve added more USL veterans in Raul Gonzalez and Dan Metzger, along with Jamaican international Ewan Grandison. In his home country playing for Portmore United he was one of the top young midfielders in the league, and he’s a talented player just reaching his prime. Adam Najem joins from Philadelphia via Bethlehem and he’s another strong, USL-experienced midfielder who even has a bit of MLS experience. He’s only 24, too, so there’s time for him yet.
Defender Marc Burch joins Memphis following several strong seasons in MLS, having most recently played 21 games for Minnesota United. He’s the sort of veteran player I expect to see wearing the armband once Memphis takes the field, and he’s definitely a proven leader on the field. He’ll have Josh Morton from Tulsa, Wesley Charpie from Jacksonville and Todd Pratzner from Pittsburgh joining him in the back line.
One particularly interesting note: Tim Howard’s team includes two of the starters from the Trinidad and Tobago side that beat the USA 2-1. Defender Triston Hodge and midfielder Leston Paul both started for Trinidad the night the Americans were eliminated from World Cup qualification, with a third Memphis signing, Duane Muckette, on the bench. I wonder how he feels about that.
Prognosis: It’s a decent team, but I’m not expecting much from them, honestly. But who knows?
2018 record: 12-13-9, +11 GD, 49 points, eighth in East, lost in first round
2018 attendance: 9,561, fourth
It’s now confirmed that Nashville SC is moving to MLS for 2020 and taking their name with them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include the crest, and the new one is not nearly as good — or really any good, rant coming in the future.
Anyway. All of my speculation last year that they were building up for MLS proved correct, and it’s been announced that Gary Smith will be their coach for their MLS debut next year. For the players, a strong season in 2019 might get them into the big league as the team makes the jump, so expect a lot of competition on the roster.
Nashville’s USL debut was undeniably solid. They lost just three of their first 16 games, ranked as high as fourth by PPG at midseason, made the playoffs and made it to the Round of 16 in the Open Cup. They went undefeated from April 24 until June 26, and again for six games to close out the season. Crowds were consistently strong all year and momentum continues to build for their MLS debut.
The majority of their core is returning, with the most notable exception being Brandon Allen. Allen led the team with 10 goals and two assists in 2018, but he’s off to Tampa Bay. Fortunately, they’ve kept Tucker Hume, Lebo Moloto, Ropapa Mensah and Michael Reed. They’ve replaced Allen with Kharlton Belmar from Sporting KC, Daniel Rios from North Carolina and Cameron Lancaster from Louisville. Rios and Lancaster have contracts for MLS already, and it’s fantastic to see two guys who tore up the USL get a proper shot.
Most of their other new signings concern the backline. They’ve signed Ken Tribbett from Penn FC, Malcolm Stewart from the Ocean City Nor’Easters and Darnell King from San Antonio. King proved his value last season, while Tribbett struggled in a disorganized Penn FC system. Stewart is a bit of a dice roll, as it’s a potential low-risk, high-reward signing.
In goal, Matt Pickens is back as the presumed starter, with former Real Monarchs keeper Connor Sparrow as his backup. Pickens was a beast last season, conceding just 29 goals in 32 games and posting 14 clean sheets, good for second place in the league. If he doesn’t end up retiring, he’ll probably make the move up to MLS.
Prognosis: I don’t think they’ll leave the USL with a mic-drop championship, but with what they’re building, it’s possible.
2018 record: 13-13-8, +12 GD, 52 points, fifth in East, lost in East final
2018 attendance: 812, 33rd, +28.5 percent from 2017
The Baby Bulls have been a lean, mean, prospect-developing machine the past several seasons, with kids going through the academy ranks off to bright futures in MLS and in Europe. Expect that to continue as the organization continues to focus on player development and its academy teams. Just in the past few years, we’ve seen Tyler Adams waltz from the academy, through the USL, into MLS, and now he’s starting for RB Leipzig. This is the model everyone should be following.
And now onto the players who have caught my attention, for some reason or another.
Ben Mines won promotion to the senior team, per contract, but he’ll still be spending most of his time in the USL. The 18-year-old midfielder played 799 minutes in the USL last season across 14 games, earning nine starts. He’s adjusting well to life in attacking midfield against professional defenses and his passing metrics continue to climb. He scored one goal from five shots on target, assisted on another and looks like he’s maybe a year away from cracking MLS. One thing though, he did get sent off in his limited minutes due to some clumsy footwork. He’ll need to work on that.
Allen Yanes, a 21-year-old defender and already senior international with Guatemala, signed in July and quickly got to work showing his value at left back. He’s an accurate passer, quick on his feet and was a strong disruptive presence for the Baby Bulls. I see him much more as MLS-level than a player to be sold to Europe, but that’s just fine, and he looks like he’ll be there by the end of this season.
Omir Fernandez just signed his Homegrown contract with the senior team from the U-23 PDL side. An attacking midfielder who just turned 20 in February, Fernandez spent two seasons at Wake Forest, scoring 18 goals, and looks very, very promising. He hasn’t played in the USL yet, but he’ll probably spend some time with the II team this season. That said, he did start in the MLS season opener, played the full 90 and looked pretty comfortable up top. Maybe he’s readier than I think.
And now, a rant. This team has been consistently one of the most exciting teams to watch in the USL for like five years now. Why the hell can’t they get people into their stadium? Is it the II team branding? The location? Whatever it is, figure it out. This is too good to ignore.
2018 record: 13-8-13, +10 GD, 47 points, ninth in East
2018 attendance: 4,730, 13th, +5.8 percent from 2017
Gather round, friends, and listen to my little story.
Last summer, as you may have known, I went to the MLS All-Star Game in Atlanta with my Front Porch Discourse co-host Ian Foster. As is tradition during All-Star Week, there’s always a big fancy party that MLS runs for all of the various VIPs and whomevers (like me). We went to the party the night before the game and saw loads of famous faces. Diego Valeri, David Villa, Alexi Lalas, Matt Doyle, Bobby Warshaw and even Anthony Precourt, who I drunkenly staggered into. At one point, we saw a familiar-looking, short, middle-aged man surrounded by people in nicer suits than ours. We couldn’t place him, even though we both recognized him from somewhere. He was a coach, we knew that, but a coach of what? And what was his name?
Both of us were far too awkward and inebriated to actually introduce ourselves and find out, and it wasn’t until I returned home that Ian realized exactly whom we were staring at: Dave Sarachan.
The moral of this story: don’t get too trashed in Atlanta.
I bring this up because the Colin Clarke era in North Carolina soccer is over, and Dave Sarachan has been hired as his replacement. He may have received a fair bit of Twitter rage during his interim stint coaching the USMNT, but the man can coach. And with NCFC having made the playoffs just once in the past seven seasons, it was more than time for a change.
Last season was honestly a bit of a disappointment for North Carolina. After making it into the Soccer Bowl playoffs in the 2017 NASL, they found the USL a rather difficult adjustment. They opened the season with three consecutive losses, dropped another five games during the summer and didn’t manage to crack the top 10 again until Week 20. North Carolina was still firmly in the playoff race until October, when losses to the Baby Bulls and Louisville sealed their fate.
Sarachan begins his tenure with a slightly depleted roster. Alex Rios, who bagged 20 goals last season, and Kyle Bekker, who scored seven and led the team with 13 assists, are both out. Rios has joined Nashville on an MLS contract, while Bekker has gone home to join Forge FC in the Canadian Premier League. To replace the duo, they’ve brought in Robert Kristo from VfL Osnabrück and a pair of loanees from MFK Vyškov. It’s a stretch to think any of them will fill in for Daniel Rios, but they might just be fine.
In midfield, Austin Da Luz and Marios Lomis are both back, joined by Tommy McCabe who was drafted by FC Cincinnati earlier this year. It’s not a bad setup; young, versatile and quick. Most of the rest of their midfielders are returning as well, with only Blanco, Shipalane and Steele leaving. But midfield was honestly not where they struggled; it’s still not where the biggest questions lie.
That would be their defense. North Carolina allowed 50 goals in 2018, and if that seems high, that’s because it is. Only two playoff teams, Red Bulls II and Swope Park Rangers, allowed more. As a result, they’ve thoroughly reworked their back line. Sam Brotherton joins from Sunderland, although he never actually played there, while Manny Perez comes in on loan from Celtic. They’re both young but somewhat proven, and should find the USL a nice change of scenery.
Prognosis: It’s gonna be tough to make the playoffs, but if they can get at least 50 goals and concede 40 or fewer, it’s possible.
2018 record: 13-6-15, -12 GD, 45 points, 10th in East
2018 attendance: 4,752, 12th, -12.4 percent from 2017
Ottawa didn’t end up joining the Canadian Premier League after all, although it looks like this might be their last season if Concacaf has anything to say about it. But that’s a topic for another day.
Ottawa had a terrible start in 2018, losing their first three and only winning their first game on May 7. A solid May saw the Fury sitting as high as 10th going into the summer when inconsistencies started to shove them back down the table. Ottawa never really managed a strong run for more than a few weeks at a time and ended up out of the playoffs after losing 2-0 to Charleston at home.
For 2019, they’ve lost their offensive core. Steevan Dos Santos, Tony Taylor, and Adonijah Reid are all gone. It’s not too much of a problem for Ottawa as the three combined for just 14 goals and seven assists, but it’ll hurt. They’ve brought back Carl Haworth and Kevin Oliveira, and signed Shaan Hundal from Toronto FC. If those three can figure it out, and if Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé can start regularly, they’re probably fine.
In midfield, the additions of Luca Ricci, Charlie Ward, and Christiano Francois should help things, and at least on paper, they’re a stronger midfield than 2018. There aren’t any major holding midfielders on this roster, though, and that’s something they desperately needed last season. It’s one reason I’m not high on their playoff chances.
The major components of the back line are returning, and they’ve been reinforced with some loans from Toronto and Montreal as well as new signings. Ottawa only conceded 43 goals last season, and that’s honestly not terrible, so this back line should be good for at least 5 or 6 fewer, minimum.
