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ARLIA: Assessing 19 Preseason Predictions So Far

By JOHN ARLIA - john.arlia@uslsoccer.com, 07/24/19, 3:15PM EDT

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What turned out right, and where did I miss the mark so far this campaign?


Nashville SC, Phoenix Rising FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies have put themselves in a strong position to lift silverware at the end of the season.

With 35 of 36 teams in the USL Championship having played at least half of their 34-game schedule to this point, it’s safe to say that we’ve officially made the turn into the second half of the 2019 season.

And as the race for the postseason continues to heat up across both conferences, I thought it would be a good idea to check in on my preseason hot takes and see how they’re holding up in this summer heat wave.

In order to do so, I’ll be restating each of the 19 predictions for the 2019 season that I made on March 2 and then assigning a grade to them accordingly. It’s like summer school, but I’m the student and the teacher.

(Bell Rings) I guess that means class is in session, let’s get started.

Grade
B-
Prediction
After claiming the Championship’s Golden Boot with a record-setting 25 regular-season goals last season, Cameron Lancaster will stake an early claim for the award in 2019. An opening-day hat trick against Loudoun United FC will raise expectations through the roof for the new Nashville SC forward, who won’t quite reach the lofty benchmark he set for himself – and the rest of the league – last season.
Summary
On first glance, I thought I was kicking off this summer session with a big fat F. Off the top of my head, I honestly wasn’t even sure that Lancaster suited up for Nashville’s opener against Loudoun after the forward battled injury issues during the preseason. But not only did Lancaster play, he scored NSC’s first goal of the season with a looping header off a corner kick in his side’s 2-0 victory. It’s not a hat trick, but it’s something.
Grade
B
Prediction
Lancaster wasn’t the only player to hit the 20-goal plateau in 2018, as Daniel Rios (North Carolina FC) and Thomas Enevoldsen (Orange County SC) found the back of the net with ease during their debut seasons in the Championship. While moves to new clubs will make it difficult for that trio to repeat the feat in 2019, I can see Adam Jahn (Phoenix Rising FC), Deshorn Brown (OKC Energy FC) and Michael Seaton (Orange County SC) stepping into those shoes as 20+ goal scorers.
Summary
Saying that there were only three 20-goal scorers in 2018, I feel like I have to grade on a bit of a curve here after picking three players to replicate that feat this season. The fact that Jahn (11 goals, 17 appearances) is on pace to reach the plateau and Brown (nine goals, 17 appearances) isn’t far off the pace is encouraging. On the other hand, Seaton (six goals, 17 appearances) has a long way to go.
Grade
C+
Prediction
If Brown’s going to bag 20 or more goals, then I’ve clearly got Energy FC making a return to the USL Cup Playoffs in 2019. As you may have seen last weekend, I’m already on the record for that as well as Las Vegas Lights FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies earning postseason berths. To make things more interesting, I’m going to double down on Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, North Carolina FC and San Antonio FC joining the bounce-back brigade.
Summary
As things stand, three of the six teams currently sit in the playoff positions. The Rowdies (>99%) and North Carolina (99%) are essentially locks to make the Eastern Conference field according to FiveThirtyEight.com, but Energy FC (46%) is far from that out West. In fact, 11th place San Antonio (61%) has better odds at the moment and Las Vegas (35%) still has a solid shot while the Switchbacks (2%) are basically out of it. At best, I think we could see four of the original six make the postseason, but I wouldn’t count on it at this point.

North Carolina FC looks set for its first trip to the postseason after just missing out in its debut season in the Championship in 2018. | Photo courtesy North Carolina FC

Grade
C+
Prediction
Speaking of North Carolina FC and new Head Coach Dave Sarachan, I believe the former USMNT manager will lead his side to a second straight Southern Derby crown in 2019, just edging out the Charlotte Independence and fellow newcomer on the touchline Jim McGuinness.
Summary
North Carolina currently sits atop the Southern Derby standings, one point clear of the Charleston Battery, but is not the prohibitive favorite having played an additional game. If the Battery can take at least a point from its trip to Charlotte in August, it will be in prime position to reclaim the regional rivalry when it hosts NCFC at MUSC Health Stadium in late September.
Grade
C
Prediction
If you haven’t heard, the Four Corners Cup will be the latest and greatest regional rivalry in the Championship this season with Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, New Mexico United, Phoenix Rising FC and Real Monarchs SLC debuting the fan-created competition in 2019. After doing the double over USL Cup finalist Rising FC last season, I’m picking the Monarchs to lift the inaugural Four Corners Cup trophy.
Summary
The inaugural edition of the Four Corners Cup is certainly still too close to call as New Mexico United (7pts), Real Monarchs SLC (6pts) and Phoenix Rising FC (5pts) are within striking distance of each other, with Phoenix having played one fewer game. All three sides play the Switchbacks (1pt) in their next game of the competition, which will be a must-win if they want to keep pace with the others. Unless someone slips, the Monarchs will likely need a win in Phoenix to close out the FCC as the side boasts the worst goal differential of the three following its 5-1 loss to New Mexico in April.
Grade
C+
Prediction
Earning that honor won’t come easily, especially since I believe that New Mexico will challenge for the USL Cup in its inaugural season. Troy Lesesne’s side is a strong candidate for a top-six finish in the weaker Western Conference and will be the only expansion franchise represented in the postseason come late-October.
Summary
While I’m confident that ninth-place New Mexico will recapture its early-season form now that its run in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has concluded, I’m also expecting that one of – if not both – Austin Bold FC and El Paso Locomotive FC make the Western Conference field as well.

