USL Championship – What We’ve Learned So Far

The beginning of a new season is always exciting. Whether you’re looking forward to finally watching your favourite team again, or you’re a neutral trying to observe the changing landscape of a competition – there are few things more entertaining than the opening day of a new campaign. Add to that ‘new-season-excitement’ some expansion and a new league structure and you get one of the most anticipated tournaments in recent memory – the USL Championship season of 2019.

The United Soccer League (USL) is still very much a work in progress. I wrote an opinion piece about the organization a couple of months ago. You can read that right HERE. If you don’t know anything about the USL, I strongly urge you to read that before you continue reading this article. A few things I talk about in that opinion piece are:

  • USL’s new structure
  • the geography of USL teams
  • USL/MLS partnerships

Anyway. We’re now a few weeks into the season and I thought it would be a good idea to look at what has happened so far and how the 2019 season will continue to develop.

Let’s have a quick look at last season. FC Cincinnati finished the regular season as the team with the most points, but their playoff run was cut short after they got knocked out in the Conference Semi-Finals by the New York Red Bulls II. Louisville City won the USL for the second year running when they beat Didier Drogba’s Phoenix Rising in the playoff final. The surprise packages of last season were Orange County SC who finished atop the Western Conference and Reno FC who went on an incredible (and unexpected) three-and-a-half-month unbeaten run.

33 teams were competing in the USL in 2018. After the conclusion of last season, FC Cincinnati joined MLS, Toronto FC II and the Richmond Kickers dropped down to League One effective immediately and Penn FC will join them in 2020.

Louisville City celebrate winning the USL Championship (Source)

The New Guys

Of course, the teams that left the league after 2018 were replaced and more teams joined for 2019.

One major storyline has already developed. The teams in the Eastern Conference have been terrible and the teams in the Western Conference have been better, which, to be honest, isn’t something that I thought would happen.

Memphis 901

After four games, Memphis have a record of 1W-2L-1D, which has them sitting 12th in the East. The side from Tennessee is the best Eastern Conference expansion team and one of only two that can say they have won a game. That goes to show just how bad the expansion teams in the East have been. Memphis’ last game was a 3-2 defeat to the Red Bulls II.

It’s perhaps harsh to say that their squad is bad, but if your best player is 34-year old MLS veteran left-back Marc Burch, you’ve got some problems. Chicago Fire loanee Elliot Collier has been decent in the two games he’s featured in, so too has Adam Najem, Rashawn Dally was the match-winner against Bethlehem Steel and maybe throw in goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell, who has been solid, but other than the five players I’ve mentioned, there isn’t much to get excited about.

It’s telling when your fans and the atmosphere they create is the most exciting thing about your club.

Birmingham Legion

The other expansion team that has actually won a game of football is the team from Alabama. Birmingham lost their first two games, but their recent 3-2 triumph away at Louisville saw them shoot up the table into…um…13th.

Compared to Memphis, Birmingham’s squad is incredible. Matt Van Oekel is the starting keeper, with Trevor Spangenberg as his backup – both have MLS experience. They’re maybe not as impressive in defence as they are in the attack, but having former Montreal defender Kyle Fisher and former Eredivisie player Marcel Appiah on your team won’t hurt.

Further up the pitch is where Legion FC’s true strength comes through. There’s MLS experience everywhere you look. Captain Mikey Lopez, Zach Heriveaux and veteran Daigo Kobayashi in midfield. Edward Opoku, Femi Hollinger-Janzen and Brian Wright in the attack. And, of course, the crown jewel – local boy, USL legend and record-breaker Chandler Hoffman as the main man up top. That team is stacked.

I fully expect them to be in the playoffs come the end of the season.

Loudoun United

DC United’s affiliate Loudoun currently sit in 15th with a record of 0W-1L-2D and there’s really not much to say about them.

Their squad basically consists of DC United loanees. The only real problem that I see with them is their backup keeper. Calle Brown might very well be the worst goalkeeper I have ever seen. Other than that, they’re kind of boring.