They did lose Maxime Crépeau in goal, who’s returning to Montreal for MLS play, and that’s going to be tough to replace. Crépeau was fantastic, allowing just one goal per game, and saving 82 of 113 shots faced. His 15 clean sheets were best of the league last season, and he was named Goalkeeper of the Year. He kept Ottawa in some games that they had no business leading, and his replacements don’t inspire the same level of confidence. Monsalve was alright, and he’ll have young Jordan Tisseur as his backup, but they’re just not as good.
Prognosis: They need to find a lot of goals from players not known yet for scoring. Tall order, that. Also, maybe CPL for 2020?
2018 record: 15-14-5, +21 GD, 59 points, third in East, lost in first round
2018 attendance: 2,492, 24th, -5.6 percent from 2017
Pittsburgh rebranded ahead of the 2018 season, expanded their stadium, hired a new coach and went on to have their best season in years. After storming through preseason, they went on a dominant run to start the regular season and didn’t lose their first game until the end of May. They lost just five times during the season — all by a single goal — and posted 17 clean sheets across their three keepers, conceding an absurd, league-leading 26 goals. They only lost their playoff game on penalties and gave FC Cincinnati a run for their money in the Open Cup. Fantastic all around.
Team leader in goals and assists, Neco Brett, is back for 2019 following a very nice 15-goal, eight-assist campaign. Unfortunately, he’ll be without his partner in crime, Christiano François, who’s off to Ottawa. In what ended up as almost a direct swap, they signed Steevan Dos Santos from the Fury as his replacement, along with Christian Volesky from OKC and Anthony Verlarde out of Fresno Pacific University. All in all, it’s an improvement, and considering they only needed a few more goals to move into that top echelon, things are looking good.
Their midfield core is mostly unchanged with Forbes, Mouhamed Dabo, Kevin Kerr and Noah Franke all coming back, and they’ve added Ethan Kutler from the Baby Bulls. And then, with their defense already being as dominant as it was, they’ve reinforced with Ryan James from Nashville, Uchenna Uzo, and both Dani Rovira and Caleb Smith right out of college. It’s not a stretch to say this roster might concede even fewer goals in 2019, which is absurd, and that’s the sort of back line that wins championships.
Sadly, though, they’re going through some fluctuations with ‘keepers. Daniel Lynd and Michael Kirk are both gone, as is Nathan Ingham who didn’t feature last season. They’ve kept Kyle Morton around who managed to keep clean sheets in all three starts, and signed Ben Lundgaard on loan from Columbus, but those two have their work cut out for them.
Regardless, though, this is another team that’s hungry for a championship and it’s shocking that a team as old as the Riverhounds has never won a cup. Things went from mediocre to dominant last year and they don’t have much further to go.
That said, I do feel obligated to whinge about their attendance and hop back on my soap box. PEOPLE OF PITTSBURGH! GO WATCH THIS TEAM! THEY’RE EXCELLENT, THEIR LOGO IS COOL, THEIR JERSEYS ARE SICK AND THEY MIGHT BE THE CLOSEST THING TO A NON-HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP YOUR CITY WILL SEE THIS YEAR.
2018 record: 14-11-9, +6 GD, 53 points, eighth in West, lost first round
2018 attendance: 4,271, 16th, -6.6 percent from 2017
Saint Louis brought in Anthony Pulis as head coach, replacing a frankly underwhelming stint from Preki, and saw immediate improvements. The team looked strong early, powered through a slump in May and charged through the latter half of the season, breaking team records for total wins and total points, and finally made the playoffs. Kyle Greig had his best season in years with 13 goals, Lewis Hilton had his best season in the USL yet with 3 goals and 6 assists, and the goalkeeping tandem of Tomas Gomez and Jake Fenlason was stellar. Unfortunately, they had to face Orange County in the first round and they got stomped 4-0.
Still, though, playoffs! And wins! Things were great.
And it looks like they’ll continue being great this season, too. Greig is back, Hilton is back, Jepson is back, Dacres is back and Dikwa is back. It’s basically the same team as before. They’ve also signed Russell Cicerone from Cincinnati and Caleb Calvert from the Rapids to add even more goals for 2019. Both of those players fit better with Pulis’ system than with their previous teams, and it’s the right sort of environment for them to really improve and show what they’re worth.
Guy Abend joins the midfield from Reno following a solid season as a part-time starter and was incredibly useful for Louisville for three seasons. It’s another solid signing, and he definitely makes sense given where they struggled last season. I also agree with the decisions to bring in Joaquin Rivas and Oscar Umar just to help out with depth and the odd rotation start. Hell, either of them could end up cracking the starting lineup before long.
Saint Louis is another team where I’m not confident about their back line. Ledbetter, Walls and Polak weren’t spectacular, but were solid, minute-eating grinders. Losing Kyle Culbertson actually hurts a lot, though, and bringing in Paris Gee and Bradley Kamdem Fewo is an incomplete patch. They have a back line that’s basically good enough, but with nowhere near the depth of a top team. With the way Pulis plays his defenders, I don’t think it’s enough.
Oh, and Saint Louis has switched conferences once again. In five USL seasons, they’ve never played in the same conference for consecutive seasons. Probably my favorite USL meme.
Prognosis: Imagine if they’re back in the West for 2020. Or even better, a new Central Conference. I need this to continue.
2018 record: 15-8-11, -1 GD, 53 points, seventh in West, lost in West semifinal
2018 attendance: “869,” 31st, -14.4 percent from 2017 (data incomplete)
For the first time in their USL history, the Swope Park Rangers didn’t make the USL Cup final. But honestly, that wasn’t that big of a deal. The roster featured more young academy players than any season prior and they still looked pretty good. Paulo Nagamura has built a firm reputation as a head coach and the work he’s done in collaboration with Peter Vermes is a model much of MLS should look to imitate.
Onto the new prospects, as Swope Park has added four kids from the academy and two right out of college.
Defender Mo Abualnadi joined the academy relatively late, just before the 2017-18 season, but quickly started playing against older opposition. He’s a big, tough presence on the back line and has already earned a call-up to the Jordan U-19 national team. He’s getting lots of attention from the first team and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make his SKC debut during the Open Cup.
Jake Davis, a 17-year-old midfielder, has been a consistent starter with the U-17 academy team in central midfield and is already turning heads with his set piece abilities. Recall FC Dallas’ Michel, the free kick virtuoso who scored an Olimpico in Seattle, and you’ll know what I mean. He’s also just shy of MLS ready at present, and might see MLS minutes this summer. Watch this kid, he’s going places.
Sean Karani made his USL debut with Swope Park last season out of the academy and now has signed his first professional contract. He’s been incredibly dangerous anywhere vaguely near goal, playing comfortably as a lone forward, second striker or winger, and he’s just so quick. If you give him an inch, he’ll take 10 miles and bury the ball in the back of the net. SKC, this might be your striker for the future.
Goalkeeper Brooks Thompson has signed on with Swope Park at just 16, becoming the youngest signing in SKC/SPR history. He’s been playing regularly with the U-19s since he was still 15, and adjusted quickly. He’s tall, already 6-3, and still growing, and he uses his size well in goal. Solid ‘keeper prospect, especially if he can handle the USL.
Prognosis: But they’re not playing in Swope Park anymore.
2018 record: 11-8-15, 0 GD, 41 points, 12th in East
2018 attendance: 5,869, ninth, -0.4 percent from 2017
I was long on Tampa Bay last year and it really looked like I would be right about their playoff chances, right up until midseason. A nice start to the season kept them in the top three in the East until May, and as the wins evaporated, so too did their postseason odds. Six games without a win in July and August were the death knell, and their four-game winless streak to close the season sealed their fate. Bummer.
Neill Collins had a bit of a rough start in his coaching debut, inheriting a team built around someone else mere days after his final game as a player, but he showed some promising moments and won the confidence of the powers that hire. No reason why he shouldn’t keep his job for 2019.
This team is radically different, with Hristov, Bonomo, Flemmings and Mizell all out. Oddly, most of those “core” players didn’t reach 30 games played, with Bonomo playing just 20, so they already had stretches without them. But that’s still a deep gash.
Thus, they’ve signed basically everyone possible. The new offense features Brandon Allen and Antoine Hoppentot to pair with Sebastian Guenzatti, and already that’s a monumental upgrade. Both of those dudes drop into Tampa’s system and have the exact sort of skills the Rowdies desperately needed, even before all the departures. I also like seeing Jaime Siaj sign from OKC and Leo Fernandes re-signed. That’s a powerful attacking core.
They also have journeyman Zach Steinberger coming in, another move that makes so much sense even if he’s primarily a depth option, and Irish youth international Jordan Doherty in on loan from Sheffield United. Expect many more goals from the Rowdies this season.
In defense, Papé Diakité, Tarek Morad and David Najem return, and that’s it. Everyone else is new back there. They’ve loaned in Caleb Richards from Norwich City, who’s somehow played for six clubs and registered for eight before his 21st birthday, along with former San Antonio defender Ryan Felix and Puerto Rican international Shawn Berry, who never really caught on in Salt Lake City. It’s a young and comparatively under-experienced back line, but they’ve kept just enough from last year to make it maybe hopefully work. If Collins can get these new guys up to speed, they won’t be any worse than before, at least.
Prognosis: Come on, do something already.
This concludes the 2019 mega preview which, as is tradition, finishes far later than expected. Yeah, I know, previewing a season that’s two rounds old is weird, but I wanted this up anyway and the points are still valid. If you’re curious, I was in Ireland for the past week and had a lovely — albeit rather chilly — time.
We’ll be continuing to cover the USL as a whole during the course of the 2019 season, including periodic recaps, quarterly reviews and, of course, loads of playoff analysis and scenarios come fall. Stay tuned to your local Soc Takes for all this good USL magic!
Welcome back to the 2019 USL mega preview covering every single one of the 36 teams contesting the 2019 USL Championship season. The first two installments, covering the teams in the Western Conference, are already live. Click here for Part I and here for Part II.
This time, we’re starting the Eastern Conference in the third part of the series and going through the first nine teams alphabetically. You already know the drill, let’s just dive in.
