New on SocTakes: 2019 USL Championship mega preview: Western Conference Part I

2019 USL Championship
Photo credit: Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes

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.

Austin Bold FC

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.


Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

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?

Prognosis: Playoffs or bust.

El Paso Locomotive FC

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.

Prognosis: If we build it, they will come.

Fresno FC

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.

LA Galaxy II

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.

Prognosis: Play the kids.

Las Vegas Lights FC

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.

New Mexico United

  • Founded: 2018
  • First USL season: 2019 (expansion)
  • Home stadium: Isotopes Park (13,500)
  • Head coach: Troy Lesesne

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.

Oklahoma City Energy FC

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.

Prognosis: Ask me again at the end of April.

Orange County SC

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.

Shit, they’re so overlooked that I forgot to include them in my initial preview last season.

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.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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