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Championship Return to Play Preview – Group G

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 06/26/20, 1:05PM EDT

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Two great rivalries combine to make for an intriguing group


Birmingham Legion FC and Memphis 901 FC will renew a long-standing soccer rivalry between the cities in Group G alongside the Charlotte Independence and North Carolina FC. | Photo courtesy

The group assignments for Groups E through H ahead of the USL Championship’s resumption of the 2020 season are being made on Friday, giving us a chance to take a first look at each of the teams as they get ready to return to action.

Next up we look at Group G, which brings two good rivalries together for what on paper looks like an intriguing group, with both the Charlotte Independence and North Carolina FC, and Birmingham Legion FC and Memphis 901 FC set to get very familiar with each other over the next three months.

Birmingham Legion FC
Record: 0-0-0, 0pts
Head Coach: Tom Soehn
2019 Season: 12-15-7, 43pts; Eliminated in Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
OVERVIEW
Legion FC had yet to get its season underway in 2020, but we had the chance to see what the new faces added to last year’s playoff squad in a preseason exhibition against Atlanta United FC that brought a record crowd to BBVA Field. There was a lot to like from that performance, including Neco Brett scoring for his new side after his offseason move from Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. If everything falls into place the way it’s planned, a second postseason trip should be within reach.
Player to Watch
Neco Brett
The thing that was going to be required this year to take Legion FC from a playoff squad to a title contender was a boost in its scoring. In Brett, Birmingham added some serious firepower to go alongside hometown hero Chandler Hoffman. The Jamaican has scored 32 goals over the past two seasons, and if he reaches double-digits this campaign it would go a long way to driving Legion FC back into the playoffs.
Charlotte Independence
Record: 1-0-0, 3pts | W @SKC 2-1 [3/8]
Head Coach: Mike Jeffries
2019 Season: 9-14-11, 38pts
OVERVIEW
The Independence got an early return on its decision to bring aboard the Championship’s all-time leading scorer Dane Kelly during the offseason as the Jamaican scored the winner in a 2-1 road win against Sporting Kansas City II back in March. If you’re looking for a good omen, it was the first time the Independence had won in its first road game of the season in the club’s history. There were some things that will need fine tuning, but the Independence figure to make things very interesting as they look for a postseason return.
Player to Watch
Enzo Martinez
Dane Kelly might have stolen the headlines in his first game for Charlotte, but as important as he’ll be, Martinez is still the centerpiece of the Independence’s attack. The playmaker can score and create, as proven in the two seasons in which he was nominated for the Championship’s MVP award, and he’ll need to do plenty of both to make sure Charlotte keeps moving forward in a tough group.
Memphis 901 FC
Record: 0-1-0, 0pts | L vIND 2-4 [3/7]
Head Coach: Tim Mulqueen
2019 Season: 9-18-7, 34pts
OVERVIEW
For half-an-hour, things were going swimmingly for 901 FC in its home opener, but then the Indy Eleven brought them back to earth with a bump, turning a two-goal deficit into a 4-2 victory. The collapse might have been disheartening at the time, but the reality for Memphis should be that they did a lot right against a side that is expected to be a title contender this year in its first outing of the new season. It might be a tough road through the group, but there’s no reason why 901 FC shouldn’t be in the mix down the stretch with the talent its got.
Player to Watch
Zach Carroll
Carroll was on the good and bad side for Memphis in its opener. He notched one of the tallies that gave the side a two-goal edge early, but then was part of the defense that had difficulty closing down Indy after the halftime break. With the attacking potential the rest of the group has at its disposal, Memphis won’t be able to afford similar breakdowns as it returns to action, so how Carroll and the rest of the defense perform in front of Tim Howard is going to be key.
North Carolina FC
Record: 0-1-0, 0pts | L vLOU 0-1 [3/7]
Head Coach: Dave Sarachan
2019 Season: 16-10-8, 56pts; Eliminated in Eastern Conference Play-In Round
OVERVIEW
NCFC took one on the chin against Louisville City FC in its home opener back in March, but there were some positives to take away from the loss, as disappointing as it was. What’s going to matter most for NCFC as it looks to navigate its way back to the playoffs is going to be maintaining its mastery over the Charlotte Independence – North Carolina is 4-0-1 against its in-state rival since joining the Championship in 2018 – and gaining revenge against Birmingham Legion FC for a painful playoff elimination last October on its home turf.
Player to Watch
Alex Tambakis
The Greek goalkeeper has become a fan favorite over his first two seasons in Raleigh, with his consistent ability to pull off big saves the main reason why. No goalkeeper has made more appearances in the Championship since the start of the 2018 campaign than Tambakis with 64 regular-season games, and he’s going to need to be at his best to help North Carolina find its way back to another postseason chance.

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