2018 record: 7-10-17, -35 GD, 31 points, 14th in East
2018 attendance: 2,598, 23rd
There was a bit of an incident related to my Atlanta United 2 preview last season between myself and then-head coach Scott Donnelly, who departed the organization at the end of 2018. He’s now working as a first team scout for Manchester United, based out of Boston. Very, very cool.
Anyway. That means there’s a new coach, Stephen Glass. And when I say new coach, I mean new. He’s coaching in the professional ranks for the second time following a brief caretaker stint with Shamrock Rovers in 2012. He joined Atlanta as an academy coach last August, and clearly must have impressed to be handed the keys to the USL side so quickly.
Atlanta has done something unusual for a two team in that they’ve retained much of their roster from last season. Only five players have departed, three to teams within the USL structure. Eight players are either still under contract or have re-signed, two have signed out of college, two have been loaned from Central America and one joins from the Atlanta United academy.
Outside the current roster, I firmly expect Jon Gallagher to continue getting minutes with ATL2. Signed from the first round of the SuperDraft last year, Gallagher is an interesting player. He’s a forward, winger and a fullback, although he spent most of his time last season on the wing, and he reminds me a lot of a Brek Shea/Ryan Hollingshead type. Versatile and useful.
The lone academy signing so far is Jackson Conway, easily Atlanta’s top prospect at the moment. Twenty-seven goals in 23 games from 2017-18 and 45 goals in total across all competitions doesn’t just say talent, it screams it. He’s highly rated by just about everyone on the internet, and he already looked good in his 429 minutes in the USL last year. He’s yet to score in the professional ranks, but it’s only a matter of time. If he’s not starting by July, we riot (only slight hyperbole).
Romario Williams is another young(ish) attacking player I’m long on for 2019. The Jamaican international was an occasional substitute with the MLS side, and in just 599 minutes played scored four goals in the USL. He’s 24, which some might say is past his shot, but he seems like a quintessential late bloomer to me.
Off the field, they’ve moved out to Kennesaw into a proper soccer stadium. Nice.
2018 record: 14-8-12, +15 GD, 50 points, sixth in East, lost conference semifinals
2018 attendance: 2,364, 25th, -22.5 percent from 2017
I’m going to begin this segment with a brief rant.
I’m still annoyed that Bethlehem left Bethlehem. Goodman Stadium wasn’t perfect, but it was really rather lovely, and is good enough for D1 FCS college football. Adding lights to the facility would have cost maybe $400,000 at the high end, which is less than they spent on Sergio Santos. If Goodman was unacceptable, why not go to Moravian College and lease Steel Field? Put the new Bethlehem Steel in the home of the original. Expand the seating across the track down to field level with temporary stands if you have to, I don’t care.
Brendan Burke has continued to improve with time, taking Steel FC one round further into the playoffs and winning two more games during the regular season. I’m still long on Burke as a potential MLS coach in the not-too-distant future, and if the Union decide they’ve had enough from Jim Curtin, he’s a great option to take over.
Michee Ngalina is the prospect I’ve been watching. The 18-year-old DR Congolese midfielder joined after a successful trial and cracked the starting lineup quickly. Seven goals and two assists at that age while playing just 1,494 minutes is definitely promising, and for Bethlehem it meant leading the team in goals.
In the back line, Olivier Mbaizo stood out last season with solid play on both sides of the ball, and was an important linking player. He’s only 21 and wasn’t playing every day, but I still think there’s a potential MLS-level depth player here. Potentially more promising is 18-year-old Ben Ofeimu. Ofeimu played just 931 minutes across 12 games and yet he sat among the team’s best in defensive statistics. He had a whopping 90.9 percent tackle success rate, 20 interceptions and 52 clearances, and that all spells good things. Coming out of the academy last season, he finally got a pro contract back in January and will be around for a while.
Up top, the general consensus is that Faris Pemi Moumbagna is the top forward prospect. While his three goals and two assists aren’t going to draw much attention, he looked far more comfortable than expected despite his age in the 807 minutes he played. In preseason, he’s looking even better, and he won’t even turn 19 until July.
Prognosis: Move back to Bethlehem, damn it. You’re not the Chester Steel.
The first of the expansion teams out East, Birmingham’s new team brings soccer into football country, something I very much enjoy. They’ve hired Jay Heaps as their inaugural president/general manager, an interesting move but one I can easily get behind. Interestingly, the coach he’s signed to lead his team is the man who filled in for him with the Revs after getting fired: Tom Soehn.
Soehn spent a few seasons at the helm of D.C. United over a decade ago, and served as the interim skipper for the Whitecaps and Revs. It’s not a bad decision. It’s a very Jay Heaps signing, though, with Soehn having served as his assistant for nearly four seasons.
Their first player signing was a real treat: they got Chandler Hoffman. Hoffman has been among the best scorers in USL history, sitting third on the all-time table, and he’s been good for at least a dozen goals a year the past three seasons. Plus, he’s a Birmingham native. I simply can’t think of a better first signing for the team, and they’re gonna sell so many Hoffman jerseys.
There’s loads of smart, specific signings on this roster that give me serious confidence in them already. Kyle Fisher, Eric Avila and Kyle Culbertson are all proven USL defenders, and Marcel Appiah is a massive get from Germany. Mikey Lopez and Daigo Kobayashi are the right sort of tough and talented midfielders that make for a strong spine, and Prosper Kasim is the exact sort of winger you want on the field with Hoffman. In goal, they have Matt Van Oekel and Trevor Spangenberg. who have been rather quite good in recent seasons, and somehow they coaxed Joe Nasco out of retirement to join them. (What the hell?)
They don’t have much obvious depth, but the core is coming together. I don’t think this is a potential contender, but it’s more than good enough for an inaugural season. Preseason didn’t exactly go ideally with the Legion getting smacked around by Philly and Nashville, but again, it’s preseason — they had never played together and all of the other excuses.
One thing I would like to see is a contract extended to trialist Michael Salazar. If they were to go with some sort of 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, Salazar would make a good amount of sense on the wing opposite Kasim.
Off the field, fan engagement has been fantastic and the support is looking strong. My only criticism, and it’s petty, is the red-colored Red Diamond logo on the black and gold home kit.
Prognosis: Maybe playoffs, but they’ll need a lot of luck with a shallow roster.
2018 record: 14-14-6, +13 GD, 56 points, fourth, lost first round
2018 attendance: 2,815, 22nd, -11.1 percent from 2017
Charleston is so consistent that I could probably get away with just copy-pasting my preview from last year. Mike Anhaeuser is back once again, having been with the Battery in some form since their second season. Once again he put together a solid team, had another great season and made the playoffs for the 11th year in a row.
Last season started off a bit rough, with only one win in the first five, but by the end of April the Battery were back. Three wins in a row within a six-game unbeaten streak took the team into June, losing just four of their first 13. From June 16 until Aug. 18, the Battery were undefeated, winning six and drawing five. They lost back-to-back games just once, lost only 3 games in total during the second half of the season and beat their points total from 2017. And as is to be expected from an Anhaeuser team, most of the players are coming back.
Ataulla Guerra had a career year with 15 goals and five assists, and he’s back for a fourth season in black and yellow. Ian Svantesson is also back, managing four goals and three assists despite struggling with injuries. Attacking midfielder Nico Rittmeyer signed a multi-year deal to keep him around for a while, preventing a potential return to Tormenta in the future. He might not score much, but he’s a vital part of the machine.
Joe Kuzminsky, who won the starting ‘keeper roll and proceeded to go full beast mode, is back as the primary goalkeeper for 2019. His 12 shutouts and just 22 goals conceded in 24 games left him among the league’s best, and he’s only 25. He’ll probably be around for a while. Taylor Mueller and the rest of his back line are back, with Leland Archer, Jay Bolt and Jarad van Schaik returning. They may have lost Skylar Thomas, but really there’s very little that’s changed.
The lone new signing for 2019 so far is Zeiko Lewis from Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar in Iceland. In his 2017 season with Red Bulls II, he was a decent player. He’ll likely be spending at least half the season on the left wing or in central midfield with Rittmeyer.
While the lack of depth might worry some, it’s rarely an issue for Anhaeuser’s Battery teams. What is worrying is attendance dipping below 3,000 for the first time since 1998.
Prognosis: They’re going to make the playoffs as a top-five team again because of course they will. But they need to learn to win on the road.
2018 record: 10-12-12, -13 GD, 42 points, 11th in East
2018 attendance: 1,698, 29th, +5.2 percent from 2017
Charlotte spent the first chunk of the season sitting right on the playoff bubble before collapsing in June, winning just two games from June 9 through Aug. 25. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the coach, but whatever it was, it hurt a lot. They finished out the season with a pretty nice streak from Labor Day onward, but found themselves seven points shy of the playoffs. Mike Jeffries was then made general manager in December, with Jim McGuinness hired to take over as coach.
McGuinness has had one interesting career. He didn’t start working toward coaching in soccer until November of 2012, and is far more famous for an entirely different sort of football. From 1992 through 2003, McGuinness played as a midfielder for Donegal in Gaelic football, winning the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in his first season. Having coached youth teams from age 18 on, he was given his first senior coaching job with Naomh Conaill after an injury-induced retirement in 2003. He led them to the Donegal county finals several times, winning the title in 2005, and was eventually signed to coach the Donegal U-21 team. Following a narrow defeat in the 2010 All-Ireland U-21 final, he was promoted to managing the Donegal senior football squad.
A quick aside, when he was hired by Donegal, the county hadn’t won since 1992 when he was a first-year player, and that stood as their only national title since their founding in 1905.
With Donegal’s senior side, McGuinness implemented a complete tactical revolution that he first used with the youth team, known simply as “The System.” In Ireland, “The System” is akin to the Total Football revolution in soccer, with players eschewing traditional formations and playing where they need to be next, not where they’re expected to be. Despite a historically weak team and a roster full of oft-overlooked players, “The System” was ruthless and dominant.
In 2011, McGuinness took charge of the senior team, and immediately began to dominate. They bossed their way to the top of the 2nd division football league, won the final, and won promotion to the top division. They won four more in a row to take the Ulster provincial title, and only missed out on the national championship game by 2 points against powerhouse Dublin.
