Louisville City FC and San Antonio FC will square off in a rematch of the 2022 USL Championship Final on Saturday, April 15 at Lynn Family Stadium. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City 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 foes that include perennial rivalries and key storylines. You can also find 11 must-see conference matchups here as the countdown to the season kickoff on March 11 builds.
There are reasons why the third meeting between Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and Hartford Athletic might fly under your radar but look closely and there’s a lot going on here. For a start, you have two of the league’s most prominent coaches in the Switchbacks’ Brendan Burke and Hartford’s Tab Ramos, and you have the retooling that Hartford has undertaken to push for a second playoff berth in club history this season.
One of those moves last week saw the Athletic acquire forward Elvis Amoh from Colorado Springs. Add the Ghanaian – who has 26 goals in the past two seasons – alongside 2022 Championship Assists Champion Antoine Hoppenot and veteran Hartford playmaker Danny Barrera and you have a potentially explosive attacking core for Ramos to build around. Given Colorado Springs’ penchant for attacking soccer under Burke, this could be highly entertaining.
San Antonio FC’s victory in the 2022 USL Championship Final against Louisville City FC was the crowning achievement for one of the best seasons in the league’s history. The early-season rematch between the teams in Kentucky won’t quite have the same importance, but it’s hard to resist seeing two high-powered squads square off for the first time in the regular season in their histories.
For LouCity in particular, this game is a chance to reset the narrative for the new season. As emphatic as San Antonio’s victory was last November, LouCity was certainly undermanned, hobbled by numerous key injuries that left players sidelined, or below 100 percent. Getting some of those players like midfielder Niall McCabe and goalkeeper Kyle Morton back on the field will be big for the hosts as they try to gain a little payback on a strong San Antonio squad.
The second meeting all-time between Rio Grande Valley FC and Memphis 901 FC features not only two sides that have reached the postseason each of the past two seasons, but two of the most interesting midfielders in the Championship in the upcoming campaign.
On one hand for the Toros, you have the experience of former United States international Jose Francisco Torres, whose return from early-season injury provided a crucial driver in the club’s uptick in form. The experience of the 35-year-old will go up against the endeavor of 901 FC’s Aaron Molloy, who shone so brightly in his return to the Championship last season that he earned nomination for the Championship’s MVP award after notching 10 assists and 74 chances created. That potential duel will be supplemented by others in a game that should provide a high level of action, building on the 2-2 draw the sides played out last October.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Sacramento Republic FC are two of the best-known clubs in the Championship, but this meeting in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla. will mark their first official meeting. Given the quality both teams bring to the field – the Rowdies led by 2022 Championship MVP Leo Fernandes, and Sacramento by fellow 2022 Championship All-League First Team selection Rodrigo Lopez – there’s so much promise in what this game could deliver when we finally see them square off.
As notable as this first meeting will be, it also arrives a crucial time of the season. As the summer begins, both teams should be expected to be vying for top spot in their respective conferences. That could lend a high level of intensity as Republic FC makes its first trip back to Florida since the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final.
Phoenix Rising FC’s social media team has given us the hashtag #FromTheAshes for the club’s 2023 campaign, an appropriate response to what was the most disappointing campaign since the club rebranded prior to the 2017 season. In terms of opponents to gauge how far along Head Coach Juan Guerra and his staff’s rebuild of Rising FC, there might be none better than defending Eastern Conference title holder Louisville City FC.
Phoenix ground out a 0-0 draw when it visited Louisville last July for the inaugural USL Summer Showcase, but as it hosts LouCity for the first time after two trips to Kentucky the side will be aiming to deliver a far more high-powered display. With the additions of forward Manuel Arteaga, playmaker Federico Varela and defender Alejandro Fuenmayor, Rising FC has strengthened on paper. Here we’ll get to see how it works in practice.
In Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s USL Championship history, only Neco Brett has scored more goals for the club than Russell Cicerone across the regular season and playoffs. That made the departure of the Hounds’ leading goalscorer for the past two seasons to Sacramento Republic FC one of the notable moves of the offseason so far, as Republic FC looked for a consistent threat for double-digit goals to lead its attack into the new season.