Austin Bold FC has made an impressive start to its inaugural season and currently sits in fourth place in the Western Conference standings. | Photo courtesy Austin Bold FC

Grade
F
Prediction
October should also be the month that Orange County SC playmaker Aodhan Quinn nets his 15th goal of the season, which will see him across the line to become the second player in league history with 15 goals and 15 assists in a single season. (FC Cincinnati’s Emmanuel Ledesma was the first last season.)
Summary
If I had said Phoenix Rising FC playmaker Solomon Asante, I’d be feeling pretty good about myself right now. But alas, here we are… Quinn’s five goals and three assists have been a bright spot for OCSC in a season without many of them so far.
Grade
N/A
Prediction
Speaking of records, Carl Woszczynski nearly saw his single-season mark of 130 saves eclipsed by Tulsa Roughnecks FC goalkeeper Fabian Cerda in 2018. This year, he won’t be so lucky, as his former Phoenix Rising FC teammate Josh Cohen will make 131 stops for Sacramento Republic FC.
Summary
Incomplete. Cohen certainly wasn’t on pace to reach the record with 35 saves in his first 16 appearances of the season for Republic FC, but his transfer to Maccabi Haifa FC earlier this month bails me out of back-to-back F’s.
Grade
C-
Prediction
Republic FC will certainly be a contender in the Western Conference this year, but I also foresee the club navigating the deepest U.S. Open Cup run of any USL Championship side. After reaching the Round of 16 last year, Sacramento will match Louisville City FC’s 2018 run and advance to the Quarterfinals.
Summary
Republic FC knocked off rivals Reno 1868 FC and Fresno FC to reach the Fourth Round of the Open Cup and gave the San Jose Earthquakes all they could handle in a 4-3 thriller, so I’m going to take a little bit of credit here as I could have been way more off base. That being said, New Mexico United and Saint Louis produced memorable runs to actually the Quarterfinals, so there’s room for improvement.
Grade
B+
Prediction
If you’ve been following along with my columns, you’ll probably know how I feel about Louisville’s pulling off a USL Cup three-peat in 2019. In short: It’s not happening. That doesn’t mean LouCity won’t be amongst the East’s elite in 2019, but the time has come for a new team to lift the Cup (more on who later).
Summary
I think even Louisville fans would admit that this team hasn’t produced to the level that it reached during the 2017 and 2018 regular seasons. LouCity finished second in the East both years and had home-field advantage throughout the postseason on its way to back-to-back titles. FiveThirtyEight currently gives Louisville a 2 percent chance to complete its three-peat and I think that might even be a little high unless something drastically changes over the second half of the season.

The New York Red Bulls II got revenge for their 2018 Eastern Conference Final loss with a 1-0 victory over Louisville City FC at MSU Soccer Park on June 16. | Photo courtesy New York Red Bulls II