2012 proved to be even better, with Donegal winning the Ulster title by a ludicrous 11-point win over Down, advancing once again to the All-Ireland series. They dispatched Kerry and Cork by 2 to reach the All-Ireland Final for the first time in 20 years and only the second time in history. In a game that would go down as one of the most dominant performances in Gaelic football history, McGuinness and “The System” absolutely overpowered a heavily favored Mayo side, winning 2-11 (17) to 0-13 (13) to claim the championship.
2013 saw a bit of a decline, with Donegal relegated from the 1st division, and the county lost the Ulster final to Monaghan. They successfully won their way back into the All-Ireland finals and drew Mayo for the first round in a rematch of the previous championship. Mayo then proceeded to flatten Donegal 4-17 (29) to 1-10 (13), the biggest defeat yet under McGuinness. Despite pressure to step down, he returned for 2014 in what would be his final season in charge.
For 2014, Donegal began by finishing atop the Division 2 table with a 36-point differential, and only lost the final to Monaghan by six points. Donegal won the Ulster championship and advanced once again to the All-Ireland Finals. After beating Armagh by just a single point in the quarterfinals, Donegal advanced to face the overwhelming favorites to win the entire thing, Dublin. Dublin stood among the greatest teams in the sport, widely considered unbeatable, and the entire country expected it to be a massacre.
And it was, for Dublin.
The semifinal game went down as possibly the most dominant performances ever in the sport’s history. Donegal took an early lead and never looked back, as “The System” completely overwhelmed Dublin. In their home stadium, in the nation’s capital, Dublin struggled to score easy points and were incapable of finding any sort of rhythm. When the final whistle blew, Donegal was through to the final, 3-14 (23) to 1-17 (21). While they went on to lose by three to Kerry in the final, it didn’t matter. The defeat against Dublin would go down as a shining moment in the sport’s long history, and with that, McGuinness dropped the mic and resigned.
Now back to your regularly scheduled soccer.
From late 2012 onward, McGuinness worked part time for Celtic, primarily as a trainer and performance consultant within their academy, and by May 2015 began pursuing a UEFA B coaching license. By the time he left in 2017, he was an assistant manager with Celtic’s U20 team. He then spent 6 months working as an assistant under Roger Schmidt for Beijing Guoan before resigning for family-related reasons in January 2018. He joins Charlotte for his first head coaching role in soccer on a three-year contract.
McGuinness and Jeffries have set to work completely rebuilding the roster, bringing back just six players. Jorge Herrera, the team’s leader in goals and starts, is back for his age 38 season having scored 13 and assisted four others last year. He’s shown no signs of slowing down yet. Joining him up top is Dominic Oduro (yes, that one), making his USL debut after a long and productive MLS career.
Alex Martinez returns as the primary option at attacking midfielder, with Jake Areman and Kevan George also coming back in midfield. They’ve also added Enzo Martinez from the Rapids and Afrim Taku from the Rowdies to fill things out.
In defense, the only returning player is Joel Johnson which makes sense, as he led the team in minutes last season and is far too important to cut. Andrew Gutman has joined on loan from Celtic where he signed out of college following that failed loan attempt to Nashville. He’s young and promising, and Chicago really wants him. They’ve also added Hugh Roberts from Pittsburgh, a very nice grab, and MLS veteran Abdoulie Mansally who’s back from Finland. In goal, they’ve re-signed Brandon Miller who platooned with Dykstra last season and did alright for himself.
And that’s it. They have 12 players on the roster right now. There are loads of guys on trial who will probably sign, and there’s still more than a week until their first game, but still, 12 dudes. Not much else to say at this point.
Off the field, attendance is up, but not where it really should be, and it’s still below their inaugural season average. They really need to figure that out soon; they’re the lowest-drawing independent team.
Prognosis: I can’t be expected to predict the results based on a 12-man roster. Ask me again in a week.
The second expansion team in our previews, Hartford has finally joined the USL at long last! There was that failed attempt with the NASL a few years back, and it’s nice to see the city get represented.
They’ve brought in Donovan Powell from Detroit City and hired Jimmy Nielsen as head coach, both moves which earn a confident, satisfied nod from me. Jimmy is also getting to call the shots on roster decisions, so there’s both a heavy Danish presence and loads of former Energy FC guys already signed.
Jimmy has basically rebuilt his core from his OKC days at Hartford. He’s brought in Jose Angulo, Jonathan Brown, Sebastian Dalgaard, Alex Dixon, Philip Rasmussen, and Wojciech Wojcik. All of those guys are proven USL talents, and more importantly, looked their best in Jimmy’s system, in some cases for years. Angulo had 15 goals that year, and lest we forget, they were a penalty kick away from the championship game. Angulo was definitely Jimmy’s guy in OKC. He played only 206 minutes under Steve Cooke last season, compared to 2,241 under Nielsen in 2017. Dixon and Brown remained starters, while Rasmussen was more of a rotation player, and Wojcik left for Cosmos B (which was really their first team but whatever). It’s nice to see the gang back together. Really, if you’re asked to build a team from scratch on relatively short notice, why not just rebuild the same core from 2-3 years ago?
The backline is primarily USL veterans, with Hartford signing Kyle Curinga from Tampa Bay, Raymond Lee from Pittsburgh and Sem de Wit from Cincinnati. They’ve also signed 21-year old Danish defender Nikolaj Lyngø from Jimmy’s old team, Aalborg. It’s not on paper the strongest, but I believe in Jimmy and it’ll probably be sufficient for year one.
In goal, they’ve got Jacob Lissek from Penn FC, who hasn’t actually played in the USL yet, alongside Mike Novotny who signed to play in Sweden out of Eastern Illinois last August and Danish keeper Frederik Due.
In fact, Hartford stands as the most Danish team in the USL, with five Danes out of 21 players. It’s not surprising given Jimmy’s background, but it’s fun to point out. And apparently there’s a decent Danish-American community in Hartford, som er simpelthen hygge.
2018 record: 13-10-11, +3 GD, 49 points, seventh in East, lost first round
2018 attendance: 10,163, third, +21.1 percent
Indy made its debut in USL last season with a new coach, new stadium and thoroughly reworked roster. Some early shakiness was set aside with a solid five-game run going into the summer, and then a 17-point, nine-game unbeaten tear from July into September. All in all, not bad for a debut season.
Once again, Indy enters a season with a radically different roster, although it’s looking a lot better than it did ahead of last year. Fortunately, they’ve had far more time to rebuild, and rebuild it they certainly have. Losing Jack Mac and his 10 goals would hurt if they didn’t go out and sign Dane Kelly, Ilija Ilic and Thomas Enevoldsen. All three of those players are obvious, game-changing, USL record-breaking forwards who have been dominating this league for the past few seasons. Getting just one of them would have been sufficient. Just imagine, they could realistically get something like 50 goals in total from just Kelly, Enevoldsen and Ilic. That’s more than they’ve scored in total in either the 2018 or 2017 seasons. This is a roster that screams “win now, win big,” and I’m ready.
That said, I have some questions with the rest of the roster. Ayoze is great to keep around, as are Karl Ouimette and Tyler Pasher, but there’s not much in terms of back line depth. They added Paddy Barrett from Cincinnati who is good but not great, Lucas Farias who has warmed benches around Brazil for six years, and Macauley King, fresh out of Young Harris College. It’s the only big question mark on their roster going into the season. They’re going to need some luck and leniency from the injury gods.
In goal, Owain Fon Williams has been recalled to Scotland, and to replace him they’re leaning on Evan Newton. Newton was definitely good enough for OKC, Sacramento, and Cincinnati, and fortunately he’ll have prospects in Jordan Farr and Mario Perez backing him up. It’s not ideal, but it’s nothing I’m too concerned about.
Off the field, attendance climbed back up close to the numbers from their inaugural season, and their plans for an MLS-grade stadium look like they might have some real traction. Maybe they’ll host Don Garber before the year is done.
P.S. I’ll be at the Indy game vs. Nashville on May 25.
Here’s a little history lesson for the class. This is not the first time we’ve seen a team launch in Loudoun County, Virginia. Our story begins long, long ago, in the year 2012.
At that time, the NASL was easily the higher quality and much more stable league than USL-Pro, and for many teams, it was the league they wanted to join. This included a group in Virginia working on a massive new development known as One Loudoun to be built in the city of Ashburn. Within this new development would be a stadium, built for both baseball and soccer. It would host the Loudoun Hounds of the Atlantic League, and following an announcement on Nov. 20, a soccer team in the NASL. Ground was broken on the venue in June 2013, with both teams planning to debut following the venue’s completion in 2014. In February 2013, the team was revealed to be Virginia Cavalry FC, and in April they announced their colors.
And then, nothing, until December.
There were ongoing issues with construction of the stadium, and by the end of the year it hadn’t even begun to resemble a sporting facility. Both teams announced a postponement of their launches until spring 2015, with the stadium to be completed in stages. By April, construction had ended. Apparently, they simply ran out of money for the stadium project. By September 2014, the lease was terminated, and in August 2015, the Cavalry were dead.
This brings us to now, with much happier news. The new Loudoun United team is owned and operated by D.C. United, and they’ve made more progress in six months than the Cavalry ever did. While the stadium won’t be open until August, the team already has a plan. They’ll start the year on the road through the end of April, and may end up using the first team’s Audi Field for some or all of the five home games listing venue TBD.
They’re already announcing roster signings, going with a mixture of young prospects in the D.C. system and a handful of mid-20-somethings with USL experience. They’ve signed Dane Murphy as technical director for both MLS and USL efforts, and Richie Williams as the inaugural Loudoun head coach.
They’re marketing heavily to the local communities, and are treating this much more like a Reno than a Red Bulls II.
Prognosis: This is how to do these things. Take note, II teams, and also Bethlehem.
