While a partnership with Major League Soccer that will see all of its franchises fielding USL teams that they operate or having an affiliation (like the Pittsburgh Riverhounds have with Columbus Crew) – there are also numerous teams operating independently in growing soccer markets.
As the 2016 season kicks off this weekend (the Riverhounds season starts next week with opener vs Rochester on Saturday, April 2 at Highmark Stadium) – there are six new teams added to the picture.
In 2015, a 24-team league featured a two conference alignment with 12 teams in each conference. This year, the USL will have 15 teams in Western Conference, and 14 teams in the Eastern Conference.
USL President Jake Edwards made it clear in a conference call to media that the league has high aspirations and will continue to evolve.
“Exciting times,” said league president Jake Edwards.
“We are building here the highest level of competition on the field outside of Major League Soccer … Our goal is to be one of the very best second divisions in the world,” he added.
The USL offers a variety of different club cultures, from developmental teams for MLS clubs to more established teams with veteran rosters.
Here on Pittsburgh Soccer Report, we will be focusing much of our attention on the Eastern Conference during the course of the season, which will stretch from this weekend through late September.
The expansion includes three new teams that Pittsburgh Riverhounds will be facing in the expanded 30-game schedule: a new in-state potential rival in Bethlehem Steel FC, FC Cincinnati and Orlando City B.
The first games of the USL season will be played on Friday when in the Western Conference, Sacramento Republic FC travels to Seattle Sounders 2, and in the Eastern Conference expansion Bethlehem Steel FC plays at FC Montreal.
Here’s a snapshot look at the Eastern Conference competition the Pittsburgh Riverhounds will be facing in 2016 – as I’ve identified four groupings of these teams:
Bethlehem Steel FC
The Philadelphia Union second team is named after the original Bethlehem Steel Soccer Club many considered America’s first great soccer team with five U.S. Open Cup victories. It will play at Goodman Stadium in the Lehigh Valley. Former Union assistant coach Brendan Burke will coach the Bethlehem Steel.
They’ve added a pair of Jamaicans Amoy Brown and Corey Burke to the attack, bring a mix of veterans and will have some of the Union’s best young players to choose from, so they could be formidable in their first season.
Carl Lindner III, formerly the owner of the Cincinnati Reds, is among the owners of the team that will play at the University of Cincinnati’s recently renovated Nippert Stadium. FC Cincinnati, coached by former U.S. national team John Harkes, has sold more than 4,000 season tickets.
It is Harkes’ debut as the head coach of a professional club, as he’s assembled a roster replete with experience in the USL and NASL. This team has been getting a lot of hype in some circles – and may be ready to make an early splash, much like Louisville City FC did a year ago in its inaugural season.
Orlando City B
Orlando City’s first run in USL included two championships (2011 and 2013) as the club moved into Major League Soccer in 2015. Now the organization has pushed all-in with the USL’s OCB franchise,.
With multiple USL-primed defenders and midfielders on this expansion club like Andrew Ribeiro (who played briefly with the Riverhounds), Mikey Ambrose and Craig Nitti, and adding forward Jhonny Mendoza who helped Rochester win a title in 2015, this team rivals that of almost any other established USL side.
Along with the Riverhounds, who were founded in 1999, the following teams have been USL or even before, U.S. second and third division soccer mainstays for 10 or more years. They represent the “old guard” of the USL.
We’ll have a more in-depth preview of the local team next week, but here’s the bottom line: They lose their leading scorer from 2015, Rob Vincent, but appear to have more depth than they have in recent seasons.
Vincent’s contract was transferred to DC United, where he’s been featured in the starting XI a few times already this season.
Other than Vincent, they return much the team’s midfield from 2015, including USL’s second best assist man last season, Kevin Kerr and Lebo Moloto, who really developed into a dangerous player late in the season when the Hounds made their push to the playoffs.
There are a lot of new faces, including established pro Corey Hertzog at forward, and judging from some of their lack of scoring as a unit in the preseason, coach Mark Steffens is still working out the kinks and chemistry with the team.
Louisville City FC
This year, they will lose the USL’s 2015 MVP Matt Fondy, who led the league with 22 goals. Fondy, a one-time Riverhounds player, will be suiting up for the NASL’s Jacksonville Armada this year. Former MLS forward Chandler Hoffman will be the new featured striker for Louisville City. In 2014 he led the LA Galaxy II with 13 goals in only 17 games. He played for the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC (on loan from MLS Houston Dynamo), where he added four goals in 10 matches.
Another second year club, the Charlotte Independence was founded after the departure of Charlotte Eagles who dropped down to become a PDL club. In 2015, they finished agonizingly close to the playoffs, missing by a single point.
They were in playoff position with two matches left and all that was needed was a point in their final two games but were outscored on the road 5-1 and ultimately missed.
They had some significant road woes in 2015 – finishing 2-6-6 away from home. They’ve got some USL veteran presence in the form of Jorge Herrera, who played for many years with current Riverhounds coach Mark Steffens when they were the Charlotte Eagles. Look out for Caleb Calvert a former Chivas USA homegrown as a potential impact player.
NY Red Bulls II
The New York Red Bulls II were the best of the teams operated by MLS franchises in the Eastern Conference in 2015 in their first USL season. They did so by incorporating a number of moving parts, and when all was said and done, their young talent flourished. This included a thrilling postseason victory against the Riverhounds at Red Bull Arena in the Conference Quarterfinals.
If the Red Bulls organization’s deep talent pool is any indication, a new cast is ready to follow suit along with a few returning (and to some Pittsburgh soccer fans – familiar) faces like former Robert Morris standout Devon “Speedy” Williams and his midfield mates Konrad Plewa and Dan Metzger.
One thing you will notice, particularly from the MLS franchises in Canada, is that they have a lot of homegrown players on their USL team rosters. One big difference with this year’s teams will be that they will have had a year of experience under their belt. With 17 players already set to make their return to FC Montreal this season, the tone of the 2016 campaign should be quite different following the 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference a year ago.
This still is an incredibly young bunch, but it also is a group that has a professional year together. By midseason last year, FC Montreal strung together six wins in an eight-game stretch, with more than half of this season’s roster on board during that span. Needless to say, the expectations from Philippe Eullaffroy’s will be greater this year.
Toronto FC II
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