Author: John Michael Lenard

I write, I do vector graphic things, I make flags, and I occasionally podcast. I write about sports, music, statistics, and do many other things too.

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.

Prognosis: WE REQUIRE MORE MARKET SHARE.

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.

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New on SocTakes: Soc Takes Pod Ep. 60: 2019 MLS Fantasy preview

“MLS Fantasy Boss” Reid Connelly and 2018 MLS Fantasy spring champion Tod Modisette join co-hosts Kevin Johnston and John Lenard to preview the 2019 season from a fantasy perspective.

The fellas go over some of the basic MLS Fantasy tenets along with what’s new for 2019, then turn their focus to specific teams and players they’re bullish on for Week 1.

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New on SocTakes: Front Porch Discourse: Exciting new year for American soccer

Co-hosts John Lenard and Ian Foster run down the exciting proofs of concept happening between American and Canadian soccer. But first, they quickly hit on a couple of frustrating developments from USL Chicago and D.C. United.

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New on SocTakes: Front Porch Discourse: Short- and long-term implications of #SavedTheCrew

John Lenard, R.P. Kirtland and Ian Foster discuss what the success of the #SavedTheCrew movement means for MLS, U.S. Soccer, sports in America, sports everywhere else, life, the universe and everything in the latest edition of Front Porch Discourse.

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New on SocTakes: Front Porch Discourse partners with Soc Takes, BGN

Front Porch Discourse

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

(Feb. 8, 2018) — Front Porch Discourse has formed a new partnership with Soc Takes, and has joined the Beautiful Game Network (BGN) as well.

Run by co-hosts Ian Foster, John Lenard and R.P. Kirtland, Front Porch Discourse — formerly known as Front Porch Soccer — is a soccer podcast dedicated to stepping away from the bigger picture and focusing instead on the details.

“Front Porch Discourse was somewhat born out of a reaction to the hyperbolic hot-take culture that grips American soccer media,” Foster said. “We hope to be a counterbalance by devoting entire podcasts to singular topics, such as, ‘Why do some lower-league soccer teams fail?’ Soc Takes will provide us an environment and audience where a kind of research- and data-driven approach is highly appreciated.”

Soc Takes will provide a home for Front Porch Discourse along with promotional and financial support. The podcast will retain its current presence at iTunes, SoundCloud and elsewhere.

Front Porch Discourse becomes the fourth show under the Soc Takes umbrella, next to the Soc Takes Pod, Soc Takes TV and Lower League America. The show will also be a part of the aforementioned BGN collective, which the Soc Takes Pod is already a member of. Both podcasts can be found at BGN.fm alongside a deep cast of fellow soccer-focused shows.

Lenard is a Soc Takes staff writer in addition to co-hosting the Soc Takes Pod. He’s been with the website since its inception in 2017.

Keep up with every episode of Front Porch Discourse at SocTakes.com.

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New on SocTakes: Soc Takes Pod Ep. 59: Nick Seuberling

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Cincinnati Soccer Talk’s Nick Seuberling joins co-hosts Kevin Johnston and John Lenard to analyze FC Cincinnati’s roster construction ahead of the club’s first season in MLS. Seuberling also discusses his background in soccer and digital media.

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On Linux: Giving Zorin OS a go

Hello website!

I’m gonna ramble a bit about Linux today. For years, like, since high school, I’ve sworn by Linux Mint as my go-to, first-choice, no-brainer Linux distro of choice. But maybe that’s gonna change?

See, yesterday, I assisted a friend in dual-booting his laptop, and found that Zorin OS had a much better out of the box experience than Mint typically does. I’m no stranger to a bit of configuration and troubleshooting in the wild world of Linux, and I was shocked at how little needed to be done. Even high-DPI scaling, something Linux is notoriously not great at, worked flawlessly.

So, I’m gonna give Zorin a go on my primary Linux laptop, a Dell Latitude E5450. This is the first time I’ve switched my primary Linux device’s distro since my initial switch from some flavor of Ubuntu to Linux Mint circa 2009.

