The opening 24 games of the 2023 USL Championship season were announced on Wednesday, offering a look at the starting point for every club in the league’s 13th season when it arrives on Saturday, March 11.
With a balanced in-conference and inter-conference schedule giving the Championship a new element for the new season, offseason player movement in full swing, and the renewal of longtime and emerging rivalries, there are already numerous storylines to look forward to.
Here are 11 games that look particularly enticing ahead of the full schedule announcement next Monday, January 9.
Birmingham Legion FC and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC delivered one of the games of the 2022 USL Championship Playoffs last October, and they’ll get the chance to square off again to start the new campaign at the same venue with the hosts looking for a little revenge against the visiting Hounds. Birmingham’s big offseason move so far has been the arrival of forward Tyler Pasher, one of the big attacking moves in the league this offseason. The Canadian will get to face one of his former clubs in his return to the Championship, and the club he scored one of the most memorable goals in league history against three years ago. Hopefully, there’s similar late drama in this curtain-raiser.
It’s fair to say the 2022 season didn’t play out the way it was planned for either the Charleston Battery or Phoenix Rising FC. After a first-place finish in the Western Conference in 2021, Rising FC missed the postseason entirely for the first time since 2016, while the Battery posted the worst record in their storied history. As you’d expect, both have begun the work to change that in 2023, with the Battery snapping up the 2022 USL Championship Coach of the Year Ben Pirmann to lead their overhaul. For Phoenix and Head Coach Juan Guerra, there’s been plenty of movement as well, including important reinforcements at the center of defense with Alejandro Fuenmayor and John Stenberg. As Rising FC makes its first trip to Charleston since its inaugural season in 2014, both clubs will be looking to make a good first impression.
A second meeting between two former Championship title winners to open the season is reason enough for this game to be included in this list, but there’s a tremendous subplot to the game as well with two of the league’s top teenage players potentially set to square off. Teammates for an undefeated United States U-19 Men’s National Team in 2022, Louisville City FC center back Joshua Wynder and Orange County SC winger Korede Osundina are both ready for their close-up. After LouCity took a 3-1 victory at Lynn Family Stadium last season, Orange County will also be hoping to get its new campaign off to a good start on home turf.
Having both featured for the United States U-19 Men's National Team in 2022, Orange County SC's Korede Osundina (20) and Louisville City FC's Joshua Wynder (4) could square off in the season opener for their clubs this campaign.
The other rematch from the 2022 USL Championship Playoffs on opening weekend features defending title holder San Antonio FC, which should welcome another great crowd to Toyota Field as it takes on one of the sides it vanquished on the way to lifting the trophy in Oakland Roots SC. While the final score of that Western Conference Semifinal was 3-0 in favor of SAFC, for those that watched the game it proved closer than the final score might have indicated. This meeting will be expected to tilt in San Antonio’s favor as well, though, especially with the club’s addition of former Roots SC standout Juan Carlos Azocar to its squad. Oakland will hope to spoil the party and should be up for the challenge as it arrives in its preferred underdog role.
In comparison to the rest of the games we’ve picked out for the opening Saturday of the season, the first meeting between San Diego Loyal SC and Detroit City FC doesn’t have a major backstory. That’s the beauty of it, though. It just looks at first glance like a game that’s going to be really good. SD Loyal is coming off a second-place finish in the Western Conference and aiming to continue its upward trajectory under promoted Head Coach Nate Miller. Le Rouge, meanwhile, have retained much of their stout defensive unit from a playoff season in the club’s first campaign in the Championship. Add the potential for a big crowd including strong travelling support, and two of the strongest kits and crests in the league, this should be a great late-night treat.
