Indy Eleven's clash with North Carolina FC on May 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium is part of a key homestand for the Eleven that runs throughout the month. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven
The 2019 USL Championship regular season may only be one-quarter complete, but the next month of the season figures to further shape the race for the USL Cup Playoffs in October. Here are 10 games that should be on the radar for fans across the country as teams look to start creating separation at the top of their respective conferences.
The next month is going to be massive for Indy Eleven as it sets up for a five-game homestand at Lucas Oil Stadium. The second of those games brings an in-form North Carolina FC side to Indianapolis in what should be a meeting of two teams in the top six of the Eastern Conference. North Carolina has already picked up two road wins this season, but neither Bethlehem Steel FC nor the Charlotte Independence bring the pedigree that Indy possesses. After taking victory in its home opener in March, the Eleven will be eager to make their mark in pursuit of the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
It’s been a rough start to Hartford Athletic’s inaugural season, but after spending the first two months of the season on the road the club has a big opportunity to turn the page and reset as it hosts its inaugural home opener at Rentschler Field in front of what should be an enthusiastic crowd ready to welcome professional soccer back to Hartford. That energy could be a massive plus for the Athletic as they welcome a Charlotte Independence side that is winless in three outings on the road this season. On paper, Hartford should be better than it is. This is the Athletic’s chance to prove it.
The scenes at Isotopes Park in New Mexico United’s inaugural season have been remarkable as the club has averaged 11,622 fans per game, and Head Coach Troy Lesesne’s side has matched that on the field as the club enters the month in the top three in the Western Conference. NMU’s first Cinco de Mayo contest, however, figures to go down as a record-breaker, and with San Antonio FC coming into town aiming to rise in the standings. New Mexico’s games have been among the most open in the league so far this season with its contests averaging 27.4 total shots and 9.9 shots on goal per game. That could make for some on-field fireworks against an SAFC side that has some solid sharpshooters in its squad.
Two of the leading contenders for USL Cup will feature on ESPN2 on May 8 as Nashville SC plays host to the Tampa Bay Rowdies at First Tennessee Park. | Photo courtesy John Wilkinson III / Nashville SC
Expectations were high for both Nashville SC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies going into the 2019 season, so much so that their matchup at First Tennessee Park was tabbed for the national spotlight in the first regular-season Championship game to be broadcast on ESPN2. So far, the Rowdies have been closer to expectations as they enter May undefeated and in the top three of the Eastern Conference standings, while Nashville sits a few positions further down after suffering a pair of defeats. Both teams are grouped in the upper-echelon when it comes to FiveThirtyEight.com’s USL Cup projections however, and there’s the potential for plenty of star-power to be on show. The biggest narrative to follow, though, may be whether Rowdies forward Brandon Allen gets the chance to haunt his former club after recording a team-high eight goals last season following his May 22 arrival in Nashville.
The first edition of this year’s rivalry series between Sacramento Republic FC and Reno 1868 FC was always going to be a must-see given some of the classic contests the sides have served up over the past two seasons, but this one has an added wrinkle to it thanks to the oldest competition in American soccer. That’s because four days after what currently stands as a top-five clash in the Western Conference entering the month, the two sides will meet for a second time at Papa Murphy’s Park in the Second Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. With Republic FC possessing one of the best defenses in the league, and Reno led by Jamaican international forward Brian Brown, this should provide a double-dose of intrigue.
Unveiled as part of the 2019 expansion class in the USL Championship only a few months apart, and with El Paso, Texas and Albuquerque, New Mexico separated by less than 275 miles, there was plenty of anticipation for the first meeting between the two clubs and their passionate supporters. That contest arrives on the second Sunday in May with Locomotive FC hoping to derail its northern visitors as they visit Southwest University Park. El Paso hasn’t made quite the start that New Mexico has to its inaugural season, going 2-2-1 on home turf through the conclusion of April. There’s plenty of talent on Head Coach Mark Lowry’s side, however, and the contrast in styles between New Mexico’s aggressive up-tempo style and Locomotive FC’s more possession-oriented approach should make for a fascinating tactical battle.
After squaring off a season ago in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the Kings' Cup rivalry between Louisville City FC and Saint Louis FC returns to league action when the sides clash on May 18 at Slugger Field. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisvil
Arguably the biggest rivalry in the Championship returns to Slugger Field, and while host LouCity is the two-time defending USL Cup champion there may be a sense of role-reversal when its squares off with Saint Louis FC on its home turf. After reaching the postseason for the first time a season ago, Saint Louis sits on top of the Eastern Conference at the end of April to put it firmly in the picture as one of the challengers to Louisville’s crown. LouCity, meanwhile, has seen its pursuit of a three-peat hit some bumps in the road through unexpected home defeats and injuries to some key players over the opening two months. There’s never any lack of motivation when these two sides get together with the Louisville Coopers and St. Louligans in tow, but there might just be a bit more edge this time around given the potential state of the standings when this matchup arrives.
If you got to back a few years and tell the founders of the respective clubs that have blossomed into Birmingham Legion FC and Nashville SC that before the end of the decade they’d be squaring off on national television and they might not believe you, but the first meeting between the two clubs in the professional ranks has all the makings of a great matchup in the Eastern Conference. In its inaugural professional campaign, Legion FC ended April on a four-game undefeated streak (3-0-1) to move into the playoff positions with Nashville sat just a point above it in the standings. With two of the league’s standout strikers potentially on display in Birmingham’s Chandler Hoffman and Nashville’s Cameron Lancaster, there should be plenty to tune in for at a packed house on the campus of UAB.
The names may change season-by-season on the New York Red Bulls II, but after reaching the postseason each of its first four seasons in the USL Championship, Head Coach John Wolyniec’s side is once again poised to challenge for silverware after an opening two months that saw it sit second in the Eastern Conference. Just below it in the standings going into the month of May, meanwhile, is the newly-reshaped North Carolina FC, which under the stewardship of former United States Men’s National Team Interim Manager Dave Sarachan has gotten off to a stellar start to its second season in the league. With both sides featuring good attacking options – led by New York’s Tom Barlow and NCFC’s Marios Lomis – and the Red Bulls II’s high-pressing style there should be plenty of entertainment to be had at MSU Soccer Park, but the side that emerges victorious will do itself a lot of good in the pursuit of top spot in the table.
Real Monarchs SLC and Phoenix Rising FC have had up-and-down starts to the 2019 campaign, which means their meeting at Zions Bank Stadium on May 25 should be a must-see. | Photo courtesy Real Monarchs SLC
Real Monarchs SLC and Phoenix Rising FC have been two of the trickier sides to figure out over the opening two months of the season, with Real having seemingly possessed a split personality that makes it fire on all cylinders at Zions Bank Stadium and fire blanks away from home. Rising FC, meanwhile, has racked up a league-high five draws in eight games as the calendar turns to May to put the defending Western Conference champion in the middle of the pack so far this season. The biggest key for Phoenix making a move up the standings is going to be upping its chance conversion rate, which sits at 12 percent despite leading the league with 149 shots. With the Monarchs converting at a rate of 19 percent – with that rate rising to 26.8 on home turf – there could be plenty of eye-catching action between the two playoff contenders.
Tag(s): News Features Nashville SC San Antonio FC Phoenix Rising FC Real Monarchs SLC Reno 1868 FC Sacramento Republic FC Charlotte Independence Louisville City FC New York Red Bulls II Saint Louis FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Birmingham Legion FC North Carolina FC Indy Eleven El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United Hartford Athletic