Nashville SC and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC figure to be among the major challengers to Louisville City FC this season in the Eastern Conference. | Photo courtesy John Wilkinson III / Nashville SC
Following our look at the first half of the Eastern Conference on Tuesday, we turn our attention to the rest of the conference and a group that includes maybe the biggest challenger to Louisville City FC’s bid to return to a third consecutive USL Cup, a quartet of clubs looking for a return trip to the playoffs, and others looking to rebound after missing out on the postseason last year.
Head Coach: Tim Mulqueen (1st season)
Home Venue: AutoZone Park
2018 Record: N/A
Projected 2019 Finish: 16th, Eastern Conference
Memphis 901 FC hasn’t made the big splash of a signing that some of its counterparts have, with captain Marc Burch maybe the most recognizable name on the club’s roster as it enters its first season in the Championship. What Head Coach Tim Mulqueen does have at his disposal, however, is a side that brings a wealth of experience in the league, which should allow it to turn into a cohesive unit as the year unfolds.
What’s certain is that Memphis is ready for 901 FC’s arrival. The club’s brand launch was a massive success as a sellout crowd of 8,957 packed AutoZone Park last September for an exhibition between Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids and the Championship’s Tulsa Roughnecks FC. The connection to the community that has already been established is going to stand the side in good stead, with the experience of former Charleston Battery executive Andrew Bell providing a steady hand at the helm as 901 FC’s Sporting Director.
On the field, players like former USL Cup-winner Dan Metzger and Caribbean internationals like Ewan Grandison (Jamaica) and Duane Muckette (Trinidad & Tobago) are going to be counted on to bring their qualities to the fire, with Bell also bringing aboard former Battery and Richmond Kickers forward Heviel Cordoves to lead the club’s attacking line. It may be a challenge to reach the postseason in the club’s first season, but there’s enough experience here to make life difficult for opponents across the Eastern Conference.
D - Marc Burch
Joining a USL Championship club for the first time as Memphis 901 FC’s captain for its inaugural season, Burch spent his first 13 seasons as a professional in Major League Soccer as he suited up for six different clubs, including most recently Minnesota United FC. The veteran defender accumulated 234 appearances in the top flight and won both the MLS Supporters Shield and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with D.C. United. His experience will be a major plus for Head Coach Tim Mulqueen’s side as it looks to find a path to success in its first year.
F - Luca Uccello
A recent member of the Canada U-20 National Team, Luca Uccello joins 901 FC after spending the past four seasons in the Championship with Toronto FC II. The 21-year-old made 77 appearances for TFC II in that span but was unable to find a breakthrough season as he recorded just 10 goals over those four seasons. Finding a fresh start in Memphis could be the move that helps Uccello regain his footing, and he can certainly look to a former TFC II colleague for inspiration in the form of Mark-Anthony Kaye, who came into his own over two seasons with Louisville City FC before joining Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles FC for the 2018 campaign. There’s a long way to go for Uccello on that road, but there’s still time for the Markham, Ontario native to live up to his potential.
Head Coach: Gary Smith (2nd season)
Home Venue: First Tennessee Park
2018 Record: 12-9-13, 49pts – Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Projected 2019 Finish: First, Eastern Conference
Nashville SC’s inaugural professional season had some major highs and some perplexing lows that resulted in its first USL Cup Playoffs appearance and a remarkable contest against regular-season champion FC Cincinnati, which saw NSC take its hosts to a penalty shootout before falling in sudden death. The performance at Nippert Stadium was in some ways the epitome of Nashville’s season, where it competed strongly with the conference’s top clubs as it had throughout the year, but also at times played down to lesser opposition to finish in the middle of the pack and face a trip to Cincinnati in the first place.
That inconsistency should be a thing of the past this season, though. Making its first moves on the path to joining Major League Soccer in 2020, NSC added 2018 Championship Golden Boot Cameron Lancaster and fellow All-League First Team selection Daniel Rios as its first MLS signings, and supplemented those arrivals with defenders Ken Tribbett and Darnell King, goalkeeper Connor Sparrow and forward Kharlton Belmar, all of whom bring excellent Championship pedigree.
