PREVIEW: #USL’s Eastern Conference What To Expect

angulo_2014_large
Former Riverhounds leading scorer, Jose Angulo, returns to Highmark Stadium on April 12 with St. Louis FC. (photo courtesy USL) 

As the landscape of American soccer continues to change before our eyes, the United Soccer League (USL) continues to forge ahead boldly, and from the looks of it, the competition will be as fierce as ever as things kick off this coming weekend.

The league, which was awarded second division status this Winter by United States Soccer Federation, has now expanded to include a total of 30 teams.

There’s been some considerable movement in the Eastern Conference in the off-season, and here’s my view (from Pittsburgh mind you) — of what we know — and what we can expect this coming season.

A pair of teams dropped out of the league (long-time “old guard” franchise Wilmington Hammerheads now are playing in the 4th division, Premier Development League and Montreal Impact have disbanded its FC Montreal USL team).

Two added teams join the mix from the North American Soccer League (NASL) as the Ottawa Fury, who are now affiliated with the Impact, and Tampa Bay Rowdies, will make the transition to the USL.  Also returning to the Eastern Conference — after one year in the Western Conference — will be St. Louis FC featuring a former Riverhounds leading goal scorer, and League MVP, Jose Angulo.

In the Western Conference, only one change with the move of St. Louis back to the East, the addition of Reno 1868 FC, who will be an affiliate franchise of MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes. Coming next year, will be a new franchise in Tennessee, Nashville S.C.

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds, along with other “Old Guard” franchises that have been competing against each other in other forms of USL and second/third division soccer, have been joined by an influx of Major League Soccer “2nd” or “B” teams, affiliates and a few independents to make up the Eastern Conference.

It’s a conference that has featured the last two USL Champions — two very different representatives.

The Rochester Rhinos took the 2015 crown in a season which they surrendered a little more than a dozen goals whereas the young, talented New York Red Bulls II, in its second year of existence in 2016,  rolled to a title beating another MLS affiliated franchise, Swope Park Rangers in the Final.

While MLS-run franchises in the USL have now made their mark, the Red Bulls II’s ascension to the top of the Eastern Conference and USL title in the past two seasons was as part of an Eastern Conference which featured top teams that are independent run franchises, including the established Rhinos, Charleston Battery and Richmond Kickers along with the upstart new second-year teams Louisville City FC and Charlotte Independence along with the 2016 expansion and attendance-record shattering darlings, FC Cincinnati.

The Riverhounds got off to a poor start in 2016 (just as they did in 2013 and 2014), and never recovered, finishing 13th out of 14 teams, only finishing ahead of now defunct FC Montreal.

For the Hounds to break through to a playoff spot, they have to be one of the top eight teams in a conference of 15 teams in 2017.   The remaining teams standing in their way besides the playoff teams noted above will include Keystone Derby rivals Harrisburg City Islanders (Independent), Bethlehem Steel FC (Philadelphia Union), Orlando City “B”, Toronto FC II along with the two franchises coming over from NASL, Ottawa and Tampa Bay.

It will be a monumental task for a Riverhounds team with many new players, and a new coach in his first full season to reach the playoffs.  The Hounds didn’t win a single game against a team with a winning record in 2016.  The Hounds assembled the core of its roster before the New Year, and started preseason training before most teams in the league.

While the preseason only offers a slight glimpse of what to expect from the competition in the Eastern Conference, one thing remains clear, it will be a grind and there won’t be any easy games.   I’ll have more on the Riverhounds outlook later this week.  Click here for a position-by-position look at the current team roster.

In the meantime, I’ve created capsules of the Eastern Conference teams broken up into a few categories:

  • Solid Bets
  • Middle of the Pack
  • Trying To Break Through

 

SOLID BETS

NEW YORK RED BULLS II 

In its debut season in 2015, the Red Bulls II beat the Riverhounds in a 4-2 OT game at Red Bull Arena, then lost a week later in the Eastern Conference semifinal.  The Baby Bulls broke through for a dominant 2016 campaign, becoming league champs both in regular season and postseason with an impressive display of youth and quality.

This team will have a lot of turnover, as those who impressed the most in 2015 and 2016, are expected to move on to greater roles with the first team including 2016 USL Defender of the Year Aaron Long, and midfielders Derrick Etienne Jr. and Tyler Adams.

All Head Coach John Wolyniec knows for certain, though, is it will be much harder as the team defending the crown than the one vying to claim it.

“Yeah, it’s always hard the season after you have a lot of success,” Wolyniec said in a Q&A on NewYorkRedBulls.com. “You’re going to have a target on your back. It’s certainly not going to be easy, but also with that success we’ve moved some guys on which is great so a lot of times it depends who’s with us. We’re ready for it, we want that, we want all the games to be hard, we want the other teams to give us their best, so I think it’s going to be a good year for us.”