2018 record: 19-9-6, +33 GD, 66 points, second in East, won USL Cup
2018 attendance: 7,888, fifth, -8.4 percent from 2017
Everything went right for Louisville for the second season in a row. They were firmly in that top echelon with Cincinnati above the rest of the conference. They finished the regular season with a six-game winning streak and swept all four playoff games in regulation. At the start of the season, I knew they were the easy odds favorite to repeat, I just didn’t expect it to look so easy. Even losing James O’Connor to Orlando City midseason barely registered. They drew the first game under Hackworth, but continued the unbeaten streak to seven games. Add in breaking ground on their new stadium, and 2018 was pretty fantastic.
For 2019, things look slightly different. They’ve lost Cameron Lancaster and Ilija Ilic, the duo which combined for 39 goals and 12 assists, and that definitely hurts. They also lost star keeper Greg Ranjitsingh and Kyle Smith to JOC’s new squad in Florida.
To replace the forward duo, they’ve signed USL veteran Sunny Jane from Phnom Penh Crown, Abdou Mbacke Thiam from the University of Connecticut and Lucky Mkosana from Penn FC. Thiam netted 46 goals in 77 games in college, while Mkosana bagged 11 goals in 29 games for an offensively challenged Penn FC. Neither of them is a Cameron Lancaster, but they’re both solid signings. Jane is a bit of a harder sell as he managed just 14 goals in 91 USL games, but maybe they see something in him that I don’t.
In goal, they’ve brought back Chris Hubbard and Tim Dobrowolski, and signed Ben Lundt on loan from Cincinnati. I’m a little anxious about Hubbard given his lack of playing time in 2018, but Dobrowolski should do just fine filling the gap left by Ranjitsingh.
Everywhere else, they’ll look exactly the same, as they managed to keep the midfield and defense intact, and have simply added a few reinforcements wherever needed. All very good.
Hackworth is likely going to continue the course set by his predecessor and there’s absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t. Last season proved they had similar philosophies and the results kept coming. Even looking at preseason, Louisville is still dominant when they play their depth.
Prognosis: Could we see a three-peat? I hope not, but only because I hate that word. But a back-to-back-to-back championship win? Probably.
This concludes the third part of the four-part preview series. I hope you enjoyed, and I hope your eyes didn’t glaze over during the nearly 700-word tangent on Gaelic football. Come back soon for the final part which’ll cover the remaining nine teams in the Eastern Conference.
2018 record: 19-6-9, +25 GD, 63 points, third in West, lost USL final
2018 attendance: 6,381, eighth, +4.1 percent
Everything finally clicked for Phoenix in 2018 thanks to some help from Didier Drogba and the emergence of Rick Schantz as permanent head coach. Since-departed Patrice Carteron built up a smart, well-disciplined system for Schantz to inherit, and the handover took place as smoothly as it possibly could have. The frenetic pace that Phoenix showed in the spring cooled off just a touch in the middle of the summer, but the club lost back-to-back games just twice all season and cruised through the playoffs.
Honestly, other than those anomalies to close out the regular season, the chaos in the Open Cup against Sporting Arizona FC and championship loss, there weren’t any standout “bad” moments for Phoenix in 2018. With that, the vast majority of the roster is back, a positive reassurance to the fans that they’re going for the championship again this season.
Only six players have departed, and excluding Didier Drogba, who retired, and Kody Wakasa joining their League One affiliate in Tucson, it’s really just four. Losing Billy Forbes and Kevaughn Frater hurts offensive depth, but bringing in Ben Spencer and Adam Jahn leaves Phoenix more than covered. The only loss that I’m concerned about is Chris Cortez. His 21 goals and six assists across the entire season are tough to recover from. Solomon Asante is the logical successor for that role, even if he’s not a true drop-in replacement for Cortez, and I firmly expect him to lead the team in goals scored.
In the midfield, the additions of Jose Aguinaga and Junior Flemmings only bolster one of the strongest offenses in the entire league. Both moves absolutely scream “we’re winning this thing this year” right at Louisville. Swap those two in for Drogba and Frater from their championship lineup, let Asante push forward as Aguinaga drops back and you have a team that runs circles around Louisville and wins that game.
Off the field, fan support continued to grow, and Phoenix now faces an issue so many teams would kill for: their stadium is too small. They managed a crowd of 7,707 against Swope Park in the playoffs, 1,500 above listed capacity. As they ride this momentum and keep improving on and off the field, they’ll need to think about expanding soon. Maybe we’ll see them break ground on that MLS-spec stadium this year.
Prognosis: Write them in for the conference final. In pen.
2018 record: 17-4-13, +9 GD, 55 points, sixth in West, lost first round
2018 attendance: 2,015, 27th, -20.2 percent from 2017
Carrying on what I started in Part 1, we won’t be recapping the true II teams’ seasons, instead focusing on developing players who made a difference in the USL last season, those who are ready to jump to MLS in the near future and those to keep an eye on for the 2019 USL season.
Foster Langsdorf was the standout attacking player for the Saplings last season, scoring 14 goals in 30 games before going down with a right lateral meniscus tear. He successfully underwent surgery in November and has been back for much of preseason. Knee injuries are always tough, and there’s that lingering anxiety of a re-injury, but he’s already looking like his usual self. There’s a few guys ahead of him on the depth chart for the senior team, but he’s exactly the sort of player to get some minutes in the Open Cup and late in the regular season. If Dairon Asprilla and/or Lucas Milano get sold at the end of the season, Langsdorf might end up starting in a year’s time.
Carlos Anguiano, one of the recent stars of the Timbers Academy, has signed his first professional deal with T2 despite having already registered 706 minutes in the USL the past two seasons. In his limited appearances last year, he showed promise if a lack of polish, and it’s a definite vote of confidence from Savarese to see him signed by the organization. He’s comfortable as both a winger and central midfielder with solid passing accuracy, especially at close range. I could see him one day taking over for Andy Polo on the right wing in MLS.
Much has already been said about Jeremy Ebobisse, who spent much of his time in the USL the past two seasons. Solid play with T2 in 2018 helped him fight his way back into the first team and there’s reason to believe he’ll be a regular in MLS in 2019.
Niko de Vera was picked up from Red Bulls II after playing for the League Two U-23 Timbers from 2015 to 2017. He was drafted from Akron in the 2018 SuperDraft, looking good but unspectacular for the Baby Bulls. He’ll be back in the system where he showed a lot of promise in years prior, and with T2 moving on from Batista, Mulligan, Phillips and Smith, he’s got an easy road to starting in the USL. He’s another guy who could end up playing the odd Open Cup game or the late-season, pre-playoff games where the starters get rested. Still have hopes for him yet.
Finally, Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano were both promoted to the first team ahead of 2019 and both impressed in the USL last season. With Sebastian Blanco and David Guzman getting older, those two make sense as mostly drop-in replacements in midfield.
Prognosis: Pay attention to Anguiano and de Vera in particular in 2019.
2018 record: 19-3-12, +8 GD, 60 points, fourth in West, lost first round
2018 attendance: 1,731, 28th, -32.8 percent from 2017
The Monarchs have been an oddity among II teams in that they’ve been just as concerned with winning games as developing players, leading to some of the most exciting and effective soccer in the league. However, they’ll be a radically different team in 2019.
First up, Martin Vasquez is in as the new permanent head coach following the departure of Mark Briggs. Sebastian Velazquez and Chandler Hoffman are both gone, too.
Justin Portillo won a shot at the first team following another impressive season in which he scored twice, logged seven assists and played more than 2,700 minutes for the second USL season in a row. He joined the Monarchs from Charleston after the 2017 season and was an immediate standout, showing incredible passing accuracy. His comfort in transition and on counterattacking plays was vital for the Monarchs throughout the season. He’s only 26, too, so he could have several good years for Petke with the first team yet.
Two players to watch in 2019 are Steve Jasso and Jordan Pena, both signed to the Monarchs from the RSL Academy. Both previously played for the Real Salt Lake Arizona youth programs in the USSDA before joining the primary academy team in Utah at the U-18/19 level for the 2017-18 season. Pena is a tough, true No. 6 midfielder with a great defensive mindset and disruptive capabilities. He’s exactly the sort of player I’d like to see succeed Kyle Beckerman in the next few years. Jasso, meanwhile, is primarily a right back who has spent some time at center back and right wing. He reminds me of FC Dallas’ Reggie Cannon in lots of positive ways, showing defensive reading beyond his years and comfort pushing forward as needed. Looking at how Petke has used Brooks Lennon with the first team, Jasso is exactly the sort of player RSL will want to keep around, especially if they get a massive offer for Lennon from Germany.
In goal, Andrew Putna now stands as RSL’s top ‘keeper prospect and first in line for the House of Rimando. Putna has generally been the bench ‘keeper for RSL in MLS and has only played seven USL games the past two seasons, but I like what I’ve seen from him and he’s shown himself to be mostly MLS ready. I rate him higher than former Monarchs goalkeepers Jake Leeker and Connor Sparrow, and I feel like working with Rimando will only help him grow.
2018 record: 16-11-7, +18 GD, 59 points, fifth in West, lost conference semifinal
2018 Attendance: 5,066, 10th, -8.9 percent
Reno’s sophomore season wasn’t quite as explosive as 2017, but Ian Russell’s squad was once again highly effective. Despite starting off slow, after four games it looked like they might never lose again. From April 21 until July 28, Reno won 10 and drew six without a loss, and became the team to beat. They then went into a bit of a slump, losing three of four, but rallied to finish the season with a seven-game unbeaten streak. The club ended the year by advancing one round further in the playoffs, making for a very solid season indeed, even if they lost to Sacramento in the Open Cup again.
Unfortunately, several major players aren’t coming back for 2019, the most notable being Antoine Hoppenot. Hoppenot was a juggernaut for Reno, scoring five goals and leading the team with 13 assists. Only he and Brian Brown started every game, and the two of them were responsible for nearly half the team’s goals. Brown, though, will be back, and after scoring 18 goals in 2018, can only grow from here. He’s only 26, just reaching the prime of his career, and finally looked comfortable and at home in Russell’s system. He definitely looked and played his best at the tip of Russell’s slightly unusual 4-1-2-1-2 with Hoppenot out wide and van Ewijk just behind. To replace them, they’ve signed Corey Hertzog from Saint Louis and Raul Mendiola from Las Vegas. Hertzog fits into Hoppenot’s spot pretty nicely even if it isn’t an upgrade, while Mendiola in a lot of ways makes more sense than van Ewijk, who always seemed more comfortable out on the wing. If those two can combine for 12 goals and 15 assists, Reno will be just fine. And they just might.
