A rematch of the 2021 USL Championship Final between Orange County SC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies on August 27 at Al Lang Stadium highlights a big slate of interconference matchups this season in the league. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
It might not have felt like it at the time, but the USL Championship regular season contest on May 14 a season ago between Sporting Kansas City II and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC ushered in a new era for the league.
Interconference play was here, and here for good.
Yes, there had been interconference matchups before in the Championship’s history, but those were based in the middle of the country, ensuring regional rivalries still existed between teams separated by the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Conferences. Last year we got the real thing, with matchups like the Tampa Bay Rowdies against Phoenix Rising FC, Louisville City FC facing San Diego Loyal SC, and Orange County SC visiting the Charleston Battery.
This year, that slate has expanded exponentially. Throughout the season there will be matchups between clubs from the two conferences on a weekly basis. There’s plenty to look forward to, but as the 2022 USL Championship schedule is revealed today, here are 10 interconference games that should have intrigue, entertainment value, or potentially both as we get ready for the new campaign two months from today.
At first glance, Sacramento Republic FC’s clash with FC Tulsa might not seem that interesting. The main reason is that Tulsa has never defeated Republic FC in their 10 prior meetings (8-0-2 in favor of Sacramento), but there are some storylines here that should make the Week 3 matchup a lot more intriguing. First of all, it marks the return to Tulsa of the first venue at which they played under their current brand and moniker in 2020, when Rodrigo da Costa scored a second-half equalizer to earn the visitors a point at Heart Health Park. Then, there is the player history. Current Tulsa and El Salvador forward Joaquin Rivas spent two seasons in Sacramento earlier in his career, while last year Republic FC acquired Jerome Kiesewetter on loan in the second half of the season. Tulsa, too, has been on the upward ascent over the past two years, while Republic FC is looking to re-tool after missing the postseason for the first time a year ago. That could add up to some quality early-season entertainment.
If it’s entertaining, attacking soccer you’re looking for, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better potential interconference matchup on paper than the first meeting between Miami FC and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. Both clubs recorded at least 55 goals a season ago – putting them each in the top eight in the Championship overall in the regular season – and each boasts an impressive collection of attacking talent that should produce an end-to-end game at FIU Stadium. Both clubs have unfulfilled ambitions from a season ago, too, with elimination in their respective Conference Quarterfinals of the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs a starting point for bigger goals this season. With 2021 MVP Hadji Barry set to lead the Switchbacks into town against Miami’s new attacking pieces including 2021 All-League selection Kyle Murphy, there is a lot to look forward to here.
A year ago, when Phoenix Rising FC visited the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium, the game was billed as unfinished business from the 2020 USL Championship Final. After the Rowdies took a 2-1 win on home turf – and at the end of the season edged out Rising FC for the best record in the league – the contest’s significance became even more noticeably felt. As we see more interconference matchups this campaign, the duel in the desert for the second meeting between the teams is now set to serve as a marker for both clubs as they pursue their first Championship title, and also once again potentially vie for homefield advantage at the top of their respective conferences for the postseason. Both teams are set to have new faces in the lineup this time around, but the returning quality both sides have already confirmed for the 2022 season such as Phoenix’s Santi Moar, Kevon Lambert and Aodhan Quinn or Tampa Bay’s Steevan Dos Santos, Yann Ekra and Sebastian Dalgaard is going to make the rematch between the likely title contenders one to watch.
The first meeting between New Mexico United and Birmingham Legion FC saw its intensity raised significantly this past New Year’s Eve when New Mexico announced it had signed 2021 All-League All League selection – and former Legion FC standout – Neco Brett for the 2022 campaign. Player movement is a common occurrence in the Championship, of course, but this move was particularly notable as New Mexico looked to rebuild its squad with some high-profile pieces after missing the postseason a year ago. Birmingham, on the other hand, has been one of the most consistent sides in the Championship over its first three seasons, recording a club-best 60 points to finish with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference last year. As Legion FC heads to Isotopes Park, it’ll be looking to not only close down its former striker – who recorded 27 goals in 47 games over the past two seasons in Birmingham – but pick up a valuable three points toward its own playoff drive.
The two newcomers to the USL Championship meet in Northern California in mid-July, and for both Monterey Bay F.C. and Detroit City FC this game may be a marker as to how far each club has managed to develop in its first campaign in the league. Detroit, of course, has the advantage of having a roster to build on from a season ago with captain Stephen Carroll and 2021 MVP Connor Rutz announced as returning as Head Coach Trevor James begins his roster build for the new season. Monterey Bay, meanwhile, has Head Coach Frank Yallop aiming to put a strong product on the field at the newly-renovated Cardinale Stadium on the campus of CSU Monterey Bay, led by local product and El Salvador international Walmer Martinez. There will be plenty more announcements in the next two months for both of these clubs ahead of the opening day of the season on March 12, which should add to the anticipation when this contest finally arrives four months into the campaign.
