We’re fast approaching the beginning of the 2015 USL season with First Kick less than two weeks away. Plenty has changed since Sacramento raised the USL Championship Trophy back in late September. Rosters have been overhauled, new teams have been brought into the fold; the entire makeup of the league has changed in the past half year. Let’s look at some of the burning on-field questions entering the 2015 season.
(Note: All statistics were provided by the newly revamped stats page on the USL website. It didn’t provide much on defensive stats because the system the league uses, Stat Crew, doesn’t currently track tackles, etc.)
Who wins it all?
The obvious answer here is Sacramento. The 2014 champions return 50 percent of their roster from last year, including leading goal scorer Thomas Stewart. Sacramento’s No. 10 totaled 11 goals in USL competition and another two in US Open Cup play. Also returning for the Republic is Rodrigo Lopez who had 28 points to lead the team (10 goals, eight assists) and was third in the league in the category. SRFC’s backline is as strong as ever, especially now that the team has brought in former Charlotte Eagles defender Bilal Duckett. Suffice it to say that the Republic looks set for a title defense.
From the Eastern Conference, the Richmond Kickers are a consistent power who just missed out on making the USL Championship last season and are the top returning team in the east. Leading the charge will be Matthew Delicáte, Richmond’s all-time leading goal scorer. He bagged 14 goals and averaged a goal in every other game last year. George Davis IV will be back to orchestrate the attack from midfield. Scoring 11 goals in his own right, Davis also chipped in with five assists. Finally, Ryan Taylor was brought back to man the goal for the Kickers, but he is the sole keeper on the roster at this time.
Others that could contend this year are the Arizona United and LA Galaxy II, though there could be some surprises given the massive influx of teams in the offseason. United has been quietly building a contender this season, bringing Long Tan back and welcoming Robbie Derschang into the fold from Harrisburg. They finished just outside the playoffs last year and are trending in the right direction.
Galaxy II is much like their MLS counterpart in the fact that they have a large pool of resources. With their parent club producing a bevy of young talent, they should be competitive yet again.
The other half of the 2014 USL Championship, the Harrisburg City Islanders, will be hard-pressed to recreate the magic of their run to the final this year. It was announced that, along with Derschang, Morgan Langley will be leaving Harrisburg for a different team before the beginning of the new season. The Islanders’ three leading goal scorer only tallied six goals apiece, and Langley was their team leader in points with 17 (6 goals, 5 assists). Sure, Nick Noble returns between the posts, but as the United States Men’s National Team proved this summer, exceptional goalkeeping will only get you so far.
Who wins the Golden Boot?
Kevin Molino is gone this year after leaving with Orlando for the club’s first season of MLS competition. The Lions had a monopoly on this award the last two seasons, with Dom Dwyer taking a share of the spoils in 2013 before Molino set a USL record with 20 goals in a season in the last term.
Delicáte looks poised to claim the title for himself this season. Last year he finished second, one goal ahead of Chandler Hoffman of LA2. The No. 7 for the Kickers boasted a phenomenal 42.4 shooting percentage in 2014 and will look to use his partnership with George Davis IV to unlock opposing defenses for another season. He will also benefit from the fact that Hoffman has since been shipped to the Houston Dynamo.
Another challenger for the Golden Boot is Stewart with SRFC. His 11 goals tied for the fifth-best mark last season with Richmond’s Davis. However, Stewart will have a bit of a hill to climb coming off minor foot surgery and should miss the first couple weeks of the new season.
There are a couple others who should look to be in the mix. The Kickers’ Davis, as stated in the first section, was a double figure scorer in his own right. Jorge Herrera, formerly of the Charlotte Eagles and now with the Charlotte Independence, bagged 10 goals last season. Finally, Dane Kelly found the back of the net 10 times for the Charleston Battery in 2014.
Which expansion team will have the most success?
This one’s tricky. Last year, the benchmark was pretty easy since there were four new teams and 14 total. With those numbers, the simple metric for success was which expansion sides made the playoffs. The obvious answer to this question last year was, again, Sacramento. It’s pretty easy to claim you were the most successful expansion team when you claim the end-of-season trophy.
