2021 USL Championship title winner Orange County SC will open its defense against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC at Weidner Field on Saturday, March 12. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
We got our first look at the 2022 USL Championship schedule on Thursday as the league announced home openers for all 27 clubs, a number of which offer some serious intrigue and storylines to set up the year ahead.
From new arrivals receiving major tests on the road to begin the campaign to rematches from this past postseason and familiar rivalries, there’s plenty to dig into. Here are 10 games that carry a notable narrative, or that should just be plain entertainment, we can look forward to in two months and beyond.
Defending USL Championship title-holders Orange County SC open their new season on the road, and do so in one of the rematches from last year’s postseason against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC in what should offer a matchup of contrasting styles. OCSC’s defensive prowess saw it through in the Western Conference Quarterfinals of last year’s postseason when Ronaldo Damus’ goal was enough to send the hosts to victory despite playing almost an hour down a man, but after taking a major step forward in reaching the playoffs a year ago the Switchbacks have fortified their squad even further this year with the aim of taking the next step to the goal Orange County reached in November. The arrival of goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell, midfielders Cam Lindley and Malik Johnson and forward Kharlton Belmar are among the notable moves Colorado Springs has made so far this offseason. With the return of 2021 Championship MVP Hadji Barry and other core players from a season ago like captain Jimmy Ockford, this will be a must-see game at Weidner Field.
For a second consecutive year, perennial contender Phoenix Rising FC will be the first port of call for a league newcomer as Monterey Bay F.C. makes its debut in the league at Wild Horse Pass. What adds to this matchup, however, is the return to Phoenix of MBFC Head Coach Frank Yallop and his newly constructed squad. Yallop arrived at the club during its transitional phase ahead of the 2016 season, and while his on-field record didn’t shout success – the club went 11-16-7 under his leadership – there were some key moments that helped the club subsequently reach new heights under its new ownership group, introduced at the end of the campaign. The biggest of those was the hiring of Rick Schantz as an assistant prior to his departure early in the 2017 season, since when Schantz has ascended to become one of the Championship’s most successful Head Coaches. The two will square off here as equals as the visitors try to spring an opening game surprise.
Unlike Monterey Bay, Detroit City FC’s opening game in the Championship won’t be the first game in the club’s history, and that makes its visit to San Antonio FC in the lone interconference game of the first weekend of the season a fascinating test for a side that has made an impressive mark in the U.S. soccer landscape in the past decade. DCFC boasts an experienced Head Coach in Trevor James and while the side has yet to make a roster announcement for the new season, many in the squad that brought the side success last year had prior Championship and League One experience. How that matches up with a San Antonio FC side that reached the Western Conference Final for the first time in its history a season ago at Toyota Field is going to be a tremendous first test for James’ squad, and a potentially entertaining season opener for both clubs.
The final game of the opening weekend’s 13-game slate brings us the other postseason rematch from this past fall as Birmingham Legion FC plays host to the Tampa Bay Rowdies at its new home of Protective Stadium. These two teams have squared off in the past two postseasons, in fact, with the Rowdies having come out on top on both occasions at Al Lang Stadium after last year’s 1-0 victory in the Eastern Conference Semifinals thanks to Yann Ekra’s second-half goal. Birmingham will enter its new home with new pieces in place in attack after the departure of both leading scorer Neco Brett to New Mexico United and the transfer of Junior Flemmings to Ligue 2 side Toulouse FC, with the club having signed former Atlanta United 2 forward Macky Diop and FC Tulsa winger Marlon as potential replacements. Legion FC hasn’t taken victory at home against Tampa Bay in their prior two meetings on home turf, however, and their newcomers could have to play a major role in changing that.
Since both El Paso Locomotive FC and New Mexico United arrived in the Championship in 2019, the rivalry between the clubs has quickly become one of the best in the league. That’s been in part thanks to the frequency of their meetings over the past two campaigns and an epic postseason clash in the Western Conference Semifinals in 2020, but this year there are set to be new storylines and personalities that could come to the fore. Starting off, both clubs have new Head Coaches with Zach Prince being promoted at New Mexico following the departure of Troy Lesesne, and El Paso appointing John Hutchinson to replace the departed Mark Lowry. There are also going to be new faces, with New Mexico in particular making a splash in the offseason with the signings of forward Neco Brett – now in the top 10 in the league’s all-time scoring list after a stellar campaign for Birmingham Legion FC last year – as well as midfielder Justin Portillo and defender Alexis Souahy. Add the passionate fanbases for both clubs as they convene at Southwest University Park, and you have all the ingredients for a classic encounter.
