Photo courtesy L.E. Baskow / Las Vegas Lights FC
The first full week of USL preseason brought plenty to talk about, including remarkable debuts in the stands by two of the league’s expansion clubs and performances that leave some things to talk about as we look ahead to the new season.
1. TO THE RAFTERS: Since Nashville SC had announced early in the week its inaugural preseason contest at First Tennessee Park against Atlanta United had sold out, there was an air of expectation as to what Saturday would bring. At that point, however, no-one knew that NSC’s debut crowd of 9,059 would be the second largest at a USL venue that night. Las Vegas Lights FC’s debut, which brought 10,387 fans to Cashman Field for a clash against the Montreal Impact, turned heads and bodes well for what’s to come this year for the USL overall after its record-setting 2017 season.
2. BIG ROPAPA: Neither Nashville or Las Vegas managed to earn a result against their MLS opposition, but that would have been a big expectation for either, especially Nashville, as it faced a side tipped to be near the top of Major League Soccer this season. As it was, there were positives to be taken for NSC in its display, particularly in the manner the side scored its first goal in club history. Ghanaian youngster Ropapa Mensah showed his promise with Penn FC a season ago and took full advantage of a beautiful counterattack that caught Atlanta’s defense flat to score the first goal in Nashville’s professional history. For someone who had been in camp for less than a week, Mensah’s finish was sharp, mirroring the potential that was on display last summer.
Photo courtesy Nashville SC
3. THE ENTERTAINERS: If there’s anything we learned from Las Vegas Lights FC’s debut on the field it’s that the side will have its fair share of extroverts when the regular season kicks off. For better and worse on Saturday night, goalkeeper Ricardo Ferriño was the center of attention in a 2-0 loss to the Impact. He pulled off some solid saves but also committed errors, including his sending off with 22 minutes to go, that would be costly in a regular-season setting. In terms of what Lights FC wants to put on as a show, though, Ferriño is the early encapsulation of the idea. The coming weeks will provide the time to iron out the rough edges Las Vegas’ squad possesses.
4. SIGN ‘EM UP: Since the start of the partnership between Reno 1868 FC and the San Jose Earthquakes, the goal for 1868 FC President Eric Edelstein has been to be “the benchmark for successful MLS and USL affiliations.” Friday’s renewal of the partnership agreement between the clubs that could carry through the 2020 season signified another step toward that goal, with Saturday’s game at Avaya Stadium seeing three of Reno’s former players – 2017 USL Rookie of the Year Chris Wehan, 2017 All-League defender Jimmy Ockford and midfielder Luis Felipe Fernandes – see action for the Quakes against their former club. With the Quakes having made big strides themselves over the past 12 months, both clubs may just have scratched the surface in terms of what their relationship can be.
5. BUMPY START: As for the game, Reno Head Coach Ian Russell knew his side was going to be up against it vs. the Quakes, with San Jose’s squad far further along in its preseason preparations than 1868 FC. At the same time, there seemed to be a little disappointment that Reno didn’t put up a stronger showing in the opening half, as the Quakes knocked in four goals against what on paper looked like a solid back line. “I wasn’t expecting it to be 4-0 at the half, but that’s life,” said Russell. When the results don’t matter, though, there can be plenty to be learned from a setback like Saturday’s.
Photo courtesy Quakes Talk / Reno 1868 FC
6. TESTING TIMES: FC Cincinnati took victory against the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Saturday to move to 1-0-1 in its first two games at IMG Academy, but for Head Coach Alan Koch, the more important aspect of Saturday’s preseason contest was to see how his players came through in a game-setting after an arduous week of practice in Florida. With his side being put under regular pressure and needing a couple of good saves from goalkeeper Evan Newton in the second half to allow Garrett Halfhill’s goal to stand as the winner, the reviews were mixed after the game. “We pushed them a lot this week in training to see how they played through a bit of fatigue,” said Koch. “Some guys impressed us, and some guys didn’t impress us.”
7. POSITIVE SPIN: On the flipside, Tampa Bay Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell wasn’t at all disappointed by the end of Saturday’s contest, which saw the Rowdies look sharp after just over a week of preseason and create chances consistently throughout the contest. In particular, the trio of newcomers in fullback Max Lachowecki, winger Junior Flemmings and forward Jochen Graf showed positive chemistry throughout the first half, opening up chances that on another day would have seen Tampa Bay hold the lead at the break. “There’s lots of good combination plays in the first half, and the second half, and I think we played well,” said Campbell. “You want to get results in every game, but the most important thing is the performance. I’d much rather have a really good performance and lose in preseason than do that in the regular season.”
8. COMING TOGETHER: One of the more interesting offseason additions was that by San Antonio FC of Jose Escalante, a player the club had gotten to know well from previous encounters when the Honduran was with Rio Grande Valley FC. On Sunday afternoon, it appeared the building blocks were starting to come together in a 2-0 victory against FC Dallas that saw Escalante set up goals for both Ever Guzman and Kris Tyrpak. While not against a full-strength Dallas side – most of whom had played on Saturday night in a 3-1 win against Costa Rican club CS Cartagines in preparation for FCD’s upcoming Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League meeting with Panama’s Tauro FC – the fact Escalante seems to be fitting in quickly will be very positive for SAFC fans.
Photo courtesy San Antonio FC
9. ON THE PACE: The conclusion to Phoenix Rising FC’s first preseason outing put a damper on proceedings in the club’s 3-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls in the 2018 Mobile Mini Sun Cup, but what had preceded it left a clear indication that Rising FC is set to contend strongly in the Western Conference this season. The emphasis on striking quickly when the opportunity presents itself hasn’t left Head Coach Patrice Carteron’s side, but with a full preseason to build his squad the veteran coach there seems to be more patient in Rising FC this season. The buildup to Kevaughn Frater’s second-half goal looked like a side that is right on schedule for its regular-season opener.
10. NECO MAKES A CASE: While plenty of signings have already been made, preseason is also the time when players enter training camp aiming to live up to their prior pedigree in search of a roster spot. One player who looked to accomplish just that over the past weekend was former Portland Timbers midfielder Neco Brett, who scored two goals, recorded an assist and won a penalty kick in two victories against college opposition. The 25-year-old Jamaican could be one to watch with the Riverhounds building out their squad over the next few weeks, as Bob Lilley looks to put together a contender at Highmark Stadium.
11. NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Birmingham Legion FC won’t make its USL preseason debut until 2019, but the announcement on Friday the club will call BBVA Compass Field for its inaugural season was another impressive step forward for the new club after the recent appointment of former New England Revolution Head Coach Jay Heaps as its first President and General Manager. Warmly met by local fans, the announcement that the 6,000-seat venue will see professional action next spring has only added to the buzz Legion FC is creating on a local and national scale.