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USL Season Preview – Eastern Conference, Part 1

By Staff, 03/13/18, 4:36PM EDT


New arrivals highlight the clubs looking to break into the playoff picture

The 2018 USL regular season kicks off this Friday with 33 teams taking aim at first reaching the USL Cup Playoffs, and then potentially the USL Cup in mid-November. Continuing our preview of the season to come, we moved to the Eastern Conference for a look at some of the league’s newcomers, and those who’ll be looking to get back into the playoff picture this season. 


Home Venue: Lucas Oil Stadium
2017 Season: N/A
Head Coach: Martin Rennie, 1st season

Indy Eleven enters its first season in the USL with a new Head Coach in Martin Rennie, who’s aim will be to return the club to the title contender it was two seasons ago after a middling 2017 season. With extensive experience in the lower divisions and Major League Soccer, Rennie returns to the coaching ranks after most recently working in South Korea.

The club’s personnel has also undergone an overhaul, with only three members of last year’s squad returning for the new season. Those include forward Justin Braun, who helped Sacramento Republic FC claim the USL Cup in 2014 season, and the veteran forward will be joined in attack by some other notable names. Former Philadelphia Union Homegrown player Jack McInerney, who most recently played for the LA Galaxy, was one of Indy’s high-profile offseason additions alongside former Sporting Kansas City forward Soony Saad.

Improving the side defensively is likely going to be the key to success this season, however, with the club having conceded 56 goals in 32 games last year. The experience of Reiner Ferreira, Kevin Venegas and Ayoye Garcia Perez should provide a solid boost in that department, and the side will have plenty of options in midfield to build around with the Canadian duo of Tyler Pasher – a two-time USL Western Conference champion with the Swope Park Rangers – and Karl Ouimette among a solid veteran group.


Home Venue: First Tennessee Park
2017 Season: N/A
Head Coach: Gary Smith, 1st Year

Entering its first professional season, Nashville SC has been built in the same vein as others that immediately catapulted themselves into playoff contention from the off, with a good mix of veterans and youngsters that appear to have come together well under Head Coach Gary Smith. As such, Nashville could quickly put itself in the same category as last year’s major expansion success, Reno 1868 FC.

The foundation defensively has experience, with goalkeeper Matt Pickens and defenders Justin Davis, London Woodberry and Kosuke Kimura bringing experience from both Major League Soccer and the lower divisions to the table, but there are also some other useful pieces here including Taylor Washington, who recorded 96 interceptions and 91 clearances as well as 13 key passes for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC a season ago.

There are also some exciting attacking options that have already shone in the USL previously, led by former Riverhounds SC and Swope Park Rangers forward Lebo Moloto. The speed of Ropapa Mensah – who performed well on loan with Penn FC a season ago – and former Orlando City B forward Michael Cox will also be useful for Smith, and the preseason performance of former PDL Top Prospect Alan Winn could have the former Tobacco Road FC standout in contention for immediate minutes ahead of the veterans around him.


Home Venue: Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park
2017 Season: N/A
Head Coach: Colin Clarke, 7th season

North Carolina FC enters its first season in the USL with a familiar face at the helm in Head Coach Colin Clarke and a solid core of returning players, but also a good contingent of new faces that will aim to keep the side’s high standards intact as NCFC looks to build on its first postseason berth in four seasons last year.

Leading the way once again will be midfielder Austin da Luz, who has become a figurehead for the club over his two stints in Cary, N.C., that surrounded his one year with Orlando City SC in 2014. With more than 100 appearances under his belt for NCFC, da Luz brings a solid presence to the center of midfield, where he’s joined by fellow returnee Steven Miller and veteran defender Connor Tobin.

The new additions will be called upon to add attacking bite to the squad, with maybe the most intriguing addition that of Chivas de Guadalajara youngster Daniel Rios. A former Mexico youth international, Rios has had successful spells in Ascenso MX from one of the biggest clubs in Mexico and will be one to keep an eye on as he joins NCFC. Another battle to watch will be that for starting goalkeeper, with former Charleston Battery loanee Alex Tambakis set to square off with Austin Guerrero, who also brings experience from Ascenso MX, for the No. 1 spot.


Home Venue: TD Place
2017 Season: 8-10-14, 38pts, 10th in Eastern Conference
Head Coach: Nikola Popovic, 1st season

Ottawa Fury FC’s first season in the USL wasn’t without its highlights, but the side lacked the consistency needed to seriously contend for a place in the USL Cup Playoffs as it finished six points off the pace while winning only one of its last 12 games in the regular season.

The midseason departure of Head Coach Paul Dalglish necessitated a change this offseason, and one of the first moves made by promoted General Manager Julian de Guzman was to hire former Swope Park Rangers Head Coach Nikola Popovic to lead Fury FC in 2018. After leading the Rangers to a second successive Western Conference Championship, Popovic will be looking to jump Ottawa into the playoff conversation with an attacking style that saw SPR record 55 goals in the regular season – tied for third-most in the Western Conference a year ago.

The pieces are in place for that kind of productivity, with leading scorer Steevan Dos Santos looking to build on a third consecutive productive year in the league that saw him record 10 goals. Ottawa has made some big additions at either end of the field, too, with goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau arriving on loan from the Montreal Impact, defender Colin Falvey returning to the club for a second stint, and playmaker Kevin Oliveira joining Popovic in making the move from Swope Park. Those types of moves, which have also seen Canadian internationals Nana Attakora and Maxim Tissot join the club, have greatly raised expectations for the new season.


