USL Pro Season Primer

With the schedule finally being released, the USL Pro season is fast approaching first kick. While player announcements will continue to roll out as we get closer to the season, especially with all the tryouts currently taking place, supporters can now start planning their summer trips.

Pre-season training started for multiple teams on Monday, and all the teams should be going through the rigors of fitness tests by the end of the week.

First off, let’s take a look at some of the games people need to start circling. I’m going to try and avoid home openers and true derby matches as much as possible. Here are the top five games everyone needs to check out:

Saturday, March 21: Toronto FC II at Charleston Battery

So I’m cheating right off the bat, but it’s First Kick so cut me some slack. Toronto FC II will make their debut during the first game of the 336-game regular season. Charleston will have their first game since falling in extra time to Richmond in the quarterfinals of the USL Pro playoffs and will be looking to get that taste out of their mouths. Two good storylines for the first game of the season.

Saturday, May 2: Charleston Battery at Richmond Kickers

In this match we have the four and five seeds from last year’s playoffs in their first game since that meeting. Richmond will be returning Matthew Delicáte, their leading-goalscorer, who knocked the Battery out of the playoffs with a 117′ goal. Never mind the fact tha,t in a year that saw unprecedented growth, this match features two of the most decorated of the old guard.

Sunday, May 17: Sacramento Republic at LA Galaxy II

This isn’t the first matchup between the top two returning sides from what is now the Western Conference, but it is the first in Carson. Sacramento went 3-1-1 (including playoffs) in this series last season, but went 1-0-1 in Carson that included a 3-0 drubbing on April 13. Will the Republic have a repeat performance, or will it be a more tightly contested match like the ones at Bonney Field?

Friday, July 31: Arizona United at OKC Energy

For the unitiated, this seems like an odd choice, but if you’ve seen these two teams play each other it’s a different story entirely. The game they played on July 17 on the rain soaked campus of Bishop McGuiness High School is how rivalries are born. A lengthy argument and a lot of hard fouls, never mind the postgame dust up, are what the beginnings of rivalries look like and that’s what this game featured. It’s a shame that the league makes us wait until the second half of the season to see these two teams go at it again.

Sunday, September 20: Austin Aztex at Vancouver Whitecaps 2

The final regular season matchup is between two expansion sides in the West. With seven of the twelve teams out in the Western Conference taking the field for the first time in 2015 it’s anyone’s guess about who will qualify at for those last few playoff spots. With every other team knowing where they sit after September 19, Austin and Vancouver could potentially have a USA-Germany World Cup 2014 scenario on their hands or it could be a true play-in game for the end of season tournament.

Three Things I Like

As with most schedule release, you can find things that you like more than others. Here are a few things I like about this schedule:

– The number of derby matches to open the season is fantastic. Especially for new clubs with the need to build up a supporter base, what better way to do that than with a rivalry match against a local side? It takes all the early season nerves and notches them up a level which should make the on-field product just a little bit more intriguing.

– Back-to-back games were reduced significantly this season. That’s mainly a byproduct of the conference format which will reduce travel requirements for all the teams this season. This move should help address player health concerns given that fitness is down on the second game of a back-to-back. That can only improve the quality of play.

– Conference play is back and should actually be functional. I know there are those purist among us that will be sad to see the traditional table format removed from the league, but with the budgets these teams are operating on, a conference format is best for the health of the league. It should also help to develop non-traditional rivalries which helps create better subplots for supporters.

Three Things I Hate

Let’s be honest, when are we ever truly satisfied with the way things are? I do have a few complaints with the schedule:

– The only issue with conference play is that it hinders cross-conference rivalries. With how the league is currently formatted, it’s next to impossible to develop a rivalry akin to that of the Celtics-Lakers. The only way Sacramento and Harrisburg have a rematch of last season’s USL Pro Championship is if they make it to the 2015 edition.

– I realize it’s one of my games to watch, but I don’t like that Vancouver and Austin are the only game on the final day of the season. Either have all the teams in the league play on the final day so that there isn’t a competitive advantage gained by playing a later game, or have one conference end on Saturday and the other finish on Sunday. This would increase the drama further since teams would be left in the dark about what other playoff contenders are experiencing.

– One thing fans always want is the schedule, and there were a couple of issues with this year’s roll out. The league built a lot of momentum with the announcement of the conference format two weeks ago, but then failed to meet their time table to release the schedule by the end of January. Obviously I’m not privy to all that occurred during scheduling, but the rough drafts should have been sent to the front offices and due back sooner than the final week of January if you expected to release the schedules by January 31. While they did everyone a solid by releasing home openers on the January 31, it was a fairly low benchmark to meet.

With all that in mind, there’s really only one last takeaway from all this. The season is less than two months away, everyone best be getting their travel plans locked in now!

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