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2019 USL Championship Season Preview – Eastern Conference, Part 1

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 03/05/19, 1:00PM EST

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We kick off our preview of all 36 teams in the league with a group including the 2018 champs


Indy Eleven and midfielder Matt Watson could be among the challengers to Louisville City FC's crown in the 2019 USL Championship campaign. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

The ninth season in the USL Championship’s history kicks off this weekend in what is set to be the league’s biggest year so far on and off the field. Over the next two days we’ll be rolling out capsules for all 36 teams that make up the league this season, giving you what you need to know going into the new campaign and some key players that will be worth following over the course of 2019.

We’re going to start in the Eastern Conference, home of the two-time defending USL Cup champion Louisville City FC, and a handful of other clubs that are going to be aiming to end their run of dominance this year.


 ATL UTD 2

Head Coach: Stephen Glass (1st season)
Home Venue: Fifth Third Bank Stadium
2018 Record: 7-17-10, 31pts
Projected 2019 Finish: 17th, Eastern Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

ATL UTD 2’s inaugural season got off to an auspicious start as it claimed victory in its first official game in the USL Championship, but the 3-1 win against the New York Red Bulls II was one of relatively few highs during the 2018 campaign that saw the side finish 14th in the Eastern Conference as the younger members of its squad learned some important lessons.

There are changes ahead of Year 2, most notably on the sideline and in the club’s home venue. Former Aberdeen and Newcastle United player Stephen Glass has taken over as Head Coach after the offseason departure of Scott Donnelly, and the side has moved to Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Ga., giving it a proper soccer-specific home. Glass’ task as he moves up from Atlanta’s Academy will be to try and build a sturdier base for the side, which conceded 74 goals in the regular season a year ago.

Glass will get help in that category from returning defenders Jack Metcalf and Tyler Ruthven, with Ruthven’s late-season arrival in 2018 providing some important experience in the middle of defense. There are also some very interesting loan arrivals including Panamanian international Guillermo Benitez and Honduras U-20 player Wesly Decas. An influx of high-level prospects to go with the talent coming from Atlanta’s own academy could help the side make a move in its second year.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

D – Tyler Ruthven
Having already featured in Major League Soccer, the USL Championship and Europe over the course of his career, Tyler Ruthven returns to ATL UTD 2 after arriving at the club midway through the 2018 campaign. The 30-year-old Georgia native is going to be relied upon to provide experience for the club’s young core and will slot into a back line that will also include experience in the form of Jack Metcalf. After a tough inaugural season defensively, Ruthven’s influence is going to be key to the club’s improvement.

GK – Dylan Castanheira
A former standout at Columbia University, Dylan Castanheira broke the Ivy League’s single-season record for goals-against average in his senior season (0.513) and was named the conference’s Defender of the Year. Castanheira was invited to the MLS Combine this past January and while he was selected by FC Dallas in the Fourth Round of the MLS SuperDraft, the 6-foot-2 goalkeeper elected to join the professional ranks with ATL UTD 2, signing a deal that will likely make him the club’s first choice between the sticks this season.


 Bethlehem Steel FC

Head Coach: Brendan Burke (4th season)
Home Venue: Talen Energy Stadium
2018 Record: 14-12-8, 50pts – Eastern Conference Semifinals
Projected 2019 Finish: 10th, Eastern Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

Bethlehem Steel FC not only advanced to the USL Cup Playoffs for a second consecutive season but added its first postseason victory to the club’s history book after an enthralling clash against Keystone State rival Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC saw the visitors emerge victorious in a penalty shootout. The 2018 campaign may have ended the same way as 2017’s – at the hands of eventual USL Cup champion Louisville City FC – but Bethlehem put together an 8-3-2 run down the final third of the season to easily book a playoff place and will draw from that as it enters its fourth season.

Unsurprisingly given his success on the field and in helping turn fresh talent upward to the Philadelphia Union, Head Coach Brendan Burke remains at the helm, and he’ll have his on-field general back as well in the form of Irish midfielder James Chambers. New arrivals include former Union Academy standout Ben Ofeimu on a professional contract, and Issa Rayyan, who joins the club as a professional after previously playing as a USL Academy signing before his freshman season at Duke University.

