Christiano Francois is one of a large contingent of new faces aiming to turn around Miami FC's fortunes in its second season in the Championship. | Photo courtesy Miami FC
We’re 54 days away from the expected kickoff of the 2021 USL Championship season on May 1, which means most teams are now in training camp to prepare for the 11th campaign in the league’s history. As things get moving in earnest ahead of the first set of preseason games this weekend – here are 10 you should have circled on your calendar – here are five storylines we’ll be watching over the next seven weeks.
Louisville City FC Head Coach John Hackworth and his side are once again looking to become the first team with three USL Championship Final victories as they enter the new campaign. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Even if you’re not a fan of Louisville City FC, if you’ve been following the Championship for a while you can probably reel off many of the starters that have helped the club reach six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals in the USL Championship Playoffs. Players like Cameron Lancaster, Paolo DelPiccolo, Brian Ownby and Sean Totsch need little introduction around the league, and neither do more recent arrivals like Corben Bone and Jimmy McLaughlin.
If there’s a question for LouCity this year, though, it may be how long this iteration of the team is going to continue to thrive? Five of the players that started last year’s Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Rowdies are now at least 30 years of age, and both DelPiccolo and Totsch will join them this year. That’s a lot of veteran experience, to be sure, but it’s also a reminder that age catches up to everyone eventually and the need for new faces could be arriving soon.
That’s not to short-change the likelihood of LouCity being a title contender. Far from it, in fact. The motivation to become the first Championship team to win three USL Championship Finals should provide plenty of fuel for Head Coach John Hackworth’s side, but what will be worth paying attention to is whether the young talent in Louisville’s squad like defenders Akil Watts and Jonathan Gomez will make a push to become solid fixtures in the lineup this year.
There hasn’t been what you might term a “big splash” signing by defending Eastern Conference Title holder the Tampa Bay Rowdies so far this offseason, and with most of last year’s side back for the defense there didn’t necessarily need to be. One that did catch the eye, however, was the arrival of veteran Cape Verde forward Steevan Dos Santos from Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
This might come as a surprise, but since the USL partnered with Opta prior to the 2017 season there has been no player that has won as many duels (934) or aerial duels (562) as Dos Santos. In fact, he’s around 200 ahead of his nearest rival in both categories, a sign of the prodigious work-rate that made him invaluable for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC over the past two years. The Rowdies have had their own great target man in captain Sebastian Guenzatti lead the forward line in recent seasons, but how Dos Santos fits into Head Coach Neill Collins’ lineup will be worth paying attention to.
For many clubs in the Eastern Conference, continuity was the theme for the offseason as they brought back numerous key players from the 2020 season. At Miami FC, the changes got rung loudly after the club – which is used to success – came up off the pace behind in-state rival the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Charleston Battery in the race for the postseason. Technical Director and Head Coach Paul Dalglish was a busy man with only four players set to return from last season, and some star names arriving at Riccardo Silva Stadium.
Leading the way is 2020 All-League selection and Jamaican international Speedy Williams, and he’s joined by notable back-line additions Paco Craig, Ramon Martin Del Campo and former AC Milan and Italy fullback Luca Antonelli. There are also some bright attacking options in Haiti international Christiano Francois, Billy Forbes and the return to the club of Ariel Martinez. The big question will be whether all this ties together over the next two months as Miami looks to make a major impact in its second Championship campaign. It will certainly be worth watching their progress.
Forward Jerome Kiesewetter is one of the big-ticket acquisitions FC Tulsa is hoping will lead it to even greater success in the 2021 Championship season. | Photo courtesy FC Tulsa
The only way the first season of FC Tulsa’s new era could have gone any better would have been for the club to secure the first postseason victory in its history. As it was, the step forward the club took in all areas was one of the best stories of the 2020 campaign and continued apace into the offseason. New signings and new community initiatives that have generated a massive buzz for freshly-minted USSF Pro License holder Michael Nsien and his side as it gets ready for the new campaign.
We could find out a decent amount as to whether Tulsa is going to take that next step this preseason. The arrivals of forward Jerome Kiesewetter and defender Modou Jadama to accompany the returning core of 11 returning players will have plenty of time to come together, and it will be worth keeping an eye on the progress of Ciaran Winters, who became the first player in club history to sign a pro deal after being a USL Academy signing in February. With big tests to come in the Central Division, Tulsa will be looking to set up for a sharp start to its first season in the Eastern Conference.
It seems to be a fact of life if you’re a Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC fan. For every Kenardo Forbes – back in the fold again for his fourth season at the club – there will be more key offseason departures to deal with each offseason. This year, the OUT column in the Hounds’ Transfer Tracker has included two-time All-League selection Thomas Vancaeyezeele (San Diego Loyal SC), underrated outside back Ryan James (Birmingham Legion FC), hometown standout Robbie Mertz (Atlanta United 2) and forward Steevan Dos Santos (Tampa Bay Rowdies)
As tough as it is to see those players move on, however, there can be an overriding confidence that Head Coach Bob Lilley will find a way to fill the gaps with new, good pieces that will keep the Hounds solidly in playoff contention and with the potential for more. This year, those reinforcements include the former Saint Louis FC duo of Russell Cicerone and Todd Wharton, with the latter likely to make a great midfield tandem with Forbes. Into the fold have also come forward Alex Dixon, and an intriguing potential story in Josh Gatt, the former U.S. Men’s National Team player who has persevered through a series of unfortunate injuries in recent years.
The foundation of who the Hounds are will remain, Lilley will see to that, and it’s going to be intriguing to see what the newly formed lineup is going to bring to the table when the regular season arrives.