Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
The 2017 USL regular season got off to a spectacular start, with new venues, new teams and new players all making a big impression. Here are 11 things we took away from the weekend.
1. STANDING OVATION: Fans came out in record numbers for the USL’s opening weekend, with the league seeing its largest Week 1 attendance in history across Saturday’s and Sunday’s contests. At the forefront were sellout crowds of 6,890 at the opening of Phoenix Rising FC’s spectacular home venue, and 7,710 at Al Lang Stadium as the Tampa Bay Rowdies made their debut in the USL. The results for the two sides contrasted, with the Rowdies getting off to a strong start thanks to Georgi Hristov’s penalty kick against Orlando City B, and Rising FC seeing an early goal by Toronto FC II rookie Ryan Telfer decide the result, but the atmosphere and energy generated by both clubs was a positive sign for both.
2. ALIVE AND KICKING: The honor of the biggest crowd of the weekend outside of Major League Soccer, however, went to one of the clubs celebrating its 25th anniversary season. The Richmond Kickers drew a club-record 8,021 fans into City Stadium for their season opener against the Harrisburg City Islanders, and new captain Conor Shanosky’s goal sent the fans home happy with a 1-0 win. After an offseason that saw Richmond seal a 40-year lease at its historic home, the opening game of 2017 brought a vision of what could be for years to come as the club’s upward ascent off the field continued.
3. BATTERING RAM: The Charleston Battery also kicked off their 25th anniversary season at home on Saturday night, and took away one of the more impressive wins of the weekend as they edged out FC Cincinnati 2-1 behind a stellar performance from midfielder Justin Portillo. Making his return to competitive action, the standout central midfielder provided the assist on Charleston’s opening goal of the season, and then notched the game-winner as he scored on the rebound of his own penalty kick that had been initially saved by FCC goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt. With the newness that surrounds the USL these days, the ability the Battery and Kickers have both kept to remain in the front of the pack has always been impressive, and Saturday was another night where the organization of both was on full display.
4. ROUGH RIDERS: Arguably the result nobody saw coming going into Saturday’s action was Tulsa Roughnecks FC’s 4-1 victory against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, as new Head Coach David Vaudreuil’s side opened in tremendous style in front of the club’s passionate fans at ONEOK Field. An early setback didn’t derail the Roughnecks as Argentinian playmaker Juan Caffa quickly got the side back on level terms with an exceptional free kick. From there, the Roughnecks harried the Switchbacks out of their game and took advantage of their mistakes to run away with the biggest margin of victory over the weekend.
5. SHOOTING RANGE: While Tulsa finished bottom of the Western Conference a season ago, the Swope Park Rangers lifted the Western Conference Championship, and under new Head Coach Nikola Popovic the side continued to play the exciting, attacking soccer that brought it success a year ago. Despite the absences of 2016 All-League defender Amer Didic and last season’s leading scorer Mark Anthony Gonzalez – both currently with Canada’s U23 National Team – the Rangers looked crisp as they rallied to defeat OKC Energy FC 3-1 at Children’s Mercy Victory Field for a strong start to their title defense.
6. QUESTION TIME: Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and OKC Energy FC square off on Saturday night at Weidner Field in what is set to be one of Week 2’s most anticipated contests. After both team’s travails on Saturday night, the game remains a fascinating one, but for very different reasons than we might have thought during preseason. Energy FC in particular, with its retooled squad, had high expectations going into the new season, but now either OKC or the Switchbacks could be looking at a 0-2-0 start to the season, which would be far from ideal.
7. SOUTH TEXAS SHOWDOWN: San Antonio FC was looking to break the hold Rio Grande Valley FC had held over it last season when it visited for the first regular season game at H-E-B Park on Sunday evening. Thanks to a new – and yet familiar – face, San Antonio got the 1-0 win it was looking for. Billy Forbes’ attacking spark was on show throughout the game, and his finish in the 15th minute gave SAFC exactly the boost it needed, having never even led against the Toros last season, let alone earned a victory. As high as the expectations are for Head Coach Darren Powell’s side in Year 2, Sunday was a fine start.
8. DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE: The Pittsburgh Riverhounds also had numerous new faces in their squad that squared off with defending champion the New York Red Bulls II on Saturday evening, but it was the familiar duo of Corey Hertzog and Kevin Kerr that ensured the Riverhounds earned a 3-3 draw after going behind three times at Highmark Stadium. Hertzog – an All-League selection last year after scoring 12 goals – will have been particularly pleased to carry his preseason form into the regular season as he aims at leading the side back into the playoff picture this year.
9. SHUTOUT CITY: For the first time ever, a game in the Kings’ Cup rivalry between Louisville City FC and Saint Louis saw neither side find the score sheet, as the opening game of the 2017 USL regular season ended in a 0-0 draw at Louisville Slugger Field. Both teams should take something from the contest, though, with Louisville both looking bright thanks to new additions Richard Ballard and Brian Ownby, and looking strong defensive despite the absence of Sean Reynolds and Paco Craig. For Saint Louis, earning a point after absorbing as much pressure as the side did in the first half will also be a plus as center back pairing A.J. Cochran and Konrad Plewa both put in stellar performances.
10. KILLER FINISH: After suffering the disappointment of a torn ACL that prematurely ended his season in 2016, there was probably no more fitting way for Sacramento Republic FC’s Emrah Klimenta to return to the lineup than scoring the winning goal on Sunday afternoon in his side’s 2-1 victory against Seattle Sounders FC 2. Sacramento was made to work by a young S2 side after the host had taken the lead at Starfire Stadium on former PDL standout Brian Nana-Sinkam’s first professional goal, but Republic FC eventually knocked the door down in the second half to get the three points.
11. THE CITY BEAUTIFUL: The second week of the season kicks off in midweek as the Swope Park Rangers aim to build on their strong opening win against a Portland Timbers 2 side that fell 2-1 to Real Monarchs SLC in its first contest on Saturday night. Thursday night brings a game with multiple storylines as Orlando City B plays its first game at the new Orlando City Stadium, with former Lions player James O’Connor leading his Louisville City FC side into the Sunshine State. O’Connor helped create one of the biggest moments in Orlando’s USL history when the side claimed the 2013 USL Cup Final in front of 20,886 fans at the Florida Citrus Bowl, but now as Louisville’s Head Coach will be hunting for City’s first win of the season.
Tag(s): The 18 San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks OKC Energy FC Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC Swope Park Rangers FC Tulsa Charleston Battery Louisville City FC New York Red Bulls II Pittsburgh Riverhounds Richmond Kickers Saint Louis FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Toronto FC II