The 2018 United Soccer League season kicks off Friday with an expected sellout in a Cascadia rivalry, last year’s champions taking on a southern newcomer, and a face off between two intriguing expansion teams.
Seattle Sounders 2 welcome Portland Timbers 2 for a match that should set the tone of each team’s season. A strong performance out of the gate for either side will help erase some of the poor performances from 2017.
Louisville City FC is looking to show everyone that consistency breeds championships, and will start the season against newcomers Nashville SC. While NSC might not be making waves like some of the other expansion teams, they’ll try to get rolling in anticipation of joining MLS.
Las Vegas Lights FC is poised to be the story of the Western Conference in 2018. With good and bad attention surrounding the team in the buildup to the Lights’ first official match in USL, the focus will be making their mark as quickly as possible. Fresno FC quietly had a successful offseason, building a roster that looks strong enough to challenge for a playoff spot in year one.
Let’s take a look at all of this weekend’s action:
Friday, March 16th
Rio Grande Valley FC v. St. Louis FC (8:30 p.m. ET)
Saint Louis FC’s new coach Anthony Pulis has his work cut out for him in 2018. With STLFC missing the playoffs in 2017 and switching conferences again, Pulis will look to make use of his new acquisitions, Corey Hertzog, and Wal Fall, who are proven USL commodities. The Toros come into the match with a new manager in former Seton Hall University coach Gerson Echeverry. The Toros also failed to make the playoffs last season and are looking to avoid a slow start.
Seattle Sounders FC 2 v. Portland Timbers 2 (10 p.m. ET)
Sounders 2 are expected to open the season in front of a sold out crowd at home against Cascadia rivals Timbers 2. The Timbers were the worst team in the West in 2017, posting just three wins. Timbers 2 and Sounders FC 2 each have a new coach in 2018, with Cameron Knowles and John Hutchinson now in charge, respectively. Can the Timbers 2 rebound from last season and get a road win over a rival that has dominated them in recent history? Time will tell.
Saturday, March 17th
New York Red Bulls II v. Toronto FC II (1 p.m. ET)
Red Bulls II bring in a very different squad from last season, with the holdovers mostly hanging around the backline. Andrew Tinari, Jordan Scarlett, Ethan Kutler and Andrew Lombard are the only returning players from 2017, though some familiar MLS reserves will likely spend time again with the team. TFC II start the year on the road for the fourth consecutive season, and will look to get off to a fast start for new coach Laurent Guyot after Jason Bent joined Toronto FC as an assistant coach.
Louisville City FC v. Nashville SC (3 p.m. ET)
The defending champions retained most of their championship winning side. The question is if they can pick up where they left off against a plucky Nashville side that is making a brief stop in USL before looking to join MLS in 2019 or 2020. The visitors boast a MLS Cup winning coach in Gary Smith, and put together a strong side that might be ready to challenge for supremacy right out of the gate.
North Carolina FC v. Tampa Bay Rowdies (3:30 p.m. ET)
Two former NASL clubs square off in Cary, NC. Last year, the Rowdies finished near the top of the Eastern Conference, but fell out of the playoffs in the semifinals. The Rowdies are trying to build upon their success in 2017, adding Junior Flemmings and Jochen Graf to an already talented side featuring the likes of Joe Cole and Marcel Schäfer. NCFC has to adjust quickly and rely on the likes of Austin da Luz and Steven Miller to carry the team to the playoffs.
Charlotte Independence v. Ottawa Fury FC (7 p.m.ET)
Losing Enzo Martinez to the Colorado Rapids in the offseason won’t do the Independence any favors. Martinez was a big part of what went right for the Independence during the first half of the 2017 season. Cordell Cato needs to help bolster the offense to replace the 24 goals Martinez scored in 2016-17.
The Fury are in full rebuild mode, inking a new coach, and signing a pair of Canadian internationals to add veteran leadership to a team that struggled for large stretches in 2017. Nikola Popovic takes the reins for the Fury, while Maxim Tissot and Nana Attakora are expected to help stabilize the team with their leadership.
