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2020 Championship Preview – Eastern Conference

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 03/02/20, 9:00AM EST

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The projections say we’re in for a tight race at the top as contenders look to topple Louisville City FC


For a third consecutive season, Louisville City FC claimed the crown in the Eastern Conference, but there will be serious challenges from a loaded group of contenders in the 2020 Championship season. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City

A compelling, multi-team race for the top spot in the 2019 Eastern Conference standings culminated in celebrations at Highmark Stadium, where Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC stood tallest following an impressive 8-0-3 finish to the season.

Unfortunately for the Hounds, and everyone else in the East’s postseason field, when the playoffs finally arrived, so did a predictable outcome as Louisville City – for the third consecutive season – reached the USL Championship Final.

LouCity’s quest to become the first side to claim three Championship titles came up short against Real Monarchs SLC, but Head Coach John Hackworth’s side is among the favorites once again as the club gets set to move into a new 11,700-seat Lynn Family Stadium in April. Familiar faces, including LIPAFC rival Indy Eleven and the Tampa Bay Rowdies should be leading challengers alongside the Hounds.

The wild card could be Championship newcomer Miami FC, however, which enters with its own history of success it will be looking to replicate in its new surroundings.

In field packed with talent and parity, we take a look at what to expect from the 2020 Eastern Conference.

