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The 2020 USL Championship Resumes

Primer on the league’s return

MIAMI  (July 11, 2020) Updated July 13 The USL Championship resumes its 2020 season today with a modified format. The leagues’s 35 clubs, comprised of 18 teams from the Western Conference and 17 from the Eastern Conference, have been divided into regional groups, with teams playing a total of sixteen regular season games in teams’ home markets. Some of those markets will allow a percentage of fans to attend, subject to local and state safety protocols in a particular city. With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the United States worse than any other country on Earth, it’s a sensible approach that allows some degree of flexibility depending on local circumstances.

Quite often, domestic coverage of the world’s game in the United States begins and ends with Major League Soccer. While MLS has had success in elevating the game in North America, there is much more to the game on this continent than just MLS. Today, we’re taking a look at the USL Championship, the largest professional soccer league in the United States. Officially, the USL Championship is classified as the second-tier of the US Soccer Pyramid. However, in a system without promotion and relegation, that designation has little meaning.

The action will get underway with six games on Saturday, as defending USL Championship title-holder Real Monarchs SLC plays host to first-year side San Diego Loyal SC and Head Coach Landon Donovan at Zions Bank Stadium on ESPN Deportes at 4 p.m. ET. Later in the night, 2019 Championship Regular Season Title-winner Phoenix Rising FC will welcome the LA Galaxy II to Casino Arizona Field on ESPN Deportes at 10 p.m. ET.

Saturday’s action sees USL Championship title-holder Real Monarchs SLC at home versus San Diego Loyal SC and Head Coach Landon Donovan at Zions Bank Stadium on ESPN Deportes at 4 p.m. ET. In other games, 2019 Championship Regular Season Title-winner Phoenix Rising FC welcome the LA Galaxy II to Casino Arizona Field on ESPN Deportes at 10 p.m. ET. Saturday games also include a showdown between Indy Eleven and Saint Louis FC at Lucas Oil Stadium, where both teams will be looking to pick up where they left off; both registered convincing wins in their first games back in March. Also in the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Rowdies will host Atlanta United 2 in downtown Saint Petersburg’s Al Lang Stadium, while in the West, Colorado Springs Switchbacks host New Mexico United at Weidner Field and a Texas shoot out between El Paso Locomotive and Rio Grande Valley at Southwest University Park.

Sunday’s big match sees Louisville City FC host the Pittsburgh Riverhounds live on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes. (More on this below.)

Monday night sees more regional rivalries when OKC Energy FC and FC Tulsa meet up at Taft Stadium in a game that will air live on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. ET. Also, Sacramento Republic play the Tacoma Defiance on ESPN Deportes, with the kickoff at Papa Murphy’s Park slated for 10 p.m. ET.

The 2020 season was set to be the league’s most successful to date, including a couple of newcomers to the league; San Diego Loyal and the Miami FC. The season began in early March, but before most teams had played more than a single game, COVID-19 forced the Championship, like practically every sporting competition in the world, to suspend play. Traditional seasons were scrapped and alternative formats created. While the USL looked into staging a tournament like MLS and the NWSL are doing, they instead opted for a shortened season, with the benefit being that teams had already secured their home playing locations for the season, alleviating the league from having to find a hub site and the complications of housing its 35 teams in a single location.

Return-to-play protocols began to be developed in May through discussions with the USLPA. The easier talking points dealing with player safety were soon agreed to, leaving the more contentious issue of a drastic player salary cut, a rift which took over a month to fully resolve. After a series of counter-proposals, the league and players agreed to terms that left players’ wages intact. 

The safety protocols are a thorough compilation comprised of two documents. (A detailed report on the terms is available here as reported in The Athletic.) The main topics were lodging for away teams, travel, matchday procedures and safely hosting fans.

Among the bigger news stories is the opening of Louisville City‘s brand new home, Lynn Family Stadium. The soccer team’s 2020 home opener at its brand new open-air arena airs nationally on on Sunday at 5:00 pm ET on ESPN2, and is being described as a “benchmark moment in Louisville sports history.” According to Louisville City FC, the stadium can hold 15,304 people under normal circumstances. The team will share its new home with Racing Louisville FC, the city’s new National Women’s Soccer League franchise that begins play in 2021. On Sunday, the stadium will operate on a 50 % capacity (of 11,400 seats) basis in order to allow for proper safety protocols.