Charleston Battery v. FC Cincinnati (7 p.m. ET)
The Battery start the season with a bit of soul searching to do after losing some important pieces. Charleston started the season in fine form a year ago, holding the top spot in the East until falling to second behind Louisville
Among the players that have departed are Odinsel Cooper, Taylor Mueller, and Romario Williams. Alan Koch and FC Cincinnati are a team on a mission after disappointing in the postseason in 2017. They brought in former Battery defender Forrest Lasso among others to bolster their roster.
Reno 1868 FC v. Swope Park Rangers (7 p.m. ET)
Swope Park Rangers made it to USL Cup for a second straight season before being falling to Louisville City. Starting their third season, the Rangers bring in their third coach, Paulo Nagamura. With additions like Tyler Blackwood, Hadji Barry, and Rodrigo Saravia, the Rangers look like contenders to maintain their strong form.
Reno 1868 FC may have lost Dane Kelly, but they kept a number of important pieces from 2017 including Antoine Hoppenot, Jordan Murrell, and Brent Richards.
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC v. LA Galaxy II (8 p.m. ET)
There is nowhere to go but up for LA Galaxy II after finishing 13th in the West. After adding midfielder Julian Büscher, Los Dos hope the experienced midfielder will course-correct a team that struggled for large stretches.
The Switchbacks added experienced pieces to the backline to strengthen a defense that conceded 51 goals in 2017, good for 7th worst in the league. Goalkeeper Steward Ceus and defender Jamal Jack should help stabilize an inconsistent group.
OKC Energy FC v. Tulsa Roughnecks FC (8 p.m. ET)
Coming out of the gates with a bang, the first Black and Gold derby of the year will set things off in Oklahoma. OKC Energy reached the West final in 2017, but it took months to reach a consistent level of play. New head coach Steve Cooke will lean on last year’s leading goalscorer for the Energy, Jose Angulo, and playmakers Jose Barril and Miguel Gonzalez to keep them flowing.
Despite an otherwise disappointing season, the Tulsa Roughnecks owned the season series over their in-state rival, and will want to find more of the same Saturday.
Fresno FC v. Las Vegas Lights FC (10 p.m. ET)
The Lights have drawn a ton of attention to themselves in the buildup to their maiden voyage in USL. From head coach Chelis, to former U.S. Men’s National Team castoff Freddy Adu, the Lights are certainly buzzing with attention.
The Foxes on the other hand have been quietly put together a strong offseason bringing in the likes of Juan Pablo Caffa and Danny Barrera as proven USL players.
Orange County SC v. Phoenix Rising FC (10 p.m. ET)
Phoenix Rising were last year’s biggest story in the West, thanks to Didier Drogba and a host of other aging veterans that tried to bring star power to the desert. Ironically, it was Rising’s youth that started to put the debutantes on track in 2017. Head Coach Patrice Carteron acquired some strong players, bringing in Billy Forbes, Joe Farrell, and James Musa.
Orange County SC added internationals Thomas Enevoldsen and Michael Seaton, improving a squad that failed to make the playoffs last season.
Sacramento Republic FC v. San Antonio FC (10:30 p.m.)
Despite making the playoffs in 2017, Sacramento Republic want more in the new year. Simon Elliott takes over a revamped lineup that has performed very well throughout preseason. Forward Christian Eissele is a player to keep an eye on after impressive performances during the preseason
San Antonio FC missed out on the top spot in the West by five points, and fell out of the playoffs in penalties to OKC. Adding Mikey Lopez and Ryan Felix will look to offset key losses from the 2017 team.
Sunday, March 18th
Bethlehem Steel FC v. Richmond Kickers (2 p.m. ET)
Bethlehem Steel added a proven USL goal scorer in Brandon Allen during the offseason to improve the squad.
The Richmond Kickers are poised to climb the table from the cellar to challenge for a playoff spot after adding Heviel Cordoves, Giussi Gentile, and Brian Shriver. The Kickers struggled to score goals in 2017, and with a new corps of attackers, they might make things more difficult for opposing defenses.