Atlanta United 2
Head Coach: Stephen Glass
Venue: Fifth Third Bank Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 18 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 15th place, 32pts, -25 goal differential
MURRAY
Atlanta’s youngsters took their fair share of lumps in 2019, including a 14-game winless streak that slid them well out of contention for a playoff berth. The late-season brought better results, including home victories against playoff sides Ottawa Fury FC, the Charleston Battery and Indy Eleven, which lends a little optimism for the club’s third year, but the added depth brought in by the sides that sat in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference last season could make vying for a playoff place a tough proposition again.
Player to Watch
Jackson Conway – Forward
After doubling his appearances (22) and tripling his minutes (1,579) in 2019, the 18-year-old Conway will be hoping for a similar rise in his goal production after tallying five times last season. With the bar to contend for a place for a place in Atlanta United FC’s attack a remarkably high one, Conway’s performance this year could show whether he’s capable of reaching that mark at a future point in his career.
Birmingham Legion FC
Head Coach: Tom Soehn
Venue: BBVA Field
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 61 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 9th place, 46pts, Even goal differential
MURRAY
Birmingham was the lone first-year club in the Eastern Conference to reach the postseason, and Legion FC even managed to pull off one of the most exciting results of the postseason in its 3-2 victory against North Carolina FC. The gap between reaching the playoffs and being a contender, though, was laid bare in the next round against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. Trying to bridge the gap, Legion FC has added some nice pieces this offseason – including All-League forward Neco Brett and former Columbus Crew SC defender Alex Crognale – as it looks to take the next step toward a top-six finish.
Player to Watch
Neco Brett – Forward
The fact that Brett put Legion FC to the sword in Riverhounds SC’s playoff demolition only added to the case for bringing him to Birmingham in free agency this offseason, but the Jamaican has been a stellar forward in the Championship for the past two seasons. Brett has scored 32 goals over the last two regular seasons and playoffs, and with the return from injury of Chandler Hoffman to play alongside him could provide a serious boost to Legion FC’s attack.
Charleston Battery
Head Coach: Mike Anhaeuser
Venue: Patriots Point Soccer Complex
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 59 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 10th place, 46pts, -1 goal differential
MURRAY
The Battery maintained their streak of reaching the postseason in every season of the Championship’s history, coming through with back-to-back victories to close the season to end above the playoff line. This offseason has brought plenty of change to the club in the front office with Rob Salvatore leading a new ownership group that will keep the club on solid footing moving forward. On the field, though, Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser enters his 27th season at the club as either player or on the sidelines and will remain as the steady hand that will try to guide Charleston back to another postseason berth.
Player to Watch
Zeiko Lewis – Midfielder
The Bermuda international was a key driver for the Battery in his first season at the club, leading the side with eight goals and 46 chances created and tying for the team-high with five assists. Lewis’ creativity in the final third will be charged with leading a Battery attack that has talent, but didn’t quite fire consistently in the 2019 season to make its passage to the postseason a more comfortable one.
Charlotte Independence
Head Coach: Mike Jeffries
Venue: Sportsplex at Matthews
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 62 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 8th place, 47pts, Even goal differential
MURRAY
The Independence’s 2019 campaign was a rollercoaster ride, but in the end the massive downward drop that began the season that cost Head Coach Jim McGuinness his job was too much to overcome, even with the side posting an eight-game undefeated streak midseason and a four-game winning streak to close the year. Mike Jeffries’ remaining to the sideline should provide more stability this year, and the side has replaced one Championship legend with another as all-time leading scorer Dane Kelly arrives to replace the retired Jorge Herrera to lead the club’s attack. Getting positive momentum and a playoff place would be a very big plus for the side as it gets ready to move to Legion Stadium in 2021.
Player to Watch
Enzo Martinez – Forward
With 77 regular-season goals in the Championship over his career, all eyes will be on Dane Kelly as he looks to bounce back from a season that saw him score 10 goals for Indy Eleven. The Independence’s talisman, however, remains Enzo Martinez, who has been at the center of the club’s successes over the past five years. Finding a return to the form that made him a two-time All-League First Team selection and candidate for the Championship’s Most Valuable Player in 2016 and 2017 would put the Independence back on course for the postseason.
Hartford Athletic
Head Coach: Radhi Jaidi
Venue: Dillon Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 36 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 13th place, 39pts, -14 goal differential
MURRAY
The Athletic hit the reset button this offseason after an inaugural campaign that had some bright moments, but also saw it concede 80 goals, tied for the most in the Eastern Conference. Enter former Tunisian international and Southampton FC U23 coach Radhi Jaidi, who has talked about instilling a harder attitude and a higher level of professionalism within the squad that should make Dillon Stadium a more difficult place to visit for opponents. Whether that translates into a playoff place in his first year remains to be seen, but the long-term ties that are being forged between Hartford and Southampton in the bigger picture could provide a valuable payoff further down the line.
Player to Watch
Ever Guzman – Forward
