Finally, the USL’s full 2018 schedule was released on Friday — and now Pittsburgh soccer fans can start to plan accordingly.
More on that below, but first, the schedule announcement book-ended what was another momentous week in U.S. pro soccer and the Hounds league — United Soccer League — as to almost no one’s surprise — finally received full accreditation status from the United States Soccer Federation to be the sole Division II entity.
The USL will enter the new season with 33 teams across the United States and Canada, with new additions Fresno FC, Indy Eleven, Las Vegas Lights FC, Nashville SC, North Carolina FC and ATL UTD 2.
Earlier in January, the league that shared provisional Divisional II status in 2017 with the USL, the struggling North American Soccer League, announced that it would move its schedule to an international calendar — resuming competition in the Fall.
Basically the NASL, which lost its Division II status in September 2017, has put itself on life support for the summer months, and will hope for a miracle come the fall.
This is clearly a victory for the USL, as it continues to forge ahead with an ambitious agenda.
But, is it a victory for professional soccer in the United States?
That remains to be seen.
What we do know is that USL is growing at an intense rate, and new franchises are popping up all over.
USL will enter the new season with 33 teams across the United States and Canada, with new additions Fresno FC, Indy Eleven, Las Vegas Lights FC, Nashville SC, North Carolina FC and ATL UTD 2.
The Riverhounds will face two of these teams on the road in the early stages of the season — opening against Nashville SC on March 24, then a trip to Lawrenceville, GA, to take on ATL UTD 2 on a Wednesday night in early April.
In order to meet loftier Division II standards, this off season has forced existing USL franchises to make adjustments (Riverhounds fired coach Dave Brandt due to not having “A” coaching license — and are adding more than 1,500 new seats to meet the required 5,000 minimum). Other franchises were simply not ready for the changes — as long-standing Rochester Rhinos announced that they’re taking a year off due to financial problems and Orlando City B, an MLS-run ‘second team’ is forgoing its involvement in the league in 2018, most likely to wait for the USL’s third division to begin play in 2019.
The Hounds and owner Tuffy Shallenberger, who is dedicated to providing a constant Division II soccer entity in our market, snagged Rochester’s ultra successful coach, Bob Lilley, providing Pittsburgh Soccer fans with a 2018 season (and beyond) that has limitless promise and potential. Lilley will open camp in the first full week of February with a roster of 11 (or maybe more) signed players, and a number of trialists coming to compete like hell for a spot on the roster.
This week also saw the MLS combines (which Lilley attended) — and Friday’s MLS SuperDraft.
Soccer fans in Pittsburgh should have plenty to look forward to in 2018.
For one, there’s new coach who’s won at this level at the helm.
And another — if you want your share of soccer excitement to follow — the Hounds are a part of a league that’s growing by leaps and bounds — and a unprecedented 34-game schedule that qualifies as the longest schedule in team history.
Here are some ‘highlights’ for 2018:
- Action kicks off on the road for the Hounds, as they visit expansion side Nashville SC (that includes two former Hounds on its roster: Taylor Washington and Lebo Moloto) on March 24 in Nashville’s first-ever league home match.
- Pittsburgh’s home opener at Highmark Stadium follows the weekend after on March 31, as the club begins its defense of the Keystone Derby Cup, against Penn FC, formerly the Harrisburg City Islanders.
- This will be the first of three meetings between the two teams with Penn FC visiting once again on May 26 before wrapping up the series in Pennsylvania’s capital (on a Wednesday night!!) Sept. 26.
- In addition to opening at Nashville, the Hounds will face another expansion squad Atlanta United 2, in the early part of the season, as the Hounds head south on April 4 and host the MLS B-side on April 28. Even with three of its first four matches away, the Hounds have to see the early slate as favorable. They’ll be playing two expansion teams — then at home against Penn FC, who they beat twice a year ago, then travel to Toronto FC II four days after playing in Georgia. The Hounds have never lost to TFCII. Lilley, who’s teams have been known to start off a little slow in building team chemistry before getting stronger each season will have a chance to work out the kinks against what appears to be a favorable stretch of opponents.
- April also features an away game marking the first of three matches on the season against FC Cincinnati on April 21.
- In addition to Penn FC and FC Cincinnati, the Hounds face two other opponents three times this season – former NASL side Indy Eleven and Toronto FC II. Ironically, the other cross-state team, Bethlehem Steel FC will only play the Hounds twice.
- Pittsburgh has five matches scheduled for May, including first-ever visits to Highmark Stadium from Indy (May 11) and Nashville (May 30). June is a much lighter month in terms of competition, featuring just three games for the Hounds. This is likely going to be beneficial if the Hounds are to make a U.S. Open Cup push — and for the rigors of the new 34 game season.
- July is book-ended by matches against newcomer and former NASL side North Carolina FC, including the now Annual Fourth of July clash at Highmark Stadium.
- The following month sees the Hounds face off against reigning league champion Louisville City FC at Louisville Slugger Field on Aug. 28.
- August and September mark the longest months of competition for Pittsburgh, each consisting of six matches. The club’s longest home stand of three games will run from Sept. 8-22.
- Extending into October, the 2018 regular season closes out with the Hounds playing their final three of four on the road with the home finale coming on Oct. 6 against FC Cincinnati and season finale coming on Oct. 14 against New York Red Bulls II.
Whew! That’s a lot to digest.
So, now’s the time to mark your calendars for the season ahead. The Hounds are scheduled to begin preseason the week of February 5.
At this point, the club has not announced any preseason fixtures.
Both here on Pittsburgh Soccer Report — and through my coverage in DK on Pittsburgh Sports, I’ll be on top of the action all season long.
Looking forward to all of it.