Bye week reset: Early season in the books

Nashville SC has only played three games to date, but with the first free weekend of the year in the books, let’s take a look at some of the things we’ve learned so far in the USL.

Nashville has had it tough

Most probably didn’t expect it when perusing the early-season schedule before the first kick, but NSC has played the toughest schedule in USL Championship’s Eastern Conference. Even if Loudoun United was a layup (though you can ask the Tampa Bay Rowdies what they think about that), NSC’s schedule strength in the form of the other two opponents is strong.

Aside from their 1-1-1 record against Nashville, the three teams in the rearview mirror have accrued 15 points in seven games (2.14 points per game). The next toughest slate faced to date has been Saint Louis FC – which we know dealt Nashville its only loss and is the class of the East so far (more about that below). When NSC gets to take on some easier opposition, they may rack up points at an even more rapid rate.

That’s no guarantee, though. Last year’s schedule had the less strenuous opposition backloaded, and while Gary Smith’s outfit performed pretty well in the tougher early contests, they faltered mid-season (for a variety of reasons), and weren’t able to keep pace when they should have been able to easily dispatch the likes of Toronto FC II or the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

A deeper and more talented squad may be better-equipped to maintain form throughout the Summer, but there’s no way to know until we get there.

Offense a work in progress

This is… not encouraging for Nashville SC fans, given that last year’s offense was among the more meager in the Eastern Conference. Through three games, the team has scored three goals (all from MLS signings Daniel Ríos (2) and Cameron Lancaster), and was shut out at home in a loss to Saint Louis FC.

Even taking into account that STLFC is better than anyone expected coming into the year – and more stout defensively – you’d have to have hoped that the team, with the league’s No. 1 and No. 3 scorers from last year’s USL teams now in the fold, would be able to be more productive. They haven’t, and there are multiple reasons for that.

One frustrating reason has been a difficulty getting Ríos and Lancaster onto the field together in productive positions, and that reason comes back to injury. Thanks to Lebo Moloto’s offseason rehab from injury, Alan Winn’s concussion in the final game of the preseason, and Ropapa Mensah’s poor physical conditioning when he arrived in Nashville, there’s only one healthy winger on the roster, and that’s Kharlton Belmar. While Belmar has performed reasonably well, the end-product and combination with the strikers hasn’t paid off yet.

With Winn’s first meaningful playing time of the year now in the books, and Moloto and Mensah getting ever-closer to full-game fitness to play on the wing (instead of having to stick Lancaster out there while Moloto plays the 10, given he doesn’t have the gas to go a full 90 on the flanks), hopefully a more structured setup in the middle of the pitch is possible with the two new signings ready to dominate centrally.

Saint Louis exceeding expectations

As alluded to above, Saint Louis FC has been the class of the Eastern Conference to date, and that came as something of a surprise: they finished 8th in the Western Conference last year, and while their offseason wasn’t bad by any stretch, their net talent in and out was not among the most impressive in the East.

So what have they done? Started the year with wins over the two preseason favorites, Indy at home and Nashville in First Tennessee Park. They followed that with slightly less inspiring results (a draw against Tampa Bay Rowdies, their only non-win of the year, and a 1-0 home win over a Charlotte Independence side that looks quite bad), but they remain atop the table – and deservedly so.

The way they’ve done it may seem a little familiar to Nashville fans: basically no offense, but an extremely stout defense, like last year’s NSC team. We shall see if STLFC can keep it up all year, but for now, they look the class of the East.

Trouble for expected powers

Meanwhile, there have been some head-scratchingly weak sides in the USL Championship already. Louisville City FC and Bethlehem Steel finished second, third, and sixth in the East last year. While it’s early, they currently come in 17th, 13th, and 15th, respectively, in the power ratings.

Certainly there’s faith that Louisville in particular can turn it around – they’ve been a bit of a slow-starter in the past couple years anyway, though not nearly to this degree – but you wouldn’t have expected to see things look the way they do at this early stage.

In the West, there are similarly surprising poor starts. Phoenix Rising (LCFC’s victim in the USL Championship Game last Fall) has yet to record a win, and sits 12th in the conference. Orange County SC finished atop the West in last year’s regular season, and only has an 0-2-2 record against pretty weak competition.

Certainly one or both of those teams will also have the chance to turn things around. It does seem less a sure bet with them than it does with Louisville, and both will be trying to scramble to make sure they’re in the top 10 come season’s end.

League One under way

The inaugural season of the new Division 3 level of US Soccer is under way (disregard the unfortunate naming, trying to pander to the Anglophiles who… probably aren’t ever going to care about lower-level soccer in the United States anyway, if they’re the sort of people who need their nomenclature copied to give it a chance. But I digress).

There is some exciting talent – including US U-17 international Ricardo Pepi for North Texas SC, the headliner of the league so far. It’s also an opportunity for younger or less-experienced players to get their feet wet before working their way up the professional pyramid individually.

While most teams have only played one game (South Georgia Tormenta has won two, with FC Tucson splitting its pair of contests), and a couple haven’t even had their opening kick yet (Forward Madison and Toronto FC II), there has yet to be a draw, and the games have mostly been high-scoring and exciting.

The future of the league as a step between PDL (now called League Two) and the Championship should pay dividends for both the teams themselves and American soccer more generally.

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