It’s a rematch fans have been asking for since Louisville City FC defeated Phoenix Rising FC in the 2018 USL Championship Final, and finally it’s going to happen at Lynn Family Stadium. Given the stability of the two teams since that meeting, there should be familiar faces on both sides that played in the 1-0 LouCity win that November, with Joey Farrell and Kevon Lambert still present for Rising FC and the likes of Sean Totsch, Paolo DelPiccolo, Brian Ownby, Niall McCabe and Cameron Lancaster still at LouCity. Given the expectations for both teams going into the campaign – both among the favorites to lift the title once again – this contest could have a serious edge as they battle for position at the top of their respective conferences. As Phoenix looks to earn a little revenge, this should be one of the marquee games of the season, regardless of inter- or intraconference designation.
As the Charleston Battery enter their 30th consecutive season in the professional ranks, they do so with a new Head Coach in Conor Casey, who has been brought in to try and restore the Battery to postseason contention after missing out for the first time since 2007 last campaign. Casey, of course, brings an extensive playing resume and stints as an assistant and interim head coach to Charleston, with maybe the best of those years having occurred with the Colorado Rapids. Across five seasons between 2007 and 2011, Casey made 105 appearances for the Rapids in the regular season and playoffs, recording 50 goals and 12 assists, helping the side to its 2010 MLS Cup victory. As he returns to Colorado to face Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and its attacking squad led by Head Coach Brendan Burke, Casey’s squad will likely be in for a major challenge here, but it’s one the pugnacious former center forward will likely be looking forward to.
There will be no shortage of high-level interconference competition for the Tampa Bay Rowdies this season, with El Paso Locomotive FC and San Diego Loyal SC visiting Al Lang Stadium and a trip to face Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC as well as Phoenix Rising FC on the slate, but everyone is going to be eager for the rematch of the 2021 USL Championship Final at Al Lang Stadium when Orange County SC comes to visit in the final weekend of August. The two-time defending Eastern Conference title holder was stunned on its home turf by Ronaldo Damus, Patrick Rakovsky and the rest of Orange County’s lineup back in November and will be looking to turn the tables in front of its passionate home support. The loss to Orange County was only the fourth in 30 home games since the start of the 2020 Championship season, with the side having won 23 times at Al Lang Stadium in that span. That’s a record the Rowdies are proud of and will be looking to add to as Head Coach Richard Chaplow’s side returns.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and San Antonio FC will meet for the first time at Highmark Stadium on the opening day of October, but the trajectories of the two clubs under their present leadership is one that sees plenty in common between the two sides. As one of the long-standing clubs in the USL, the Hounds have achieved their most consistently successful spell in their history under Head Coach Bob Lilley over the past four seasons, reaching the playoffs all four years. With a key contingent of returning players back for the new season – say nothing of the addition of all-time leading scorer Dane Kelly to their ranks – a first trip to at least the Eastern Conference Final is likely to be the goal this year. For San Antonio under Head Coach Alen Marcina, that goal of a Conference Final appearance was achieved last season, and now San Antonio will be hoping to go one step better in its pursuit of a title. Two high-quality squads with high expectations? Doesn’t get much better as the postseason approaches.
This time last year, you’d probably not have given short odds to one of Memphis 901 FC or Rio Grande Valley FC reaching the playoffs, let alone both, out of their respective divisions. After a breakthrough campaign for 901 FC that saw it finish third in the Central Division and a similar bounce-back season for the Toros under returning Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera, though, a new-found energy emerged around both clubs, with the Toros’ upset of Phoenix Rising FC in the Western Conference Quarterfinals a landmark moment for the team. Now, the big question will be whether both clubs can make that progress at least stand or even continue upward in 2022 despite key departures. Memphis has already gotten to work after seeing Kyle Murphy and Mark Segbers head to Miami, with 2021 USL League One All-League selection Aaron Molloy a recent arrival and potential midfield anchor. Rio Grande Valley will also have work to do after the departure of Elvis Amoh to Colorado Springs and Christian Sorto to Miami, but you wouldn’t bet against the eye for talent Cabrera has, or the coaching ability Ben Pirmann has shown in Memphis, making this late-season meeting potentially key for both clubs.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Birmingham Legion FC Memphis 901 FC New Mexico United The Miami FC Detroit City FC Monterey Bay F.C.