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

Eastern Conference Part I
Photo credit: Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes

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.


Atlanta United 2

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.

Prognosis: Can’t be worse than last year.

Bethlehem Steel FC

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.

Anyway.

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.

Birmingham Legion FC

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.

Charleston Battery

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.

Charlotte Independence

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.

Hartford Athletic

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.

Prognosis: Alt ser fint ud, tror jeg.

Indy Eleven

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.

Prognosis: #LIPAFC

Loudoun United FC

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.

Louisville City FC

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.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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