Sacramento Republic FC and Oakland Roots SC will renew their NorCal derby in an early-season meeting at Heart Health Park, one of numerous big rivalry games over the course of the upcoming campaign. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
The complete schedule for the 2023 USL Championship regular season was announced on Monday, offering a 32-week campaign that sees the first fully balanced schedule in the league’s history since it moved to a two-conference format in 2015.
As always, there are several key roadmap games along the way. We’ve picked out 11 clashes between conference rivals that include perennial rivalries and key storylines. You can also find 11 intriguing inter-conference matchups here as the countdown to the season kickoff on March 11 builds.
The rivalry between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Miami FC has grown progressively over the first three years of Miami’s presence in the Championship, becoming a much more evenly fought affair in the last couple of years. 2022, in fact, saw Miami claim its first victory in club history at Al Lang Stadium, only for the Rowdies to turn the tables at Riccardo Silva Stadium later in the season to split the regular season series.
If there’s one area that Tampa Bay has held the upper hand in, however, it’s consistency and postseason success. Miami has advanced to the playoffs the past two seasons but has yet to claim a victory after sitting with low seeding after up-and-down regular seasons forcing it on the road. With a strong returning roster, the South Florida side will be looking to make a big impression as it comes up against former goalkeeper Connor Sparrow, one of the Rowdies’ major offseason additions so far, as it vies for its first home playoff game in October.
It took almost two seasons, but last August, Sacramento Republic FC finally achieved its first official victory against Oakland Roots SC at the seventh time of asking. The rivalry between the two Northern California clubs has already delivered some classic games and moments, and the renewal of the series at Heart Health Park promises to be another must-see between two teams with major aspirations for this campaign.
Republic FC will enter its 10th anniversary season this spring looking to add to its lone piece of league silverware, the Championship title claimed in its inaugural campaign in 2014, and has added forward Russell Cicerone to numerous players from the squad that reached the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final. Oakland, meanwhile, has several key returnees already confirmed including 2022 All-League selection Edgardo Rito and will be aiming to deliver a result on the road. As the summer approaches, the heat will be on for both.
The past two seasons haven’t seen Indy Eleven reach the USL Championship Playoffs. In contrast to that, however, the side has claimed the last two editions of the Louisville Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest, ending Louisville City FC’s dominance of the series over its first three years as a Championship fixture.
LouCity, of course, has had the sort of consistent success the Boys in Blue have craved since the sides clashed in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final, a contest claimed in extra time by Louisville at Michael A. Carroll Stadium. As the teams renew their rivalry at the same venue this May, Indy Head Coach Mark Lowry and a reconfigured squad that includes Championship standouts Sebastian Guenzatti and Cam Lindley will be aiming to not only continue their success against their most important foe, but pave the way to a postseason return.
The midseason move of Head Coach Juan Guerra from Oakland Roots SC to Phoenix Rising FC last August was unprecedented in the Championship’s history, and that automatically makes Rising FC’s first trip back to Laney Stadium since it happened a game that everyone beyond the two fanbases should tune in for.
Guerra wasn’t present on the sidelines when Phoenix hosted Oakland last year shortly after his move back to Arizona – where he had previously served as an assistant coach – and with the teams playing two weeks prior on June 10 at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex there could also be some lingering memory of that contest that carries over here. The reaction of Roots SC’s fans to Guerra’s return will be the biggest thing to watch, however, in what should be a fascinating game.
Ever since El Paso Locomotive FC and New Mexico United first clashed as expansion sides in 2019, the Derby del Camino Real has been a must-see series in the Championship and is arguably the league’s best current rivalry between two sides with big aspirations and two passionate fanbases that expect success.
Last year’s series saw each side win on the other’s home turf, marking the first time El Paso had claimed victory at Isotopes Park in its history late in the season. With the return of Santi Moar to New Mexico’s ranks – whom famously was sent off alongside El Paso’s Yuma in the first meeting between the clubs four years ago – as well as the other offseason moves each have made, there should be no shortage of entertainment or drama here.
Monterey Bay F.C.’s arrival as the third piece in the USL Championship’s NorCal contingent saw it claim victories against both Oakland Roots SC and Sacramento Republic FC in its inaugural campaign, and this meeting between MBFC and Republic FC should provide not only entertainment but serve as a key game as both teams look to achieve greater heights in the upcoming campaign.
