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

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

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:

And with that, once more into the fray!

Memphis 901 FC

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?

Nashville SC

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.

New York Red Bulls II

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.

Prognosis: Maybe bring back the MetroStars brand?

North Carolina FC

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.

Ottawa Fury FC

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?

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

  • Founded: 1998
  • First USL season: 1999 (A-League)
  • Home stadium: Highmark Stadium (5,000)
  • Head coach: Bob Lilley (second season)
  • 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.


Prognosis: Cup or bust.

Saint Louis FC

  • Founded: 2014
  • First USL season: 2015
  • Conference changes: five (record)
  • Home stadium: Toyota Stadium (5,500)
  • Head coach: Anthony Pulis (second season)
  • 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.

Swope Park Rangers

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.

Tampa Bay Rowdies

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!

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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