Louisville City FC to open new stadium at 50 percent capacity
Lynn Family Stadium, Louisville (Source: WAVE 3 News)

Another news’ worthy story comes from the Charleston Battery, the oldest continuously-run professional soccer club in the U.S., dating to 1993. The team has unveiled a redone badge, a new owner and has changed venues for home matches in a joint venture with the College of Charleston. They’ll now be playing home matches at the Patriots Point Soccer Complex in Mount Pleasant, which has a capacity of 3,900. The Battery also brought club legend John Wilson back as part of the coaching staff this season.

former
new

“The Battery are an indelible part of the Charleston community,” says Rob Salvatore, who will lead the club’s new ownership. “As one of the most historic professional soccer organisations in the United States, this club has brought people throughout the Lowcountry together for decades. As ownership and custodians of the club, we will honour and respect that history while bringing new energy, experience and resources to grow the club’s connection to the community both on and off the field.” Further depending the club’s ties to the community would be a nice complement to the Battery on-field success — regardless of the league they’ve been in, they have made the playoffs for twelve straight seasons.

See the source image
Patriots Point Soccer Complex (Photo: Charleston Battery)

On the topic of branding, the Tulsa Roughnecks, a name which goes back to the original NASL days, have adopted a new look and brand, a Southern revival called FC Tulsa, complete with a new crest to boot.

Second year clubs and departed clubs

Eight clubs begin their second season as members of the Championship:
Austin Bold FC; Birmingham Legion FC; El Paso Locomotive FC; Hartford Athletic; Loudoun United FC; Memphis 901 FC; New Mexico United, and Tacoma Defiance.

This year’s USL Championship will see two teams not returning: Nashville, who moved to MLS, and the Ottawa Fury, whose license to play in a US-based league was denied by Concacaf. The Miami FC seized the opportunity to take the place of Ottawa in a negotiated commercial transaction, and gives the Championship an outpost in the heart of a prime market for soccer.

MLS owned clubs

A number of the USL Championships’ teams are owned by MLS teams. While it would be plausible to think that this gives them an advantage over independently operated USL clubs, results proove otherwise. The most successful of the MLS owned Championship clubs is without a doubt the Real Monarchs. They’ve finished in the top four positions in the Western Conference’s each of the last three seasons, deploying a successful mélange of established veterans and younger, fringe-MLS first team players. For the most part, the MLS-owned teams tend to be very young. On the business side, they also have among the lowest average attendance.

In 2019, Real Monarchs SLC and the Los Angeles Galaxy II (commonly known as “Los Dos) were the only MLS-owned teams to make the playoffs. Reno 1868, last year’s runners up in the West, are technically an independent club that has an affiliation with the San Jose Earthquakes. In the future, there is a strong possibility that MLS-owned clubs will not be allowed to compete in the USL Championship and will need to shift to USL League One, where Toronto FC 2, the New England Revolution II and Fort Lauderdale Club de Fútbol (Inter Miami) have their teams.

How the groups are divided
Group AGroup BGroup CGroup D
Tacoma DefiancePhoenix RisingReal Monarchs (Herriman)OKC Energy
Portland Timbers 2
(Hillsboro, OR)
Orange County (Irvine)New Mexico UnitedFC Tulsa
Reno 1868San Diego LoyalColorado SpringsAustin Bold
(Del Valle, TX)
Sacramento RepublicLA Galaxy II (Carson)El Paso LocomotiveRio Grande Valley FC (Edinburg, TX)
Las Vegas LightsSan Antonio FC
Trips over 500 miles: 
Reno – Tacoma
Sacramento – Tacoma
Portland – Reno
Portland – Sacramento
Trips over 500 miles: NoneTrips over 500 miles: 
Real Monarchs – Colorado Springs
Real Monarchs – New Mexico
Real Monarchs – El Paso
Colorado Springs – El Paso
Trips over 500 miles: 
OKC – RGV
Tulsa – RGV
Tulsa – San Antonio
Group EGroup FGroup GGroup H
Louisville CityHartford AthleticBirmingham LegionMiami FC
Indy ElevenPittsburgh Riverhounds