In defense, Reno retains all three of Brent Richards, Zach Carroll and Duke Lacroix, while adding Benjamin Galindo Jr. on loan from Guadalajara. That right there is the new Almeyda-era Quakes trickling down to the USL level, and I’m all for it. Between him, Fioranelli and Leitch, Reno will have no shortage of talented young players on the field in 2019. Expect to see JT Marcinkowski and Matt Bersano get loaned out once again, and I’d be shocked if Jacob Akanyirige, Gilbert Fuentes and Siad Haji don’t end up with hella USL minutes.
Prognosis: It feels like the new-found connection with the Quakes will benefit Reno in a big, big way.
2018 record: 8-14-12, -6 GD, 38 points, 13th in West
2018 attendance: 4,650, 14th, -34.3 percent from 2017
Name: still too long
The first season in RGVFC history was electric, as the debutants finished second in their conference, but hardly anyone was there to see it. In their second season, attendance skyrocketed as the quality of play dropped. When I said last year they needed to bring those two seasons together for 2018, I didn’t mean play bad soccer in a half-empty stadium.
Which is exactly what they did.
RGV limped through preseason, won just one of their first 17 games and had just 13 points halfway through the season. And then, things started to get better. They won twice in July, thrice in September and finished with a 50-point pace across the second half of the season. Echeverry managed to get things figured out enough to keep his job, and generally speaking, they looked not all that bad by October.
As is the case when any quasi-reserve team has a bad season, loads of players are gone for 2019, with nearly half the roster not returning. The only name that stands out to me is Todd Wharton. Despite a major lack of cohesion in midfield, Wharton managed to pull a five-goal, five-assist season out of seemingly nothing and was consistently one of the best players on the field. He showed clear signs of improvement on offense while maintaining pretty good stats in midfield, and it kinda sucks to see him leave. He’s off to Timbers 2, though, which could end up being good for him long term.
As expected, most of the players coming in are coming from the academy, with four more youth players set for USL minutes this season. One of them, Wilmer Cabrera Jr., is actually the son of the Dynamo’s head coach, and finally gets a contract after playing 725 minutes in 2018 alongside his brother David. Wilmer Jr. is still figuring out the professional game, but despite his limited playing time was starting to show some promise by the end of the year. A more organized midfield could be a real game changer for him.
Zach Jackson joins out of college having previously spent time in the Houston academy, and still could be a promising defender yet. He’s a bit too old to call him a prospect, but not long ago he was still an anchor in Furman’s back line. I’m keeping an eye on him.
Prognosis: It’s only up from here, right? Probably. Maybe.
2018 record: 19-8-7, +15 GD, 65 points, second in West, lost first round
2018 attendance: 11,311, second, -2.2 percent from 2017
Following a rather disappointing 2017 season, Sacramento hired Simon Elliott, MLS veteran and former New Zealand international, as head coach, and former MLS standout Todd Dunivan as general manager. Both immediately impressed me with how they reorganized the Republic into a leaner, tougher and more defensively sound team. Sacramento began the season with a seven-game unbeaten streak, lost just three of their first 15 and closed out the season comfortably with four wins in a row. They lost back-to-back games just once, and lost by more than two goals on just one occasion. In the Open Cup, they picked off Reno and Seattle before nearly forcing extra time against LAFC, and despite a loss in the first round of the playoffs, can claim 2018 as their second-best season to date.
A retooled midfield let Cameron Iwasa shine to the tune of 17 goals and six assists, with Villyan Bijev laying claim to his starting spot as Iwasa’s strike partner. Mitchell Taintor and Shannon Gomez were defensive beasts who showed a strong ability on counterattacks, while Josh Cohen was absolutely phenomenal in goal all season. And the best part: they’re all coming back. Related to the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” there’s “if it’s basically perfect, don’t touch it, don’t look at it, don’t even think too hard in its direction,” and that’s exactly what Dunivant has done. They’ve not just maintained their entire core, they’ve added to it in smart, specific ways that make them all the more dangerous.
Stefano Bonomo joins from Tampa Bay, giving them a fantastic second option behind Iwasa, while Tyler Blackwood’s wing play at Swope Park fits well into Elliott’s system. It’s not a stretch to think that combined, those two can get close to 20 goals and 20 assists for 2019, which puts Sacramento firmly in the conversation for the championship. Greek defender Charalampos Chantzopolous joins from KPV in Finland, and although he might not be starter ready just yet, he’s only 24 and has some solid defensive chops. Speaking of defense, Sacramento has also added Dekel Keinan from Cincinnati and Matt Mahoney from Bethlehem, adding a veteran leader and a promising prospect in one move that makes an already dominant back line even stronger. Basically, the only thing standing between Sacramento and a championship is facing Swope Park in the playoffs.
Prognosis: Can someone beat Swope Park for us so we don’t have to deal with them again? Thanks.
2018 record: 14-8-12, -3 GD, 50 points, ninth in West
2018 attendance: 6,939, sixth, -3 percent from 2017
San Antonio was frustrating to watch in 2018. They started the season looking good but not great, hit a real stride in July, completely fell apart for most of August and ended up just outside the playoffs. They’d win two, draw two, win four, lose four and just never found a meaningful consistency. Darren Powell did some great stuff in 2017, but I began to lose confidence last season and that hasn’t changed.
As expected, they’ve gone and cleaned house, retaining just five players. Ever Guzman led the team with 11 goals despite missing seven games and was the closest they had to a consistent finisher. Lance Laing has been signed permanently from Cincinnati following a five-goal, six-assist campaign. Rafa Castillo has been arguably San Antonio soccer’s most important player since joining the Scorpions back in 2014, even if he’s turning 39 this year, and it’s nice to see him get a chance to raise another trophy. Brazilian defensive midfielder Pecka is back, another re-signing I like, as he’s been an important disruptive presence for the past two seasons.
In goal, they’ve retained Matt Cardone, a decision that can best be described as questionable. He was clearly the second-choice keeper behind Diego Restrepo until Restrepo got hurt, and while he wasn’t terrible, it was a visible step down. They’ve also added Jonathan Viscosi from TPS in Finland as another option, and honestly, I think he might be the better choice for starter.
To solve their issues with midfield and the back line, they’ve signed loads of new options, including Joshua Yaro from Philadelphia, Walter Restrepo (he’s back!) from Colombia, Amer Didic from SKC, Jack Barmby from Portland and Cristian Parano from Argentina. All rather sensible picks, with Parano standing out as a potentially huge signing for them. Parano is 19, he played for Boca, River Plate and San Martin’s youth systems, and — potential hot take — could become San Antonio’s Mauro Diaz this season. I’ve enjoyed watching him through preseason and I think the kid has a bright future.
That said, the biggest offseason acquisition, in my eyes, is Alen Marcina as assistant coach. I’ve been riding the Marcina hype train for years now, and I feel like San Antonio is preparing for him to replace Powell should things go wrong. Lest we forget, San Antonio’s most recent soccer trophy came under Marcina.
Prognosis: Honestly, just give me Alen Marcina. The dude can coach.
2018 record: 6-7-21, -31 GD, 25 points, 16th in West
2018 attendance: 3,370, 19th, +226.2 percent from 2017
Seattle has gone all-in on Tacoma, with plans for a new stadium for both the rebranded Defiance and Reign in the NWSL. I’m all for this, not just because they’re a little bit weird with their Kraken branding, but because it’s just better for these sorts of teams to take this approach (See: RGV, Bethlehem, Loudoun and Reno — sort of).
They’ve also brought in Chris Little to replace John Hutchinson, which is such a smart move. Little has served as the academy director for the Sounders since 2017, and if anyone knows the ins and outs of their prospects, it’s him. Last year was rough for the Soundlings, leading the conference with a crushing 21 defeats, and that’s probably why Hutchinson is gone. That said, there were a few standout players I’m keeping my eye on for 2019.
Denso Ulysse, a Haitian youth international defender who signed with the team back in 2017, was easily one of the top defenders on the team most of last season — even when they were getting stomped — and he’s got a high ceiling. Nick Hinds, another promising young defender, is back from a stint at Akron University and looks to be firmly committed to the Sounders cause for the future. Australian midfielder Jesse Daley is back for another season after becoming a vital piece of the central midfield.
They’ve also brought in four more academy players, with midfielders Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio and forwards Danny Robles and Alec Diaz joining the team. Leyva is quick, clever and can score just as well as he can pass, and looks like he’ll be a stud playmaker in a few years time. Atencio has spent time at both defender and defensive midfield. He’s also been playing “up a year” in the USSDA, without any signs of trouble. If you’re looking for a young replacement for Ozzie Alonso, look right here. Robles has played as an attacking midfielder, winger and forward, and looks pretty comfortable just about anywhere in the front of the field. He’s got competition for his spot in MLS, but he’s still very young and has time to prove himself. Diaz, though, is the one I’m most interested in, as he’s the best-scoring forward prospect in the Seattle system. In just 10 USSDA games this season he already has 13 goals, and he’s the natural fit to fill the void left by Clint Dempsey. I’ll be shocked if he’s not playing in MLS in 2020.
2018 record: 3-12-19, -41 GD, 21 points, 17th in West
2018 attendance: 3,094, 21st, -19.7 percent from 2017
The last line I wrote about Tulsa in 2018 says it all: blow it up and rebuild. The 2018 season was an absolute disaster. Tulsa didn’t win a game until June 27, didn’t win a second one until August and had two four-game losing streaks during the season. They scored just 36 goals, allowed a breathtaking 77 and looked utterly hopeless for most of the year. Head coach David Vaudreuil got sacked on June 25 with the team firmly at the bottom of the West. Michael Nsien was named as the interim head coach and managed to at least win three games, which apparently was good enough to keep him for 2019. I’m not sure that was the right move, but time will certainly tell.