In fact, for quite a few years in high school, I was Linux-exclusive. My only main computer, a Toshiba Satellite laptop, was running Linux as its only OS, and everything I did was done on that laptop. That’s when I got heavily interested specifically in Mint.

But now, maybe it’s time for a change. I’m installing Zorin today, and I’ll be using this laptop for much of my lighter work stuff for a few weeks.

New on SocTakes: Record of every head coach in MLS history

Tim Hankinson - MLS history
Former Tampa Bay Mutiny and Colorado Rapids manager Tim Hankinson. Photo credit: Aaron Gunyon/Soc Takes

It’s the offseason, which means it’s the perfect time to do some quirky projects and put my Microsoft Excel skills to use.

Below is a link to a sortable Excel spreadsheet with the record of every head coach to ever roam the touchline in MLS history. Toggle between the two sheets at the bottom to filter by individual coach or team.

VIEW HERE

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New on SocTakes: Project 50/50: Part IV

Project

Welcome once again to Project 50/50, the series in which I initially attempted to find the single best untapped soccer market in each state, which has instead become finding the top two, three or even four markets in some states.

You might have noticed that this series hasn’t been updated in over eight months. Sorry about that. But with some renewed interest in lower-division expansion thanks to the USL’s restructuring, it seems like the right time to fire it up again and actually finish it.

For the most part, I’m hypothetically focusing on teams joining at the Division 3 level, which means — broadly, generally speaking — USL League One. That’s simply because I know they’re using the existing USSF Pro League Standards, which makes my job easier.

Please note that attendance data is taken from the 2017-18 winter seasons and 2018 summer seasons for the referenced leagues and sports in my market analyses.

And with that introductory and explanatory waffling out of the way, let’s dive in.

KANSAS

For Kansas, the only object is to be outside the Kansas City metro area. Primarily because I don’t feel like competing against the existing teams there right now. But that isn’t that much of a restricting factor. There’s three other markets in the state that I feel would be well-suited for professional soccer. Two of them even have teams already.

Wichita
-MSA population: 644,610
-Averaged 5,072 in ECHL
-Averaged 2,263 in AAIPB baseball
-Home to Wichita State Shockers in NCAA D1

Wichita is the largest city in the state, primarily due to the fact that Kansas City spreads across state lines. It’s also a top-100 metro market and has been a reliable home of minor professional sports since the ’90s. They’re also doing well with semi-professional soccer, as FC Wichita has done undeniably well in the NPSL. In the past, however, the city was a stronghold in the world of indoor soccer. The Wichita Wings in the original Major Indoor Soccer League saw seven consecutive seasons with attendance north of 8,000 despite no championship wins, cracked 9,000 fans in one of their worst seasons and kept their attendance above 5,000 fans for 18 seasons straight. While the most recent attempt at indoor soccer in the city only survived two seasons, there is undeniably a very strong soccer fan base in Wichita. I’d be entirely unsurprised if FC Wichita announced a move to the NPSL Founders Cup, NISA or even the USL Championship in the near future.

Their current venue at the Stryker Soccer Complex is technically fully D3 compliant, but with a maximum capacity somewhere in the region of 2,200, there’s not much room for growth. Should they choose to look for a larger venue, there are two that aren’t too bad, with the added benefit of being D2 compliant. Adair-Austin Stadium on the Friends University Campus seats 5,000 and was actually built with soccer in mind. While it isn’t much in terms of amenities, it’s still a bit of an upgrade and would definitely work as a USL-capable temporary venue. However, if they play their cards right, they might be able to secure the use of WSU’s Cessna Stadium. It’s originally designed for football and track, but there is no football team actively using it. It also has a grass field and seats a whopping 24,000. The only problem I see with using this stadium is the width of the field. The grass surface only extends maybe 160 feet at its widest point — according to Google Earth, at least — and would need to be extended in some way. But, who knows?