Memphis 901Tampa Bay Rowdies
Saint Louis FC
(Fenton, MO)
Loudoun United
(Leesburg, VA)
Charlotte Independence
Charleston Battery

SKC II (Kansas City, KS)Philadelphia Union II (Chester, PA)North Carolina FC
(Cary, NC)
Atlanta United II
(Kennesaw, GA)
Red Bulls II
(Harrison, New Jersey)
Trips over 500 miles: 
Kansas City – Louisville
Trips over 500 miles: NoneTrips over 500 miles:
Memphis – Charlotte
Memphis – North Carolina, Birmingham – North Carolina
Trips over 500 miles: 
Atlanta -Miami, Charleston – Miami

Note: Per the USL protocols, trips over 500 miles will be by air travel, while under will be by motorcoach.

Schedule

The key takeaway is that teams will play 12 total games within their group, as well as four games against other teams within similar geographical proximity. Some teams had already played in March, and those games will count toward the sixteen-game total. Three teams actually had not played yet before the season was placed on hold: Hartford, Pittsburgh and Birmingham, while Tacoma and San Diego have already played two games.

Related: Miami FC schedule

In another twist, some flexibility has been approved to try to push games to markets that can host fans. The Board of Governors approved the ability for clubs to play an unbalanced amount of home and away matches, which could see some teams who can host fans negotiate hosting terms from teams in closed-door markets.

The top two teams in each group will compete in the postseason. Brackets will see the top seed from Group A hosting the runners-up from Group B, and so forth on a conference basis: Groups A-B, C-D and Groups E-F, G-H. The plan is for these games to be hosted by the higher seed.

Overview of Each Group

The top team during the regular season last year was Phoenix Rising, co-owned by former Côte d’Ivoire international, Chelsea and Montréal Impact star Didier Drogba. In fact, Phoenix had one of the best regular seasons in American soccer history. They set a USL Championship record (which goes back to the prior names for the division) by finishing with 78 points, 18 points ahead of the next best Western Conference team. Moreover, they set a national record for most consecutive regular season wins with 20 straight victories spanning from May to September. They look to be the most complete team and favourites from the Western side of the league, and should be the top finishers in Group B, even with the loss of Amadou Dia to Sporting Kansas City and Adam Jahn to Atlanta United.

Some of the players to watch in the league this season have been added as well. While by no means an all-inclusive list, I will update this section so that a few players from each of the clubs are included.

Group A – Tacoma, Reno, Sacramento, Portland Timbers II

Reno 1868 FC and Sacramento Republic FC  are part of Group A (Photo: David Calvert / Reno 1868 FC)
Players to watch:

Reno 1868: Haitian international Christiano François.

Sacramento: Defender Shannon Gomez; Cameron Iwasa.

Tacoma: Collin Fernández, Centre-back Taylor Mueller.

Group B – Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles Galaxy II

Phoenix Rising FC and Orange County SC renew their battles in Group B | (Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC)
Players to watch:

Phoenix Rising: Striker Solomon Asante (2019 League MVP); forwards Junior Flemmings and Azerbaijan international Rufat Dadashov (from SC Preußen Münster); midfielder Jordan Schweitzer; defender Corey Whelan; new signing Santi Moar (from New Mexico United).

San Diego: Irvin Parra; central defender Joe Greenspan.

Las Vegas: Striker and Liberia international Seku Conneh; defender Ramón Del Campo.

Los Angeles Galaxy II: Midfielder Jorge Hernández; forward Augustine Williams.

Group C – New Mexico, El Paso, Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City

Monarchs SLC and El Paso Locomotive will battle in Group C (Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC)
Players to watch:

New Mexico: Forward Amando Moreno (acquired from Red Bulls II);  striker Romeo Parkes (acquired from Pittsburgh).

