Photo courtesy Lori Scholl / Tulsa Roughnecks FC
Teams are always on the hunt for upgrades and improvement on the pitch, and 2017 is no different than any other. A number of clubs have made some noteworthy upsurges following their 2016 campaign. Here we highlight five of the most significant.
Photo courtesy Real Monarchs SLC
The Monarchs, in the midst of their third USL season, made a significant offseason shift. The organization brought in substantial experience to coincide with the younger players who have come up through Real Salt Lake’s system, and the end result has been impeccable.
The Monarchs have equaled the USL record of eight consecutive wins (matching 2014 side Orlando City SC) and could potentially break that mark when they host Reno 1868 FC on Monday to open Week 14 play. They have already eclipsed last year’s wins total (11-1-0 record this year, compared to 10-14-6 in 2016).
Midfielder Sebastian Velasquez, originally drafted by Real Salt Lake in 2012, has been the engineer of this team. Striker Chandler Hoffman’s career goal-scoring rate is one of the best in USL history. He has eight tallies in 12 games thus far. Combine their efforts with the likes of Nick Besler and Charlie Adams, along with the USL experience of Head Coach Mark Briggs, and Real has found the recipe for success in the Western Conference, with the hopes of making a serious push for the USL Cup.
Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
SAFC was just a couple points behind the final Western Conference slot for the USL Cup Playoffs during its inaugural 2016 season. This year, the question probably won’t be whether San Antonio can reach the postseason or not, but rather how high up the table the club will wind up.
San Antonio’s sophomore campaign has been remarkable with a 13-game unbeaten streak (9-0-4) to open the year. Midfielder Billy Forbes was named the USL Player of the Month for March/April, recording six goals and three assists during that stretch. While the offense has cooled down, SAFC’s defense has been one of the best in the USL, having posted seven consecutive clean sheets since early May.
Beyond the team’s USL performance, the Spurs Sports & Entertainment-owned club has embraced the full spectrum of the league’s model. San Antonio hosted the increasingly popular USL Experience event earlier this year, providing select Super Y League players the opportunity to compete against high-level youth competition from across the country and gain a professional grasp of the SAFC and USL culture in a multi-day residential experience.
All-in-all, the culture and scope of the SAFC organization has proven to be a strong USL success in such a short time frame.
Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds
If history holds true, the Riverhounds should be a postseason-bound team this year. For every odd-numbered year since 2011, Pittsburgh has reached the USL Cup Playoffs. In even-numbered seasons, it hasn’t.
For those who don’t believe in such patterns or superstitious thinking, the 2017 Riverhounds are legitimately stronger than last year’s six-win club as Dave Brandt has had a full preseason and now full regular season to establish himself within the organization.
The past month has hit a lull, but the Riverhounds have had their moments to open this campaign – the club’s first three-game winning streak since 2013, a 2-1 road win against the Charleston Battery on April 8 and a season-opening draw against the defending champion New York Red Bulls II, to name a few flashes.
Pittsburgh is in the middle of the pack in the tightly contested Eastern Conference with a 4-5-4 record (16 points), and for a team that can lean on options such as Corey Hertzog, Kevin Kerr and Romeo Parkes to lead the attack, it remains plausible that the USL Cup Playoffs are within their grasp.
Photo courtesy Lori Scholl / Tulsa Roughnecks FC
The Roughnecks quite frankly had nowhere to go but up following their 5-21-4 season in 2016. Their defense conceded the most goals and their attack scored the fewest, too, among all USL teams.
Fast forward to 2017 and Head Coach David Vaudreuil’s side has remedied both sides of the ball. Tulsa is currently a team lingering around the playoff cutoff point, but the club has had some promising stretches in piecing together a 5-6-0 record thus far. Vaudreuil also has earned praise from the club’s MLS partner, the Chicago Fire, and their GM Nelson Rodriguez.
Newcomer and 6-foot-6 striker Ian Svantesson has scored in bunches to lead the way with five tallies. Juan Pablo Caffa is one of the most dependable set-piece takers a club can ask for. They also have shown some depth in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play to advance to the Fourth Round.
Tulsa has not quite found the consistency yet through more than a third of the season, but compared to where it was a year ago, the Roughnecks have to feel optimistic that they are a relevant part of the Western Conference conversation.
Photo courtesy Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati
Bethlehem underwent some natural first-year bumps and bruises in 2016, but the final third of the season was a stretch it wanted to forget – a 12-game winless streak that dropped Steel FC seven points behind the final postseason spot held by Orlando City B.
With 34-year-old Steel FC Head Coach Brendan Burke in the midst of his second season, it appears Steel FC has turned a corner.
Bethlehem, which posted the second-lowest goal scoring rate among the Eastern Conference last year, has enjoyed a massive contribution from Seku Conneh, who has already set a club single-season record with seven goals. Defensively, 22-year-old Philadelphia Union loanee Jake McGuire established his credentials early on with three clean sheets over Bethlehem’s first five matches of the 2017 season. Defender Auston Trusty continues to make a name for himself after representing the U.S. U20 National Team at the 2017 FIFA U20 World Cup
The element that hasn’t been talked about too heavily this year is Steel FC’s pockets of experience across the pitch, giving some stability to an overall young corps. Captain James Chambers is the rock in the midfield, and picking up Hugh Roberts during the offseason was an invaluable move. The finalist for 2016 USL Defender of the Year has helped steady the team in tightly contested situations.
Bethlehem is unbeaten in three straight (2-0-1), showing some poise in rallying for a 2-1 road victory against Saint Louis FC the last time out. Is this a team still waiting in the wings, or is it primed for a postseason? The coming weeks should fully paint the picture of how far the team has come.