Oh, and before I forget, Wichita has a really, really good flag and FC Wichita uses it really well in its crest.

For Kansas, we get into a problem rapidly where we’re either concentrating teams in and around Kansas City, or we’re running the risk of getting involved in markets too small for U.S. Soccer. Because I’m considering not just D3 standards but D2 as well, markets like Topeka and Lawrence are far smaller than what the USL Championship is looking for. We also only have one established team outside Kansas City anywhere in the pyramid. That said, Topeka is a prime market for the NPSL or UPSL or something. Put a team in the stadium at Washburn University. It seats 7,200 and it’s right in the middle of the city. As an added benefit, it’s only a mile and a half away from the Westboro Baptist Church, and soccer will surely be a thorn in their side. And that amuses me.


KENTUCKY

Kentucky went from bugger-all soccer to winning back-to-back USL titles to making progress on its own 10,000-seat stadium remarkably quickly. That’s absolutely incredible. Louisville is unusual among most ambitious USL teams in that it isn’t really gunning for MLS. They’re committed to being the best they can be in the USL Championship for the foreseeable future. So, let’s find them a new in-state rival.

Lexington
-MSA population: 506,751
-Averaged 4,462 in A MiLB
-Home to Kentucky Wildcats in NCAA D1

Lexington doesn’t have any non-collegiate soccer — yet. In my mind, though, it makes a lot of sense. Even if it’s only D3, or even D4 for a time. The population is growing steadily, there’s a solid local economy and there’s not much competition sports-wise. Demographically speaking, Lexington has a lot of appealing quantities. The downtown population is growing steadily, although at not quite the same rate as decades past, but still fairly consistently above 10 percent each decade. The percentage of college-educated people ranks 10th in the nation and incomes are reasonably high. This has led to the city ranking high in listings for young professionals and new businesses, two things that generally go hand-in-hand with strong support for soccer. There’s no better direct visualization of this than the support the collegiate teams at the University of Kentucky have. Both men’s and women’s soccer averaged above 1,000 fans in the 2017 season. Given that along with the support the city has for minor league baseball, I’m fairly confident that a Lexington USL League One team could hit 3,500-4,000 pretty comfortably.

There are even two really solid venues that could work fantastically for D3-level play: the 3,368 seat Bell Soccer Complex on the UK campus, and the 6,994 seat Whitaker Bank Ballpark. I could even see some organization partnering with Louisville City to get a second Kentucky team launched, possibly as their own USL League One affiliate. That’s likely the route I would take to launch a team. I’d also play up the blue and white colors used by both UK and the city of Lexington, and use something related to horse racing. Maybe Lexington Thoroughbreds FC? And they should absolutely, positively use the blue horse from the new city flag in their crest. It’s such a great, simple flag.

Oh, and one quick aside: Kentucky is one of two schools in the SEC to field a men’s soccer team in NCAA, along with South Carolina. Both teams play as affiliate members of Conference USA because the SEC doesn’t sponsor men’s soccer.

In researching this section, the other cities I considered were Bowling Green and Frankfort, the second-largest city and the capital city, respectively. Bowling Green looks pretty appealing, and they definitely could fit a soccer field inside Bowling Green Ballpark since the WKU soccer stadium is way too small. That ballpark is also right in the middle of downtown Bowling Green. They could also maybe use WKU’s football stadium, as it looks like a narrow soccer field would fit. The capacity just north of 20,000 isn’t bad either, especially if the team gets support akin to Louisville.

Frankfort, however, is just so small. So very, very small. Its current population is somewhere around 27,885, which is just 2,000 more than the number of people who attended FC Cincinnati’s home opener. There is, however, a fantastic stadium at Kentucky State University with 6,000 seats and a grass field. Were they to get a soccer team of some sort, this would be a great place to play.