This year, however, sees the addition of 13 new teams. Making the playoffs can no longer be used as the sole metric for determining expansion success because almost 60 percent of the new Western Conference, and a little over 40 percent of the Eastern Conference, are comprised of first-year clubs. The teams with “II” at the end of their name, as well as Real Monarchs, have a leg up on the competition just like LAII did last year because they have all of their parent clubs’ reserves.
Based on these facts, I’m going with either the Austin Aztex or Louisville City to be the most successful clubs. The Aztex are recruiting some young exciting players like United States U-20 internationals Mikey Ambrose and Alfred Koroma Shans for their debut campaign while also adding veterans such as the absolutely lethal Sainey Touray. Finally, ATX brings back Paul Dalglish who spent one season with Real Salt Lake as an assistant coach and who enjoyed great success with the Austin in the Premier Development League.
LCFC will, in theory, be stocked with a plethora of young talent as well courtesy of their affiliation with Orlando City. OCSC got some gems in the later rounds of the MLS SuperDraft earlier this year, and it’s a sure bet that those players will feature in the Fall City come this summer. Lou City also brought in Matt Fondy to lead the forward line. He tore up the third division a few years ago, bagging 10 goals in 10 games for the Orange County Blues.
Which new rivalry will take center stage?
With the USL’s new focus on regional rivals, which ones are certain to come to the forefront? In my mind, there are three that could take prominence. Please note that I will not be paying lip service to the Cascadia teams in this section.
Top of the list for me is the King’s Cup between St. Louis and Louisville. Both teams have vocal and vibrant supporters groups in the St. Louligans and Coopers. If you haven’t been following the banter on Twitter, you’re missing out on a great time. The on-field product may take a little time to develop, but by season’s end this should be one that’s circled on everyone’s calendar to watch.
Next on the list is the Turnpike Derby between the Oklahoma City Energy and Tulsa Roughnecks. If you’ve spent any time in the Sooner State at all, you know that the western half of the state (OKC) and the eastern half (Tulsa) don’t really see eye-to-eye on anything. This rivalry starts young, sometimes earlier than high school. While there aren’t a ton of local players on the squads yet, the Grid and the Roustabouts will be sure to communicate their disdain and it should get chippy on the field, regardless of the fact that the Greens only averaged 9.39 fouls per game last season.
Finally, there’s the Southern Derby. Technically this is not a new one, as Charleston, Wilmington and Charlotte have competed in the Derby the last four years running. However, Charlotte has a new team in the Independence. Personally, I find this to be one of the least heralded rivalries in American soccer since it’s been continually going since 2000. That’s no mean feat given the fact that the James River Cup, the other old USL derby between Richmond and the Virginia Beach Mariners (formerly Hampton Roads Mariners), disbanded in 2008. It’s nice to revitalize such a classic contest.
The 91st Minute
– There have been 109 total (incoming and outgoing) reported transfers in the USL this offseason at the time of writing. Rosters change on the fly constantly, it’s the nature of the beast in the third division. Be on the lookout for more signings leading up to opening day, especially with Harrisburg yet to announce a single signing.
– Speculation should begin about the next round of expansion given that the USL’s stated goal is to have 40 teams. A good bet for a team would be Las Vegas after it was officially announced by MLS Commissioner Don Garber that Sin City has officially been ruled out as an expansion site. Additionally, the USL lacks any footprint in the Midwest north of St. Louis after the Dayton Dutch Lions self-relegated to PDL due to finances. The Detroit area has shown a passion for the sport, and could be a potential target should MLS not come calling.
– Tim Holt stepped down on Monday, March 2 as President of the USL and Jake Edwards has assumed the title. Holt gave 16 years of his time and effort to create was is now a vibrant league. His work should never be taken for granted.
Edwards was the leader throughout much of the USL’s recent rebrand and has developed their new strategic growth initiative. Last year he served as the Executive Vice President.
The first game of the season will kick off on Saturday, March 21 at 7:30 pm (ET) between the Charleston Battery and Toronto FC II. The Battery is one of the oldest-tenured teams in the league, while TFCII is embarking on their maiden voyage in the USL.
(image courtesy of richmondkickers.com)