Saint Louis FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies are among the top sides in the Eastern Conference, but they still have questions to answer in the coming months. | Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel / Saint Louis FC
Since the season kicked off on March 8, we’ve seen some things that were expected, and plenty that was unexpected in the 2019 USL Championship season. With the campaign now two months old, we’ve taken a look across each conference to pose one key question for each team as they move forward into the key mid-season months.
Question: Where will the goals come from outside of Romario Williams?
One of the Championship's most proven scorers in recent seasons, Romario Williams has accounted for three of ATL UTD 2's nine goals this season, but with no other player having scored more than once in 2019 will the side be able to sustain a playoff run without the Jamaican leading the line?
Best Case: ATL UTD 2 finds a consistent secondary scorer and shores up its defense to reach the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time in club history.
Worst Case: Head Coach Stephen Glass’ side follows a similar path to 2018 where its goal differential continues to slip alongside its position in the standings.
Question: Will the defense hold up?
Steel FC has conceded 1.78 goals per game so far this season – fourth most in the East – and is on pace to concede 15 more goals in 2019 than it did in the 2018 regular season before a run to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Best Case: Bethlehem’s youngsters continue to produce on the offensive end and add some steel at the back to seal a return to the postseason.
Worst Case: Steel FC continues its recent trend of conceding multiple goals per game (5 of last 6) and drops below the playoff line.
Question: Can Legion FC find consistency over the coming months?
As an expansion team, it’s not necessarily surprising that Legion FC struggled to give a complete performance every week this early in its history, but can it get enough results – especially at home – to make a bid for a playoff spot?
Best Case: Birmingham plays like the team that beat Louisville City FC and Saint Louis FC away from home and Chandler Hoffman eventually finds his shooting boots to lead Legion FC into the playoffs in its inaugural season.
Worst Case: Birmingham plays like the team that lost its opening two home games and was hammered 5-0 by the New York Red Bulls II, leaving it outside of the East’s top 10.
Question: Can Zeiko Lewis continue his impressive start to the season?
The 24-year-old Bermudan winger has been a sensation so far in his first season with the Battery, leading the team in goals (3), assists (2) and chances created (16), but can he keep it up?
Best Case: Lewis continues his impressive form and helps Charleston to a top-four finish and home-field advantage in the early stages of the playoffs.
Worst Case: The Battery struggle at times to find the back of the net and are forced to settle for a spot in the play-in round.
Question: Can Head Coach Jim McGuinness help engineer a turnaround?
The Independence have just one win from its opening nine games of the Irishman’s tenure, but recent performances have been encouraging, so is there still hope of a postseason berth?
Best Case: Goalkeeper Curtis Anderson shines behind an improved defense and the Independence make a move for a spot in the play-in round.
Worst Case: Charlotte continues to concede early and often over the summer months and misses out on the postseason once again.
Question: Can Hartford start building momentum?
After losing their first eight games away from home, the Athletic likely need to average 1.8 points per game over their remaining 25 matches to have a chance at a postseason berth. While that’s unlikely, what else would feel like a success from here?
Best Case: Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen gets the defense organized, while Jose Angulo and Alex Dixon lead the line and the Athletic to a few wins before season’s end.
Worst Case: Things continue along the current path.
Question: Will Indy’s offense reach its full potential?
After acquiring the Championship’s all-time leading scorer Dane Kelly, Thomas Enevoldsen and Ilija Ilic this offseason, the Eleven were a trendy pick to win the USL Cup. How does this attack still rank below the league average?
Best Case: Ilija Ilic returns from injury and quickly creates a dynamic attacking partnership with Dane Kelly and Thomas Enevoldsen to propel the Eleven up the goalscoring charts.
Worst Case: Head Coach Martin Rennie struggles to find the right formation to get the most out of his offensive weapons and the Eleven settle for a mid-table finish.
Question: Can Loudoun find enough goals to make a playoff push?
Loudoun has scored just seven goals over its first seven games, but perhaps more worryingly is that it has failed to score on four of those occasions. Can United increase its goalscoring output before it’s too late?
Best Case: The defense continues to keep Loudoun in games and Head Coach Richie Williams’ side finds some secondary scoring to help forward Kyle Murphy in attack.
Worst Case: Loudoun continues to struggle in front of goal and stays below the playoff line.
Question: Do Louisville’s early-season struggles come down to injuries or is something else amiss?
Louisville returned 18 players from last season’s title-winning side, but many of them have been in and out of the lineup so far this season. Will things get better with a consistent starting XI?
Best Case: Brian Ownby, Paolo DelPiccolo and co. return to the starting lineup soon and the two-time defending USL Cup champion starts to look like itself again.
Worst Case: Louisville takes a little too long to get things figured out and actually has to go on the road in the postseason this year.
Louisville City FC captain Paolo DelPiccolo (left) has been limited to just two appearances this season due to injury. | Photo courtesy Rob Kinnan / North Carolina FC
Question: Which forward is going to step up and start to produce?
With just eight goals in its opening 10 games, 901 FC ranks ahead of only Hartford in goals per game in the East. No forward on the roster has scored more than one goal so far, so who will make the No. 9 role their own?