Hartford’s primary objective this season is going to be reducing the flow of goals from opponents, but if the Athletic are going to reach the playoffs, they’re going to need a consistent finisher. For the past two seasons, that was Guzman’s role for San Antonio FC, where he became the club’s all-time leading scorer with 24 tallies. If the Mexican striker can mesh well with the likes of midfielders Danny Barrera and Mads Jorgensen, it could result in some great entertainment for Hartford’s fans.
Indy Eleven
Head Coach: Martin Rennie
Venue: Lucas Oil Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 93 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 2nd place, 61pts, +23 goal differential
MURRAY
Indy Eleven came this close to earning a first trip to the USL Championship Final before Louisville City FC’s dramatic comeback last November, but the major step forward taken by Head Coach Martin Rennie’s side from Year 1 to Year 2 under the experienced Scottish coach was undeniable. Now the Eleven will have the expectations of being a title contender to manage from the start of the season, but with the bulk of the squad returning and some intriguing new additions led by former Ottawa Fury FC standout Carl Haworth added to the mix, the Eleven are going to be one of the toughest outs when the USL Championship Playoffs begin.
Player to Watch
Carl Haworth – Midfielder
If you’re looking to pin Carl Haworth down position-wise, the reality is he brings a little bit of everything in his game. Need someone to provide attacking punch? Haworth scored 10 goals last season and has a history as a forward. Need a solid full back? Haworth showed he’s more than capable of that too over the past two seasons in Ottawa. How about a wide creator and set-piece specialist? Haworth’s five goals from free kicks in 2019 led the Championship. It’s going to be fascinating to see where he fits into Head Coach Martin Rennie’s lineup, but wherever that is, you can expect the veteran Canadian will make a positive impact to Indy’s push for a title.
Loudoun United FC
Head Coach: Ryan Martin
Venue: Segra Field
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 33 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 14th place, 38pts, -15 goal differential
MURRAY
A handful of challenges made playoff contention a tricky proposition for Loudoun United FC in its inaugural season, but the points-per-game pace set by the club after Head Coach Ryan Martin took over would have had it in contention for a playoff place – although just falling short – in 2019 if extended throughout a full campaign. What Martin can do as an encore will be interesting, but the returning talent of players like forward Alioune Ndour – who scored five goals in four games last in the campaign – and the incoming group could give Loudoun a chance to beat their preseason projections.
Player to Watch
Erik Sorga – Forward
The Estonian forward is believed to be on the fast-track to D.C. United after his signing by Loudoun United FC this offseason, and with a scoring rate of 31 tallies in 34 games for FC Flora Tallinn in his native Estonia last season it’s not hard to understand why. The 20-year-old has also notched his first goal at the senior international level, too, and could bring some serious excitement with him as long as he’s in a Loudoun uniform.
Louisville City FC
Head Coach: John Hackworth
Venue: Lynn Family Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 89 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 4th place, 58pts, +19 goal differential
MURRAY
Louisville City FC came up just short of a title three-peat in the 2019 USL Championship Final, but in reaching its fifth consecutive Eastern Conference Final – a mark that spans every season of the club’s history – and a third consecutive Eastern Conference title the side showed why it has become the standard-bearer for the Championship going into the league’s 10th anniversary season. Comeback victories in extra time on the road against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Indy Eleven provided two of the most memorable moments in the Championship’s postseason history, and with the arrival of defender Jimmy Ockford, midfielder Corben Bone and forward Cameron Lancaster – returning to LouCity on loan from Nashville SC for the 2020 season – the side only seems further reinforced to take a run at a third star.
Player to Watch
Cameron Lancaster – Forward
Lancaster’s return to LouCity on loan from Nashville SC adds another potent piece to the club’s attack, with memories of the English forward’s record-setting 25-goal regular season in 2018 still likely fresh in the memories of the club’s fans. The biggest question for Lancaster will be whether he can complete a full season without injury problems, but if he’s available to compete alongside the likes of Antoine Hoppenot, Brian Ownby and Abdou Thiam, it’s going to be a very difficult season for opposing defenses.
Memphis 901 FC
Head Coach: Tim Mulqueen
Venue: AutoZone Park
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 49 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 11th place, 43pts, -6 goal differential
MURRAY
Memphis kept itself in the playoff picture until late in the season, but a run of five losses in the last six games saw 901 FC slide down the standings while finishing nine points from a postseason berth. The biggest plus to come out of the club’s first season, though, was the foundation 901 FC built to enter Year 2 with midseason arrivals like defender Liam Doyle and forward Brandon Allen having achieved success at previous stops. New Sporting Director Tim Howard continued that trend of adding leadership this offseason with former Nashville SC midfielder Michael Reed and defender Zach Carroll arriving in the Bluff City looking to push 901 FC toward a place in the playoffs this campaign.
Player to Watch
Michael Reed – Midfielder
There will be plenty of people rooting for Reed to rebound strongly as he arrives in Memphis after a stellar season last year for Nashville SC was cut short by a dislocated ankle injury suffered in August. If back to his best, though, the veteran midfielder should provide a valuable presence both in the middle of the park and on set pieces, from which over the past three seasons Reed has recorded six of his nine assists for San Antonio FC and Nashville SC.
The Miami FC
Head Coach: Nelson Vargas
Venue: Riccardo Silva Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 95 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 1st place, 63pts, +27 goal differential
