The USL’s Eastern Conference was a fun ride last year: there were a handful of teams right near the top, before FC Cincinnati took things to another level (and a couple sides, including Nashville SC, fell down the table a bit). Let’s take a look at those sides that missed the Eastern Conference playoffs, but will try to make it this year.
Keep in mind that three of them (Penn FC, Richmond Kickers, and Toronto FC) will not play in USL Championship this season, and I already covered them along with other teams either exiting or entering our worldview in 2019.
In descending order on the table:
North Carolina FC
2018 Power ratings: 9th in Eastern Conference Table Power (46.2 projected points), 15th in combined table Pure Power (9th in East). No. 7 offense, No. 24 defense.
2018 Finish: 9th place in East, 47 total points. 60 goals for, 50 goals against.
All League selections: F Daniel Ríos (1st Team), M Kyle Bekker (2nd team)
Team of the Week selections: Ríos (4), Bekker (2 – 2 POTW), F Donovan Ewolo (1 – 1 POTW), D Futty Danso (1), M Zach Steinberger (1), D Aaron Guillen (1), M Austin Da Luz (1), M Steven Miller (1)
Key departures: Ríos (Nashville SC), Bekker (Forge FC – Canada), Danso (UiTM FC – Malaysia), Steinberger (Tampa Bay Rowdies)
Key additions: D Sam Brotherton (Sunderland – England), D Manny Perez (Celtic – Scotland), M Ben Speas (Indy Eleven)
North Carolina was slightly unlucky to finish outside the playoffs last year, and if they want to change that in 2019, they’ll have to do it with a new engine for their offense: two All-USL players depart (NCFC was the only team in USL to miss the playoffs last year with multiple all-league selections). Daniel Ríos’s finishing is off to Nashville, while Kyle Bekker’s setups will be found in the Canadian Premier League this Summer.
While the offense is likely to take a major step back, the defense may compensate with a leap forward. NCFC is adding centerback Sam Brotherton from former Premier League club Sunderland (albeit “current League One club” is just as accurate), and fullback Manny Perez (a US Youth international) will be on loan from Celtic F.C. With the core of last year’s defensive unit also returning, that’s a pretty nice upgrade.
Ewolo will add a new running mate in Indy Eleven loanee Ben Speas, and while asking that duo to replicate Ríos and Bekker would be unfair, they shouldn’t need to be that pair in order for NCFC to improve year-over-year.
2018 Power ratings: 10th in Eastern Conference Table Power (44.0 projected points), 25th in combined table Pure Power (11th in East). No. 33 offense (last in USL), No. 10 defense.
2018 Finish: 10th place in East, 45 total points. 31 goals for, 43 goals against.
All League selections: GK Maxime Crepeau (1st team)
Team of the Week selections: D Nana Attakora (3), D Onua Obasi (2), F Adonijah Reid (1 – 1 POTW), Crepeau (1), F Steevan Dos Santos (1), D Colin Falvey, D Carl Haworth
Key departures: Creapeau (Vancouver Whitecaps – MLS), Reid (Houston Dynamo – MLS), Dos Santos (Pittsburgh Riverhounds), Falvey (Chattanooga Red Wolves – USL League One)
Key additions: M Wal Fall (1 TOTW with Saint Louis FC), M Charlie Ward (1 TOTW with San Antonio FC), D Thomas Meilleur-Giguère (loan from Montreal Impact), M Christiano Francois (Pittsburgh Riverhounds)
Maxime Crepeau was a deserving choice as the first-team USL keeper of the year in 2018, and losing him significantly diminishes the positives around the Impact: substituting in a replacement-caliber keeper probably sees the Fury’s league-worst offense complemented by a below-average defense, and this squad would have been fighting with the TFCIIs of the world to avoid being the worst team in USL. He was that good. Now that he’s gone… well, the team is either going to have to get excellent keeper play elsewhere, or radically alter the way they want to play.
They have added a bit of firepower in Fall, who was productive in limited time with Saint Louis last year, and Francois, who didn’t do a ton for Pittsburgh last year, but is moving to an environment where he’s more likely to be a guy relied upon for scoring. They do lose their joint leading scorer and leading assist-man in Dos Santos, though, so the new faces will likely have to step up.
Then, of course, there’s the long-term future of this club. With a one-year waiver to compete in USL instead of being forced into the Canadian Premier League, do they even apply for (much less receive) a similar waiver in 2020? This could be their last go-round in this particular league. Whether that adds a sense of urgency or one of malaise can’t be known until the games kick off, and that could determine the outcome of the season.
2018 Power ratings: 11th in Eastern Conference Table Power (41.9 projected points), 26th in combined table Pure Power (12th in East). No. 19 offense, No. 25 defense.