At Monterey Bay, the 1-0 win it earned at Cardinale Stadium to round out the regular season series between the clubs came as part of a mid-summer surge that moved the club within range of a playoff place, only for a late season slide to take it out of contention. Sacramento, meanwhile, is looking to find the consistency that can make it an even stronger challenger to San Antonio FC at the top of the standings this year. With two strong cores returning – and former Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC forwards Russell Cicerone (Sacramento) and Alex Dixon (Monterey Bay) on both sides – this looks like a crucial game.
At least for the time being, there’s going to be a novelty to former Detroit City FC Head Coach Ben Pirmann returning to Keyworth Stadium. That this season the 2022 USL Championship Coach of the Year is bringing with him one of Le Rouge’s key players from a season ago as part of a newly constructed Charleston Battery squad is certainly enough to maintain that intrigue.
Coming off the worst season in the club’s 30-year history, the Battery have been busy rebuilding with Pirmann bringing aboard not only some of his former cohort in Memphis such as goalkeeper Trey Muse, but also snapping up New Zealand international Deklan Wynne, who notched eight assists for DCFC as the side reached the playoffs in its first season in the Championship. Le Rouge Head Coach Trevor James and his former teammates will be aware of that threat, and others the Battery bring, in what could be a tightly fought contest at one of the fiercest atmospheres in American soccer.
The South Texas Derby – like the Copa Tejas – went the way of San Antonio FC in 2022, and the manner in which the Championship title winners went about overcoming Rio Grande Valley FC fit the success of the campaign overall for Head Coach Alen Marcina’s squad. As tight as the games appeared to be, San Antonio found a way, even scoring a late equalizer in the final meeting of the season thanks to Carter Manley – his lone goal of the regular season – to end with two wins and a draw against the Toros.
For the Toros, results like that draw at Toyota Field were somewhat emblematic of how the 2022 campaign went overall. The underlying numbers were good for Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera’s side, but the performances often underwhelmed. It was good enough to reach the playoffs for a second consecutive season, only to be eliminated in meek fashion by Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. This contest, beyond the rivalry and Copa Tejas elements, could show us how far the Toros have come.
There might not be a more underrated rivalry in the Championship than Southern Harm, but with both Memphis 901 FC and Birmingham Legion FC earning top-four finishes in the Eastern Conference a season ago the spotlight on this rivalry should shine brighter this season. Add in a meeting with three weekends to go in the regular season and this could be not just a battle for bragging rights, but for playoff seeding as well.
There will be new faces in Memphis this season looking to flip last year’s series defeat to Legion FC. They’re led by new Head Coach Stephen Glass, who has the unenviable task of taking up the mantle from 2022 Championship Coach of the Year Ben Pirmann. The Scottish manager’s resume says he’s ready for that, having managed Atlanta United FC and Scottish Premiership club Aberdeen FC as well as Atlanta United 2 in the USL Championship, and the atmosphere and quality on the field for both sides gives means there’s the potential to add another memorable chapter in this series.
The rivalry between Phoenix Rising FC and New Mexico United has had multiple layers to it over the past four seasons, and this year’s series between the sides added another thanks to a pair of offseason moves that sent winger Santi Moar and forward Greg Hurst to New Mexico via transfers from Phoenix as Rising FC overhauled its roster under new Head Coach Juan Guerra this offseason.
Moar’s history with New Mexico is known – a standout season in 2019 before electing to sign with Rising FC as a free agent the following offseason, and then a career year in 2021 that saw him earn All-League honors for the first time. His return alongside Hurst – who had a serviceable six goals and five assists last season, his first in the Championship – to Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex should see them both highly motivated for a game that on the penultimate Saturday of the season should have major implications for both teams.
Two teams that have met in each of the past four editions of the USL Championship Playoffs, including for the past three Eastern Conference titles, squaring off on the final Saturday of the season is so on the nose for the “potential playoff preview” cliché, it hurts.
Still, there’s so much that could be at stake here between the sides that have claimed the past six Eastern Conference titles overall (LouCity 4, Tampa Bay 2), including the potential for the No. 1 seed in the standings. LouCity has retained almost all its squad from a season ago while adding attacking midfielders Dylan Mares and Rasmus Thellufsen, while Tampa Bay has brought in goalkeeper Connor Sparrow to be its new No. 1 and looks to have more moves to come after some notable departures. With silverware in sight, both teams will want to make a statement here.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Birmingham Legion FC Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United Miami FC Oakland Roots SC Detroit City FC Monterey Bay F.C.