Grade
C
Prediction
To continue my personal memorandum for change and parity, I decree that there will not be an Eastern Conference Final between the New York Red Bulls II and Louisville City FC in 2019. In fact, the two sides will avoid each other in the postseason altogether for the first time since 2015.
Summary
After meeting in the Eastern Conference Final three straight years, I do think we’re on pace to avoid a meeting between Louisville and New York at that stage in 2019. However, if the playoffs started today, Louisville would be a home win against the Charlotte Independence away from facing the Red Bulls II in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. While there’s still plenty of time for things to shift around, there’s a decent chance this rivalry renews in October.
Grade
D+
Prediction
Speaking of matchups between familiar foes, Cameron Lancaster will make his return to Slugger Field on July 6, in one of my 10 most-anticipated regular-season matches of 2019. After making a short cameo against his former club in preseason, there’s no doubt in my mind Lancaster finds the back of the net on this occasion in a feisty 2-2 draw.
Summary
What could possibly go wrong when you try to predict the outcome of a single game four months in advance? Well, a lot of things. In this case, Lancaster provided an assist on Daniel Rios’ opening goal before being substituted off with an injury inside the opening half-hour. Louisville went on to record a 2-1 comeback victory and I proved to be close but not quite in all facets.
Grade
B+
Prediction
That game will be one of the few times Nashville SC concedes multiple goals in the 2019 campaign, as one of the league’s best defensive teams in 2018 has bolstered its back line even further heading into this season. In my mind, Nashville ends the season with the best defensive record in the league, while ATL UTD 2 concedes the most goals of any team.
Summary
That loss to Louisville was just the fifth time in 19 games this season that Nashville has conceded multiple goals and Head Coach Gary Smith’s side currently boasts a top-five defensive record, allowing an even 1.0 goals per game. On the other end of the spectrum, ATL UTD 2 has allowed 25 goals over its current six-game losing streak and ships an average of 2.28 goals per game – third most in the Championship.
Grade
D
Prediction
Keeping with statistical selections, I foresee the offseason acquisitions of Dane Kelly, Thomas Enevoldsen and Ilija Ilic propelling Indy Eleven’s attack to the top of the league’s goalscoring chart in 2019. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I think Tulsa Roughnecks FC will struggle to find the back of the net once again this season and finish bottom of the barrel.
Summary
The Eleven haven’t struck often with just 28 goals in their opening 18 games of the season – ranking just above average on the league’s goalscoring charts – but Indy has made their tallies count to climb into the top three in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Roughnecks got off to a high-scoring start to the season with 11 goals over their opening four games and have been able to find the back of the net often enough since to hover above the league’s bottom-10 attacks.
Grade
D-
Prediction
Goals weren’t too hard to come by during the inaugural edition of the Silver State Cup as Las Vegas Lights FC and Reno 1868 FC combined to score 11 times over three regular-season meetings. After falling to its regional rival in 2018, Eric Wynalda’s Las Vegas Lights FC will get its revenge in 2019 with a convincing victory on the penultimate Saturday of the season at Cashman Field.
Summary
Goals apparently weren’t too hard for Reno to come by during Las Vegas’ visit to Greater Nevada Field on June 1 as the hosts put four past Lights FC to gain a tremendous advantage in this year’s edition of the Silver State Cup. While Eric Wynalda’s side has shown the capability to produce big results at Cashman Field – like its 5-1 win over New Mexico United on June 15 – it will take something special to turn this tie around.
Grade
C-
Prediction
Lights FC also had the distinguished honor of being the league’s most undisciplined side in 2018, earning 99 yellow cards over the course of the season – including 11 in those three matches against Reno. I expect that number to drop drastically in 2019 under Wynalda’s watch, allowing San Antonio FC to take the crown this coming season.
Summary
Well, Lights FC is only on pace for 83 yellow cards this season – certainly an improvement – but Las Vegas has racked up five more yellow cards than San Antonio (39) to this point of the season despite playing two fewer games. SAFC does rank in the top 10 for most cautions, though.
Grade
F
Prediction
While SAFC will rack up the yellows, I’m singling out Phoenix Rising FC midfielder Kevon Lambert as my choice to earn the first sending off of the new season. The 21-year-old Jamaican earned two red cards last year and is likely to get stuck in on occasion as the team’s midfield enforcer. With Rising FC facing fiery fixtures against San Antonio FC and New Mexico United to start the campaign, I don’t think this is that out of the realm of possibility.
Summary
I think Kevon said enough.
Grade
A
Prediction
After poking some fun at Kevon, I’ll make it up to him with this next prediction: Phoenix Rising FC will not miss a beat after the offseason departures of Didier Drogba, Chris Cortez and company. Head Coach Rick Schantz’s squad is loaded with new additions and primed to make another run at the USL Cup. Before reaching the postseason, however, Rising FC will add the Championship’s regular-season title to its trophy case with a league-leading 72 points.
Summary
The Tampa Bay Rowdies may boast the most points in the Championship, but Phoenix Rising FC narrowly edges out the Eastern Conference leader in points per games played (2.16 to 2.15). Rick Schantz’s side is currently on pace for 73 points, one off my prediction, and look as good as anyone on their current 10-game win streak.
Grade
B+
Prediction
Unfortunately for Rising FC and 34 other teams, they won’t have the honor of lifting the USL Cup in November. That honor will go to Nashville SC, which will break the curse of clubs heading to Major League Soccer failing to claim a championship in the season before their move once and for all.
Summary
Nashville currently sits fifth in the East table but boasts the second-best odds (seven percent – tied with Indy Eleven) of any team in the conference to lift the hardware in November, according to FiveThirtyEight. Head Coach Gary Smith’s squad has plenty of talent and room to improve over the second half if it starts firing on the offensive end.

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