LOUISIANA

Soccer in Louisiana has absolutely exploded in the past few years thanks to the creation of the Louisiana Premier League in 2014. That league morphed into the much larger Gulf Coast Premier League in 2016 and currently features fifteen teams across Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. This league, which is currently sanctioned by USASA as an Elite Amateur League, is roughly on par with the likes of the UPSL. Including the two operating teams in the NPSL, there are currently seven soccer teams in the semi-pro ranks in Louisiana. This gives us plenty of material to base this segment on. The state also has four metropolitan areas with populations north of 250,000, which makes my job really rather easy. And without further waffling, let’s look at where pro soccer could find success in Louisiana.

New Orleans
-MSA population: 1,227,096
-Averaging 4,596 in AAA MiLB
-Home to New Orleans Saints in NFL and New Orleans Pelicans in NBA
-Home to Tulane Green Wave in NCAA D1

New Orleans is one of those cities that feels like it should have a pro soccer team by now. Like Baltimore, or Milwaukee. And yet, the only pro team I can find in the city’s history is the short-lived New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers/Storm, who played in various USISL-operated leagues from 1993 through 1999. (Interesting side note: from 1995 through 1997, current Charlotte Independence head coach Mike Jeffries served as player-coach of the team.) That’s it. No teams in the old NASL, no indoor soccer teams, nothing from the pre-1960s leagues. Nothing. This niche has been served ever since 2003 by the semi-pro New Orleans Jesters, currently of the NPSL, and they’ve been doing really quite well. Last year, the team went undefeated through 12 games in the NPSL’s Southeast Conference West Division, complete with eight wins, and made it all the way to the Southeast Conference final. They also drew several crowds above 2,500, which is nothing short of remarkable.

And so, that’s where we’re going to begin, because quite frankly this team is already doing so many things well. Their branding is strong, the fan support is superb, and they’ve made their conference’s playoffs in three of the previous four seasons. The one point of concern for me is the long-term viability of their current home stadium, Pan American Stadium. It’s not a bad facility by any means, but it’s primary purpose is high school football, so the FieldTurf has permanent gridiron markings. Not ideal. It’s also pretty bare-bones as far as most facilities of the size we find in the USL Championship already. As an alternative, two stadiums in particular strike me as strong fits for soccer. First up is Tad Gormley Stadium, literally less than a mile away from their current home. The venue is delightfully classic, built back in 1937, but offers some more modern amenities than Pan American. It also seats a total of 26,500 fans, which if this hypothetical D2/D3 Jesters team draws support akin to Louisville/Cincinnati/Sacramento/Indy/etc., could easily get sold out. Due to the inclusion of a running track, though, fans would find themselves sitting more than twice as far from the field. So, second choice. Yulman Stadium, on the campus of Tulane University, is a very, very nice FBS stadium. It’s also almost brand new, opening back in September of 2014. It seats 30,000, with all the bells and whistles like luxury boxes and proper press areas. This would be the nicest possible stadium that a minor professional team has any realistic shot at using in the area. I mean, yeah, they could pull an Indy and borrow the Superdome, but I don’t see that as the best of solutions, because it’s massive and looks ridiculously barren if it’s not above half full. Capacity reduction is also not great for the venue. So, those are two options. But I don’t see either as a permanent home for the team, because the USL Championship won’t. Teams are expected to plan for the construction and operation of a soccer-specific stadium. Fortunately, there’s ample space near downtown and near the AAA ballpark where a permanent soccer stadium with a 5,000-10,000 capacity could be easily built. Here’s hoping they get the chance to move up.

Baton Rouge
-MSA population: 802,484
-Home to LSU Tigers in NCAA D1

Here is a complete list of every single professional sports team in the Baton Rouge metro area:

It’s a rather short list. The city’s sports scene is positively dominated by LSU athletics. And if you’ve learned anything about me from the previous three installments in this series, few things bring me joy like putting professional soccer in SEC territory. So, here we go again. Baton Rouge currently has a growing soccer organization in Baton Rouge Soccer Club, which operates teams in the Gulf Coast Premier League and the Women’s Premier Soccer League. This is another case of a large youth soccer organization adding higher-level teams at the top of the amateur rankings. They’ve done objectively well with their youth teams, winning a handful of state and regional competitions, but they’re still pretty new to the top tiers of the amateur game. For those reasons, I’m not that convinced that BRSC is likely to go professional anytime soon. It just doesn’t seem like the sort of chaos they’re likely to dive into.

