The final piece of the overview of the Eastern Conference: the six teams that made the playoffs in the conference last year and are back to defend (aside from Nashville, which I’ll cover in a different way for obvious reasons). See the arrivals and departures and the non-playoff teams here.
The East was much stronger than the West in spots 1-8 last year, whereas the bottom of the East was quite a bit worse than their counterparts across the Mississippi. What I’m getting at is that this group represents some of the best the league had to offer. In descending order of finish in the table.
Louisville City FC
2018 Power ratings: 2nd in Eastern Conference Table Power (66.1 projected points), 2nd in combined table Pure Power (2nd in East). No. 3 offense, No. 11 defense.
2018 Finish: 2nd place in East, 66 total points. 71 goals for, 38 goals against. Won USL Championship.
All League selections: F Cameron Lancaster (1st team), D Paco Craig (1st team)
Team of the Week selections: Lancaster (5 – 2 POTW), Craig (4), D Oscar Jimenez (3), F Ilija Ilic (2), D Kyle Smith (2), M Paolo Del Piccolo (1), D Pat McMahon
Key departures: Lancaster (Nashville SC), Ilic (Indy Eleven), Smith (Orlando City SC – MLS)
Key additions: F Lucky Mkosana (1 TOTW with Penn FC), F Sunny Jane (Phnom Penh Crown – Cambodia)
Louisville City enters 2019 as the two-time reigning USL Champion, and the majority of their roster won’t turn over. Still, it feels like they’re going to be missing something going into the year.
That “something” is the nucleus of its offense, with record-setting scorer Cameron Lancaster (26 goals) off to Nashville SC, and another productive forward in Ilija Ilic to Indy Eleven. They replace them with Penn FC star Lucky Mkosana and a player coming from the Cambodian league.
The rub, though, is that you can’t doubt Louisville City. They looked dead int he water at points last year (particularly as they dealt with injuries in mid-season), but managed to run to the title. With some consistency on the roster (again, outside a couple stars), they just need to replace some of the goal-scoring to maintain level. Their finish may be more about how many teams raise their own level around the Boys in Purple.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
2018 Power ratings: 3rd in Eastern Conference Table Power (60.1 projected points), 5th in combined table Pure Power (3rd in East). No. 14 offense, No. 1 defense.
2018 Finish: 3rd place in East, 59 total points. 47 goals for, 26 goals against. Lost to Bethlehem Steel in first round of USL Playoffs.
All League selections: D Joe Greenspan (1st team), M Kenardo Forbes (2nd team)
Team of the Week selections: F Neco Brett (3 – 2 POTW), D Hugh Roberts (3), Greenspan (2), Forbes (2), D Tobi Adewole (2), F Romeo Parkes (1), D Jordan Dover (1), M Thomas Vancaeyezeele (1)
Key departures: Roberts (Charlotte Independence), Parkes (Sligo Rovers – Ireland)
Key additions: F Steevan Dos Santos (1 TOTW with Ottawa Fury)
Pittsburgh’s success is ultimately most about the system rather than any individual personnel. Of course, they have really good players – and in key positions – but whereas this low level of turnover (at least at the top end of the roster) may be seen as stagnation for most other teams, it’s just a further chance for Pittsburgh to more deeply ingrain the principles of Lilleyball in its returning personnel.
Add in more depth (and some former Lilley players from his days with the Rochester Rhinos), and this team should be able to chug along as it did last year: rarely flashy, but almost always effective.
2018 Power ratings: 4th in Eastern Conference Table Power (54.9 projected points), 7th in combined table Pure Power (4th in East). No. 16 offense, No. 5 defense.
2018 Finish: 4th place in East, 56 total points. 47 goals for, 34 goals against. Lost to New York Red Bulls II in first round of USL Playoffs.
All League selections: M Tah Anunga (1st team), F Ataullah Guerra (2nd team)
Team of the Week selections: D Skylar Thomas (2), M Nico Rittmeyer (1 – 1 POTW), Anunga (1), Guerra (1), D O’Brian Woodbine (1), F Victor Mansaray (1), D Neveal Hackshaw (1), F Gordon Wild (1), D Jarad Van Schaik (1), D Taylor Mueller (1)
Key departures: Thomas (Valour FC – Canada), Woodbine (out of contract), Mansaray (out of contract), Hackshaw (Indy Eleven), Wild (Atlanta United – MLS)
Key additions: M Zeiko Lewis (Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar – Iceland). Yes, I copy/pasted that because there was no way I was spelling it right, given the chance.
Charleston is fairly similar to Pittsburgh in terms of personnel, at least among those who have been announced so far: a couple key names out, not many big ones in. Indeed, Lewis is the only new player to date, and Lewis is valued at 100k on Transfermarkt (with the standard caveats that it’s not gospel, I’ve self-imposed a cutoff of 250k to include transfers in, for the most part).
I also thought the Battery were not nearly as good as Pittsburgh over the course of the year by the eyeball test, even if the overall results weren’t so different. (Of course, they also had by far the easiest schedule in the East, with three-plays against four different non-playoff teams, with the extra game against the two more difficult ones – Charlotte and Tampa Bay – at home).
