Tampa Bay Rowdies captain Sebastian Guenzatti was full of praise for the club's newcomers this preseason as the Eastern Conference Title holders prepare for their opener against the Charlotte Independence. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Week 2 of the USL Championship’s regular season kicks off tonight, here are five things to watch for over the course of this weekend in the Eastern Conference.
When you’ve got 15 players returning from a title-winning squad, it might feel like the lineup for opening day of the 2021 season for the Tampa Bay Rowdies would serve as a continuation from where Head Coach Neill Collins’ side left off at Lynn Family Stadium last November. For Rowdies captain and veteran forward, though, the new arrivals at the side this spring have made a really good impression and added to the talent on the team.
“Everybody has been so good,” Guenzatti told media via Zoom on Thursday. “Conner [Antley] has been so good at the back, Dayonn [Harris] on the wing, Steevan [Dos Santos] up top and even Raiko [Arozarena] in goal, everyone’s been top level coming into preseason.”
Preseason form has certainly indicated the newcomers are fitting in well. Collins pointed out that both Harris and fellow newcomer Laurence Wyke have each found the net twice, as have Dos Santos and young English forward Jordan Adebayo-Smith. That adds a level of intrigue as to what the Rowdies’ first lineup of the season is going to look like as they open at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night against the Charlotte Independence, and where the new arrivals might figure in.
There’s almost certain to be a lot of new faces in the Indy Eleven team that takes on Birmingham Legion FC on Saturday night, with a cadre of new faces having impressed for the Boys in Blue this preseason after a major re-tooling of the roster. In last weekend’s final preseason outing against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, in fact, only two players from last year’s squad – goalkeeper Jordan Farr and defender Neveal Hackshaw – were included in the starting lineup.
The spotlight might inevitably fall on where the club stands in attack, especially following the bright start to the Major League Soccer season by 2020 Championship All-League selection Tyler Pasher with Houston Dynamo FC. But where the intrigue in Saturday’s game at BBVA Field may lie is in the makeup of Indy’s midfield. From the experience of English veteran Nicky Law to the quality of 2020 Canada Premier League All-League XI selection Aboubacar Sissoko, there is going to be a lot to take in for the Brickyard Battalion, Slaughterhouse 19 and the rest of the Boys in Blue’s support.
Birmingham Legion FC Head Coach Tom Soehn meets the press at the club's media day this week before Saturday's opening game with Indy Eleven. | Photo courtesy Birmingham Legion FC
On the other side of Saturday night’s contest, Birmingham Legion FC has also added reinforcements for the new season with the aim of making the step from playoff side to title contender in the club’s third season.
“It’s not just about making the playoffs anymore,” Legion FC Head Coach Tommy Soehn said at the club’s media day this week. “Now it’s about hosting the playoffs and giving this great city of Birmingham something it deserves.”
It’s going to be a couple of games before we see what Legion FC’s full-strength lineup could look like – offseason arrival Junior Flemmings still has two games to serve on the suspension he incurred late last season – but there’s certainly some serious potential in this Birmingham side even without the Jamaican international. New arrivals like defenders Phanuel Kavita and Ryan James, midfielder Zach Herivaux and forward J.J. Williams fit in should make for a compelling contest.
Hartford Athletic’s third season kicks off on Friday night with its third different Head Coach on the sideline. Unlike his predecessors, though, new boss Harry Watling could be in it for the long haul as he looks to build on the foundation laid by predecessor Radhi Jaidi last season.
There are a lot of interesting parts put together by the Athletic this offseason, including the return from Europe of former LA Galaxy forward Bradford Jamieson IV and the potential progression of Puerto Rico international Nicolas Cardona, but Watling’s first foray into professional level might top the list. The youngest coach in the Championship at 31 years old, Watling has worked with future top players in the youth ranks at both Chelsea FC and West Ham United.
Taking that ability to see and develop talent and turning it into a winning product on the field is going to be a step up, starting with the Athletic’s clash with the New York Red Bulls II and another coach who has found a great balance of winning and player progression in Head Coach John Wolyniec.
After taking victory in its opening game of the season last Saturday, FC Tulsa is back at ONEOK Field on Saturday night for its home opener with a chance to break a long-standing, unwanted streak. You see, the opponent – Sporting Kansas City II – is one that Tulsa has never defeated since the clubs first squared off in the 2016 Championship season.
SKC II has, in fact, taken victory in eight of the nine meetings between the sides all-time. That included Tulsa’s only home defeat a season ago, when 2020 Championship Young Player of the Year Wilson Harris scored the winning goal in a 2-1 victory for Sporting at ONEOK Field on August 29. It’s almost certain that game – and the overall history between the club’s – has been part of the discussion in Tulsa’s camp this week. Now Head Coach Michael Nsien’s side will get a chance to put it to bed for good.