The cat is somewhat out of the bag at this point (though yet to be officially confirmed), but the alignment of the USL Championship is still hypothetical, and will certainly affect Nashville SC in 2019.
With four teams departing the Eastern Conference – Cincinnati to MLS, Penn FC to an indefinite hiatus, Richmond and Toronto to USL League One – there will obviously be some changes. The Eastern Conference had fewer teams than the West in 2018 (16 compared to 17), and there are seven new teams entering the league this year:
- Albuquerque, N.M.
- Austin, Texas
- Birmingham, Ala.
- El Paso, Texas
- Hartford, Conn.
- Loudon, Va.
- Memphis, Tenn.
Along the current geographic lines of the league, the reasonable destinations for those would mean three to the West (Austin, El Paso, Albuquerque) and four to the East (Birmingham, Hartford, Loudon, Memphis) – with a couple of those basically non-negotiable, leaving only Austin, Birmingham, and Memphis somewhat questionable.
Those destinations would level out the conferences if not for those four teams leaving the East. As it stands, if we slot them where they look like they belong, the East has 16 teams and the West 20. Shifting two teams from the West to the East makes sense, and it’s apparent that the obvious pair – Swope Park Rangers and St. Louis FC (which I believe has not spent consecutive years in the same conference) – will make the switch. 18 in each conference, boom.
How does that affect Nashville SC’s travel? While it depends on who NSC has three-plays against (more on that in a sec), here are the driving distances between First Tennessee Park and the home stadia of the old/new conference teams:
|Old Team||Distance||New Team||Distance|
|FC Cincinnati||274||Birmingham Legion||194|
|Penn FC||720||Hartford Athletic||1006|
|Richmond Kickers||612||Loudon United||669|
|Toronto FC II||759||Memphis 901||212|
|Saint Louis FC||323|
|Swope Park Rangers||568|
|Old Total||2,365 mi.||New Total||2972 mi.|
That’s adding two new teams but reducing the average distance from 591 miles to 495 miles. In more practical terms, it removes one day trip (Cincinnati), but replaces it with three (Birmingham, Memphis, Saint Louis), including two that are shorter than Cincinnati had been. Especially for fans who are interested in seeing Nashville SC in away venues – and I’d love for there to be more of them, especially this season before MLS makes that a whole lot more difficult – that’s a trade you have to be willing to take. Along with Louisville City, Indy Eleven and Atlanta United 2, that’s six gamedays that can include a there-and-back drive (everything else almost certainly requires an overnight stay).
NSC’s three-play teams last year were Atlanta United 2, Charlotte Independence, FC Cincinnati, and Louisville. That’s the team that set the points record in the league, the team that was defending champion (and is again), and two who are… not that. With the league sticking to a 34-game schedule and the Eastern Conference expanding to 18 teams, that means there should be no three-play teams in the league this year. A second trip to Birmingham or Louisville or Memphis (the three closest and therefore most likely had there been three-play scheduling this year) isn’t in the cards outside of a friendly or Open Cup match.
That’s a blessing and a curse: two home games against Cincinnati was a fun thing. Two away games at Louisville was also a fun thing (even though one of the games was not super-fun). It does make for a more equitable league, wherein teams can earn their place in the table a little more fairly – on account of playing Cincinnati and Louisville three times, Nashville finished with one of the toughest schedules in the East, despite the relative weakness of Charlotte and Atlanta.