As with previous years, there will be roster turnover for Burke to deal with, but there also may be the chance to see more of young playmaker Brenden Aaronson on loan from the Union after a 2018 season that saw him record five assists in 18 games. Regardless of the team’s overall make-up, though, it should be expected that Bethlehem will be in the mix for the postseason again this October.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

M – James Chambers
Bethlehem Steel FC re-signed James Chambers after a successful 2018 USL campaign which saw the 31-year-old continue his role as an on-field leader for the club’s young standouts while also producing some outstanding performances individually. Chambers is the only player to remain from the club’s inaugural roster in 2016 and has made 84 appearances over the past three years. Serving as captain in the past two seasons, Chambers has scored 13 goals and recorded six assists, and is Bethlehem’s all-time leader in appearances, starts, and minutes played.

D – Ben Ofeimu
Ben Ofeimu’s signing this offseason marked the first time a player that had completed the Union Academy’s Residency Program joined the professional ranks with Steel FC. The 18-year-old has prior experience with the club as an Academy signing, having made 12 appearances and nine starts.  Throughout his time in the Union Academy, Ofeimu appeared in 63 matches, and scored three goals across four seasons. Now the 6-foot-3 center back will be looking to follow in the footsteps of current Philadelphia Union center back and former United States U-20 international Auston Trusty, who led Steel FC to its first postseason berth in the 2017 season as he established himself as one of the top young defenders in the United States.


 Birmingham Legion FC

Head Coach: Tom Soehn (1st season)
Home Venue: BBVA Compass Field
2018 Record: N/A
Projected 2019 Finish: 13th, Eastern Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

Birmingham Legion FC made a splash when it announced hometown standout Chandler Hoffman as its first signing midway through last year, and it only added to that since with the appointment of former Major League Soccer Head Coach Tom Soehn and the arrival of other notable names with USL Championship and MLS pedigree as it builds towards its first season in the league.

Joining Hoffman in the Magic City is former New York City FC and San Antonio FC midfielder Mikey Lopez and former Houston Dynamo midfielder Joe Holland, who could make an effective midfield tandem. There’s experience in goal from Matt van Oekel, while Daniel Johnson (Chicago Fire) and Femi Hollinger-Janzen (New England Revolution) join Hoffman in the club’s attacking corps.

The biggest question, as it is for all expansion clubs, is how quickly Soehn will be able to turn this squad into a cohesive unit, a challenge made tougher by the loaded field that on paper makes up the Eastern Conference this season. With strong roots in the city after its move up the ranks from its founding as the Birmingham Hammers in 2013, there’s going to be a buzz around the team in its first year as professional soccer arrives in Alabama.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

F – Chandler Hoffman
The first signing in Legion FC’s history and a native of Birmingham, Ala., Chandler Hoffman will be aiming to continue his outstanding career in the USL Championship while leading the expansion club onto the field in its inaugural season. Hoffman sits third in the Championship’s history with 59 regular-season goals, eight back of all-time leader Dane Kelly (Indy Eleven), and with another big year could put himself into contention to lead the pack by the 2020 campaign.

M – Joe Holland
Legion FC also signed 25-year-old attacking midfielder Joe Holland ahead of its inaugural season, with the English native having begun his professional career after being selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft by the Houston Dynamo. After making five appearances in his rookie season, Holland spent most of the year on loan with the USL Championship’s Rio Grande Valley FC. Last year, Holland joined Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, where he appeared 15 times and helped the Hounds to a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference and a place in the USL Cup Playoffs.


 Charleston Battery

Head Coach: Mike Anhaeuser (15th Season)
Home Venue: MUSC Health Stadium
2018 Season: 14-6-14, 56pts – Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Projected 2019 Finish: Sixth, Eastern Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

The Charleston Battery reached the USL Cup Playoffs for the eighth consecutive season in 2018, continuing their streak as the lone club to reach the postseason in every year of the league’s history, but for a second consecutive year they were eliminated at home in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals by the New York Red Bulls II. That defeat completed a disappointing end of the regular season that saw Charleston win only four times in its final 13 games to finish fourth in the East after a start that looked promising to add a second USL Cup to its trophy case.

Despite that late-season downturn, however, the Battery should be considered a solid playoff contender again this season. The side returns All-League First Team midfielder Tah Anunga – who broke out as one of the best two-way midfielders in the league – Trinidad & Tobago international forward Ataulla Guerra and stalwart center back Taylor Mueller. Goalkeeper Joe Kuzminsky also returns after taking the No. 1 spot from Odisnel Cooper a season ago.

Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser – who last year celebrated his 200th victory as the club’s leader – has also brought in former New York Red Bulls draft selection Zeiko Lewis, while players like Jay Bolt, Kotaro Higashi and Nico Rittmeyer also return to add to strong seasons in 2018. While the competition continues to get stronger, the Battery have always found a way to keep pace, and this year should be no exception.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

D – Taylor Mueller
The longest-serving member of the Battery, Mueller returns for his eighth season in Charleston approaching some major landmarks in club history. The 30-year-old has made 169 regular-season appearances in the Championship since joining the club and sits third in Battery history with 195 appearances in all competitions after overtaking club legend Paul Conway at the end of last season. Having helped lead the club to another USL Cup Playoffs berth a season ago, Mueller is showing no signs of slowing down at the heart of the Battery’s defense.

F – Ataulla Guerra
A big question for the Battery a season ago was how the club would replace Romario Williams’ attacking threat after his loan spell at the club in 2017 from Atlanta United FC. Guerra stepped up in a big way to finish ninth in the Championship with 15 goals to ensure the Battery’s attack didn’t experience a major drop in production on its way to an eighth consecutive postseason berth. The Trinidad & Tobado international returns for his fourth season in 2019 looking to add to those figures and could feature this summer for the Soca Warriors at the Concacaf Gold Cup as well.


 Charlotte Independence

Head Coach: Jim McGuinness (1st season)
Home Venue: Sportsplex at Matthews
2018 Record: 10-12-12, 42pts
Projected 2019 Finish: Seventh, Eastern Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

The departure of two-time USL Championship Most Valuable Player finalist Enzo Martinez to the Colorado Rapids last season had the unfortunate side-effect of seeing the Independence slide out of the playoff positions for the first time since 2015. Now Martinez is back, and the Independence have added new recruits that would seem set to help Charlotte regain its playoff contender status.

The most interesting offseason arrival for Charlotte, though, may be the club’s new Head Coach Jim McGuinness. The Head Coach of the 2012 All-Ireland Gaelic Football championship with Donegal, McGuinness went on to work at legendary Scottish club Celtic FC under both Neil Lennon and Brendan Rodgers, ascending to coach the club’s U-20 team. This is his first head coaching position in professional soccer, but the history of success he brings means he shouldn’t be underestimated.

McGuinness has new additions on the defensive line in the form of Championship veteran Hugh Roberts and up front with former Montreal Impact and Columbus Crew SC striker Dominic Oduro arriving at the club to join Martinez and returning veteran Jorge Herrera. The Independence will also have 2018 MAC Hermann Trophy winner Andrew Gutman on loan from Celtic FC, adding to a backbone that should see the Independence become a more consistent proposition in 2019.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

F – Enzo Martinez
The Charlotte Independence’s talisman during the 2016 and 2017 seasons returns this year, with Enzo Martinez looking to regain the form that made him twice a finalist for the Championship’s Most Valuable Player award. Martinez made 87 appearances over three seasons before joining the Colorado Rapids for the 2018 campaign, tallying 31 goals and 14 assists and earning back-to-back All-League First Team honors. Reunited with some familiar faces like Jorge Herrera and brother Alex Martinez, the 28-year-old will be aiming to lead the side back to the postseason this campaign.

D – Hugh Roberts
One of the Independence’s big offseason arrivals, Hugh Roberts has had a track record of success in the Championship at his previous stops. An All-League selection in 2016 for the Richmond Kickers when he played every minute of the season, Roberts has subsequently helped Bethlehem Steel FC and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC to the postseason in the past two years. He’ll be looking to help improve an Independence defense that conceded 57 goals in the 2018 regular season as the side missed the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2015.


 Hartford Athletic

Head Coach: Jimmy Nielsen (1st season)
Home Venue: Dillon Stadium
2018 Record: N/A
Projected 2019 Finish: 15th, Eastern Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

There’s a familiar look to Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen’s squad at Hartford Athletic, which saw the former OKC Energy FC sideline boss bring a number of his former players in to lead the way for the expansion side as it prepares to enter the league at historic Dillon Stadium. The attacking duo of Jose Angulo – who sits only three goals away from 50 for his USL Championship career – and Alex Dixon is joined by Sebastian Dalgaard, Jonathan Brown, Philip Rasmussen and Wojciech Wojcik in joining Nielsen with the Athletic, a foundation that could mean early success for the side.

What will be a challenge is eight consecutive road games to start the season, including matchups against presumptive playoff contenders the Charleston Battery, Louisville City FC, Indy Eleven, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC coming in consecutive games within the span of a month (March 16-April 13). Weathering that stretch will be key as Hartford looks to enter its home opener on May 4 against the Charlotte Independence with some positive vibes.