MURRAY
There might not have been a bigger piece of offseason news in the USL Championship than December’s announcement that Miami FC had joined the lead for the 2020 season. And after success at all of its prior stops, the club’s leadership is leaving no stone unturned as it looks to become part of the Eastern Conference’s elite this season. The projected side certainly looks good on paper – and is reflected in the projected first-place finish from fivethirtyeight.com – with newcomers like Romario Williams, Vincent Bezecourt and Sebastian Velasquez all bringing prior Championship All-League selections with them to the club. How they and the other newcomers mesh with a solid returning group to create the style of soccer Miami FC considers its trademark will go a long way to determining how it plays out in practice.
Player to Watch
Romario Williams – Forward
Miami wanted to make a statement with the first signing of its USL Championship era, and in Jamaican forward Romario Williams it accomplished just that. Most recently of Columbus Crew SC, Williams brings a sterling pedigree from his previous stints on loan in the Championship, posting a rate of 140.94 minutes per goal over the past four seasons while notching 32 goals in 64 games over that span. If the 25-year-old can maintain that pace this season, he’ll be among the contenders for the Championship’s Golden Boot just as he was in the 2017 season with the Charleston Battery.
New York Red Bulls II
Head Coach: John Wolyniec
Venue: MSU Soccer Park
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 43 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 12th place, 41pts, -10 goal differential
MURRAY
The New York Red Bulls II put together another sterling regular season, but a late-season slide carried over into the playoffs where they were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals for the first time, breaking a streak of three consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Final. As is usually the case, the offseason has brought changes for Head Coach John Wolyniec between a combination of players being signed to MLS deals – 2019 Championship All-League selections Jared Stroud and Chris Lema – and others moving on, including goalkeeper Evan Louro and Jordan Scarlett to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. These are the Red Bulls II, though, and while their projection might not be great this preseason, it’s likely they’ll find a way to keep their streak of playoff participation intact come the end of the season.
Player to Watch
Omar Sowe – Midfielder
When Omar Sowe signed professional terms with the Red Bulls II last August, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger he became the first player from Harrison High School to join the professional ranks in more than four decades. After scoring two goals in six appearances down the stretch for New York last season, the 19-year-old Gambian-American will enter his first full season at the club looking to make a serious impact and continue a rapid upward trajectory within the club’s development system while also driving the side back toward the postseason for a sixth consecutive year.
North Carolina FC
Head Coach: Dave Sarachan
Venue: Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 80 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 6th place, 54pts, +11 goal differential
MURRAY
North Carolina cruised into the playoffs in its second season in the Championship, but then suffered a dramatic upset at the hands of Birmingham Legion FC to bring Head Coach Dave Sarachan’s first year in charge to an end. With the combination of returning standouts – including stellar goalkeeper Alex Tambakis – and some bright newcomers led by forward Hadji Barry, the upward trajectory for NCFC should continue this season. Whether that’s going to be enough to push the side into the conversation for a top-four finish, though, is going to be the biggest question Sarachan’s squad faces as it goes into the campaign.
Player to Watch
Nazmi Albadawi – Midfielder
While NCFC said goodbye to one club legend this offseason with the retirement of Austin da Luz, the permanent return of another in Nazmi Albadawi will give the club a major figure to build around in the center of midfield as well as a creative hub in the attacking third. A Raleigh, N.C. native, Albadawi stands as the club’s all-time leader in assists after recording four goals and five assists in 19 appearances a season ago on loan from FC Cincinnati. Still in his prime at 28 years old, there should be plenty more in reserve to help NCFC find the next level this season.
Philadelphia Union II
Head Coach: Sven Gartung
Venue: Subaru Park
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 12 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 17th place, 30pts, -30 goal differential
MURRAY
After back-to-back playoff appearances in 2017 and 2018, things took a seriously downward turn for the Union II in their fourth season as the side was unable to find the consistency it had produced and leaked goals to the tune of 78 goals against in 34 games. It could be a challenge for the side to rebound this season, too, even with the arrival of new Head Coach Sven Gartung to lead the side as Brendan Burke took a new role within the club. A lot will be asked of the club’s young players – including Jamaican international Jamoi Topey – in way of response to the struggles of last season, especially with the departure of experienced heads like midfielder James Chambers.
Player to Watch
Cole Turner – Midfielder
Officially added to the Philadelphia Union’s roster on January 1, 2020 as a Homegrown signing, Turner should still see the majority of his action on loan with the Union II this season after making 25 appearances for the club last season. The 18-year-old showed off his passing range during the past campaign, completing 80.7 percent of passes at a rate of 47.8 passes per 90 minutes, but as a holding midfielder the side will need an improvement in his defensive work, where he lost the majority of his duels and aerials and averaged 1.03 interceptions per 90 minutes.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Head Coach: Bob Lilley
Venue: Highmark Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 88 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 5th place, 57pts, +17 goal differential