But that hasn’t stopped USL League One from evaluating cities purely on the basis of appropriate venues, and it won’t stop me either. BRSC actually has a solid home stadium in BREC Olympia Stadium for an amateur organization. Permanent bleachers, grass field, convenient-ish location. But there’s a few other options that I think would better suit a professional team. First up is the LSU soccer stadium, appropriately named LSU Soccer Stadium. After the most recent renovations completed in 2011, the stadium now features 2,197 seats, a grass field, proper press box and D3-quality amenities. If a Baton Rouge team were to join USL League One, this could be a perfectly cromulent venue for a few years while a long-term home is built. The stadium has also seen some solid turnout for the LSU women’s soccer team, with two crowds above 2,500 in the past few seasons. This, however, would not be my first choice stadium. That would be BREC Memorial Stadium located right in downtown Baton Rouge. This stadium opened in 1952, seats 21,500, has a grass field and is currently underutilized. The city is planning renovations to help modernize the venue, and this is where I think professional soccer comes in. A hypothetical USL Championship/League One team might could convince the city to give them exclusive use of the facility in exchange for some amount of money, along with permission to renovate it further for pro soccer. The capacity is excellent, right up there with lots of MLS venues, and the location is just about perfect. Less than 2.5 miles from the city’s cultural epicenter? Yes, please.

Shreveport-Bossier
-MSA population: 391,516
-Averaged 2,925 in NAHL hockey

The Shreveport-Bossier area has historically been a hotbed for minor professional sports over the years. Sadly, this has recently come to an end, with no active professional sports to be found. However, in the NPSL and GCPL, we find that amateur soccer is alive and well in the city. There are two youth organizations that operate GCPL teams as the top of their men’s systems, Boca F.C. Knights and CABOSA Shreveport United SC, and an NPSL team, Shreveport Rafters FC. We’ll be focusing on the Rafters today.

If you haven’t heard of this team, you’re missing out. They’re the team that ran these ridiculous and amazing jerseys for a game against the New Orleans Jesters back in 2016:

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They’ve averaged north of 2,000 fans in three NPSL seasons, have an excellent crest inspired by the city flag of Shreveport and they’re already one of the most professionally run teams in the NPSL. They are a prime candidate to move up into USL League One or the NPSL Founders Cup, and they seem like they might be planning for that eventuality. For 2018, they’ve moved from the roughly 3,500-seat Messmer Stadium to Independence Stadium which seats a hair under 50,000. That’s the stadium that hosts the annual Independence Bowl. While I’m all for soccer teams using the nicest available facilities, I don’t think they’re likely to fill that stadium any time soon. Therefore, an alternative. As mentioned earlier, there are no minor professional sports teams in the city currently. The Shreveport-Bossier Captains of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball were sold and moved to Laredo in 2011. That means that the city’s nearby ballpark is empty. The ballpark, Fair Grounds Field, has been open since 1986 and was last renovated in 2011. It currently seats 4,200. My proposal is to tear up the ballpark, give it the Al Lang treatment and make it into a permanent, unique, soccer stadium. By tearing out the outfield wall, a 110 by 75-yard field can fit in there, with the ability to extend the seating down what is currently the first base line. This could be a perfect fit for the Rafters long term, and without any active use of the stadium, the city isn’t likely going to have many better options. I really think this is a good idea.


MAINE

I’d hazard a guess that a lot of people overlook or even forget about Maine when it comes to soccer. The state actually does have two teams within the national amateur ranks, in both the NPSL and PDL. There’s also a long history of minor league sports in the state, with affiliate teams of the MLB, NHL and NBA all in Portland, Maine, alone. Given how the state has supported minor league teams in the past — quite well — it seems reasonable to me that professional soccer would work there.