Add in a lengthy list of returnees that includes goalkeeper Matt Pickens, defenders Liam Doyle and Justin Davis, midfielders Michael Reed, Matt LaGrassa and Bolu Akinyode and forwards Lebo Moloto, Ropapa Mensah and Tucker Hume, and Nashville is one of the clear favorites to end Louisville’s reign as USL Cup holder. If it does, it will become the first side to claim a championship in the lower divisions before a move to MLS the following year, a feat that predecessors like Seattle Sounders FC, the Portland Timbers, Orlando City SC and FC Cincinnati were unable to accomplish.
F - Cameron Lancaster
The defending USL Championship Golden Boot-winner signed an MLS deal with Nashville SC this offseason after four seasons with Louisville City FC and will be hoping to mark NSC’s last season in the league with a similar level of success as he found in 2018. After scoring a single-season record 25 goals at a rate of a goal every 81 minutes, it could be a lot to ask for a repeat performance from the former Tottenham Hotspur forward, but Lancaster’s instinctive finishing and ability to produce from set pieces should put him back in contention for league awards at the end of the year and help Nashville live up to its billing as one of the leading contenders for USL Cup.
F - Daniel Rios
After producing a stellar season on loan with North Carolina FC from Chivas de Guadalajara last season, Daniel Rios became the first MLS signing in Nashville SC’s history this offseason. The 24-year-old notched 20 goals for NCFC to finish tied for second in the Golden Boot race behind his new teammate Cameron Lancaster, and while that wasn’t enough to propel North Carolina to a playoff berth it certainly caught the attention of all that were watching. Teaming up with Lancaster and fellow new arrival Kharlton Belmar, Rios could have another big year ahead before making the move with Nashville to the top flight, though, it will be worth watching how the club looks to incorporate all three – and returnees Tucker Hume, Ropapa Mensah and Alan Winn – over the course of the season to ensure attacking success.
Head Coach: John Wolyniec (5th season)
Home Venue: MSU Soccer Park
2018 Record: 13-8-13, 52pts – Eastern Conference Final
Projected 2019 Finish: Ninth, Eastern Conference
As much as things change at the New York Red Bulls II each offseason, so much stays the same. That’s in part why the side, led by Head Coach John Wolyniec, has reached the Eastern Conference Final of the USL Cup Playoffs each of the past three seasons. Last year’s remarkable late-season run, which included ending FC Cincinnati’s hopes of a championship before it departed to Major League Soccer, illustrated this point once again as the side peaked at the right time before falling to eventual USL Cup champions Louisville City FC.
One of the best attacking teams in the league in 2018, as it racked up 71 goals in the regular season, the Red Bulls II put things into place defensively late in the season and finished the campaign on a six-game undefeated streak. Building on that defensive structure in 2019 could see the side get back into the top four this season, with returning defenders Jordan Scarlett and Allan Yanes and new Red Bulls signings Sean Nealis and Kyle Duncan potentially mitigating the departure of Hassan Ndam in the MLS expansion draft.
The Red Bulls II attack figures to be as potent as before, even with the departure of Andrew Tinari to the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Amando Moreno to the Chicago Fire. The duo of Jared Stroud and Tom Barlow are both back to lead the side up front, and they could be joined by Brian White on loan. As much as New York’s lineup may differ from its final game of 2018, it would be foolish to believe there will be a drop in performance around the corner.
M - Jared Stroud
Making the transition from the New York Red Bulls U-23s in USL League Two to the Red Bulls II last season, Jared Stroud showed no drop-off in productivity as he placed himself among the top young players in the league with seven goals and 11 assists to help New York reach the postseason once again. The 22-year-old former Colgate University standout will look to build on the success of his rookie year in 2019 with one eye on leading the Red Bulls II back to the USL Cup Playoffs and another on potentially following the footsteps of the likes of Florian Valot and Vincent Bezecourt to the Red Bulls’ MLS squad.
