The USL revealed the Eastern Conference Groups today for the truncated 16-game season today. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds group will ultimately be what most pundits and fans expected – all of the northeastern clubs.
The Riverhounds will play in Group F along with Hartford Athletic, RB New York 2, Philadelphia Union 2, and Loudoun United. They will play each opponent three times. The Hounds will play four other matches against other opponents in the Eastern Conference “that fall within a similar geographic region” according to the USL press release.
Matches are set to begin July 11. A new schedule has not been announced, but presumably will be released within the next week.
The other Eastern Conference groups were announced as:
Group E: Indy Eleven, Louisville City FC, Saint Louis FC, Sporting Kansas City II
Group G: Birmingham Legion FC, Charlotte Independence, Memphis 901 FC, North Carolina FC
Group H: Atlanta United 2, Charleston Battery, Miami FC, Tampa Bay Rowdies
image care of Sports Leagues Maps
The most likely opponents for the Hounds non-Group F opponents, based on proximity, would be Indianapolis (359 miles away), Louisville (389 miles), Charlotte (448 miles), and North Carolina FC (514 miles).
The top two teams in each group will advance to a 16-team USL Championship playoff in early October for a single-elimination playoff tournament.
According to Jeff Rueter at The Athletic, the league entered into a series of agreements with the USLPA on training and safety precautions, playing guidelines, and travel arrangements.
All travel under 500 miles must take place via bus. Strict guidelines for food prep, hotel stays, and even the team’s arrival at the stadium are outlined by the 2020 USL return-to-play plan. The complete plan for a Covid-compliant season is over eleven pages long.
And while the plans do permit the possibility of fans attending in person, they are subject to state and local guidelines. As of now in Pennsylvania, in-person gathering for sporting events is prohibited. And while it is hypothetically possible that this could change in the future, the surge in new Covid cases reported on Thursday seems to imply that restrictions are unlikely to be loosened in the foreseeable future.
Down the road, we’ll take an in-depth look at how this grouping plays out for the Riverhounds. But the shorthand version is that this group would seem to be a favorable draw for the Riverhounds.
Loudoun and Hartford played their first season in USL last year, and finished below .500 and out of the playoff picture. Hartford won just 8 of 34 games to finish second-to-last in the 18-team Eastern Conference, and will be the presumptive longshots in Group F. Philadelphia 2 were also fairly weak in 2019, finishing below the .500 mark and out of the playoff picture.
New York 2, on the other hand, has been a formidable team year after year in the Eastern Conference. The club tends to be young and aggressive, as NYRB has a deep and talented youth academy.
With three MLS 2 teams in the bracket, though, Group F will be in the strange position of being as affected by Covid tests and infections as it will be by set-pieces and high-pressure defenses. If MLS teams find themselves losing players to positive tests and 14-day isolations, their USL affiliates might be decimated by call-ups to the majors.
Or maybe not.
Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past four months, its to not become too invested in the plans that we’ve made, but rather to expect the unexpected.