Tulsa really did completely blow it up at the end of the year. Only one player is back for 2019: D.J. Dean. He’s only 20 and played just 403 minutes last year, but Nsien must like what he saw to keep him around. Or maybe he didn’t want to cut literally everyone.
Tulsa’s approach for their 2019 roster is a mix of international signings, USL veterans, free agents and young kids right out of college. There’s so much change it’s impossible to know where to begin, so I’ll try and cover as much as we know about how Tulsa might look.
Mallan Roberts, Matthew Sheldon and Cyprian Hendrick have signed to anchor the back line, and all three guys have USL experience doing just that. They’ve also brought in Moses Makinde from Sweden’s Syrianska. They’ve looked solid in preseason with a few shaky moments late in games, but nothing that some familiarity and training can’t hopefully resolve.
Christian Altamirano looks to be playing the quintessential 10 roll for Tulsa, not far removed from doing just that for some of the biggest clubs in Honduras. Manny Gonzales impressed me several years ago during his time with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and he’s the right sort of holding midfielder Tulsa needed last season.
In goal, they’ve gone with Sean Lewis as the first choice who was decent enough for Jacksonville and Penn FC in recent seasons. He’s not a star sort of player, but he’ll be good enough for 2019.
As for their attendance, I’m hoping that an improved team capable of winning at least four games will get the fans interested again. It looks bad, but it’s not a death sentence.
Prognosis: If we rebuild it, will they come back? And will it even work?
This concludes Part II of the 2019 USL mega preview. Next up, we tackle the top half (alphabetically) of the Eastern Conference.
It’s almost time for USL action once again. The league is back as the permanent Division 2 league with a new brand, loads of new teams and some exciting changes for the 2019 season. The USL is now fresh off a (relatively) quiet offseason. No teams folded, no new lawsuits were filed and we’ve found ourselves in a rare period of stability at the Division 2 level.
First up, the changes for 2019. FC Cincinnati is gone, departing to greener pastures in MLS after “crushing this league,” even though it never won a cup. Three other teams, Penn FC, Toronto FC 2 and the Richmond Kickers, have chosen to drop down to Division 3 in the new USL League One, with Penn FC taking a year off to sort things out. Seattle Sounders FC 2 have made their move to Tacoma permanent, adopting the new name Tacoma Defiance and have announced plans for a new soccer facility to be built adjacent to Cheney Stadium. Meanwhile, Saint Louis FC has once again switched conferences.
Joining the league are a record seven new clubs, the largest freshman class in modern USL history. Pro soccer returns to Austin with the Austin Bold, while Birmingham, El Paso, Hartford, Loudon, Memphis and Albuquerque all make their debuts in the USL.
The league retains the two-conference and 34-game configuration from before, but has modified the playoffs. Now, 10 teams make the postseason, with seeds seven through 10 entering a play-in round before the typical single-elimination bracket resumes. Once again, teams will only play clubs within their own conference, meaning that each team will host a home-and-away series against every other in-conference team.
A quick note on formatting and data: All records will be listed as win-draw-loss, and all USL attendance data is taken from the wonderful infographics by Mike Pendleton. Stadium capacities are whatever the teams themselves list, not necessarily the full capacity of the venue.
So, with those administrative updates out of the way, let’s dive in, beginning with the Western Conference. And buckle up, we’ve got nine teams to get through, so this might just be my longest USL article yet.
After three long years, the USL finally returns to the capital of Texas. The new Austin Bold have solved one of the major issues which plagued the second incarnation of the Aztex — the lack of a dedicated stadium — by building a new facility within the infield at Circuit of the Americas. While it is a good 20-minute drive from downtown without any mass transit options, it’s theirs, it’s built just for soccer and it sells alcohol.
Off the field, the roster has rapidly come together, featuring a wealth of veteran talent from around the world, including some rather significant names in Dario Conca, Kléber and Xavier Báez. They might be the oldest roster in the league at present, but it’s not a bad way to start off, and there’s never a shortage of young talent in central Texas should they need some extra depth. For head coach, Austin has signed Brazilian Marcelo Serrano, concurrently serving as head coach of the U.S. Virgin Islands national team, and former assistant with the USA and Brazil youth international sides. It’s his first club head coaching position, making him a bit of a bold choice (I’m sorry), but at the same time, I’m all for giving a young coach the benefit of the doubt. He’s used his connections in his native Brazil to bring in a number of players and has the makings of a very exciting club at his hands.
One thing before we move on: The Bold are still caught up in some ongoing chaos locally, and as part of the attempted relocation of the Crew, Bold FC chairman Bobby Epstein participated in some sketchy dealings of his own. There’s talk of it potentially alienating the local fans before a ball is ever kicked, and it might be something to remember should we find some poor attendance early.
And in case you managed to drink enough to forget, Austin Bold FC will find itself competing locally with the incoming Austin FC, due to join MLS in a new stadium of its own in 2021. Should the Bold carve out a niche of their own, they could manage to survive, and I could definitely see a future where the Bold becomes a sort of Reno-esque affiliate. But if the two teams never see eye-to-eye and Bold FC proves to have burned bridges, things could get rough.
2018 record: 11-6-17, -3 GD, 39 points, 11th in West
2018 attendance: 3,804, 18th, +12.3 percent from 2017
Last spring, I predicted that 2018 would look more like 2016 for the Switchbacks, with a potential return to form and playoffs. That didn’t happen, and instead they further declined to post their worst record in the USL to date. They lost three of their first four, all 1-0, and save for five games in midsummer, couldn’t go more than two games without a loss. However, 11 of the team’s 17 losses were by just a single goal, meaning that they weren’t much worse overall than the likes of Saint Louis or San Antonio.
Trittschuh and Co. have proceeded to absolutely clean house and already have a radically different roster for 2019 with only six players officially returning. Fresh offensive additions in Mike Seth and Ismailia Jome join the returning Shane Malcolm to hopefully rebuild an attacking core, while Jordan Burt is back for more attacking defender fun. In goal, Steward Ceus seems to have won the starting role for the future following Moise Pouaty’s departure. Last season, the Switchbacks mainly struggled offensively, tied for fewest goals scored in the West with just 36. On paper, this is a better midfield, but not by as much as I think they’ll need. They might be able to find success by getting five or six goals from half the team, rather than having one or two guys in double-digits, and this feels like what’s planned. If the rebuild works, the Switchbacks could be a real threat in the Western Conference. If it doesn’t, I start wondering about Trittschuh’s future.
Off the field, attendance has continued to grow, up over 1,000 from their inaugural season, and the club is currently planning a 10,000-seat downtown stadium set to open in 2021. The new partnership with the Colorado Rapids seems like it should have been obvious for years — and I’m pretty certain I’ve discussed exactly that before — so now it’s on the powers that be to give the local fans something to cheer about. I could definitely see some young Rapids Homegrown signings helping out in Colorado Springs on the field, and nothing sells tickets quite like an exciting, winning team. I’m not gonna go as far as to say this is their year, but I feel like this is the real make-or-break season for the Switchbacks. Playoffs or bust?
At long last, El Paso has found its spot within pro soccer, bringing the USL Championship up to four Texan teams for 2019. They already have a rather high-profile celebrity endorsement in former congressman Beto O’Rourke and a roster that’s starting to take shape in preseason. They also have one of my favorite brands among the 2019 freshman, with a touch of European inspiration and a lovely homage to the city’s railroad roots.
El Paso’s first player signing was former Whitecaps and Tigres forward Omar Salgado, a local boy through and through, who was signed in the middle of last season and loaned to Las Vegas. They followed that with four players Mark Lowry brought over from Jacksonville and a good bit of variety in signings from elsewhere. In particular, I like the signing of Sebastian Contreras who seems like the USL equivalent of a Mauro Diaz-sort, and Mechack Jerome is exactly the sort of tough defender an expansion team needs.
In Mark Lowry, El Paso has a coach with recent D2 experience, having been responsible for a dramatic change of fortune in Jacksonville in 2017, dragging the Armada from 11th in 2016 up to fifth. It’s a smart hire, and I trust his ability to bring a team together. That said, I get a bit anxious looking at this roster as it currently stands, with lots of players that have only played limited minutes in recent years or players that never really impressed at their previous gigs. A roster is definitely more than the sum of its parts, and I’ve seen Lowry get results out of such a team, but it’s something I’m thinking about.
As El Paso has gone through preseason, some of these doubts have waned with Locomotive FC looking strong in their seven friendlies. Salgado seems to have finally found the right team for him, Contreras is getting comfortable and their back line has been solid. But again, it’s preseason, who knows how this might change come the real games? I’m optimistic for El Paso and the postseason feels within reach, but that’s not the most important thing for year one. If the foundation they build this season works, they’re likely in for the long haul.
2018 record: 9-12-13, +6 GD, 38 points, 12th in West
2018 attendance: 4,833, 11th
Fresno made a reasonably solid, if utterly unremarkable, debut last season, right in line with my predictions. For 2019, they’ve retained around half of their roster, which is always a reassuring thing, but there are several noteworthy departures that give me pause. Danny Barrera and Pedro Ribeiro are out, and that’s not a promising sign. Those two combined for a large chunk of Fresno’s less-than-stellar offense last season. I do like the addition of Jaime Chavez, who should mesh pretty well with Juan Pablo Caffa, but that leaves them with one of the oldest rosters in the league. Jackson is another interesting signing who could be a serious asset for them, but again, he’s 30 and hasn’t played league minutes since the 2017 NASL season. Add in Jemal Johnson who turns 34 in May, and it doesn’t feel like a viable long-term strategy. But who knows? Maybe Adam Smith’s visible hand can help these guys supply what’s demanded enough to make the playoffs, then just flood the roster with youth next year. Their youth setup is already pretty nice, with that increasingly common move to partner with/buy out the local USL League Two side ahead of a pro debut.
On the defensive side of things, Fresno is pretty much set. They’ve not just retained but strengthened much of their defensive core, which managed to concede just 38 goals last season. It definitely helped keep some games that probably should have been losses level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re among the best defensive teams in the league once again.
