Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC will host Louisville City FC in preseason this February at Highmark Stadium as they prepare to battle in the USL Championship's Eastern Conference this season. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Officially, the first game of preseason for a USL Championship club in 2022 arrived last Sunday as Louisville City FC headed south to Texas and squared off with Major League Soccer’s Austin FC.
For most clubs, however, the past week has seen training camp open officially for most clubs as they get ready for the 2022 USL Championship season, kicking off on Saturday, March 13.
As part of that, we’ve got nine exhibition games slated for this weekend, and many more through the first week in March that will bring together Championship clubs in some intriguing matchups against each other and teams from Major League Soccer to build chemistry and fitness ahead of the big kickoff.
While we might not get to see all the action, there are some games and storylines that could lay the groundwork for what’s to come over the coming campaign. Here are 10 to keep an eye on, whether via social media, online stream or even in person.
Last season saw San Diego Loyal SC take a step forward into a first playoff berth, while for New Mexico United it saw a step back as the side missed the postseason for the first time in its third campaign. For both, though, the expectations are elevated in 2022 with SD Loyal having brought back a strong core reinforced by some new arrivals like New Zealand international Nikko Boxall and League One standout Evan Conway, a 2021 title winner at Union Omaha, as it tries to take the next step toward title contention. For New Mexico, there are still familiar faces like goalkeeper Alex Tambakis and defender Kalen Ryden, but the offseason has been more about the players who’ve arrived. At the forefront is Jamaican forward Neco Brett and former United States international Jerome Kiesewetter, who could give the side the consistent attacking punch it has lacked since the departure of Kevaughn Frater and Santi Moar, and the veteran midfield presence of Justin Portillo. As former assistant Zach Prince leads New Mexico as its new Head Coach, a strong preseason would be a good harbinger of things to come.
A new era in El Paso Locomotive FC’s history will get underway this season as John Hutchinson takes the reins as Head Coach after the departure of Mark Lowry after three seasons at the club. As a side that has earned notable success in its first three years, those are going to be big shoes to fill on the sideline, but Hutchinson will at least have some key core players that should help smooth the path. The biggest spotlight this preseason and early in the regular season may fall on 2021 Championship Young Player of the Year finalist Diego Luna, however, who after a pair of call-ups to the United States U-20 Men’s National Team is being looked at as the next young Championship prospect that could make the move to Europe after Jonathan Gomez (Real Sociedad) and Jose Gallegos (SønderjyskE) this offseason. A game against Houston Dynamo FC – which includes its own former Championship standout in Tyler Pasher – should give Hutchinson a good idea of what he’s got to work with.
There has never been a question about Miami FC’s ambition, and last season’s playoff appearance could provide the platform for bigger things as the side enters its third season in the Championship. There will be a new man at the helm with Anthony Pulis taking over as Head Coach after serving as an assistant across South Florida at Inter Miami CF last year. Pulis brought notable success to Saint Louis FC previously in the Championship – including a postseason berth and run to the Quarterfinals of the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – and he’ll have plenty to work with in Miami’s talented roster. Among the newcomers that will get the chance to test themselves against Club de Foot Montreal will be the former Memphis 901 FC duo of Kyle Murphy and Mark Segbers – both Championship All-League selections a season ago – while young defenders Aedan Stanley (a protégé of Pulis in Saint Louis) and Ben Ofeimu will also be players to keep a close eye on.
Let’s be honest – the absence of the Carolina Challenge Cup has left a void in the traditional preseason landscape for the past two years. Thankfully, this year it’s back with defending title-holder Columbus Crew SC, Inter Miami CF and Charlotte FC making their way to the Low Country for the Charleston Battery’s event. The Battery will begin their new era under Head Coach Conor Casey with a Saturday night clash against Major League Soccer expansion side Charlotte FC, who could feature a couple of players that played at Patriots Point last season with the Charlotte Independence in Christian Fuchs and Brandt Bronico. The major focus for Battery fans will be how Casey’s squad looks, with a solid contingent of newcomers arriving including reliable veterans like defender Matt Sheldon and midfielder Dominic Oduro, and young Grenadian international Benjamin Ettienne. Challenge Cup week will give Charleston some big tests as they build toward a new era.
Over three seasons at El Paso Locomotive FC, Mark Lowry led his side to 40 regular season victories and three postseason berths, cementing the club as one of the best in the Championship. As he arrives as the new Head Coach at Indy Eleven this season, one of the league’s best-supported clubs is hoping for similar success after missing out on the postseason in its past two campaigns. Lowry has brought some familiar faces with him to Indy with defender Mechack Jerome and midfielder Bryam Rebellon, and the club has stocked up elsewhere with Trinidad and Tobago international Noah Powder another new arrival to join international teammate Neveal Hackshaw. They’ll be looking for a positive performance here against one of the league’s two newcomers in Detroit City FC, which brings its own passionate support and a history of success in the past two years as it steps up to the second tier under Head Coach Trevor James. The potential for a good rivalry is here and could make for a contest with a little extra edge.