They have a cool badge, I guess. Not many teams can say that they have a pterippus (Pegasus) on their badge. Alright, moving on.

Hartford Athletic

Oh boy. Hartford are the worst team in the league, boasting an incredible record of 0W-0D-4L. Surprisingly, their worst performance was their most recent one, when they lost 1-0 to Indy Eleven. The scoreline makes it seem like they weren’t that bad, but they were absolutely toothless in attack and second-best to everything; it was quite ironic that they lost because of an own goal.

Sporting KC legend Jimmy Nielsen built a very diverse but not very good squad. Nielsen signed a few promising youngsters, as well as some decent attackers, but all in all, their squad is nothing to write home about.

It doesn’t look like this is going to be a very exciting debut year for them.

Hartford Athletic v Indy Eleven (Source)

New Mexico United

Our first and best Western Conference team is New Mexico United. United has a record of 2W-3D-0L, which has them sitting in 2nd. The other expansion sides have also managed to win at least one game, something that 2 of the 4 Eastern teams haven’t done. Compared to the East, the Western Conference’s expansion sides have been better, even if the league positions don’t necessarily reflect that – El Paso and Austin sit in 12th and 13th respectively.

Back to New Mexico. They don’t have a flashy or great squad, but rather a very effective one. Cody Mizell is a solid USL keeper, Ethen Sampson used to play for Vancouver, Sam Hamilton and Chris Wehan joined directly from MLS teams and the two Spaniards Toni Soler and especially Santi Moar are already looking like shrewd acquisitions. Devon Sandoval and David Estrada both have plenty of MLS experience and the latter scored a decent amount of goals in this division last season.

They’ve been fun to watch so far and I fully expect them to make the playoffs.

El Paso Locomotive

So far, El Paso look like a team that could sneak into the playoffs, but also one that could easily miss out. They’re a bit here and there and their record of 1W-1L-2D reflects that.

I’m just not sure about their squad if I’m being honest. It’s a bit thin and while they do have some very experienced players in Yuma and Richie Ryan, I’m not sure where the goals are supposed to come from. Omar Salgado has never scored more than 3 goals a season and Derek Gebhard had a rotten goalscoring record during his time in Jacksonville (4 in 52) and he found game time hard to come by in Charlotte last year. The recent signing of former US men’s national team player Jerome Kiesewetter might render all of my concerns obsolete but the jury is very much still out on that one.

Dunno. That’s my analysis. I just dunno.

Austin Bold

Last but not least, it’s the expansion team with perhaps the dumbest name and dumbest pre-game ritual (if they keep it up that is) – Austin Bold FC. They’ve only played three times so far this season and they are well and truly a mixed bag – 1W-1L-1D.

They are by far the oldest team in the league with an average age of nearly 29 years. Eleven (11) players on that roster are 30+ and seven of those eleven are 33+. That’s absolutely crazy. Perhaps even crazier is the fact that one of those senior citizens is 2010 World Cup finalist and Bundesliga winner Edson Braafheid. I’d love to tell you more about that squad but what is there to say? What can you expect from a team that is old as hell?

Obviously, not everyone on that team is ready for the nursing home and most of the younger guys on that team are actually decent enough USL-level players. Kris Tyrpak, Amobi Okugo, London Woodberry and even Callum Mallace have played in MLS and done somewhat of a good job. Diego Restrepo is also a fantastic keeper to have on your USL team.

I’d be surprised if they were to make the playoffs, but you’ll never know.

Austin players celebrate scoring the winner against San Antonio (Source)

Right, the new guys were all over the place, so let’s talk about something a bit more positive.

The Suprise Packages

Let’s look at the teams that I didn’t think would have as positive a start to the season as they have had.