Home Venue: Coolray Field
2017 Season: N/A
Head Coach: Scott Donnelly, 1st season

After the resounding success of Atlanta United in its inaugural season in Major League Soccer, ATL UTD 2 arrives as an expansion club that will have many of the club’s ardent fans paying close attention to the young crop of talent that is already emerging from its Academy system. At the forefront are three members of the U.S. U17 Men’s National Team that competed at last year’s FIFA U17 World Cup, with two of those in Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin having previously played on loan in the USL with the Charleston Battery.

Carleton, Goslin and goalkeeper Justin Garces will be joined by some veteran faces from the USL, including former Saint Louis FC defender AJ Cochran and Guam international Shawn Nicklaw, both of whom figure to feature prominently in providing a base for the club’s talented youngers to work around.

The biggest question for Head Coach Scott Donnelly is whether he’ll be able to create a cohesive unit in the mold of the New York Red Bulls II or Swope Park Rangers, or whether the club’s inexperience will ultimately leave it off the pace for a playoff place. It’s certainly going to be an interesting introduction to the league for all.


Home Venue: FNB Field
2017 Season: 10-15-7, 37pts, 11th place in Eastern Conference
Head Coach: Raoul Voss, 1st season

Over the course of one offseason everything changed for the newly-named Penn FC, which will enter the new season with a new name and crest, a new partnership with internationally-renowned youth organization Rush Soccer, and the second Head Coach in the club’s 15-season history.

Former Tampa Bay Rowdies assistant Raoul Voss was tapped to step in as the club’s Head Coach as Bill Becher moved to become the leader of the club’s Technical Staff during the massive overhaul of the front office in Harrisburg. Rush Soccer’s Tim Schulz is the club’s new General Manager, with he and Voss charged with returning the club to the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time since it reached the USL Cup in 2014.

On the field, Penn has returned some important pieces from a season ago that include goalkeeper Sean Lewis and defender Tiago Calvano, but arguably the most important player for the club this season will be midfielder Dan Metzger, who arrives after three successful seasons with the New York Red Bulls II. His influence, and that of other newcomers including Calvin Rezende and Jorge Rivera, will be key to a turnaround on the field. 


Home Venue: Highmark Stadium
2017 Season: 8-12-12, 36pts, 13th place in Eastern Conference
Head Coach: Bob Lilley, 1st season

Riverhounds SC both got a new look this offseason and introduced Bob Lilley as the club’s Head Coach, with the second of those moves having heightened expectations at Highmark Stadium after the club missed the USL Cup Playoffs each of the past two seasons.

The 2015 USL Coach of the Year after leading the Rochester Rhinos to the USL Regular Season Championship and USL Cup double, Lilley is aiming to bring his blue-collar style of soccer that incorporates a strong defensive base with the ability to strike quickly to Pittsburgh. And while Kevin Kerr is the lone player returning from Riverhounds SC’s last trip to the playoffs in 2015, there is plenty of playoff experience that can help turn things in the right direction for the club this season.

Among the new arrivals is Joe Greenspan, who joins the club on a permanent basis after a successful loan stint from Minnesota United FC last season, and he could be joined in the center of defense by 2016 USL All-League selection Hugh Roberts. At the attacking end, 2012 USL Golden Boot-winner Dennis Chin returned to the United States to sign with the Hounds, and his efforts will be supplemented by those of returning forward Romeo Parkes and former Portland Timbers player Neco Brett, who has had a successful preseason building into the new season.


Home Venue: City Stadium
2017 Season: 8-16-8, 32pts, 14th place in Eastern Conference
Head Coach: Leigh Cowlishaw, 19th season

The Kickers’ run of reaching the postseason in every season of the USL’s modern era came to an end in 2017, with the side’s attacking woes putting paid to its chances at a seventh straight berth in the USL Cup Playoffs even as the side remained defensively reliable for most of the year.

With that in mind Richmond has brought in what it hopes will be the sort of firepower that will lead to a return up the standings this season. Among the club’s offseason additions are former Charleston Battery forward Heviel Cordoves and former Jacksonville Armada FC striker Brian Shriver, both of whom should provide a jolt to an attack that converted only 10 percent of its chances a season ago as the club finished with a league-fewest 24 goals in 32 regular season games.

There are some very familiar faces back with the side again defensively, though, with William Yomby, Braeden Troyer and Alex Lee back to continue their sterling careers at the club. Maybe the biggest key to a resurgence, however, will be increased productivity from the side’s midfield. If Yudai Imura can recapture his form from 2016, and players like Raul Gonzalez and Luiz Fernando can make progress in the attacking third, the Kickers could be a very different proposition from a season ago.


Home Venue: Lamport Stadium/BMO Field
2017 Season: 6-19-7, 25pts, 15th place in Eastern Conference
Head Coach: Laurent Guyot, 1st season

Toronto FC II had another tough season that saw the side end bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, with an early-season winless streak that followed its season-opening victory quickly dropping the side out of contention for the postseason despite some positive performances here and here. In particular, earning a 1-1-1 split from Ontario rival Ottawa Fury FC was a bright spot, as were home victories against Louisville City FC and Charleston Battery, the sides that finished 1-2 in the Eastern Conference standings.

With a handful of current and now-former Canadian U20 internationals in the squad, the potential has always seemed to be present for TFC II, and it will now be up to Head Coach Laurent Guyot to try and get the best from his squad after the offseason move that sent former Head Coach Jason Bent into Greg Vanney’s MLS coaching staff.

Among those who’ll try to build on positive displays a season ago will be goalkeeper Angelo Cavalluzzo, while midfielder Luca Uccello and forward Shaan Hundal will remain focal points going forward for the side. Hundal in particular could be primed for a step forward after notching seven goals a season ago, but he’ll need greater support from the likes of Ryan Telfer and greater consistency from Malik Johnson if Toronto is to put itself into the playoff race. 

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