The moment the announcement came that Sebastian Guenzatti had departed the Tampa Bay Rowdies – a club he had captained and held the all-time goalscoring lead for – to join Indy Eleven in December, the first return trip for the veteran striker to Al Lang Stadium was going to be a must-see. Well, we don’t have to wait long. Indy’s trip to Florida is going to be a fascinating one, maybe most of all to see the reception Guenzatti will get from the Rowdies’ fans (I’d expect a tribute tifo, honestly). On top of that, though, it’s the first game for an Indy squad that enters Head Coach Mark Lowry’s second season in charge with an additional big arrival in creative midfielder Cam Lindley. With changes in Tampa Bay’s squad as well – including a potential debut for new goalkeeper Connor Sparrow – this should be a memorable night, and an excellent contest.
The return of Tampa Bay Rowdies' all-time leading goalscorer Sebastian Guenzatti to Al Lang Stadium with new club Indy Eleven on the opening day of the season will be one of the big stories to start the campaign. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowd
Sacramento Republic FC was one of the stories of the 2022 season in North American soccer as it advanced to the Final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, but the silverware it sought to cap a great campaign eluded it in the Championship Playoffs. Now going into its 10th anniversary season, Head Coach Mark Briggs and his squad have reinforced and will look to add to build on one of the best home records in the league last season as it plays host to the new-look Charleston Battery in its home opener. After a 4-2 victory for Republic FC in the first meeting between the clubs last season at Patriots Point, the hosts will be aiming to give their passionate fanbase another opening night to remember.
It bears saying – Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC was less than 10 minutes away from reaching the Eastern Conference Final of the USL Championship Playoffs for the first time in the league’s history in October before succumbing to Louisville City FC. As the Hounds open their new home campaign, that potential for the side is there to be lived up to again, even with some notable departures so far this offseason led by leading scorer Russell Cicerone. Miami FC, meanwhile, is trying to find a breakthrough season as it enters Year 4 in the Championship, having been eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs the past two seasons. With a strong returning core, that could be within Miami’s reach this year, and that makes this match a good early test for both these clubs.
The arrival of Detroit City FC and the atmosphere at Keyworth Stadium was a welcome addition to the Championship in 2022, and the side impressed on the field with a playoff berth in its first campaign and some potential rivalries to build on. One of those is with Indy Eleven, and the Boys in Blue will head to face Le Rouge as they add to a series that saw DCFC take four points out of six in their two meetings last year. With some notable departures including the club’s two assist leaders (Antoine Hoppenot 11, Deklan Wynne 8) there will be some new faces needed to carry Detroit forward this season, while Indy’s restocked squad will be hoping to gain some early momentum as it looks for a postseason return.
Detroit City FC's home opener against Indy Eleven at Keyworth Stadium could add to a potential rivalry between the two midwestern clubs. | Photo courtesy Jon DeBoer / Detroit City FC
There have already been some memorable chapters between Phoenix Rising FC and San Diego Loyal SC, and that’s a big reason why SD Loyal is a great foe for a big night in Rising FC’s history. For the first time in its 10-season history, Rising FC will play within Phoenix’s city limits as the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex is rebuilt close by to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. The club is highly enthused about the new accessibility the venue will provide, but as importantly the club is also building a squad that so far looks ready to fit into Head Coach Juan Guerra’s possession-oriented style. Getting teams that want to play attacking, entertaining soccer together like these two is always good, and the atmosphere should be electric as well.
There’s been no gameday experience quite like the one at New Mexico United’s home games at Isotopes Park since the club joined the league in 2019. Last year’s league leader in average attendance in the regular season will open its fifth season looking to deliver performances to match after its return to the postseason last campaign, with expectations continuing to be high for Head Coach Zach Prince and his squad. There are new faces, including the return of Santi Moar and arrival of Greg Hurst from Phoenix Rising FC in a pair of offseason transfers. San Diego Loyal SC’s strong returning core should give United a good test, and if we get a game like the 3-3 draw the teams played out late this past campaign, it will provide plenty of entertainment.
New Mexico United's home opener at Isotopes Park against San Diego Loyal SC will bring together two high-powered clubs in one of the unique atmosphere's in the North American soccer landscape. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United