The USL is breaking the mold.
No longer keeping fans in the dark until weeks after the New Year, the USL has presented a few early holiday gifts for its teams and fans, already releasing a full schedule for its new USL League One (US Soccer’s third tier) — and getting a head start on releasing details for the USL Championship (second division) too.
On Thursday and Friday, USL Championship didn’t waste any time getting started with the release of information on conference alignment and home openers for all teams for the coming 2019 season.
On Friday, we learned that the Riverhounds will start its season in March, and on the road for its first few games, then commence its 2019 home schedule against Hartford Athletic on April 13 at Highmark Stadium.
Kickoff times will be determined at a later date.
The April 13th opener will mark the sixth-year anniversary of the club’s first-ever game at Highmark Stadium.
On that momentous date, Pittsburgh lost 2-1 against the then-known-as Harrisburg City Islanders (Penn FC) during the team’s inaugural match at the venue.
Hartford joins the USL Championship as an expansion team for the 2019 campaign.
Also announced on Friday, the Hounds start things off against the Tampa Bay Rowdies to begin the season on March 16 at Al Lang Stadium, then take on the Swope Park Rangers in their home opener on March 23.
The full 2019 regular season schedule will be released at a future date — most likely early this coming week.
It’s very likely the Hounds may be playing another game or two on the road to open what is expected to be a 34-game regular season before the April 13 season opener at Highmark.
We know the season opener.
We know the home opener.
There are no Harrisburg matches to circle.
Only big question left is who will be coming here on July 4.#UNLEASH
— Steel Army (@SteelArmy) December 14, 2018
No 34-game season can come without rigors and challenges, but in November, Riverhounds SC coach Bob Lilley shared he was hopeful that the upcoming schedule would be a little more forgiving (hint — maybe less mid-week games) — and acknowledged that the competition will be as fierce as ever in 2019.
“It’s a completely different league now. It’s four times more difficult. This league constantly evolves,” Lilley explained. “It’s important for us to be on top of our game in the off season.
The Hounds have re-signed 11 players, shipped off one contract (Christiano Francois to Ottawa) and signed a new player, Ryan James, in the past month. There might be some additional signings prior to when the Hounds get together to begin training camp, but expect to see a lot of players brought in on trial, and more players signed on the back end of the off season.
Here’s what the USL Eastern Conference will look like:
2019 USL Championship Conference Alignment
Eastern Conference Western Conference
ATL UTD 2
Bethlehem Steel FC Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Birmingham Legion FC El Paso Locomotive FC
Charlotte Independence LA Galaxy II
Hartford Athletic Las Vegas Lights FC
Indy Eleven New Mexico United
Loudoun United FC OKC Energy FC
Louisville City FC Orange County SC
Memphis 901 FC Phoenix Rising FC
Nashville SC Portland Timbers 2
New York Red Bulls II Real Monarchs SLC
North Carolina FC Reno 1868 FC
Ottawa Fury FC Rio Grande Valley FC
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Sacramento Republic FC
Saint Louis FC San Antonio FC
Swope Park Rangers Seattle Sounders FC 2
Tampa Bay Rowdies Tulsa Roughnecks FC
It appears that the USL has found a formula for a balanced schedule, with 18 teams, and a 34-game slate, the Hounds will likely be facing each team in the USL’s Eastern Conference twice.
Alas, changing times are still providing a few growing pains for the league.
A question mark lingering on the heels of the full schedule release of USL Championship will be whether or not one team will remain in the Eastern Conference and on the schedule. The Ottawa Fury FC are currently embroiled in a battle with CONCACAF as the regional federation has moved to block them from playing in the USL in 2019, in favor of the newly formed Canadian Soccer Association. Even with the new Canadian league (which currently has seven teams) planning to start in 2019, Ottawa team officials announced in September that they were planning on staying in the USL. It wasn’t until last week, when CONCACAF said it would not sanction the Fury FC’s participation in the USL.
This looks like a story that may be playing out in the coming weeks — and hopefully won’t drag on too long.