Bet You Didn’t Know:  

The Baby Bulls will be playing home games this season at Montclair State University after playing its first two seasons at Red Bull Arena.

LOUISVILLE CITY FCimages (3)

Two years in USL, and twice Lou City FC have made it to the Eastern Conference Final under the direction of James O’Connor, who returns for his third year with the club.

A year ago, they lost in heartbreaking fashion, (3-4 on PKs) to the Red Bulls II.

Will this be the season they break through to the USL Cup Final?

Louisville City FC has been a strong defensive team throughout its short tenure in USL, and they return its center back tandem of Paco Craig and Sean Reynolds along with goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh.  

While they lost a pair of midfielders to River City Cup rivals FC Cincinnati, they also picked up a former Robert Morris standout, Devon “Speedy” Williams who was a regular with NY Red Bulls II the past two seasons, along with a former (for a short stint) Riverhounds player Brian Ownby.

Bet You Didn’t Know:  

Another leading scorer departs…  after winning USL MVP in 2015 and leading the league in goals, another former Riverhound, Matt Fondy left Louisville for Jacksonville of NASL.  Lou City’s top scorer from 2016, Chandler Hoffmann, has signed with Real Monarchs SLC.  To replace Hoffman, Lou City have signed  Luke Spencer.   We’ll see if they can keep it going.

CHARLESTON BATTERY

One of the league’s most consistent clubs, the Battery should remain one of the tougher sides to face in the Eastern Conference again this season.

My goodness — talk about a model of consistency — they’re filled with lots of players with USL experience for a team that’s been a perennial playoff contender and will be returning most of their roster from a year ago.

The Battery also host an annual Carolina Challenge Cup in the preseason that includes other pro teams, which was won by Columbus Crew this year.  This should help them to be pretty battle-tested as they open the season as it appears that they have all the pieces to be a top-4 team in Eastern Conference in 2017.

Bet You Didn’t Know:  

Along with Richmond, they’re the oldest continuously operating professional soccer club in the United States, founded in 1993.   Since 2005, their head coach and general manager has been Mike Anhaeuser, and team president Andrew Bell also serves as the team’s (and arguably the USL’s best) play-by-play announcer.  It’s always a treat to hear him calling the game when he visits the Highmark Stadium press box.

FC CINCINNATI

img_2502The big question is, can this Cincinnati FC franchise top last year’s sparkling debut?

FCC shattered league attendance records and finished in the top four to earn an opportunity to host a USL Quarterfinal match at Nippert Stadium before 30,000 plus fans.

Despite the remarkable season, they would lose in the playoffs to Charleston.  Heading into 2017, they’ll be without two key contributors to their success in 2016.  Sean Okoli, USL’s MVP and Golden Boot winner, has signed with MLS’ NYCFC.  Then early in the preseason, the team announced the dismissal of head coach and former United States national team player, John Harkes.

Still, FCC has kept much of its roster intact, and have retooled in other areas to provide new coach Alan Koch with a formidable unit.  They nabbed two players from River City Rivals Louisville City FC, midfielder Aodhan Quinn and Kadeem Dacres.   The back line remains essentially the same — anchored by Harrison Delbridge at center back and they return USL’s 2016 Goalkeeper of the Year, Mitch Hildebrandt.  

Without Okoli, or a dynamic scoring threat to replace his goals, they could take a step back, but still it’s a pretty solid nucleus.

Bet You Didn’t Know:

FC Cincinnati’s average attendance in its inaugural season set a USL record, and with more than 11,000 season ticket members for the new season – almost double its total a year ago – Nippert Stadium could be an even tougher place to visit in 2017.   Word also has it that in week 2 on April 1, the FCC fans will be coming as a large contingent to Pittsburgh for the match vs the Hounds.  That should be interesting.  We’ll see if the Steel Army will be up to the task to match sounds of fury with FCC’s fans.   

 

ROCHESTER RHINOSRochester_Rhinos_2011.svg

While some teams started preseason pretty early, Rochester coach Bob Lilley has gone about his business as usual, starting camp in late February, and playing a few preseason games in March.

One of those preseason games by the way was a 5-1 win over the Riverhounds in friendly that featured 40-40-30 minute periods that included a mix of players for both teams coming in and out of the line-up.

The Rhinos came back to the pack a bit last year, after a phenomenal 2015 season, finishing in fourth place.   Still, it was good enough to earn a playoff win against Charlotte, then losing to NYRBII on penalties.

Kenardo Forbes, Bradley Kamdem, Ryan James, Mike Garzi, Wal Fall and Brenden Beresford all return to the roster, while the Rhinos have signed recent MLS SuperDraft picks Jalen Brown along with midfielder Christiano Francois (who played in Portugal the past two seasons) and center back Ryan Felix, who played the past two years with Orange County Blues.