Saint Louis

Tony Pulis is at the wheel. No, really. Anthony Pulis, son of Tony, is the manager of SLFC. And just like his dad’s team, Anthony’s doesn’t score a lot of goals (two 1-0 wins, one 1-1 draw and one 2-1 win), but unlike his dad’s team, Anthony’s is sitting pretty in 1st place.

Their squad isn’t great – it’s a bang average USL squad, but this team got plenty of grit and determination. Can they sustain this form? I doubt it. Kyle Greig has a decent goalscoring record at this level, but you can’t just rely on one man to score the goals. His strike partner, Caleb Calvert scored 10 goals in 67 games for Charlotte – that’s hardly prolific. You can’t win every game 1-0 either, it’s just not sustainable. Sometimes, your defence just has an off-day and you concede two or three. For those games, you need to trust your strikers to take their chances in front of goal and I can’t see them doing that on a consistent basis.

I think they’ll drop off eventually, but for now, Tony Pulis Jr. is doing a good job with limited resources.

Tampa Bay Rowdies

Former Sheffield United defender Neill Collins hung up his boots and took over as Tampa’s coach halfway through last season. Going from playing for a club to managing it overnight might be tough for some, but for Collins, it was quite an easy transition. He already had the respect of his former teammates and he could talk to them earnestly – which lead to a complete squad overhaul.

The summer transfer window was the beginning of this overhaul, but this offseason, it was taken to another level. This Rowdies squad is damn near unrecognizable from the one that finished the 2018 season. Only six players stayed with the team and 18 fresh faces joined. Last season, the Rowdies were the oldest team in the league, this season, they are very much in the middle of the pack in terms of average age. Collins made this team younger, sleeker and more exciting.

Players like John McCarthy, Zach Steinberger and Antoine Hoppenot have MLS experience. Brandon Allen is a proven USL goalscorer, Shawn Barry is running down the wing with blistering pace and Pape Diakite has been a rock defensively. Perhaps, the most impressive thing about this team has been the result of a partnership with EFL Championship side Norwich City. 20-year old Caleb Richards is on loan from Norwich and he’s been outstanding for Tampa. He’s played as a left-back, a right-back and even as a centre-back and he’s been fantastic throughout the first four games.

Tampa are currently 2nd in the East with a record of 2W-0L-2D and even though they’ve drawn their last two games, I don’t see them dropping out of the playoff places anytime soon.

Tulsa Roughnecks

The biggest surprise of the season so far, at least in my opinion, have been the Tulsa Roughnecks. Last season’s bottom dwellers are currently top of the Western Conference with a record of 3W-1L-1D.

Just like Tampa, the Roughnecks have completely rebuilt their squad. 23 (!) new players joined the team and only 5 remained. So far, the decision to rebuild the team looks like the right one. The side from Oklahoma cant’s stop scoring. They’ve scored 13 goals in 5 games and weirdly, their top goalscorer is Brazilian right-back Luca Lobo, who joined the team from Botafogo’s U20s. He’s played four games and he has 6 goal involvements in those 4 games – 5 goals and 1 assist. This feels like a good time to remind you that he is, in fact, a right-back, he is a defender, he’s not supposed to score goals, what are they feeding him in Oklahoma?

It’s pretty obvious that their squad is built to score goals. They’ve got about 10 forwards/wingers and another 3 attacking midfielders. Can they outscore teams for an entire season? I don’t know, but they sure as hell are fun to watch.

Tulsa v Rio Grande Valley (Source)

Now before I get out of here, let’s look at the teams that haven’t quite lived up to the hype.

The Disappointments

Some teams, for whatever reason, just haven’t quite got going, while the expectation for other teams was so high that it was impossible for them to live up to it. Here are the big disappointments of the first few weeks of the season.

Louisville City

Of course, we have to start with the back-to-back champions. This is clearly a case of the team not being able to live up to the expectation. Retaining a title is one of the hardest things to do in football, Louisville did it last season, but this season, they haven’t quite been at it.