2018 Finish: 11th place in East, 42 total points. 44 goals for, 57 goals against.
All League selections: None
Team of the Week selections: D Je-Vaughn Watson (2), M Cordell Cato (2), M Kay Voser (1), F Caleb Calvert (1), M Yann Ekra (1), F Eamon Zayed (1), F Jorge Herrera (1)
Key departures: Watson (released, likely retirement?), Cato (OKC Energy), Voser (Red Star Zurich – Switzerland), Calvert (St. Louis FC), Ekra (Tampa Bay Rowdies), Zayed (Chattanooga Red Wolves – USL League One)
Key additions: D Hugh Roberts (3 TOTW with Pittsburgh Riverhounds), M Enzo Martinez (Colorado Rapids)
Charlotte started the year with high expectations – and on a three-game unbeaten run – but they dropped off quickly, and ended up much further from the playoff positions than anyone expected. Given that trajectory, maybe it’s for the best that they seem to be going for the full rebuild?
Gone are six of their seven players who received a weekly honor last year, and the lone returner is 38-year old striker Jorge Herrera. Dude most definitely gets goals, but Father Time catches up to us all, yeah? Charlotte re-adds Enzo Martinez, who was one of their stars in 2017 and spent last season with the team that initially loaned him to Charlotte, the Colorado Rapids.
Hugh Roberts is a nice defensive addition, but the point remains that Charlotte will have to add some pretty big pieces if they want to turn around the results from last year (unless, that is, there’s a feeling that chemistry was an issue, in which case simple roster churn may help).
Tampa Bay Rowdies
2018 Power ratings: 12th in Eastern Conference Table Power (40.3 projected points), 18th in combined table Pure Power (10th in East). No. 20 offense, No. 17 defense.
2018 Finish: 12th place in East, 41 total points. 44 goals for, 44 goals against.
All League selections: None
Team of the Week selections: M Junior Flemmings (2 – 1 POTW), M Leo Fernandes (2), F Sebastian Guenzatti (1 – 1 POTW), D Hunter Gorskie (1), F Leon Taylor (1), M Zach Portillos (1), M Jack Blake (1), M Joe Cole (1), F Stefano Bonomo (1)
Key departures: Flemmings (Phoenix Rising), Gorskie (out of contract), Portillos (released), Blake (Real Monarchs), Cole (retired), Bonomo (Sacramento Republic)
Key additions: F Brandon Allen (3 TOTW with Bethlehem/Nashville, including 1 POTW with Nashville), M Yann Ekra (1 TOTW with Charlotte Independence), M Zach Steinberger (1 TOTW with North Carolina FC), M Antoine Hoppenot (1 TOTW with Reno 1868), D Ryan Felix (San Antonio FC), M Malik Johnson (Toronto FC II), M Andrew Tinari (New York Red Bulls II)
Tampa Bay was bar-none the biggest disappointment in USL last year. Their huge roster budget (likely overtaken mid-season by FC Cincinnati’s overall spend, including MLS contracts – but still among the largest in USL history) resulted in a team that was mediocre at best pretty much wire-to-wire. A team that has long had a reputation of being great at home and bad on the road was mediocre at home and bad on the road, and never sniffed the playoffs.
A total reconfiguring of the roster was probably due, and a bit more stability (they had a player retire mid-season to become the head coach) should probably see them perform better even before taking into account whether or not the roster has improved.
It’d probably be fair to say it has indeed improved, though, and there’s a chance that the Rowdies take the biggest leap of any team in USL. While Nashville fans had mixed feelings about Brandon Allen, he still outscored Tampa’s leading 2018 scorer (Georgi Hristov) by three goals, so a guy with his profile can be something of an upgrade.
Atlanta United 2
2018 Power ratings: 14th in Eastern Conference Table Power (31.9 projected points), 29th in combined table Pure Power (14th in East). No. 28 offense, No. 28 defense.
2018 Finish: 14th place in East, 31 total points. 37 goals for, 72 goals against.
All League selections: None
Team of the Week selections: F Romario Williams (1 – 1 POTW), M John Gallagher, F Lagos Kunga (1), D Mikey Ambrose (1), D AJ Cochran (1)
Key departures: Cochran (Phoenix Rising)
Key additions: D Guillermo Benitez (CD Plaza Amador – Panama)
Not only did Atlanta United 2 suffer from the “MLS reserve squad syndrome” of aiming for talent development, rather than wins, the Baby Five Stripes were also a first-year club (and the reserve team for a second-year MLS side), so there were some growing pains as they figured out how to integrate academy players coming up and occasionally first-team players going down.
A second year with a bit more defined a plan (and a first-team in Major League Soccer that looks like it’s not in any danger of missing a beat) probably makes the results turn out better simply because of that stability. However, the goal will likely remain something other than going for wins, and that will show at times, as well.
Stay tuned next week for the final piece of the schedule preview.