There has never been a more successful run in its two-decade history than the one Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC is currently on, with Head Coach Bob Lilley’s arrival in 2018 marking the first of four consecutive trips to the postseason – one-third of the club’s all-time playoff berths since kicking off in 1999. The squad that produced a highly entertaining brand of soccer – recording 52 goals in the regular season – is coming back almost entirely intact as well, with Russell Cicerone, Alex Dixon and Kenardo Forbes among a strong core group looking for further success. The Hounds home opener comes against a Hartford Athletic side looking to emulate that level of consistency, and its own good group of returning players led by the league’s 2021 Assists Champion in Danny Barrera, midfielder Conor McGlynn and forward Juan Obregon Jr. With the squads having played nine times in the past three seasons, there are elements of a rivalry here, too, especially if Hartford can find another gear in its second season under Head Coach Harry Watling.
The Charleston Battery will play their 30th season this year, placing them – alongside USL League One’s Richmond Kickers – as the longest continuously operated professional club in the United States, and they will visit a new venue early in the campaign as Detroit City FC’s Keyworth Stadium plays host to its first USL Championship game on the second weekend of the season. Detroit’s home has quickly become one of lower-division soccer’s iconic venues thanks to the passionate support surrounding the club, which should make for a tremendous backdrop as the Battery visit with new Head Coach Conor Casey aiming to restore the side to the postseason after missing out for the first time since 2007. Among the newcomers for Charleston so far are experienced defender Matt Sheldon, forward Aidan Apodaca, and they’ll join a returning group that includes the club’s two leading scorers in Claudio Repetto and Nicque Daley. As old meets new, a new era begins in the Motor City.
Having claimed its first league title last November, Orange County SC will host a banner night in club history as it plays its home opener at Championship Soccer Stadium against fellow 2021 postseason side Rio Grande Valley FC. After coming through impressively last postseason under Head Coach Richard Chaplow, the goal now for Orange County will be to solidify its position at the top of the Western Conference, which it most recently topped in the 2018 season. With a solid core set to be back at the club – including newly-minted U.S. Men’s National Team call-up Kobi Henry – they’ll take on a Toros side that has seen some notable names depart this offseason. After returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2016 last year, Rio Grande Valley will be aiming to avoid a step back this year and replicate its strong start to the past campaign.
Indy Eleven plays its first game under new Head Coach Mark Lowry on the opening weekend on the road against Loudoun United FC, but in Week 2 the side will get its first major test as it heads to take on the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the two-time defending Eastern Conference title holders’ first game at Al Lang Stadium since last November. With Indy having missed out on the postseason in consecutive campaigns, Lowry’s brief is clear – restore a side that expects to be competing for silverware to the top of the Eastern Conference – and the side has already made moves to try and help that process along. Bryam Rebellon and Mechack Jerome have joined Lowry in making the move from El Paso Locomotive FC, and the side has other important returning pieces to build from the back out in Karl Ouimette, Neveal Hackshaw and Jared Timmer as well as leading scorer Manuel Arteaga. The Rowdies will get their first crack at breaking down what should on paper be a solid defensive unit at least in front of what will be a tremendous atmosphere in downtown St. Petersburg.
The final home opener of the season is set for the first Saturday in May, and for good reason as Monterey Bay F.C. makes its debut at the newly-renovated Cardinale Stadium to play host to Las Vegas Lights FC. The history of the venue – located on the campus of CSU Monterey Bay – is a remarkable one, dating back to the site’s history as Fort Ord military base but after extensive work that began last September, the stadium will be ready for its close-up. Led by local standout and El Salvador international Walmer Martinez, who was recently revealed as the first signing in club history, Monterey Bay is aiming to bring together all of the communities in the region, from Martinez’s hometown Santa Cruz to Monterey in one of the most picturesque parts of the United States. Expect a packed house, and an entertaining contest against Lights FC.