F - Tom Barlow
The former University of Wisconsin forward began his rookie season serving as understudy to Brian White for the New York Red Bulls II, but by the end of the year Tom Barlow had carved out a place as another promising SuperDraft selection by the organization as he notched 10 goals at a rate of a goal every 120 minutes of action. At 6-foot-2, Barlow has both the ability to serve as a central target man while exhibiting a great instinct for being the right place at the right time. With the creativity his teammates bring, another double-digit season of goals could be on the cards for the 23-year-old.
Head Coach: Dave Sarachan (1st season)
Home Venue: Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park
2018 Record: 13-13-8, 47pts
Projected 2019 Finish: 11th, Eastern Conference
North Carolina FC came up short of a place in the USL Cup Playoffs in its inaugural season, with inconsistency proving the biggest issue as the side fell three times in its final five games to miss out on a postseason spot by two points. That resulted in a change on the club’s sideline, and maybe the biggest coaching coup in the league’s history, as former United States Men’s National Team interim Manager Dave Sarachan takes the reins at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park for the 2019 season.
Sarachan has some good returning pieces to work with, including veteran midfielder Austin da Luz, forward Marios Lomis and goalkeeper Alex Tambakis, who regularly produced spectacular saves for the side in his first year at the club. NCFC also made some intriguing additions, with 2014 All-America First Team selection Robbie Kristo returning to the United States after spending the past four years in Europe. The club also picked up Indiana University midfielder Austin Panchot and brought in former Academy product and U.S. U-20 international Manny Perez on loan from Scotland’s Celtic FC.
But all eyes will be focused on how Sarachan fares in his first season. Having led the Chicago Fire to an MLS Supporters’ Shield earlier in his coaching career before claiming numerous accolades as an assistant coach in the top flight, the 64-year-old will be expected to put NCFC in a position to contend in the Eastern Conference this season.
M - Austin da Luz
The longest-serving current member of the club, Austin da Luz will enter his eighth season for North Carolina FC looking to play a key role in the middle of the park for new Head Coach Dave Sarachan. Last season, the former Wake Forest standout became the sixth player in club history to reach the 10,000-minute milestone for NCFC. But despite posting five goals and two assist in 31 appearances, he was unable to lead the side into the postseason as North Carolina slid to crucial defeats against Southern Derby rival the Charleston Battery and eventual playoff side the New York Red Bulls II in its final five games. Helping the side find more consistency in 2019 is going to be paramount for the 31-year-old veteran.
D - Manny Perez
United States U-20 international Manny Perez begins his professional career with eyes from either side of the Atlantic Ocean paying close attention, with his loan to North Carolina FC from legendary Scottish club Celtic FC ensuring a close following of his progress this year. Perez should be in an ideal environment to grow, having come through the NCFC Academy and having former United States Men’s National Team Manager Dave Sarachan as his Head Coach. Solid production early in the year could also lead to a place in the squad for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland this May and a chance to shine on the international stage.
Head Coach: Nikola Popovic (2nd season)
Home Venue: TD Place
2018 Record: 13-15-6, 45pts
Projected 2019 Finish: 14th, Eastern Conference
Ottawa Fury FC saw its first entry written into the USL Championship’s record book in 2018, as goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau set a regular-season record with 15 shutouts. Unfortunately for the club from Canada’s capital, that defensive work was undone by an attack that scored only 31 goals in 34 games, the second-fewest in the league. That lack of firepower saw the side finish 10th in the Eastern Conference and out of the USL Cup Playoffs for a second consecutive season.
Addressing those attacking issues has been the main focus this offseason, with Fury FC acquiring Christiano Francois from Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC to add the former Maryland standout’s speed to its front line. Ottawa has also bolstered its midfield with the acquisition of Charlie Ward (San Antonio FC) and former All-League selection Wal Fall (Saint Louis FC) to shore up the middle of the field. General Manager Julian de Guzman has also continued the club’s pursuit of top young Canadians with Luca Ricci and Jordan Tisseur joining the club from the Montreal Impact’s Academy and midfielder Chris Manella re-signing with the club.