Bet You Didn’t Know:

The Rhinos are the last non-MLS club to win the U.S. Open Cup — taking the crown in 1999.    Also, Lilley hired a former teammate to join his coaching staff by the name of Mark Pulisic.  If that name sounds familiar, Pulisic’s son Christian, who is from Central PA, is currently featuring for Borussia Dortmund in Germany and a part of US Men’s National Team.  

 

CHARLOTTE INDEPENDENCE

images (1)After just missing the playoffs in 2015 in its first season, the Independence were a solid team that stayed in the top 4 or 5 spots most of 2016.  A lot of players from last season return, including one of the USL’s best midfielders, Enzo Martinez.

This is a very competitive group that plays to the final whistle. They only loss one game a season ago by more than a goal, their 3-1 playoff loss to Rochester.   Former Riverhounds and USL Hall of Fame coach Mark Steffens always emphasized the importance of chemistry — and with a seasoned midfield and lots of returning players on the back line — this team should be cohesive and another that should challenge for a top-4 spot in the Eastern Conference and provide the Queen City with a chance to bring a USL title back to Charlotte for the first time since Steffens was coaching the Eagles.

Bet You Didn’t Know:  

After almost two years of playing at Ravenwood Sports complex, the club’s will move into a new permanent home — the Sportsplex at Matthews — against the Harrisburg City Islanders on June 17.

 

RICHMOND KICKERS

Although they’re a regular playoff contender (have made every USL playoff tournament since 2011) — the Kickers will have to adjust to losing their best defensive player (Hugh Roberts signed with Bethlehem Steel FC), as previously mentioned Ownby to Louisville, and its all-time leading scorer — Matthew Delicate retired in off season.

Still the Kickers can be a contender again with core group returning to the midfield that includes Yudai Imura, Fred Owusu Sekyere and Samuel Asante.  While the back line loses Roberts, they also added Conor Shanosky late last season, and he should take on the leadership role in central defense.

Bet You Didn’t Know:  

Since 2011, Leigh Cowlishaw‘s club have conceded more than 30 goals in the regular season only one time.  Remarkably, at just 46 years of age, Cowlishaw has been a fixture with the club since its inception in 1993.  He played through 1999 making 149 appearance — and had a four more “on-field” appearances sprinkled in 2007-09.  He’s been the team’s coach since 2000.

 

ST LOUIS FC

This is Preki’s team now.

The well-traveled, Serbian-born Predrag Radosavljević (aka Preki) comes to St. Louis after a successful run with Sacramento Republic, helping lead the upstart USL franchise to a title in 2014.   After a year in the UK, he has returned to lead St. Louis FC after the franchise stumbled a bit in 2015, finishing 8-12-10.

Preki completely revamped the back line and central midfield — bringing a few familiar players from his 2014 Champions in Sacramento — Octavio Guzman and Ivan Mirkovic. The side also brought in Sebastian Dalgaard, who recorded eight goals and five assists for OKC Energy FC over the past two seasons, and former LA Galaxy II midfielder Dragan Stojkov. 

While the back line might have a few unproven players, the attack should be potent when you consider they’ve added former Riverhounds leading scorer and 2013 USL MVP, Jose Angulo along with Christian Volesky, who scored 18 times for Rochester in the past two years.

Bet You Didn’t Know:  

In three years in USL, and stuck in the middle of the United States, St. Louis has moved from the Eastern Conference, to the Western Conference, and now back to the Eastern Conference.

TRYING TO BREAK THROUGH

 

BETHLEHEM STEEL FCdownload (1)

Bethlehem Steel FC went winless in its final 12 games — including loss and a tie against the Riverhounds. Still, in its inaugural season, the Philadephia Union affiliate finished in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and hung around the playoff line until the last few weeks of the season. A number of key players have returned, including forward Cory Burke, who has since represented his National Team side with Jamaica.

While they signed one solid USL veteran, Hugh Roberts, a first team All-USL selection a year ago at Center Back for Richmond, this is a team that will likely rely on a handful of young Union players eager to get first taste of extended pro action.

Bet You Didn’t Know:  

Steel FC scored only 32 goals in 30 regular-season contests a season ago, including only 14 goals in the second halves of games. Only the Riverhounds found the net fewer times in the Eastern Conference a season ago.

HARRISBURG CITY ISLANDERS

Games between the Hounds and Harrisburg are almost always pretty close and heated (last year the teams played to two draws and a 2-1 City Islanders win at Highmark), and they’ll have even more at stake in 2017, as it will be the third year that the teams will vie for the Keystone Derby Cup, and the first that both will be participants in the Old Guard Shield competition among five long-standing USL clubs.