MURRAY
The Hounds’ 20th anniversary season was a historic one as the side set new regular-season marks for victories (19) and goals (58) while finishing top of the Eastern Conference for the first time in the Championship era. Those successes ended in postseason disappointment at the hands of Louisville City FC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and after an offseason that have seen some key players either leave in free agency, including defender Joe Greenspan and forward Neco Brett, or retire, in the case of Kevin Kerr, rebuilding is the order of the day. Under the stewardship of Head Coach Bob Lilley, however, it’s hard to imagine the Hounds slipping too far in terms of competitiveness among the Eastern Conference’s leaders.
Player to Watch
Kenardo Forbes – Midfielder
There have been fewer players as dependable over the past five seasons as Forbes, and his first selection to the USL Championship All-League First Team in 2019 was well deserved as he once again showed why he’s arguably the best two-way central midfielder in the Championship. Over the past three seasons, Forbes has not only won possession at a league-best rate – his 841 recoveries are more than any other player – but has also been a stellar distributor with 22 assists, 39 Big Chances Created and 181 Chances Created overall according to Opta. Add in his durability – Forbes has made at least 30 appearances every season since joining the Rochester Rhinos in 2015 – and you have a foundation piece the Hounds will continue to build around this season.
Saint Louis FC
Head Coach: Steve Trittschuh
Venue: West Community Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 75 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 7th place, 52pts, +8 goal differential
MURRAY
Saint Louis FC put itself in position to reach the postseason for a second consecutive season thanks to a five game winning streak late in the season, but then undid all its good work by picking up one point from its final six games to sit one place and one point outside the playoff positions. The memory of that should spur on the players that return to the side for this season, led by local standout Sam Fink and forward Kyle Greig, but what should ensure a solid chance at postseason action in 2020 are the reinforcements that have arrived, especially those of midfielder Wal Fall and forward Mour Samb from Ottawa Fury FC. With another local legend in Steve Trittschuh set to lead the way on the sidelines, STLFC will be hoping everything falls into place as nicely as it appears it should on paper.
Player to Watch
Wal Fall – Midfielder
The level of success in the postseason has varied from club to club, but wherever Wal Fall has suited up in the Championship over the past four seasons, a playoff berth has arrived as well. Now, as he returns to Saint Louis after helping Ottawa Fury FC reach the postseason a year ago, the 27-year-old central midfielder will look to pick up where he left off in the 2018 season when he helped STLFC to its only postseason berth in club history. Fall has been a two-way threat for clubs in the past, with his 10-goal season for Fury FC in 2019 a career-best in the Championship. His ability to win possession and distribute, though, is what he does best while making life difficult for opposing players.
Sporting Kansas City II
Head Coach: Paulo Nagamura
Venue: Children’s Mercy Park
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 14 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 16th place, 31pts, -28 goal differential
MURRAY
After reaching the postseason each of the club’s first three seasons – and the USL Championship Final in its first two years – the 2019 season was the toughest in SKC II’s history as the side’s defensive fragility saw it conceded 80 goals in the regular season and well off the pace for the playoffs after recording only two wins in the opening half of the season. Clearly, the defensive issues are going to be key if Head Coach Paulo Nagamura’s side is to get back into playoff contention, but there are some exciting pieces here that will at least make sure SKC II’s games are entertaining whatever happens results-wise.
Player to Watch
Wilson Harris – Forward
There was a sense of anticipation as to what 2019 would bring for Wilson Harris in preseason, and while he took time to get going in his second season for SKC II, by the end of the campaign he had caught fire in front of goal. The 20-year-old scored 10 goals in his last 11 appearances of the season and did so in efficient style, needing only 19 shots on goal to post his 12 goals total in the campaign. If Harris can pick up where he left off last season, he’ll provide the consistent threat up front his side needs to get back in playoff contention.
Tampa Bay Rowdies
Head Coach: Neill Collins
Venue: Al Lang Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 93 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 3rd place, 61pts, +23 goal differential
MURRAY
The Rowdies opened the 2019 season in tremendous fashion, going 13 games without defeat to sit on top of the Eastern Conference. As the season wore on, though, the cracks started to appear, especially in defense, where the side recorded only two shutouts in the second half of the season. After sliding to fifth place in the regular season and elimination from the playoffs by Louisville City FC, Tampa Bay will have an all-new look for 2020 with the arrival of defensive centerpiece Forrest Lasso to lead other newcomers including goalkeeper Evan Louro and defenders Aaron Guillen, Jordan Scarlett and Mustapha Dumbuya. With a hold of solid attacking pieces returning, including Championship All-League selection Sebastian Guenzatti, the Rowdies have the look of a title contender going into the new campaign.
Player to Watch
Sebastian Guenzatti – Forward
Stepping into a leading role for the first time since arriving in Tampa Bay in 2017, Guenzatti rewarded the faith of the Rowdies’ coaching staff with a career year. His 19 goals across the regular season and playoffs placed him tied for third in the Championship and earned Championship All-League Second Team honors. Now all eyes will be on the 28-year-old as he looks to produce an encore and provide enough of the goals the Rowdies will need to compete with the best in the Eastern Conference.

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