The intensity of the rivalry between Orlando City SC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies has dimmed in recent years – their preseason encounters in the past certainly made for must-see affairs – but after a break for a few years the sides will square off for the second time in the past three preseasons for a closed-door scrimmage both sets of fans would like to be able to attend. For the two-time defending Eastern Conference title-holder Rowdies, this offseason has seen numerous key players return, and some interesting newcomers like New York Red Bulls loanee Jake LaCava and Jake Areman arrive. The big question for Tampa Bay to address this preseason is the makeup of its back line, which currently returns Jordan Scarlett and Aaron Guillen, but only includes three names in the defensive depth chart overall. Hopefully, we’ll get some clues as to who Head Coach Neill Collins has found to fill in the gaps as this game arrives.
A preseason visit from Atlanta United FC has become a fixture in Birmingham Legion FC’s annual preparations, bringing one of the top clubs in Major League Soccer to face a club in Legion FC that has quickly established itself as a perennial playoff contender. This meeting will also mark the first game for Birmingham at its new home of Protective Stadium, but it could also serve as a major litmus test for a side that has seen some major departures in the attacking third of the field. After the sale of Junior Flemmings to French club FC Toulouse and the departure of leading scorer Neco Brett (New Mexico United) and JJ Williams (FC Tulsa), only two of Birmingham’s top five scorers are back for the new season in Bruno Lapa and Prosper Kasim. Legion FC has a solid core elsewhere back, including re-signing midfielder Anderson Asiedu, and has added potential replacements in veteran Enzo Martinez and former Tulsa winger Marlon. How it all comes together will hopefully be on show against Atlanta.
Oakland Roots SC’s first season in the USL Championship ended in heartbreak after a penalty shootout against eventual Championship Final winner Orange County SC in the Western Conference Semifinals, but the progression the side showed throughout the season to reach that point has provided motivation and optimism this offseason. So have some of the club’s new arrivals, with Dariusz Formella making the move from Sacramento Republic FC and Charlie Dennis stepping up to the Championship after a stellar season in USL League One at FC Tucson. For new Head Coach Juan Guerra – formerly an assistant at Indy Eleven and Phoenix Rising FC – the chance to test his side against an FC Tulsa club that has made its own progression over the past two seasons, reaching the playoffs both years, should be a good one, especially with the reinforcements the Oklahoma side has added in the aim of taking the next step toward title contention. Defensive reinforcements like El Salvador international Ronald Rodriguez – who joins La Selecta teammate Joaquin Rivas in Black and Gold – and forwards Brian Brown and JJ Williams could all be on display at the Desert Friendlies in Tucson.
Since the start of the 2018 USL Championship season, Louisville City FC (65) and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (62) sit in the No. 2 and No. 3 positions for regular season wins behind only Phoenix Rising FC, and with both teams retaining many of their key players from the past campaign it’s likely they will be among the sides challenging the Tampa Bay Rowdies for the right to play in the USL Championship Final this November. That makes this preseason meeting between the sides at Highmark Stadium a potentially fascinating contest as the sides play two weeks before their regular seasons open. This offseason has seen LouCity reload once again with both 2020 Championship Young Player of the Year Wilson Harris and Enoch Mushagalusa making the move over from Sporting Kansas City II, and goalkeeper Kyle Morton – himself a former Pittsburgh standout – set to be the club’s new starter. The Hounds, meanwhile, have also been busy, adding the Championship’s all-time leading scorer Dane Kelly to an attack that returns Russell Cicerone, Alex Dixon and Kenardo Forbes. With that level of talent, this could easily be an early postseason preview.
Ask anyone at Sacramento Republic FC and they will likely tell you last season simply didn’t live up to the standards the club holds itself to. Missing the postseason for the first time in Republic FC history was the penalty, but this offseason there might not have been a side that has aggressively looked to upgrade all over the field. From the addition of playmaker Zeiko Lewis, Honduran international Douglas Martinez Jr. and former Championship Golden Glove winner Danny Vitiello, to the return of hometown standout Matt LaGrassa to make a big midfield tandem alongside Luis Felipe Fernandes, and the re-acquisition of club legend Rodrigo Lopez, Republic FC looks loaded on paper. We’ll get a final chance to see how that might turn out in practice on the final Saturday of preseason against new regional rival Monterey Bay F.C. at Heart Health Park as MBFC readies for its first season in the league. Monterey Bay F.C. Head Coach Frank Yallop’s new squad has brought in some notable names so far this preseason to follow first club signing Walmer Martinez. There won’t be many better tests than the one Sacramento could pose here.