They’ve picked up one of USL’s most successful keepers in recent years, Brandon Miller, who was in net for Rochester’s title season, and played a total of 17 games for 1,530 minutes and collected 40 saves with the Orange County Blues last year.

Some other names familiar to Riverhounds fans, include Jamaicans Cardel Benbow and Paul Wilson, Aaron Wheeler.  They also added Jonny Medoza who previously played with Orlando City B and Rochester and Manolo Sanchez from San Antonio FC.

Bet You Didn’t Know:  

In the last two year, and seven games between the City Islanders and the Riverhounds, the teams  have combined for 33 goals — and the last six games have been dead even in goals, 13-13.

ORLANDO CITY “B”

While they were a playoff team a year ago, OCB took the eighth and last playoff spot with a losing record, and 35 points, in a conference where to top seven teams all clearly separated from the rest.  They were hammered by the eventual champs, Red Bulls II 4-0 in the quarterfinals.

This is a team that will continue to lean on younger players signed to the senior team, but also has picked up a few USL veterans to add some experience to the roster, especially in an area where they struggled last season — on defense.  USL All-League Second Team selection Zach Carroll (NYRBII), Fernando Timbo (Ottawa Fury FC), Scott Thomsen (Richmond Kickers).   With both Michael Cox and Pierre Da Silva returning to the team, they certainly have players in the attack teams will have to be paying close attention.

Bet You Didn’t Know:  

Last season OCB played all home games at Eastern Florida State University in Melbourne, Florida, but this year they will move to play home games in the senior team’s new home – Orlando City Stadium.

OTTAWA FURY

What this won’t be is what we saw in recent years with FC Montreal — is a team completely filled with French Canadian homegrown players that were more interested in treating its squad as a developmental team.

Instead, the Fury are a strong carry-over from NASL, with a mix of Canadian national team players, and some USL veterans – and have a passionate fan base.

 

FURY FANS
Ottawa fans will be a lively group for USL opponents to contend with (Photo courtesy of USL)

With a lively supporters section, suddenly USL teams will now find playing North of the Border will be even harder to pick up any points.

The two most notable names we may remember are a pair of former Rochester Rhinos Steevan Dos Santos and Onua Obasi that now have been added to provide more scoring punch to the Ottawa attack which only included 32 goals in 32 games a year ago.

Bet You Didn’t Know:  

This calendar year marks 150th year of the Canadian Confederacy and the Fury appear to be especially motivated to make this a momentous year for all involved.

“2017 is a big year for our country, our city and our club. Ottawa is going to be filled with major events to celebrate 150 years of Canadian history and we don’t want to be spectators. We want to be one of those major events. We want our fans to fill TD Place and help us win that USL Championship.” – Ottawa Fury FC Head Coach Paul Dalglish.

TAMPA BAY ROWDIES

USL’s addition of the Rowdies brings another historical team into the fold  that have some star power.   Former England National team player, Joe Cole joined the team a year ago, and scored nine goals and had seven assists in 24 games.  The team also featured Marcel Schäfer, VfL Wolfsburg’s all-time appearance leader and a former Bundesliga champion. At the top of the attack, they feature Georgi Hristov who has made 100th appearances for the club, with 34 goals, a record for the Rowdies, and he is looking to record another season with double-digit goals after scoring 11 goals and adding four assists a season ago.

The Rowdies were inconsistent a year ago, finishing 9-11-12 despite a 4-4-2 start and some strong performances by its star players.

Although the Rowdies are new to USL, they did take on the Riverhounds at Highmark Stadium in May 2015 in the U.S. Open Cup, as Rob Vincent scored game’s lone goal in the 90th minute to help the Hounds advance to take on D.C. United in the 4th round.

Bet You Didn’t Know:

Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell played his first five years of his professional career for current English Premier League Champions, Leicester City from 1996-2001.  He finished his career with Tampa Bay in 2013, when he also became the team’s assistant coach.  He became head coach in 2015.

TORONTO FC II

imageThe Baby Reds have languished near the bottom of the USL’s Eastern Conference for the past two seasons, but never finished in dead last.  They finished ahead of the Riverhounds a year ago.

With a roster filled with many young, homegrown players, this team has struggled to string together enough strong results with any consistency.

Based on the early look at the team’s current roster make up — look for more of the same with a few sprinkles of experienced players from TFC senior coming on roster loans.

Until they add a few more veteran players to the roster to provide some balance, TFCII will continue to be an unpredictable team that may have some impressive young talent, but only show glimpses of solid play as a team.

Bet You Didn’t Know:  

Former Penn State standout Brian James made his pro debut with TFCII last season, making 29 appearances, scoring two goals.   James, who made two appearances for the senior team in 2016, returns to the roster as one of five Americans on the team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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