Portland
-MSA population: 514,098
-Averaging 5,678 in AA MiLB

Portland is the easiest, most obvious pick for a soccer market. It’s the largest metro area in the state, home to roughly a third of the total population, and is the economic center of the state. It’s also home to minor league baseball, G-League basketball, ECHL hockey and minor league arena football. It’s a solid minor-league town, which is perfect for lower-league soccer.

Looking at the current options for soccer in Portland, we find GPS Portland Phoenix, a USL League Two team based at Memorial Stadium. They’ve made the Open Cup four times in the past six years, but have only once won their first round game. Attendance wise, the most recent data I can find is from 2015, which lists an average attendance of 512. For a USL League Two team that’s run by a youth club, that’s actually pretty good.

If I were to put a team in Maine, I’d go with USL League One now that the Rochester Rhinos have announced their return to that league, and I would use Fitzpatrick Stadium located right next to the downtown arena and minor league ballpark. Fitzpatrick Stadium has been around in some form for decades, and has an ideal location compared to Memorial Stadium which is out in the suburbs a bit. It seats 6,200, perfect for D3 and even sufficient for D2 with a bit of renovation. It’s also actively in use by the local adult soccer leagues. It’s in a residential neighborhood, but it’s only two miles from downtown. A team could do rather well running a shuttle bus those two miles from the hot spots along the ocean to the stadium. I could easily see a situation where the New England Revolution decide to place a affiliate side in Portland, and there are numerous Boston sports ties already. That could create a nice Portland-Hartford-Boston development pathway.


MARYLAND

How in the world is there no pro outdoor soccer in Maryland yet? Honestly. It feels like a massive missed opportunity. And I’m not counting the D.C.-branded teams that play outside the district because they really, truly don’t count. Maryland is Maryland and D.C. is D.C., and Maryland is big enough, populous enough and interesting enough to justify the creation of teams of their own. Hell, they’re home to Major League Baseball and the damn NFL.

With that said, there are a number of cities in Maryland that are grouped as part of the Washington, D.C. MSA, which means they’re, by default, excluded by this rule. And while that limits options, it doesn’t exclude the market I really want to talk about, Baltimore.

Baltimore
-MSA population: 2,808,175
-Home to Baltimore Ravens in NFL
-Home to Baltimore Orioles in MLB
-Averaged 3,491 in MASL

This is super obvious. Put a team in Baltimore already, damn it. There hasn’t been a professional team in the city since Crystal Palace Baltimore went under some time in 2011. Despite some announcements from the Bohemians on their professional ambitions, they went dark in January 2017 and have yet to re-emerge. Meanwhile, the city continues to be a stronghold for indoor soccer with a ludicrous 39th consecutive professional indoor season coming to Baltimore in November. And the new NPSL club, FC Baltimore, had a stellar debut campaign including a 13-0 win over Legacy 76. More than Hartford, more than Tucson, more than Rochester, the USL really needs to be putting effort into Baltimore already. And I’m not just saying that because I find the city delightful.

Let’s consider this: Baltimore has been in the news the past five years for some less-than desirable reasons. Meanwhile, we’ve seen soccer as a force for inclusive good in Atlanta, providing tangible, meaningful benefits to the inner city. I’d like to think that the same sort of effects are possible in Baltimore given the right people running a team, and considering the lack of summer sport competition, soccer has a very solid chance at succeeding. It’s not like people have faith in the Orioles right now, and even at the NPSL level, people were turning out consistently. Not gonna lie, I’d be pretty pleased to see FC Baltimore take a crack at NISA or USL League One for 2020.

With that out of the way, it’s time to look at some stadiums. I’m going to assume that there’s no secret Baltimore2MLS bid working on a downtown stadium, so I’ll be focusing on existing venues which currently meet Division 2 requirements, with the side assumption that none of these would be a long-term permanent solution.