The biggest challenge for Head Coach Nikola Popovic will be to improve the club’s attack, where much more will be expected from returning playmaker Kevin Oliveira. The 22-year-old Cape Verde international had only four goals and two assists a season ago while producing less than one key pass per game. Raising his chance creation level is going to be a big factor in whether Ottawa’s third season in the Championship results in its first postseason appearance.
D - Carl Haworth
Part of the club since it was a member of USL League Two at the start of the decade, Carl Haworth opens his sixth professional season with Ottawa Fury FC aiming to lead the side to the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time. The club’s captain had an interesting 2018 season, which saw him utilized as a full back for the first time instead of his previous attacking role. Whether that continues into 2019 – with Haworth having provided good attacking support in addition to his defensive duties after the switch was made – will be something to monitor. If the 29-year-old can master his new role, it could open up national team possibilities again.
F - Kevin Oliveira
The Cape Verde international had a slightly underwhelming first year in Ottawa after following Head Coach Nikola Popovic north of the border from fellow Championship side the Swope Park Rangers. The 22-year-old had only four goals and two assists despite making a career-high 31 appearances for Fury FC in the regular season. Finding a way to return to the form he showed in two seasons with Swope Park – where he was named the No. 2 player in the 2016 USL Championship 20 Under 20 – would be a massive boon for Ottawa as it looks to improve the second-worst attacking record from a year ago.
Head Coach: Bob Lilley (2nd season)
Home Venue: Highmark Stadium
2018 Record: 15-5-14, 59pts – Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Projected 2019 Finish: Fourth, Eastern Conference
Sporting a new look for the 2018 season after a refresh of the club’s logo and official colors, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC also took a quantum leap forward on the field as the arrival of Bob Lilley as Head Coach turned the side into a serious Eastern Conference contender in just one year. The Hounds made a 10-place improvement in the standings to finish the year in third place, and while the first USL Cup Playoffs game at Highmark Stadium ended in heartbreak in a penalty shootout at the hands of Bethlehem Steel FC, it felt like a new dawn had broken for one of the league’s longest-tenured clubs.
The new season marks the 20th for the Hounds organization, and with Lilley and many of the team’s key figures back for the new year, there are now expectations the Hounds will look to live up to. Most of the club’s key players are back to try and accomplish that, with All-League defender Joe Greenspan and midfielder Kenardo Forbes leading the way alongside mainstay midfielder Kevin Kerr and 2018 leading scorer Neco Brett.
One notable departure to the club’s attacking corps saw the side sell winger Christiano Francois to fellow Championship side Ottawa Fury FC, but Lilley has reinforced his attacking options by bringing in two more players from his USL Cup-winning side at the Rochester Rhinos with Steevan Dos Santos and Christian Volesky both arriving in Pittsburgh. Upgraded squads elsewhere in the East may grab the preseason spotlight, but it would be surprising if the Hounds are unable to go toe-to-toe with anyone over the course of this campaign.
D - Joe Greenspan
After a good loan stint at Highmark Stadium in 2017, Joe Greenspan’s first full year with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC was a great one for both the big center back and the Hounds, as he led the side to the postseason for the first time since 2015 and garnered Championship All-League First Team honors in the process. Greenspan marshaled the best defense in the Eastern Conference to a third-place finish as he posted 175 clearances in 24 appearances while also registering 59 interceptions and 13 blocked shots. The Hounds are expected to be among the best defensive sides in the Championship again this season, and Greenspan’s presence is a big reason why.
M - Kenardo Forbes
Heading to Pittsburgh alongside the club’s first-year Head Coach Bob Lilley, Kenardo Forbes brought his calm ability on the ball and creativity to the Hounds’ midfield and continued to put himself among the better playmakers to have ever played in the league. Forbes notched eight assists for the Hounds in the 2018 campaign, giving him 22 over the past four seasons as he earned a second All-League selection in the past three years. A former USL Cup-winner with Lilley at the Rochester Rhinos, the 30-year-old Jamaican shows no signs of slowing and will continue to be a key figure for Pittsburgh this year.
