New Mexico United and Phoenix Rising FC produced three classic encounters in 2019, they'll meet once again on August 8 at Isotopes Park. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
It’s not the USL Championship season we imagined it was going to be four months ago, but there’s a chance it could be one of the most compelling in the league’s history.
With a regionalized structure and expanded national television schedule in place for the resumption of the 2020 Championship season, the battle for points in eye-catching contests between regional rivals has given us plenty of storylines going into next weekend’s resumption.
A 13-week sprint awaits us, with 35 clubs fighting for 16 playoffs sports all in the hopes of lifting the trophy at this year’s Championship Final.
So, with 263 games in front of us, here are the 10 that stick out most.
It’s the first game of the Championship’s resumption, and it’s a big one. Real Monarchs SLC will play host to San Diego Loyal SC at Rio Tinto Stadium on ESPN Deportes in an intriguing intergroup matchup to get things back underway. It’s safe to say that a road defeat wasn’t the way the Monarchs had hoped to open the defense of their USL Championship title back in March, but they’ve been arguably the best home team in the league for the last three seasons, going 38-6-10 since the start of the 2017 season. That’s the daunting prospect facing SD Loyal and Head Coach Landon Donovan as they try to continue their undefeated start to the club’s inaugural campaign.
Look, I know everyone’s hyped about the opening game at LouCity’s new $65 million Lynn Family Stadium against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC – and why wouldn’t you be, honestly? – but there’s going to be something special about the first game at the venue between LouCity and one its two biggest rivals. The Kings’ Cup has been a fixture in the league since 2015, but after STLFC’s thumping of what we think will be a good Miami FC side back in March – and how big points are going to be early in what looks like a three-way battle alongside Indy Eleven for the two playoff spots in Group E – the anticipation for this is going to be very high indeed among both sets of supporters.
While the regionalized groups kept them separated, we’re still going to get two editions of the Silver State Cup this season, starting when Las Vegas hosts Reno at Cashman Field. While they won't be going head-to-head for a playoff berth, however, that might only raise the stakes even higher in terms of bragging rights for a matchup that has produced plenty of drama over the past two seasons. Reno has taken the trophy both seasons – including a sweep of the home-and-home last year – but 2020 was promising to bring something different from Lights FC going off their season-opening performance. We’ll see how Las Vegas adjusts to having Frank Yallop on the sideline instead of recently departed Eric Wynalda, but on their home turf, anything can happen, and certainly might here.
If you saw any of the three games between New Mexico United and Phoenix Rising FC last season in either the league or the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, you learned two things; you’ll always get your money’s-worth in entertainment, and you don’t leave before the final whistle blows. Epic is a word that can get overused nowadays, but after NMU’s penalty shootout victory in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup to Phoenix’s stoppage-time equalizer in a 2-2 draw at Isotopes Park late last season, there was no other word to describe what had just happened. The bar has been set seriously high for this one and it’s hard to think the players on both sides won’t rise to that occasion.
Given the pedigree of the club under Head Coach Bob Lilley – and the questions I have for the rest of the teams in Group F – it’s clear Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC is the favorite to claim the group and reach the postseason for a third successive year. If there’s a team that might be able to provide a challenge to the Hounds’ supremacy, though, it might be Hartford Athletic, which has undergone a major transformation this offseason, led by the appointment of Tunisian World Cup legend Radhi Jaïdi as Head Coach. This game at Dillon Stadium arrives just past the midway point of the season’s resumption. It could end up being a crucial one as to whether the Athletic can prove themselves against one of the league’s top teams, and whether a playoff berth is in its future.
As strange as it might seem, the on-field history between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Miami FC has been a relatively limited one, with three league meetings before the Rowdies joined the Championship prior to the 2017 season and one in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup over the past four years. That means this season has the potential to really burnish this matchup as a serious Sunshine State feud, with the teams set to meet four times in just over eight weeks in Group H. This matchup is the third of the series, and the second at Al Lang Stadium, by which point the positions of both clubs and perennial playoff contender the Charleston Battery – also in the four-team group – should have become defined. As such, there could be plenty on the line at the most scenic venue in the Championship.
After the thrills and heartaches that occurred when Indy and LouCity met in the Eastern Conference Final of the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs, the Louisville-Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest (LIPAFC for short) was set to be a must-see throughout the 2020 season. Now with the two teams grouped alongside what looked like a rejuvenated Saint Louis FC in the Championship’s return to play structure, the pressure is only going to rise even further. The season finale between two of the model clubs in the Championship arrives with three weeks to go in the regular season, and either first place in the group, or a postseason berth, is going to be on the line.
I can’t be the only one that thinks Group D’s playoff places are destined to be determined in the final weekend of the regular season, and that’s what makes the Friday night clash between Bold FC and SAFC to kick the final set of games off so intriguing. San Antonio made a stellar start to its new campaign by defeating Real Monarchs SLC, but it will be very aware of the challenges that are going to come from both of the clubs in Oklahoma as well as Bold FC and its South Texas Derby rival RGVFC in the race for a top-two spot in the division. Likewise, Austin got off to a good start, and believes it has the depth to carry it through to a second consecutive postseason spot. So, what better than a Lonestar State battle to decide which side gets to continue playing, and which one might see its season come to an end?
The soccer rivalry between the cities of Memphis and Birmingham predates the arrival of 901 FC and Legion FC in the Championship, which means there are added layers of animosity between the supporters of both clubs that carry over to the field. After last year’s ding-dong battle at AutoZone Park that saw the sides exchange three goals in the final 10 minutes to end in a dramatic 2-2 draw, there could be whole lot more on the line in this meeting on the final Saturday of the regular season. Win or go home, and the chance to eliminate your biggest rival at the same time? Sounds like something everyone should be looking forward to.
The Monarchs will be one of the first two teams to play the opening game of the Championship’s resumption, and they’ll also play on the final day of the regular season in a rematch of the 2019 Western Conference Final against Locomotive FC. With Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and New Mexico United joining them, Group C is looking like the most unpredictable of the groups in the Championship’s restructured format, a very anxiety-producing thing for fans and coaches, and a great thing for neutrals looking on. After the heroics both of these teams performed in being the last two teams standing in the Western Conference, it would be a surprise if one of them wasn’t in line for a playoff place when the season finale arrives, but if things haven’t gone entirely to plan by this moment then a preseason favorite could be on the outside looking in as the teams meet at Zions Bank Stadium.