Group D – Austin Bold, San Antonio, Rio Grande Valley, Oklahoma City, Tulsa

Austin Bold FC and San Antonio FC are contenders in Group D. (Photo: Austin Bold FC)
Players to watch:

Austin Bold: Brazilian Andre Lima; Jamaican defender Jermaine Taylor, goalkeeper Diego Restrepo, defensive midfielder Amobi Okugo and striker Kris Tyrpak; wingers Billy Forbes, Ish Jome; Gustavo Rissi (on loan from Cruzeiro).

San Antonio: Cristián Parano (2019 USL Young Player of the year); Luis Solignac, Blake Smith; homegrown players Leo Torres and Jose Gallegos, Uruguayan defensive midfielder Santiago Viera and Dayne St Clair (loan from Minnesota United).

Oklahoma City: Striker Jaime Chávez, St. Kitts & Nevis international defender Atiba Harris; Cuban forward Frank López; midfielder Rafael García.

FC Tulsa: Midfielder Lebo Moloto; Bradley Bourgeois.

Rio Grande Valley: Luka Prpa.

Group E – Louisville city, Indianapolis, Saint Louis, Sporting KC II

Louisville City and Indianapolis is a regional rivalry in Group E. | (Photo: Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC)
Players to watch:

Louisville City: Cameron Lancaster (on loan from Nashville); centre-back Jimmy Ockford.

Indy Eleven: Canadian striker Tyler Pasher; Andrew Carleton (on a season-long loan from Atlanta United); midfielder Drew Connor; forward Ropapa Mensah.

Saint Louis: Centre-back Sam Fink.

Group F – Hartford, Pittsburgh, Loudoun Utd., Phila.Union II, Red Bulls II

Hartford Athletic and Pittsburgh are competing in Group F. (Photo: Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC)
Players to watch:

Hartford Athletic: Midfielder Tyreke Johnson; striker Éver Guzmán.

Pittsburgh: Forward Ropapa Mensah; midfielders Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Kenardo Forbes.

Group G – Birmingham, Memphis, Charlotte, North Carolina

Birmingham Legion FC and Memphis 901 FC will renew a long-standing soccer rivalry between the cities in Group G (Photo: USL Championship)
Players to watch:

Birmingham: Neco Brett; defensive midfielder Bolu Akinyode, former Columbus Crew centre-back Alex Crognale and academy signing Jaden Servania; goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel; midfielder Daigo Kobayashi; Ghanaian forward Prosper Kasim; Bruno Lapa.

North Carolina: Goalkeeper Alex Tambakis; A midfield corps of Nazmi Albadawi, Pecka, Ben Speas and Steven Miller; Dre Fortune, striker Robert Kristo and newcomer Hadji Barry.

Charlotte: USL’s all-time leading scorer Dane Kelly; 23-year-old striker Guido Vadalá signed from Boca Juniors on a free transfer.

Group H – Miami FC, Tampa Bay, Charleston, Atlanta Utd. II

Group H includes the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Charleston Battery, along with newcomers the Miami FC. (Photo: USL Championship)
Players to watch:

Tampa Bay Rowdies: Three-time USL Best XI centre-back Forrest Lasso, dead-ball specialist midfielder Lewis Hilton and goalkeeper Evan Louro.

Miami FC: Defenders Hassan Ndam and Lawrence Olum; midfielders Vincent Bezecourt and Sebastian Velásquez; forwards Lloyd Sam and Romario Williams.

Outlook

Last season was the first time in five years that a team from the Western Conference won the league championship, as Real Monarch SLC won the championship game over Louisville City, preventing Lou’ville from a three-peat. Certainly both of these teams will be contenders again, along with Phoenix Rising. Miamai FC is a wildcard, though they bring a history of winning and quality players.


Further Information:

The Athletic previewed both the Eastern and Western conferences back in March, an excellent source providing a summary of key roster moves at each team. Links: Eastern Conference Preview | Western Conference Preview

By Ken Russo

My work in the business of soccer applies skills acquired in law practice with a focus on the sport's commercial, communications and sporting components. Russo Soccer aims to inform, educate and engage in dialogue on news and relevant issues in the game.

Um advogado por formação, concentro meu trabalho nos negócios, comunicações e operações de equipes no futebol mundial. | Abogado con fundación avanzada en comunicaciones, enfocado en los negocios del fútbol y las comunicaciones. | Je suis un avocat experimenté dans les affaires de football.

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