It also means there will be a major spotlight when Republic FC heads to Highmark Stadium for the first time in its history. Not only will Cicerone be in the visitors’ ranks, but so too should be starting goalkeeper Danny Vitiello, giving both players a chance to be welcomed back by the Steel Army in a game between likely title contenders.
Two teams that finished in second place in their respective conferences a season ago will square off for the first time when San Diego Loyal SC plays host to Memphis 901 FC in August, and the attacking prowess both sides bring could make for a highly entertaining encounter between two teams that have progressively improved over their histories.
On one hand, you have SD Loyal, which recorded 68 goals on the way to its best season in club history and has retained most of the key parts of that group, including forwards Thomas Amang and Evan Conway. On the other, you have a Memphis side that saw Phillip Goodrum finish second in the Championship with 21 goals last regular season and a pair of players in 2022 Championship MVP finalist Aaron Molloy and Jeremy Kelly who notched double-digit assists. Be ready for fireworks, here.
Over the club’s first three seasons, Head Coach Mark Lowry built El Paso Locomotive FC into one of the serious forces in the USL Championship’s Western Conference. Then, ahead of last season, he elected to make the move to Indy Eleven and try to do the same at a club with big ambitions on and off the field. In his absence, nothing quite went the way it was supposed to at Southwest University Park.
Lowry’s first return to El Paso since his departure should prove an emotional one, as well as one that will be instructive on where both clubs stand in their pursuit of a playoff berth this season. Indy had moments in Lowry’s first year, missed out on a postseason berth, but have on paper strengthened substantially for the new campaign. For Locomotive FC, new Head Coach Brian Clarhaut arrives from Sweden after former Head Coach John Hutchinson stepped down this offseason, and will be looking to put his imprint on the team and lead it back to success.
As Phoenix Rising FC began its progression as a force on the field in the Championship six years ago, there was a similar move in the club’s off-field visibility led by executive Sam Doerr. In a major market, Rising FC quickly began to find its niche with expanded partnerships and branding opportunities that made the club relevant in a city with major competition for fans’ attention.
Now, Doerr is aiming to do the same for FC Tulsa after being named club President last season. He’s bringing another familiar face to Rising FC fans with him after the appointment of former player and assistant coach Blair Gavin to lead Tulsa this year, and the club has also assembled a fascinating mix of experience and youth in its squad. Phoenix’s first trip to Tulsa since 2019 should be a good test of where both clubs stand.
Going into the 2023 campaign, it’s almost certain that defending Championship title holders San Antonio FC and two-time Eastern Conference title winners the Tampa Bay Rowdies will be among the favorites to claim the crown this time around. That makes their match in the final month of the season a potentially vital one for the final position for both clubs in their respective conferences, and a game we were so close to seeing in last year’s Championship Final.
It's also going to bring some serious on-field quality. Three of last year’s award winners should be expected to feature, with Goalkeeper of the Year Jordan Farr and Defender of the Year Mitchell Taintor both back with San Antonio and Championship MVP Leo Fernandes set to lead the Rowdies’ attack. As these sides meet for the first time since 2017, we could get a classic at Toyota Field.
When New Mexico United and Louisville City FC met for the first time in 2021, they gave a national television audience a highly entertaining back-and-forth contest on ESPN2 at Lynn Family Stadium that saw LouCity emerge with a 3-1 victory. Many of the key players in that contest could feature again this time around, but with three weekends to go in the regular season there should be plenty on the line for both teams as Louisville looks to maintain the standard it has set over its first eight seasons and United looks to join the upper echelon in the league’s title contenders.
New Mexico has added new recruits in search of that breakthrough over the past two offseasons, with Justin Portillo and Will Seymore’s arrival before last season being added to by the return of Santi Moar and the arrival of Greg Hurst to the club’s attacking corps. With its combination of experience and youth, LouCity will be a formidable challenge for the hosts as it makes its first trip to Isotopes Park.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United Hartford Athletic San Diego Loyal SC