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USL Championship Weekend Guide - Week 1

By JOHN ARLIA -, 03/07/19, 5:15PM EST


What are the games and players to watch as the new Championship season kicks off this weekend?

Reno 1868 FC and Orange County SC clash at Greater Nevada Field on Saturday in a rematch from the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs, one of several high-profile contests on the opening weekend of the 2019 season. | Photo courtesy David Calvert / Reno 186

After nearly four months of waiting, the USL Championship returns on Friday night when Rio Grande Valley FC and the Tacoma Defiance kick off the biggest season in the league’s history.

The opening weekend of the 2019 regular season will feature 17 matches in total, with defending back-to-back USL Cup champions Louisville City FC beginning its quest for a three-peat at North Carolina FC and all seven expansion franchises set to play their inaugural matches in the league.

While there will surely be plenty of action across the league, here are a few games and players that I’ll be paying close attention to over the course of the opening weekend:

Games to Watch

Saint Louis FC vs. Indy Eleven (March 9, 2:00 pm ET, Matchcenter, ESPN+)

Saint Louis FC faces a stern test in its return to the Eastern Conference on Saturday afternoon when it hosts Indy Eleven at Toyota Stadium – Saint Louis. The home side, led by returning forward Kyle Greig, will be looking to build off a 2018 campaign that saw it reach the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time in club history, while the new-look Eleven hope their attacking trio of Dane Kelly, Ilija Ilic and Thomas Enevoldsen can start living up to its potential after an underwhelming preseason.  

Reno 1868 FC vs Orange County SC (March 9, 5:00 PM ET, Matchcenter, espn+)

Reno 1868 FC will have a chance to avenge its Western Conference Semifinals defeat to Orange County SC on Saturday at Greater Nevada Field when the two sides collide in the only 2018 USL Cup Playoffs rematch of the opening weekend. Aodhan Quinn, who scored the game-winning goal in OCSC’s 1-0 victory, returns for the visitors after recording 12 goals and 15 assists and finishing third in MVP voting in 2018.

Memphis 901 FC vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies (March 9, 7:00 pm et, matchcenter, espn+)

Memphis 901 FC will try to kickstart its inaugural campaign with a victory when it takes on the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Saturday at AutoZone Park. Memphis is one of four expansion franchises that will begin its inaugural season on its home turf this weekend, with Birmingham Legion FC, El Paso Locomotive FC and New Mexico United following suit. The visiting Rowdies should provide a stern test for 901 FC, with offseason additions Brandon Allen and Antoine Hoppenot looking to help Tampa Bay bounce back from a disappointing 2018 season.

San Antonio FC vs. Phoenix Rising FC (March 9, 8:30 PM ET, Matchcenter, espn+)

Like the Rowdies, San Antonio FC will be hoping to be on the right side of the playoff line in 2019 and Head Coach Darren Powell’s side will have a chance to make a strong statement on Saturday at Toyota Stadium when it hosts 2018 Western Conference champion Phoenix Rising FC. SAFC forward Billy Forbes will hope to make an impact against his former team, while Rising FC forward Adam Jahn will take his first steps towards replacing Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba in the desert.

Billy Forbes (right) returns to San Antonio FC in 2019 for his second stint with the club after featuring for Phoenix Rising FC in 2018. | Photo courtesy Fresno FC

Players to Watch

 Chandler Hoffman – Birmingham Legion

Thanks to inclement weather in the area, the Birmingham, Ala. native will have to wait until Sunday to make his debut for his hometown club. It will be worth the wait. Hoffman enters the season in third on the Championship’s all-time scoring list with 59 regular-season goals and will be on the prowl for more when Legion FC hosts Bethlehem Steel FC at BBVA Compass Field.

 Cameron Lancaster – Nashville SC

After scoring a regular-season record 25 goals last season for Louisville City FC, Lancaster’s season debut for Nashville SC will surely be something to watch. What can the former Tottenham Hotspur forward produce as an encore against expansion side Loudoun United FC? I’m thinking hat trick…

 Deshorn Brown – OKC Energy FC

After scoring seven goals for Energy FC in preseason, Brown enters the season in arguably the best form of any player in the Championship. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him keep that scoring run going when OKC visits expansion side El Paso Locomotive FC at a sold-out Southwest University Park on Saturday.

 Irvin Parra – Las Vegas Lights FC

The last time Parra featured in the Championship, he became the first player in league history to record double-digit goals and assists in the same season. After helping a new-look Lights FC to an unbeaten preseason, Parra will look to make good on Owner Brett Lashbrook’s guarantee when Las Vegas hosts Austin Bold FC on Saturday night.

Notes and Quotes

- Louisville City FC never trailed in the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs. The last team that held a lead over LouCity in 2018? That would be Saturday’s opponent North Carolina FC.

- In a rematch of the 2016 USL Cup, the Swope Park Rangers will visit the New York Red Bulls II in their inaugural game as a member of the Eastern Conference. However, no players on the Rangers roster took part in that contest.

- The Charleston Battery will be looking to get off to a quick start against Ottawa Fury FC, as all 14 of the Battery’s wins in 2018 came after scoring the first goal of the match.

- "Selling out Southwest University Park is nothing short of amazing, but not at all unexpected. We knew that when professional soccer was launched in this market that it would be a smashing success and the community has responded beautifully and proven us right. This match will be remembered forever in El Paso history and the people of this city are what made this sell out happen!” El Paso Locomotive FC General Manager Andrew Forrest

- “Well like anything else, obviously the expectation for every team is to win the championship. I feel like we have a better team, a better bench, a very athletic team and a very dynamic team compared to last year. We struggled offensively last year and this preseason, we were one of the better teams offensively and I’m pretty happy with that and hopefully we continue that throughout the season.” - Rio Grande Valley FC Head Coach Gerson Echeverry

- “Last year it was a show, but this year it’s going to be a WINNING show.” – Las Vegas Lights FC midfielder Matt Thomas

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