A little over two months ago, I looked at the first few games of the 2019 USL Championship season and put together a list of what we had learned about the expansion sides, the surprise packages and the disappointments. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you can do that HERE.
We are now close to being halfway through the season and I’m going to look at what has happened in the two months since our last visit.
The New Guys
Loudoun, Legion, Memphis, Hartford
Loudoun United, Birmingham Legion, Memphis 901 and Hartford Athletic are all sitting below the Eastern Conference playoff line, but all are somewhat within touching distance of the last playoff spot currently occupied by Atlanta United 2. Loudoun and Hartford have seen a slight improvement of form since our last check, climbing from 15th to 13th and 18th to 16th respectively, whereas Memphis and Birmingham have slipped from 12th to 15th and 13th to 14th respectively.
Hartford are no longer the worst team in the division, that honour now belongs to Sporting Kansas City affiliate Swope Park Rangers. The side from Connecticut is now unbeaten in four (2W-2D), but they have also played more games than the other expansion teams.
Loudoun are probably the most inconsistent side in the Eastern Conference. Their form reads as follows: LDDLWLDWLWL – that’s pretty inconsistent if you ask me. A real positive for Loudoun is that they have two games in hand on Atlanta United 2, who, as mentioned earlier, occupy that coveted last playoff spot.
Memphis have only picked up one win in their last ten games and the team just seems to lack confidence, as well as quality. Their recent 3-0 home loss to the Indy Eleven is proof of exactly that. They desperately need to sign some quality players. It’s been a rough ride for them.
Birmingham are, in my opinion, besides Tacoma, the most disappointing team in the USL Championship. Sure, the team has been ravaged by injuries, so much so that forward Femi Hollinger-Janzen had to be used as a central defender in some games, which, as was to be expected, was a damn trainwreck. But there is so much quality on this team that, after a winless run of seven games (5L-2D), coach Tom Soehn has to be fearing for his job.
New Mexico, El Paso, Austin
New Mexico United, El Paso Locomotive and Austin Bold are all above the playoff line in the Western Conference. All three teams have moved up in the standings since April. New Mexico went from 2nd to the very top of the Western Conference, El Paso jumped from 12th to 4th and Austin went from sitting in 13th to 9th.
New Mexico have been the most exciting team in the league thus far. United boast two of the top three goalscorers in the division with Kevaughn Frater leading the scoring charts with 10 goals and Santi Moar coming in 2nd with 9. They did slip up recently, losing 3-0 at home to Sacramento, but they’re still two points clear of Phoenix in 2nd. I predicted them to make the playoffs and barring a late-season collapse, it looks as though I was right…for once.
When I released the article back in April, El Paso had just announced the signing of Jerome Kiesewetter, formerly of Fortuna Düsseldorf. I sat on the fence in the article, because I didn’t quite know what to expect from him and while I was cautiously optimistic, I didn’t think he would have such a huge impact. The 26-year old, Berlin-born winger/forward has scored 9 goals in 9 games for El Paso and he’s been the biggest reason for Locomotive’s surge up the standings.
Austin Bold are by far the oldest team in the league, so naturally, I thought there was no way in hell that they would make the playoffs. Seven players on that team are 33+, yet they are currently sitting in a playoff place. As I said in April, they are a mixed bag and their record of 5W-5L-4D reflects that, so it’s hard to tell where they will be at the end of the year. For now though, I’ll stand by my prediction that they won’t be above the red line come the end of the season, because, as things stand, there are only three points separating Austin in 9th and Las Vegas in 14th.
The Surprise Packages
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In charge of St. Louis FC is none other than Anthony Pulis, the son of Tony. Both Tony’s Boro and Anthony’s St. Louis started the season off well, but have fallen by the wayside as time went on. Back in April, the side from Missouri was sitting pretty in 1st place, but they have only won 1 of their last 6 games which has seen them slip down to 9th in the Eastern Conference standings. Back then, I said that they couldn’t grind out 1-0s every week and that they’ll drop off eventually and so they did. That’s another point for me, I guess.
Tampa Bay Rowdies
2nd in April, 1st in June. The Tampa Bay Rowdies have gone from strength to strength in the past two months, so much so that even though they lost their first game of the season recently, a 3-1 home loss to North Carolina, they are still comfortably three points above second-placed New York Red Bulls II. I mentioned Norwich youngster Caleb Richards back in April, and while he has continued to perform, it has been Juan Tejada who has been a vital part of the Rowdies’ success over the past few weeks. The 22-year old Panamanian joined the Rowdies after impressing Neill Collins while on trial with the club during preseason and his goalscoring exploits saw the side from Florida win four in a row prior to their loss to North Carolina.
In April, Tulsa were top of the West, but they now find themselves stuck below the playoff line in 12th. The side from Oklahoma has only won once since early April and their recent 5-0 loss in Phoenix has me worried about them. The only silver lining is that, despite their terrible form, they are only three points off 7th.
I really don’t want to waste too much time talking about them since the only team that has actually improved is Louisville who are now up to 5th in the East. The other disappointments, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Tacoma and Orange County, are still terrible. Pittsburgh and Charlotte are 12th and 17th in the Eastern Conference respectively. Tacoma are the worst team in the West with the worst goal difference in the league (-30, the 2nd worst is -17) and Orange County, while they do have improved slightly, are 10th.
Who Has Impressed?
“Can they compete with the best in the West without Didier Drogba?” Yes. Yes, they can. And you know what? They’re actually pretty good without the Ivorian legend. It took them a while to get going, but ever since they did get going, they’ve been damn near unstoppable. The side from Arizona is currently on a four-game winning run and they are 2nd in the West. Junior Flemmings and Adam Jahn have been in inspired goalscoring form and they also don’t really give up a ton of goals. That’s a recipe for success.
New York Red Bulls II
The ‘Baby Bulls’ have always been competitive in USL, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Tom Barlow’s early-season goals have earned him a contract with the first team and he has already scored in MLS. I am a tiny bit worried about them now that Barlow is with the first team and unless they sign a striker this summer, he is probably going to stay with them for the foreseeable future. The Baby Bulls still have promising, young striker Mathias Jørgensen to rely upon for goals, but he doesn’t seem to be quite as prolific as Barlow.
Last season’s top scorer Cameron Lancaster has been invisible, yet Nashville are sitting 3rd in the East. How does that work? Daniel Rios. The 24-year old Mexican has stepped up in Lancaster’s absence and his 8 goals have propelled Nashville up the standings. This is their last season in USL and they want to go out with a bang. If Rios continues his goalscoring form and Lancaster finds his feet, Nashville could be the early favourites to win it all.
So that concludes our little look at what has happened in USL over the past two months. This has been a brilliant season so far. Maybe I’ll do this again in a couple of months.