Head Coach: Anthony Pulis (2nd season)
Home Venue: Toyota Stadium – Saint Louis
2018 Record: 14-9-11, 53pts – Western Conference Quarterfinals
Projected 2019 Finish: Eighth, Eastern Conference
It’s an odd year, 2019, so that means Saint Louis FC is in the Eastern Conference again, but this year it enters having advanced to the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time in its history and seemingly on a positive upward path to contention in its new surroundings. Led by Head Coach Anthony Pulis, STLFC was one of the tougher teams to beat in the Western Conference a season ago, falling just nine times in the regular season as it clinched a playoff spot before the final game of the season.
If Saint Louis is to take the next step and contend in the East this season, though, it will likely need to become more prolific in front of goal. Only one team to reach the postseason – Nashville SC – scored fewer goals than STLFC’s 44 tallies, with Kyle Greig carrying the attack for much of the season as he neared 50 regular-season goals for his career. The side has looked to address that with another batch of newcomers that includes former Colorado Rapids forward Caleb Calvert and Tulsa Roughnecks FC attacking midfielder Joaquin Rivas. Should youngster Albert Dikwa take another step forward and Kadeem Dacres produce more consistently, Saint Louis could be far more dangerous in 2019.
On the flipside, the side looks set to be as solid defensively as it was a season ago with goalkeepers Tomas Gomez and Jake Fenlason both returning behind a back line that was led effectively by Sam Fink and Sean Reynolds. New arrivals Paris Gee and Bradley Kamdem Fewo should be solid additions, as should defensive midfielder Guy Abend as he joins Lewis Hilton in the middle of the park.
F - Kyle Greig
The Kansas native provided the boost that Saint Louis FC’s attack had been looking for in previous seasons as Kyle Greig equaled his career-high with 13 goals in 2018 to carry STLFC to its first trip to the USL Cup Playoffs. Now three goals away from 50 regular-season goals in the Championship for his career, Greig will be looking to record back-to-back seasons of double-digit goals for the first time as he continues to lead the line for Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ side on its return to the Eastern Conference.
F - Caleb Calvert
The promise shown by Caleb Calvert while on loan with the Charlotte Independence in the 2016 Championship season saw him land on the inaugural edition of the Championship 20 Under 20 list, but since then the former Chivas USA Homegrown signing hasn’t yet taken the next step in his career. The 22-year-old arrives at Saint Louis FC looking to change that after scoring one goal and adding two assists in 18 appearances on loan with the Independence last season. If he can, it would add a second key scorer to Greig for STLFC’s front line and put the side in line for a second consecutive postseason berth.
Head Coach: Paulo Nagamura (2nd season)
Home Venue: Children’s Mercy Park
2018 Record: 15-11-8, 53pts – Western Conference Semifinals
Projected 2019 Finish: 12th, Eastern Conference
The Swope Park Rangers couldn’t pull off a third consecutive Western Conference championship in 2018 as its postseason run ended at the hands of Phoenix Rising FC in the conference semifinals, but Paulo Nagamura’s first season in charge of the season was another positive one overall. The big question facing the Rangers now as they move to the Eastern Conference is how they will cope with the loss of a trio of key attacking pieces in the face of some seriously stiff opposition.
Hadji Barry, Tyler Blackwood and Kharlton Belmar accounted for 37 goals a season ago, but all three are now elsewhere, with Blackwood returning to Sacramento Republic FC, Belmar joining Nashville SC and Badji heading overseas. The club’s top scorer after that trio was standout young midfielder Wan Kuzain with four tallies, meaning players like Wilson Harris and new arrival Killian Colombie could be under pressure to perform from the off if Swope Park is to maintain its perfect record of reaching the postseason.
While those concerns are real, the depth of Sporting Kansas City’s squad should again provide plenty of talent to the Rangers over the course of the season. There are also reliable returnees in both the defensive and midfield corps with defender Justin Bilyeu signing a new contract and midfielders Felipe Hernandez – a 2018 USL Championship 20 Under 20 selection – and Will Little both back for 2019. Nagamura’s side will likely be challenged strongly this year, but it would be unwise to underestimate what the Rangers will be capable of.