Maybe it’s a bit harsh to say that they’ve been a disappointment, after all, they are in a playoff spot. But then again, who isn’t sitting in a playoff spot when they are being given out like candy on Halloween. Anyway, the excessive number of playoff spots in the USL is a conversation for a different time. The fact of the matter is that Louisville should be sitting atop the Eastern Conference but, so far, they have won 2 games and lost 2 games, which isn’t good enough.

If you compare last season’s squad with the one in 2019, you’ll see that there is one missing piece and, my god, is it a big piece. It’s 26-year old Englishman Cameron Lancaster, you know, the guy who has scored 42 goals in 93 appearances for Louisville. He joined Nashville in the offseason and Louisville haven’t filled the hole he left.

Would they be better off had they signed a more qualified striker than Lucky Mkosana in the offseason? Yeah, probably. Luke Spencer was their top scorer in 2017, he is still there and he’s scored already, but will he be able to replace Lancaster? I don’t think so. We’ll see if they’ll sign a striker or stick with Spencer and the other guys that are there.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Louisville won’t make it three USL titles in a row this season.

Pittsburgh and Charlotte

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds finished 3rd in the East last season, while the Charlotte Independence missed the playoffs after a terrific start to the season.

I thought both would be in and around the playoffs, but they’ve looked less than impressive so far. Just wanted to give them a quick mention, because I had high hopes for them.

I’m not mad guys, just disappointed.

Pittsburgh v Swope Park (Source)

Let’s switch over to the Western Conference and there are a lot of clubs I could mention. I could genuinely talk about most clubs that are outside of the playoffs, but I won’t, I don’t have that kind of time. I’ll focus on two teams – Tacoma and Orange County. Yes, I know I could talk about Drogba-less Phoenix or fun-but-bad Las Vegas, or we-expected-you-to-make-the-playoffs San Antonio and Fresno, but as I said, I don’t have that kind of time.

Tacoma Defiance

Seattle Sounders 2, or as they are now known, Tacoma Defiance have been pretty bad so far. They could’ve easily finished bottom of the Western Conference last season and this season doesn’t look like it is going to be a success either, at least not in terms of points and playoffs.

Tacoma are currently in a playoff spot and they have won 2 of their 5 games, the problem though, they’ve lost the other 3 and they haven’t looked convincing in any of their games.

Tacoma were lucky in the first game, a 1-0 win against Rio Grande. They got smashed by the LA Galaxy’s reserves (3-0) and Tulsa (4-0) and then they lost 2-1 to New Mexico. Their most recent game was a 2-1 win over Sacramento, the frustrating part, barely any Tacoma player featured in that game. The game against Sacramento was used as a means to give Seattle’s fringe players some game time.

I actually had a tiny little argument with Mark Kastner of Sounder At Heart on Twitter because of the team selection. If you want to know my thoughts on MLS teams loaning a bunch of players to their USL sides, read the opinion piece I plugged earlier. The thing is, I wasn’t necessarily frustrated because of the number of Sounders players in that Tacoma side, I was frustrated because Tacoma was supposed to be this incredible youth development team that would make the playoffs with great, vibrant football.

We’ve seen flashes of that ‘great football’, but as soon as it looked as though the team might finally click (after 4 games, mind you), it got ripped apart and Tacoma played a Cup side instead of their youngsters. It’s still quite frustrating even though it’s been a few days since the game was played.

I’ve been quite disappointed with Tacoma and the way these first few games have played out. I hope they can turn it around and get their act together because there is plenty of talent in the squad.

Orange County
I’ll make this quick so that we can get the hell out of here. OCSC were the best team in the West last season and they haven’t won a single game this season (2L-2D).

They have a decent squad, they should do better.

Orange County v El Paso (Source)

Right, this was supposed to be a quick look at a few teams and it went on longer than I anticipated. Oh, well.

These first few games have been really exciting and fun to watch. Long may it continue. Hope I gave y’all a good rundown of what has happened so far.

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