Like Pittsburgh, there’s a decent chance they don’t miss a beat, but a slight regression to the mean may be due after they slightly overachieved.
New York Red Bulls II
2018 Power ratings: 7th in Eastern Conference Table Power (49.0 projected points), 8th in combined table Pure Power (5th in East). No. 2 offense, No. 26 defense.
2018 Finish: 5th place in East, 52 total points. 71 goals for, 59 goals against. Lost to Louisville City FC in Eastern Conference championship game.
All League selections: None
Team of the Week selections: M Amando Moreno (2), F Jared Stroud (2), F Stefano Bonomo (1 with NY – 1 with Tampa Bay after midseason trade), F Tom Barlow (1 – 1 POTW), D Allen Yanes (1), M Andrew Tinari (1), D Hassan Ndam (1), F Brian White (1)
Key departures: Bonomo (during last season, now with Sacramento Republic), Tinari (Tampa Bay Rowdies), Ndam (FC Cincinnati – MLS)
Key additions: None
NYRBII hasn’t added anyone yet, but like other MLS2 sides, they’ll be picking up players sent down from the parent club. Those players tend to be younger and higher-potential than perhaps the average USL player, but also the mistakes that tend to come with youth.
That combo – in addition to an effort-intensive system run by both Red Bulls and their USL side – typically means the club starts a little rough and hits its stride as the year goes on, and I’d expect we’ll see that until such a time as they change away from their current top-to-bottom club philosophy.
Bethlehem Steel FC
2018 Power ratings: 8th in Eastern Conference Table Power (47.9 projected points), 12th in combined table Pure Power (7th in East). No. 10 offense, No. 16 defense.
2018 Finish: 6th place in East, 50 total points. 56 goals for, 41 goals against. Lost to Louisville City FC in second round of USL Playoffs.
All League selections: None
Team of the Week selections: M Santi Moar (3), F Brandon Allen (1 – plus two after midseason trade to Nashville), M Chris Nanco (1), M Fabian Herbers (1), M Brenden Aaronson (1), M Derrick Jones (1), D Olivier Mbaizo (1), M Drew Skundrich (1), D MAtt Mahoney (1), GK Jake McGuire (1)
Key departures: Moar (New Mexico United, Allen (mid-season, now with Tampa Bay Rowdies), Nanco (Forge FC – Canada), Herbers (Chicago Fire – MLS), Skundrich (Sacramento Republic), Mahoney (Sacramento Republic), McGuire (Gefle IF – Sweden)
Key additions: CB Benjamin Okeimu (Union Academy)
The situation for the Steel is similar to that for the Red Bulls: they will accept players from the parent club to be developed. One key difference is that the Union famously didn’t make a single pick in the MLS Draft, so the talent is more likely to filter up through the academy with a stop in Bethlehem (a phrase which here means “also Chester” since the Steel will play at the Union’s home venue this year) than sent down from picks who aren’t ready yet.
Of course, last year’s edition of the Steel included several players who are now with the Union – including US Youth internationals Mark McKenzie, Auston Trusty, and Brenden Aaronson – so there’s something to be said for their approach.
2018 Power ratings: 5th in Eastern Conference Table Power (51.1 projected points), 15th in combined table Pure Power (8th in East). No. 15 offense, No. 14 defense.
2018 Finish: 7th place in East, 49 total points. 45 goals for, 42 goals against. Lost to Louisville City FC in first round of USL Playoffs.
All League selections: D Ayoze (2nd team)
Team of the Week selections: Ayoze (3), M Soony Saad (1 – 1 POTW), F Jack McInerney (1), D Kevin Venegas (1), D Reiner Ferreira (1), GK Owain Fôn Williams (1), F Eugene Starikov (1), D Karl Ouimette (1), M Matt Watson (1), M Tyler Pasher (1)
Key departures: Saad (Al-Ansar – Lebanon), McInerney (out of contract), Venegas (out of contract), Ferreira (Boa Esporte Club – Brazil), Fôn Williams (Inverness Caledonian Thistle – Scotland)
Key additions: F Thomas Enevoldsen (1st team all-USL, 1 TOTW, 1 POTW with Orange County SC), F Ilija Ilic (2 TOTW with Louisville City), D Neveal Hackshaw (1 TOTW with Charleston Battery), GK Evan Newton (1 TOTW with FC Cincinnati), D Paddy Barrett (1 TOTW with FC Cincinnati)
This is the team that is giving Nashville a bit of trepidation when it comes to claiming the mantle of “Most talent added” this offseason. NSC added a couple blockbuster pieces, a couple more that are being (perhaps unfairly) overlooked, and some really nice, solid additions.
Even before Indy added Thomas Enevoldsen – who I considered one of the three best USL players last year, along with FC Cincinnati’s Emmanuel Ledesma and Louisville City’s (now Nashville’s) Cameron Lancaster – they were getting plenty of pub. They added the USL’s Golden Glove winner (ill-gotten though that award may have been) in Evan Newton, Louisville City’s second most-productive player in Ilija Ilic, and a couple defenders from teams that had better stopping ability than the Eleven.
How it all comes together is anyone’s guess, but in terms of sheer improvement on the roster, Indy’s right up there – and they didn’t exactly start from a low point, either.