Phoenix Rising FC and New Mexico United are set to clash in the final weekend of preseason on April 24 in what should be a must-see contest at Wild Horse Pass. | Photo courtesy Grace Stufkosky / Phoenix Rising FC
Preseason training camp is underway for a good contingent of USL Championship clubs, with some like Louisville City FC getting a head-start to their preparations in February and others opening camp this past weekend.
We’ve also got more than 50 matches currently slated for the build-up to the 2021 season, with more to come as teams reveal their preseason plans – or in the case of Austin Bold FC, have a charity match offer taken up by Austin FC. Among them are matchups between Championship teams and both MLS and USL League One competition, and some intriguing regional rivalries as well.
Here are 10 that have our attention as the preseason gets into full swing this week.
The Championship’s defending Western Conference Title holders Phoenix Rising FC get back into action at their new facility at Wild Horse Pass with a game against one of the top teams in Major League Soccer from a season ago, with Sporting KC having finished top of the Western Conference in 2020. That should offer Rising FC a good early test for its growing squad, and potentially offer a look at what midfield shape – and personnel – Head Coach Rick Schantz has in mind as the club wraps up its first week of preseason planning.
The first on-field meeting between Miami FC and Inter Miami CF may be a preseason one, but there will be plenty of intrigue surrounding it given the offseasons at both clubs. For Miami FC, free agency brought a bevy of new talent for Head Coach Paul Dalglish to work with including former Louisville City FC standouts Speedy Williams and Paco Craig, the attacking talent of Christiano Francois, and Ariel Martinez’s return to the 305 after a season in Tulsa. Over at Inter Miami, meanwhile, there’s been a coaching change with the installation of former England Women’s National Team boss Phil Neville to lead the side into its second season as well as numerous roster moves. With South Florida bragging rights on the line, there might be a bit more bite to this one than your average preseason clash.
The soccer talent pool in Texas has traditionally been strong, and its progression can be seen in both the academies of FC Dallas – which now has multiple alumni competing in top leagues in Europe – and San Antonio FC – which boasts some outstanding local talent in its current roster. That should make for a good matchup at Toyota Field featuring plenty of homegrown talent as League One’s North Texas SC makes the trip to face Head Coach Alen Marcina’s squad. After Jose Gallegos’ breakout preseason last year ended with him being named as a finalist for the Championship’s Young Player of the Year award, it will be interesting to see who might be next to grab the spotlight from SAFC’s Academy system this spring.
The Charleston Battery head to central Florida for this preseason contest, and they’ll find a familiar face waiting for them as they meet Minnesota United FC. Former Battery standout Ozzie Alonso – who made his name in North America after defecting from his native Cuba during the 2008 USL First Division campaign, earning Rookie of the Year honors – recently re-signed for his third season with the Loons, continuing what has been a stellar top-flight career since he joined Seattle Sounders FC for its inaugural MLS season. The Battery have many of the club’s key performers from the 2020 season returning, including Bermuda international Zeiko Lewis and a strong defense backed by goalkeeper Joe Kuzminsky, so this should be a good contest on the field as well.
Cast your mind back a year – yes, it certainly seems longer ago, we know – and you might remember the great atmosphere and entertaining contest at BBVA Field between Birmingham Legion FC and Atlanta United FC. There are set to be fans again this year as the sides re-engage, and they’ll get the chance to see some new additions to Birmingham’s roster in the form of 2020 Championship Golden Boot winner Junior Flemmings and defender Phanuel Kavita. With this game arriving a little over a week before Atlanta begins its bid to win the 2021 Concacaf Champions League, the visitors should bring a strong lineup under new Head Coach Gabriel Heinze. That means the potential for another entertaining contest and a big test for Birmingham’s lineup.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies have plenty of intriguing contests in the buildup to the defense of their Eastern Conference Title, including a visit from Inter Miami CF to Al Lang Stadium on Saturday, March 27. This matchup against the New York Red Bulls at IMG Academy, however, might be the most interesting of the bunch with former Red Bulls Evan Louro and Jordan Scarlett set to reunite with some familiar faces. The Rowdies have brought back a strong contingent from its title-winning side last season and some strong new additions, led by forward Steevan Dos Santos and defender Conner Antley. With the Red Bulls’ quality and high-pressure style of play, Tampa Bay will get a good test from this outing.
There are some highly appealing contests on Louisville City FC’s preseason slate, including a couple of River Cities Cup clashes with Major League Soccer’s FC Cincinnati, but we’re looking forward to what this meeting between LouCity – one of the Championship’s standard-bearers since its inaugural season – and Greenville Triumph SC – the reigning USL League One title-holder – could bring. Greenville has brought back a large contingent of players from its successful 2020 campaign including the core of a defense that has been airtight for its first two seasons. How it withstands the challenge posed by the likes of LouCity’s Cameron Lancaster, Antoine Hoppenot, Brian Ownby and newcomer Jimmy McLaughlin promises to be fascinating.
San Diego Loyal SC may not have earned a place in the Championship Playoffs at the conclusion of its first season, but the manner in which it closed the campaign was certainly impressive. This offseason has brought some strong new additions, too, with All-League defender Thomas Vancaeyezeele joining the club from Pittsburgh and Corey Hertzog and Jack Blake both making the jump to SD Loyal as well. As a result, Head Coach Landon Donovan’s side is set to go into its second year with the postseason as a minimum aim, and this matchup with perennial MLS Cup contender Seattle Sounders FC could give us an idea of what SD Loyal’s upside could be.
After dueling down the stretch for a USL Championship Playoffs berth last season, FC Tulsa and Austin Bold FC are in different divisions – and conferences – for the new campaign. That shouldn’t dull the energy for this preseason outing for both clubs at ONEOK Field with potential opening night lineup positions on the line for the players. Tulsa has bolstered its squad with some notable new additions including forward Jerome Kiesewetter to go with the returning Dario Suarez and Rodrigo Da Costa, while Austin has looked to add firepower with Jason Johnson, Omar Gordon and Sean Okoli all coming aboard in free agency. That talent should make for a high-octane contest.
We’re still yet to find out whether Phoenix Rising FC and New Mexico United will meet in the Championship’s regular season – while the sides are in different divisions, the schedule structure certainly could allow for that to happen. To have the two squads meet in the final weekend of the preseason at Phoenix’s new facility at Wild Horse Pass, however, certainly could have all the atmosphere of a game with something on the line. These two teams have developed a tremendous rivalry over the past two seasons and getting the mental boost a win would provide before the anticipated regular season kickoff on May 1 should make this contest one worth tuning in for.