Best Case: Duane Muckette goes on a goal binge after finally breaking his duck this past weekend against Legion FC or Elliot Collier and Rashawn Dally start to find the back of the net with regularity.
Worst Case: Defender Marc Burch continues to be the team’s leading scorer and 901 FC fails to make a push for a playoff spot.
Question: Can Head Coach Gary Smith get the most out of his offensive weapons?
After acquiring two 20-goal scorers this offseason in the form of Cameron Lancaster and Daniel Rios this offseason – not to mention accomplished winger Kharlton Belmar – shouldn’t Nashville rank higher than the league average in goals per game?
Best Case: 2018 Championship Golden Boot winner Cameron Lancaster returns from injury and instantly strikes up a productive partnership with Daniel Rios and Kharlton Belmar to help Nashville challenge for the East’s top spot.
Worst Case: Lancaster continues to struggle with nagging injuries, while Nashville plays a defensive brand of soccer and settles for a mid-table finish.
Question: Will the defensive improvements persist?
After conceding 64 goals in 34 games last season, the Red Bulls II are on pace to improve that total by over 25 goals in 2019 after an impressively organized start to the season at the back. Is that down to a philosophy switch or a small sample size?
Best Case: The Red Bulls II continue to pour in the goals by playing their free-flowing brand of attacking soccer and maintain this newfound resolve at the back by taking less chances going forward than in previous years.
Worst Case: Old habits die hard, and New York starts to take unnecessary chances in attack and gets caught on the counter a little bit too often.
Question: How much can a coaching change affect positive change?
Former U.S. Men’s National Team Interim Manager Dave Sarachan has worked wonders with a squad that didn’t change much after missing the postseason in 2018. Is NCFC actually that much better or is this just a honeymoon stage?
Best Case: The defense continues to hold strong and Marios Lomis ends up as a contender for the Golden Boot as North Carolina FC fights for a top-four finish.
Worst Case: Some of the defensive frailties from last season return and NCFC finds itself in a battle for a spot in the play-in round.
Question: Will Fury FC find enough offense to finish 10th again?
Fury FC scored just 31 goals in 34 games last season and still nearly made the playoffs, but can Ottawa’s revamped offense find its gear and produce more than a goal a game (currently 7 in 7) to lift it to the postseason?
Best Case: The front three of Kévin Oliveira, Christiano François and Mour Samb add a little more end product to their game and Fury FC finishes 10th in the East for the third straight season, but this time it actually means something. Or maybe even a little higher.
Worst Case: Ottawa’s offensive inefficiencies let Head Coach Nikola Popovic’s side down again as it fails to turn a solid rearguard into a postseason appearance.
Question: Will the Hounds find their defensive bite?
Pittsburgh conceded a league-best 28 goals last season and is already nearly halfway to that total (11) after just eight games this year. What’s up with that?
Best Case: Joe Greenspan gets Pittsburgh defense organized to the point where it looks like it’s a team that’s coached by Bob Lilley again and the Hounds make a run at another top-four finish.
Worst Case: Pittsburgh continues to concede and accumulate draws at a relatively unprecedented rate and has to fight tooth and nail for a playoff spot.
Question: Is Saint Louis’ start sustainable over the summer months?
Last season, Saint Louis fought until the very end to earn the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Things look to be different this year in the East, but can STLFC stay near the top of the standings?
Best Case: Kyle Greig finds his finishing boots and Saint Louis starts to get consistent offensive production to go with its impressive defensive resolve and an easier upcoming schedule.
Worst Case: STLFC stops getting some of the gritty goals that helped it over the opening weeks and starts settling for draws instead of wins.
Question: Can the Rangers rally from a slow start?
Swope Park looks nowhere near the playoff side that it was in the Western Conference a year ago, especially on the defensive end where it is conceding 2.43 goals per game. Who is going to step up and be a leader for the side?
Best Case: Monday’s win against Louisville City FC restores confidence to a side that had lacked it previously and Head Coach Paulo Nagamura can restructure a defense that ranks third worst in the league.
Worst Case: The Rangers continue to concede over two goals per game and can’t produce enough on the other end to get results consistently.
Question: Can the Rowdies challenge for the top spot in the East?
Many thought Tampa Bay could bounce back after missing the playoffs in 2018, but few thought the Rowdies would be unbeaten after nine games and only concede four goals over that span. Is that sustainable and just how good are they?
Best Case: Despite the unbeaten start, the Rowdies still may have another gear on the offensive end as their new attacking additions continue to acclimate to each other.
Worst Case: Opponents start to solve the league’s best defense and Tampa Bay finds itself on the fringe of the top four.
Tag(s): Nashville SC Swope Park Rangers Bethlehem Steel FC Charleston Battery Charlotte Independence Louisville City FC New York Red Bulls II Ottawa Fury FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saint Louis FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Zeiko Lewis Romario Williams Birmingham Legion FC Atlanta United 2 North Carolina FC Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC Loudoun United FC Hartford Athletic Editorial