When you look at the growth of professional sports leagues in the United States during the past few decades – very few have grown at a rate the United Soccer League has in the past two years.
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:
New Kids on the Block,
Sons of MLS
THE NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
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 returns to the USL, operating its second team at Eastern Florida State College in Melbourne, Fla. The head coach will be Anthony Pulis, who played as a midfielder for the Lions in the USL.
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.
THE OLD GUARD
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.
The defending champs only gave up 15 goals last season. They lost one game (to Charlotte) and won both the Regular Season title including a 19-game unbeaten string and Postseason.
Despite holding title of reigning league champs, it was a tumultuous offseason in which USL took over operations of the franchise briefly after trying to resolve dispute between the ownership group and the City of Rochester over lack of upgrades to Shalens Stadium. As a result, new ownership group lead by David and Wendy Dworkin has taken over to ensure that there will be upgrades to the soccer-only facility that seats more than 15,000. Riverhounds can attest that upgrades were sorely needed, after 1-0 loss to the Rhinos played in monsoon conditions last June in which field drainage conditions included standing puddles.
Some players have moved on, (most noteably USL Goalkeeper of the Year Brandon Miller to Orange County Blues and Mendoza to Orlando City B) but still the Rhinos will be a strong side again under the direction of Bob Lilley’s side as they begin their quest to repeat. Other than these losses, much of its squad will return, and the Riverhounds’ captain for much of 2014 and 2015, Danny Earls, appears to be back in Rochester on trial with the Rhinos.
Just as Rochester will be without the services of Mendoza and Miller, Charleston will lose a mainstay, striker Dane Kelly, who is the USL’s all-time leading scorer. Kelly signed with the Swope Park Rangers. The Battery have consistently been one of the USL’s top franchises, including 2012 USL Championship. They return the core of their defensive unit that were among the best in the league at keeping opponents out of the goal.
The franchise also entered into an agreement with Atlanta United FC, an expansion franchise of MLS. There will be some MLS prospects and homegrown players thrown into the mix of the Battery roster in 2016.
Goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper has been a mainstay for Charleston, and there will be a number of others return including the starting back line from last season’s USL Playoffs – left back Emmanuel Adjetey, right back Quinton Griffith and center backs Taylor Mueller and Shawn Ferguson, the latter named to the 2015 USL All-League First Team
While maybe looking to replace Kelly, something tells me the Battery should be at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings again.
Richmond Kickers extended their postseason berth streak to five in 2015. Richmond dropped its Eastern Conference Quarterfinal match against the Charleston Battery and endured a rocky regular season in which the Kickers needed to win their finale just to clinch a spot in the USL Playoffs.
It appears that the brunt of last season’s lineup returns in 2016, and the bottom line is Richmond always seems to produce a strong team – and look for them to be improved from last season. They are returning a number of familiar faces to Riverhounds fans, including former Pittsburgh forward, Jason Yeisley, Matthew Delicate (second All-Time in goals scored in USL), William Yomby just to name a few.
Harrisburg City Islanders
The Riverhounds Keystone Derby rivals have been pretty successful franchise in recent years, making the USL Championship game twice in the past five years.
But, last year was a season that they likely would like to forget, mostly in part to an incredible series of games with the Riverhounds that didn’t go in their favor — and likely were the reason they were left out of the playoffs.
Despite pulling out a remarkable comeback of its own at Harrisburg against the Riverhounds in late July, the Riverhounds took three of the four games outright – including the now infamous “Miracle on the Mon” in May and a playoff and Keystone Cup clinching win at City Island in September. The Islanders lose Yann Ekra, Neil Schaffer, Jason Plumhoff this season, but bring back goalkeeper Nick Noble, a popular subject of a few Riverhounds supporter group Steel Army fight songs, along with Garrett Pettis and Jose Barril.
This offseason, they lost their affiliation with Philadelphia Union – and announced they are going to be splitting their home schedule between two locations: FNB Field in Harrisburg and Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster. As the bar is being set higher for USL stadium regulations and Skyline Sports Complex continued to prove to be woefully inadequate, the City Islanders had no choice but to make these changes.
After a poor season in 2015, the Hammerheads have retooled for 2016, the 20th anniversary of the club. They brought in a new head coach, Mark Briggs, a former Hammerheads player who tallied 50 appearances while playing for the club in 2009 and 2012, and served as an assistant coach last season. He has only carried over six players from last season: Stefan Defregger, Will Heaney, Qudus Lawal, Justin Moose, Tom Parratt, and Zev Taublieb (a former Sacramento Republic FC player).
The Hammerheads have also renewed their affiliation with New York City FC for this season, as former Hammerheads Goalkeeper Andre Rawls signed with NYCFC this season. Wilmington had an eventful off-season, signing players with experience in the English Premier League, Indian Super League and Maltese Premier League, as well as the USL and NASL. Among the players with English Premier League experience are Liam Miller, a midfielder, and Bruno Perone, a defender.
Louisville City FC
From the start of it existence Louisville City delivered an impressive inaugural campaign with a combination of solid defending – along with explosive scoring under the direction of coach James O’Connor.
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.
SONS OF MLS
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
Like FC Montreal, Toronto FC II went through its share of growing pains in their first USL season. They did give the Riverhounds a few tough games North of the Border, so they will not be an easy win for any team. With a significantly large group returning, TFC II is hopeful that this learning curve will now generate some cohesiveness and strong results to make a run up the Eastern Conference standings. Coach Jason Bent’s team should be a better team.
John Krysinsky’s Eastern Conference 2016 Prediction
- Charleston Battery
- Rochester Rhinos
- Pittsburgh Riverhounds
- Louisville City FC
- Richmond Kickers
- NY Red Bulls
- FC Cincinnati
- Charlotte Independence
- Harrisburg City Islanders
- Orlando City B
- FC Montreal II
- Bethlehem Steel FC
- Wilmington Hammerheads
- Toronto FC