M - Felipe Hernandez
One of four Swope Park Rangers selected to the 2018 Championship 20 Under 20, Felipe Hernandez has become one of the central cogs in the Rangers’ success over the past two seasons. After making 61 appearances during that span, Hernandez will likely be looked upon for more leadership this season after a number of veteran departures for the club. But the 20-year-old will have his own motivation for success this year after seeing his Swope Park midfield colleague Wan Kuzain move to the Sporting Kansas City roster. Another positive season for Hernandez could result in a similar move sooner rather than later.
F - Wilson Harris
One of the Sporting Kansas City’s Academy standouts in the past, Wilson Harris should command a far bigger spotlight this season after recording three goals in 15 appearances in the 2018 campaign. With the experienced trio of Kharlton Belmar, Tyler Blackwood and SPR leading scorer Hadji Barry all having moved on this offseason, Harris is likely going to have to perform if Swope Park is to keep its streak of reaching the postseason intact. If this preseason is any indication, the 19-year-old could be bound for a breakout season in the Championship after featuring regularly on the scoresheet for the side over the past month.
Head Coach: Neill Collins (2nd season)
Home Venue: Al Lang Stadium
2018 Record: 11-15-8, 41pts
Projected 2019 Finish: Fifth, Eastern Conference
Given the excitement and expectation that surrounded the club’s preseason, it’s arguable there was no team that fell flatter than the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2018. After reaching the Eastern Conference Semifinals in its first year in the league, the Rowdies entered the new campaign with additional new recruits and the belief that they would be among the leading candidates to lift the USL Cup. Instead, the side faltered to a 12th-place finish and waseliminated from postseason contention before the final weekend of the regular season.
Tampa Bay’s struggles resulted in a coaching change midway through the campaign and after being appointed as the club’s new Head Coach, former Rowdies center back Neill Collins will lead the side into his first full season in charge. The offseason brought more change, with Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays acquiring the club from local businessman Bill Edwards to become the latest major league ownership group to purchase a USL Championship club. Former England international Joe Cole announced his retirement, setting off another roster overhaul for the side that has brought in 16 new players in search of a bounce-back season at Al Lang Stadium.
Among the new faces in Tampa Bay are goalkeeper John McCarthy, who claimed the Championship’s Rookie and Goalkeeper of the Year awards in 2014 before spending the past four seasons with the Philadelphia Union. Also joining the club are attacking midfielders Antoine Hoppenot (Reno 1868 FC), Zach Steinberger (Indy Eleven) and Andrew Tinari (New York Red Bulls II), who proved among the best chance creators in the league last season, and forward Brandon Allen (Nashville SC). With Leo Fernandes, Sebastian Guenzatti and Kwadwo Poku returning to the side, the Rowdies on paper look to be contenders again, but there won’t be anything taken for granted this time around.
GK - John McCarthy
After four seasons with the Philadelphia Union, John McCarthy elected to move on with the goal of becoming the full-time starter elsewhere. He’ll get that opportunity with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which went through three different starting goalkeepers a season ago but now potentially have the consistent shot-stopper they had when they reached the postseason two years ago. McCarthy certainly has the pedigree to be among the top goalkeepers in the Championship, as he claimed the 2014 Championship Goalkeeper and Rookie of the Year awards while with the Rochester Rhinos to earn his move to the Union. After the disappointment of missing the playoffs a season ago, McCarthy and his fellow new arrivals will look to lead the turnaround of a side with big aspirations.
M - Kwadwo Poku
One of the midseason additions brought in by the Tampa Bay Rowdies to try and turn their season around last June, Kwadwo Poku had some bright moments, but not enough to lead a second-half charge to the postseason at Al Lang Stadium. Now set for his first full year with the Rowdies, a strong season from the former New York City FC cult figure will be essential if Tampa Bay is to put the disappointment of 2018 behind it. Having just turned 27 years old, Poku is still in his prime and is still capable of producing big performances on a consistent basis. If he manages that this season, the Rowdies will make a significant surge back up the Eastern Conference standings.