In a tough Eastern Conference, though, there will be some questions as to how quickly this will come together. Nielsen fell short of the postseason in his first year at Energy FC before the side took a jump forward to the Western Conference Final in Year 2. There could be a similar learning curve here, familiarity or not.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

F – Jose Angulo
The 2013 USL Championship Most Valuable Player, Angulo endured a frustrating 2018 campaign before departing OKC Energy FC midseason. The 30-year-old will now look to rebound with Hartford Athletic, where his former Energy FC Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen is leading the way. Three goals shy of reaching 50 regular-season goals in the Championship, Angulo has twice reached the 15-goal mark in a single season in the league. If he can reach those heights again, then the Athletic could have a chance at a place in the postseason in its inaugural season.

D - Sem de Wit
After two strong campaigns with Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2, Sem de Wit got lost in the shuffle with FC Cincinnati a season ago as he recorded only 10 appearances for the side after falling behind other defenders in Alan Koch’s pecking order. The 23-year-old Dutch center back has shown his quality in the league before, however, having helped lead WFC2 to the Western Conference Final in 2016. A strong bounce-back season in Hartford is definitely a possibility as he looks to get things back on track in 2019.


 INDY ELEVEN

Head Coach: Martin Rennie (2nd season)
Home Venue: Lucas Oil Stadium
2018 Record: 13-11-10, 49pts – Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Projected 2019 Finish: Third, Eastern Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

Indy Eleven did well to reach the USL Cup Playoffs in its first season in the league a year ago all things considered, with Head Coach Martin Rennie assembling a squad in double-quick time that proved competitive, if not elite. Indy’s limits were best indicated in its longest winning streak of the season, which ran for only three games, but a nine-game undefeated run that helped cement a place in the postseason showed the positive direction the team was headed before it ran into Louisville City FC in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals and saw its season come to an end.

This offseason the club has been one of the splashiest in the player market, bringing on board additional talent that projects to make Indy a strong contender to upend the back-to-back USL Cup champion and its rival in the Louisville-Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest (LIPAFC). The arrival of the Championship’s all-time leading scorer in Dane Kelly and 2018 All-League selection Thomas Enevoldsen will bolster the Eleven’s attack, while 2018 Championship Golden Glove Evan Newton arrives to take over between the sticks after featuring for FC Cincinnati a season ago.

The club’s returning talent is also plentiful with All-League Second Team selection Ayoze Garcia back in defense alongside Karl Ouimette and Tyler Pasher, while midfielder Matt Watson is also back in the fold. But it’s the newcomers like Newton’s former FCC teammates Tyler Gibson, Kenney Walker and Paddy Barrett that appear set to make a big difference for the Eleven this year as they go in pursuit of silverware.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

F – Thomas Enevoldsen
One of the leading newcomers to the USL Championship in 2018 with Orange County SC, Thomas Enevoldsen helped a turnaround that saw OCSC finish top of the conference standings and reach the Western Conference Final of the USL Cup Playoffs. While Enevoldsen’s 20 goals caught the biggest headlines, his ability to create was also impressive. The 31-year-old was one of three players to record double-digit goals and assists and 70 key passes in the regular season alongside fellow All-League First Team selections Emmanuel Ledesma (FC Cincinnati) and OCSC teammate Aodhan Quinn. Enevoldsen will now look for an encore with Indy Eleven as one of the club’s big offseason arrivals that could put the side into the picture for the USL Cup at the end of the season.

F – Dane Kelly
Dane Kelly returns to the league with the Eleven after spending the 2018 campaign at D.C. United, and the USL Championship’s all-time leading scorer will be looking to regain the form that saw him claim the league’s Golden Boot with 18 goals for Reno 1868 FC two season ago. With 67 regular-season goals since his league debut in 2011 and another five in the USL Cup Playoffs, the 27-year-old parlayed his performances in Reno into a first call-up to the Jamaican national team. With Enevoldsen and former Louisville City FC forward Ilija Ilic joining him in the Eleven’s attack, there should be plenty of chances for Kelly to add to his tally.


 Loudoun United FC

Head Coach: Richie Williams (1st season)
Home Venue: Loudoun United Stadium
2018 Record: N/A
Projected 2019 Finish: 18th, Eastern Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

The quietest of the seven expansion clubs joining the USL Championship in 2019, there is much more unknown about Loudoun United FC than is known as the club moves into its inaugural season. That said, that which is known appears on the face of it to be very positive for the long-term success of the side owned and operated by Major League Soccer’s D.C. United. The club is preparing to open a 5,000-seat soccer specific venue in Leesburg, Va. later this year and appointed a well-known name as its first Head Coach.