So far, there are no serious concerns for 2019 other than some skepticism toward a few signings, and I could see them sneaking into the playoffs as a nine or 10 seed. All that’s left is to rehash the same complaint I’ve been making for over a year and use that secondary crest as the primary. Those new jerseys are pretty sharp and so much better than last year — although I don’t really like the sponsor logo, but honestly, whatever — and with that fox logo, things would be pretty much ideal as far as I’m concerned.
Prognosis: Win now, maybe, or at least lose less now, hopefully.
2018 record: 10-7-17, -7 GD, 37 points, 14th in West
2018 attendance: 1,048, 30th, -13.7 percent from 2017
Instead of writing the same recap-preview-analysis segment for the II teams, I’ve decided to do something a bit different this year. With the increased focus on young players and youth development in general, I find it more informative instead to discuss which young players people should be paying attention to.
Efrain Alvarez was the blatantly obvious standout player last year, who managed an incredible 12 goals and 3 assists despite starting just 13 games. He’s ostensibly an attacking midfielder, occupying the typical space of a 10 in a 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2, with exceptional play-making ability. He’s also only 16. He firmly won a shot in MLS last season and has been working with the first team since November. He’s already an amazing player, and being able to work with no less than Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Zlatan Ibrahimovic spells a very, very bright future.
Goalkeeper Eric Lopez has been a regular for Los Dos since the 2016 season, earning the starting roll in 2017 and platooning with Justin Vom Steeg, another promising ‘keeper prospect, in 2018. While the two never managed a clean sheet during the season, that was much more on the porous defense in front of them, and both clearly demonstrated some significant value in net. Both registered two penalty saves and managed to keep their club in some games where they were clearly outgunned. Vom Steeg is getting his chance with the first team as David Bingham’s backup, so we’ll probably see him at least get some playing time in the Open Cup.
I’ve already mentioned their defensive struggles last season, so let’s instead talk about some particular bright spots. Tomas Hilliard-Arce, the second pick in the 2018 SuperDraft, spent half the season in the USL to cut his teeth as a young professional, and immediately shined. He was a fixture in the back line who led the team in most defensive metrics and showed a lot of comfort moving forward to build from the back. He’s an accurate passer, a solid defensive presence and only 23. It looks like he’ll start 2019 in MLS. Returning to the USL is Nate Shultz, a third-round pick also from the 2018 draft that many people didn’t expect much out of, and were quickly proven wrong. Upon joining Los Dos, Shultz immediately began starting and consistently looked comfortable amid a lot of squad rotation. He’s tough, he’s quick, he’s disciplined, and he made a fantastic partner to Hilliard-Arce. Keep an eye on him, he might just pop up in MLS soon.
2018 record: 8-7-19, -24 GD, 31 points, 15th in West
2018 attendance: 6,786, seventh
Memes: still dank
Ladies and gentlemen, Chelis has left the building. And his son, too. And yet, the memes are still alive and kicking in Sin City, with Eric Wynalda joining the club as his replacement. He’s brought his usual brand of roster building and Twitter drama with him to Nevada, to everyone’s excitement. Honestly, not a bad fit, and the more time goes on, the more I like the hire.
Vegas debuted last season with a high-scoring, high-speed, frenetic squad that looked alright early in the season, save for a few scary flattenings, but they at least looked somewhat competitive until August. Twenty-six points from 23 games isn’t fantastic, but it’s enough under most circumstances to sneak into the bottom of the playoff bracket.
And then the front fell off. From Aug. 11 until Oct. 10, the Lights managed just two points across 11 games, conceding three or more goals five times in the process. Things were very, very bad. Their final win of the season in the penultimate week was an absurd 5-2 home thrashing of Phoenix, a team that had beaten them twice by a 6-0 score already that year.
Only five players are returning for 2019, which would seem crazy if not for Wynalda’s previous history doing the exact same thing. Primary ‘keeper Ricardo Ferriño is out, the midfield pairing of Carlos Alvarez and Daigo Kobayashi are out, leading scorer Raul Mendiola is out and Freddy Adu is out. This is essentially a brand-new team in year two.
I like that they’re keeping Samuel Ochoa and Matt Thomas, and between Angel Alvarez and Thomas Olsen they’re more or less set for goalkeepers, but there are just so many brand new pieces that I really don’t know what to make of this team just yet. That said, their starting lineup did absolutely embarrass Toronto’s MLS starters in their first preseason game. That 5-1 result led to the team making and hanging a banner on what used to be the outfield fence, exactly the sort of meme behavior I need from the Lights. Their 3-0 loss and 2-2 draw to the Colorado Rapids say they might be a bit better than last year, but they’re not organized yet. Their final preseason test brought a victory over Orange County SC.
Prognosis: The memes will continue until results improve.
Welcome to the USL, New Mexico. Finally! I’m legitimately so excited to see Albuquerque — and New Mexico at large — get in this league. They’ve felt like an ideal soccer market for years, and given the hype already building around this team, that was the right call.
Troy Lesesne gets the nod as both coach and technical director, giving him full control over roster decisions, and one can see his USL familiarity in every signing so far. Sixteen of the 19 players signed came from teams within the USL system, including the likes of Devon Sandoval, Juan Guzman, Kevaughn Frater, Josh Suggs and Justin Schmidt. There are so many players on this list that make me think “yeah, that’s a solid move” that I’m gonna go as far as to say New Mexico will be the best of the 2019 expansion teams in the West.
Lesesne is an interesting hire in that he’s never been a professional head coach before, but his resume has no shortage of experience. He spent eight years as an assistant at D1 College of Charleston, a season working with both the Charleston Battery and Vancouver Whitecaps, and four seasons as an assistant with the Charlotte Independence. Just like his roster decisions, I look at his experience and think “yep, this makes perfect sense.” He’s on a multi-year contract, so we’ll get to see him build and coach a team from scratch over the coming seasons.
Off the field, hype is already building around this team, from the love of their Meow Wolf jersey sponsorship to the general display of passion for soccer in the community. Drawing 1,215 people to a February preseason game against a college opponent is a good sign. They’re also closely working with the Albuquerque Sol in League Two, another smart decision.
Really, my only possible criticisms so far are trivial squabbles related to the crest, jerseys or use of a ballpark, but none of those really affect my projections for the team. If they keep playing their cards right, as they’ve been doing, I see them with a 10,000-plus-seat dedicated stadium of their own that they’re routinely selling out in under five years. (The next Sacramento?)
Prognosis: Pay attention, this might be something big.
2018 record: 12-7-15, -3 GD, 43 points, 10th in West
2018 attendance: 4,298, 15th, +1.8 percent from 2017
Last year, I projected OKC to make it to the championship game. They then went and lost eight games straight starting in the second week of the season, and I went from maximum hype train to literally writing a piece on how everyone should get fired in less than two months.
Steve Cooke eventually got the ship righted in May, and once the bleeding stopped, the team hit a 1.6 PPG pace. Had they started the season the way they looked in June and July, they would have finished somewhere around 6th place in the West, which would have been firmly good enough. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say I’m now confident in Steve Cooke as coach, and I apologize for my reactionary takes last spring.
They’re bringing back nine players from last season along with three players from their youth system, and look like a much stronger and deeper team across much of the roster. That said, losing Jose Barril and Alex Dixon hurts their offense in a way that their signings may or may not fix.
Alexy Bosetti is a super-fun signing from France, where he was scoring in Ligue 1 over the past five years, and was electric for Laval. I’m also big on the additions of Cordell Cato and Christian Eissele, who both provide some very interesting options for the Energy’s offense moving forward. Kal Okot and Josh Garcia both join from the League Two Energy U23 side to reinforce the midfield, while Harrison Bouma becomes the first academy signing in team history — all very exciting and promising for the long-term growth of the organization.
Atiba Harris is back on a multi-year deal, a fantastic reward for one of my favorite players who made a serious difference last year. I’m very pleased that Callum Ross and Christian Ibeagha are back, as I don’t like OKC’s playoff chances without them. I’m also quite pleased to see Cody Laurendi retained, more so given Matt Van Oekel’s departure.
All things considered, if the new signings can fit into that system that lit up last June, OKC is a playoff team. If Bosetti finds USL defenses weaker than those in the French second tier, they’re a contender. And if their depth is able to at least perform as good as last season, they’re a threat in the playoffs. But that’s a lot of ifs.
2018 record: 20-6-8, +30 GD, 66 points, first in West, lost West final
2018 attendance: 3,095, 20th, +20.4 percent from 2017
Orange County SC was the most exciting team in the USL last season and far too few people paid attention. They were the class of the Western Conference for much of the year, one of just two teams to win at least 20 games, and have quietly built one of the best organizations in the league. More people should be following this team.
Anyway, following a sale and rebrand in 2016, they’ve built their own stadium, developed their own coach and damn nearly made the championship game last season. Thomas Enevoldsen emerged as a goal-scoring machine, Braeden Cloutier built up a reputation as a brilliant coach and their run of form during the second half of the season was some of the best soccer I’ve ever seen. That 2.12 PPG pace would’ve had them at 72 points across a full season, closer to Cincinnati than Louisville. The only reason they didn’t make the final was Didier Drogba.
In the offseason, they retained the vast majority of their players. Really, this roster was championship caliber last season, so they made the correct decision. The biggest departure is Enevoldsen, who, despite his absence in the playoffs, scored 20 goals that will need to be found somewhere in 2019.
They’ve brought in Harry Forester and Liam Trotter from abroad, along with Jerry Van Ewijk from Reno, who can help fill that gap. But that’s still the biggest question I have for OCSC in 2019. If the goals keep coming and a reinforced midfield keeps them winning games, they’re the easy favorite to finish first in the conference and make the final. They have just about every single piece they need for that to happen and they’re better than last year in all but one role.
Off the field, attendance is up, fan engagement is up, sponsorship is up and things are looking pretty amazing for the future. Those playoff sellouts helped the team immensely and I have high hopes for them to break the 4,000-average barrier this season. Add in a solid Open Cup run and they could be in for an amazing run.
Prognosis: 90% they win the West, 10% they’re a mess.
This concludes the first of four parts of my 2019 USL Championship season mega preview. Next up will be the second half of the Western Conference, followed by the two Eastern Conference pieces.