My first pick would be Homewood Field, the lacrosse/football/soccer/field hockey stadium on the Johns Hopkins University campus. Located due north of downtown Baltimore, the stadium seats 8,500 and is relatively easy to access through public transportation. Yeah, it’s turf and it’s pretty basic, but it could definitely work for a D2 or D3 soccer team for a year or two.

Also up there is the Ridley Athletic Complex, located literally walking distance from Homewood Field, at Loyola University Maryland. This, too, is a turf-clad, multi-sport-but-kinda-sorta-lacrosse-specific stadium, seating 6,000. It’s literally 100 years newer than Homewood, and not coincidentally much nicer and more modern. It was also used by the Baltimore Bohemians in the PDL in 2013.

And now, my thoughts on a hypothetical new stadium for Baltimore. Looking at city maps and public transit routes, there are a few fairly convenient vacant or underused spaces where a soccer stadium could easily fit, assuming something in the 8,000-18,000 capacity range. Now, this is very much so excluding the Inner Harbor/Camden Yards area, as there’s no available space and likely won’t be any made available for a soccer stadium.

However, slightly farther south, there are two parks currently featuring rectangular fields with soccer markings: Latrobe Park and Swann Park. And while building stadiums for private use on public parkland is, to put it lightly, controversial, there’s definitely room at both sites and there’s fairly easy access from the city core.

Now, should the city not want to use public land, there’s actually quite a lot of open space not far from Swann Park near the headquarters of the Baltimore Sun and Under Armour. It’s three miles from Camden Yards which is long for a walk, but there’s room for parking and some public transit access. Honestly, not bad. I’m curious to hear from native Baltimore people regarding the viability of these ideas, but it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.


So, that’s the end of Part IV of Project 50/50, at long last. We’re now 20 states in, with six parts remaining. Once again, I’d like to apologize for the eight-month delay between Parts III and IV. I’m planning to resume a roughly monthly schedule for these and actually have Part V already in progress.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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Rant: IndyCar’s 600km Race in Texas is NOT 600km.

Every June, the IndyCar series pays a visit to Texas Motor Speedway. It’s been an annual event dating back to the track’s opening in 1997. From 2007 through 2010, and then 2012 and 2013, the race was advertised with the number “550” as the distance. 550 kilometers. For 2014, it was extended another 50 kilometers, to round out at a nice, even 600.

Except those numbers are completely meaningless. Here’s why.

Texas Motor Speedway is not 1.5 miles long. All of those numbers are based on that assumption, which IndyCar internally refutes. All of their timing and scoring is based on a measured distance of 1.44 miles. That works out to 2.317 kilometers. Time for a bit of light math.

The race, during the “550km” era, ran for 228 laps. 228 laps times 2.317 kilometers equals… 528.276km. That’s not even close to 550. To get close, we need another nine laps, leaving us at 549.129km in total, and 237 total laps.

But wait, the discrepancy actually gets worse. The difference between the old race distance and what was advertised was 21.724km. Now that the race is 248 laps long, it’s a total distance of 574.616km. That’s more than 25 kilometers shy of what’s advertised, a whopping 11 laps.

If the race were 259 laps, that would reach 600.103km of race distance, and that’s goddamn close to exactly what’s painted in massive numerals along the front stretch. But it’s not, it’s 11 laps off.

If one were to be sufficiently annoyed, and go back through every single race that IndyCar has run in Texas, adding up the total distance run versus the listed distance, they’d find some very irritating numbers.

At least, that’s what I did, and that’s definitely what I found.

Even excluding the shortened fall race in 2003, wherein Kenny Bräck had his accident, we find that 14,115.16km of racing has been run by IndyCar at Texas Motor Speedway, but they’ve advertised it as 14,695.23km. That’s 580 missing kilometers, for a total of 250 race laps not run.

Yes, this is just a ranty missive about something mostly inconsequential, but I want my extra laps, please.

Or at the very least, adjust the race distance to match what’s advertised.