Former United States Men’s National Team assistant Richie Williams will lead Loudoun United into its first season, bringing with him the understanding of D.C.’s history and the potential to pull young talent like Donovan Pines and Antonio Bustamante into his lineup after both signed as Homegrown Players this offseason. There will be experience in goal with former Houston Dynamo shot-stopper Calle Brown returning to his home state, where he previously won a College Cup with the University of Virginia in 2014, and the club has also turned its recruiting eye overseas as it looks to bring in quality young Concacaf talent.

On the other side, the number of questions that are still to be answered mean there’s going to be a lot that Loudoun United has to figure out on the fly in its first year. In a loaded Eastern Conference, that means the chances of a playoff place are probably slim, with the hope being the side will fly under the radar before jumping up and surprising some of its more experienced counterparts.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

D – Donovan Pines
A Homegrown signing by D.C. United this offseason, Pines played three collegiate seasons at the University of Maryland and is expected to be one of the cornerstones for the expansion side this season. The 6-foot-5 center back made 56 appearances for the Terrapins and notched three goals and three assists, whilehelping lead the Terrapins to the NCAA Division I Championship last fall. He was also named to the United Soccer Coaches All-America Second Team and brings experience as a former member of the United States U-19 National Team.

GK – Calle Brown
The first official signing in Loudoun United FC history, Virginia native Calle Brown returns home after featuring in the USL Championship for three different clubs in the past four seasons. Brown’s career began with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in 2015, where his performances saw him make the move to Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo the following offseason. After two seasons that saw him feature regularly on loan with Rio Grande Valley FC, Brown headed to Seattle Sounders FC last year and made 21 appearances on loan with the Tacoma Defiance. With almost 5,000 minutes of experience at the Championship level, the 26-year-old former NCAA Division I Championship winner’s experience will prove invaluable to Head Coach Richie Williams’ squad in its inaugural season. 


 Louisville City FC

Head Coach: John Hackworth (2nd Season)
Home Venue: Slugger Field
2018 Record: 19-6-9, 66pts – USL Cup champion
Projected 2019 Finish: Second, Eastern Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

As the first back-to-back USL Cup champion in the league’s history, Louisville City FC enters unprecedented territory in 2019. After ending 2018 on a 10-game winning streak that covered the final six games of the regular season and the USL Cup Playoffs, LouCity will enter the new season as the team everyone else is looking to take down after a remarkable run of success over its first four seasons.

Head Coach John Hackworth will have some gaps to fill in his starting lineup, however, with goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh and defender Kyle Smith both having joined former LouCity Head Coach James O’Connor at Orlando City SC in Major League Soccer. Also departed is forward Ilija Ilic to Indy Eleven after his breakout campaign, and then there’s the move of 2018 Championship Golden Boot-winner Cameron Lancaster to Nashville SC, with the English forward signing an MLS contract in the Music City a year before NSC joins the top flight.

That being said, there remains more than enough quality within the squad to think that Louisville will be right there again in the postseason. Defender Paco Craig earned All-League First Team honors for a second consecutive season, while captain Paolo DelPiccolo and Jamaican international Speedy Williams are a formidable tandem in the center of midfield. There are also interesting new additions with Lucky Mkosana and Sunny Jane among the arrivals this offseason, while Luke Spencer will have a chance to regain his 2017 form when he was the club’s leading scorer after an injury-hit 2018. LouCity has finished in the top two in the Eastern Conference in every season of its history and there’s a strong case it will at least emulate that feat once again.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

D – Paco Craig
A second consecutive selection to the USL Championship All-League First Team cemented Paco Craig as one of the league’s top defenders. As he returns for his fourth season at the club, that quality will again be key as LouCity looks to add to its unprecedented run of consecutive USL Cup victories. Craig missed only two games across the regular season and playoffs a season ago, while recording 208 clearances and 72 interceptions as his partnership with newcomer Alexis Souahy grew throughout the season. With both players back in 2019, Louisville’s defense should remain one of the best in the league.

M – Brian Ownby
A standout in each of Louisville City FC’s runs to USL Cup victories over the past two years, Brian Ownby will be hoping for better fortune with injuries in the 2019 campaign after making only 11 regular-season starts in 2018. The consistent presence of Ownby’s creativity in the attacking third would be a major boost for Louisville after the departures of Cameron Lancaster and Ilija Ilic this offseason, as would his eye for goal. Now tied for the all-time lead in USL Cup Playoffs history with six goals, the 28-year-old is due for a year where it all comes together throughout the season, and this could be the year it arrives.

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