Photo courtesy L.E. Baskow / Las Vegas Lights FC
We’re just over halfway through USL Preseason, with only two weekends to go before the serious stuff starts, which means the time for fitness buildup is coming to a close and the focus on shape and tactical adjustment is coming quickly for teams across the league. What we’ve already seen so far this preseason, though, has provided plenty to talk about on and off the field, with one expansion team out west in particular drawing the spotlight like no other.
1. WARM WELCOME: Las Vegas Lights FC wrapped up its three-game preseason prelude to its inaugural season at Cashman Field by hosting D.C. United on Saturday night, and while there’s still plenty to be worked on, the club couldn’t have asked for a better reception from the city’s fans. Lights FC averaged 7,865 fans over the three games against MLS opposition – billed as Soccer Spring Training – which would have placed it fourth in the USL in average regular-season attendance a season ago. It remains to be seen if that can sustain for a full season, but the passion in the stands has been impressive so far for a club that’s being adopted by numerous others who’ve tuned in so far.
2. READY FREDDY: The main attraction for Lights FC on Saturday night – despite the efforts of Juan Calderon – proved to be Freddy Adu, who made his preseason debut in a half-hour appearance as a substitute against the club he turned professional with back in 2004. Now 28 years old, Adu didn’t have the sprightliness of when he was at his peak, but there remained glimpses of his touch and ability to influence a game that saw him record an assist and almost bring the house down with a late volley, had it dipped under the crossbar, it would have leveled things up. The affection shown by the crowd – which was chanting for his introduction as he warmed up early in the second half – could make this an ideal fit for the former U.S. Men’s National Team player’s return to competitive action.
3. ON THE BOARD: Wins and losses in preseason are usually forgotten by the time the regular season picks up steam, but there was a sense of gratification for the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Saturday night, as they picked up their first win of the preseason against the Philadelphia Union to wrap up the Suncoast Invitational at Al Lang Stadium. After playing well but suffering defeats in their first two games of the preseason, the Rowdies were pleased to hold off a strong push in the final half-hour from a group that could resemble the Union’s opening day lineup for the MLS regular season next weekend. “We talked about it earlier in the week, we were trying to get a result and that’s exactly what we did,” said Nanchoff. “It was nice to get a win, but at the same time, [Head Coach] Stu [Campbell] touched on putting together a nice performance overall, and I think we did that.”
4. UP, UP AND AWAY: Phoenix Rising FC also picked up its first win of the preseason on Saturday against MLS opposition, defeating the New York Red Bulls – who featured Kaku for the first time – to close out the Mobile Mini Sun Cup, as Solomon Asante and Didier Drogba found the net in a 2-1 victory. While it might not have been a full-strength lineup outside the Argentine playmaker with the Red Bulls’ regulars preparing for Thursday’s second leg of the club’s Round of 16 clash with Olimpia in the CONCACAF Champions League, as with the Rowdies, getting a first win of the preseason will be a nice morale boost for Phoenix as it heads to Ecuador this week to take on Liga Deportiva Universitaria.
5. LOW-KEY LOUISVILLE: Even though the club is the defending USL Cup champion, Louisville City FC has gotten off to its usual understated start to the preseason, as its large returning contingent of players gets back into the swing of things. Saturday’s first preseason scrimmage against Young Harris College saw Louisville put together some good piece of work, including a highlight-reel finish from Niall McCabe against his former school to seal the victory. As you might expect, though, Louisville Head Coach James O’Connor was exacting in what he saw from the outing. “We need to have a better collective understanding and awareness,” said O’Connor. There are a couple of things we need to get much better at, so this week will be spent doing just that.”
6. FIRST THINGS FIRST: Another team that took to the field for the first time officially this preseason late last week was Indy Eleven, which welcomed FC Cincinnati for a preview of a little over a month from now, when Indy will host FCC for its first USL regular-season home opener at Lucas Oil Stadium. Not yet full-strength as players continue to arrive for training camp, Indy fell 2-1 in the scrimmage, but there was still enough for Head Coach Martin Rennie to be pleased about as a revamped squad took its first big step toward the regular season. “I think this is a game that everyone can be happy with,” Rennie said. “I was very pleased that we got the fitness and got the work. The players responded well to the messages we’ve been giving them. I’m very happy with the effort and the work we put in.”
7. MAKE THE CHANGE: Ottawa Fury FC finished with the third-fewest passes attempted in the USL a season ago and the fewest in the Eastern Conference at 11,435, as the club’s passing accuracy rate sat at just 72 percent also last in the East. With new Head Coach Nikola Popovic now at the helm, Fury FC fans should expect both of those numbers to rise significantly this season. The work Popovic has already done this preseason to change Fury FC’s fortunes on the field was in clear evidence on Friday afternoon, as Ottawa played to a 1-1 draw with Nashville SC, with Fury FC controlling the tempo and rhythm of the game and connecting nicely through the midfield for much of the match. As Ottawa looks to return to the success it found under Popovic’s former colleague Marc Dos Santos, the signs are certainly positive.
Photo courtesy Kelsi Steele / United Soccer League
8. FINDING THEIR ROAD: Nashville SC saw moments where it had to play reactively as well as proactively in its scrimmage with Ottawa, but the club’s trip to Florida concluded on a high note on Sunday, as it emerged with a 3-1 victory in a closed-door scrimmage with Major League Soccer’s Orlando City SC. Former PDL standout Alan Winn continued his strong start to preseason with another goal, while Lebo Moloto and Michael Cox were both on target in the victory. Nashville returns home this week and faces an intriguing preseason test this Saturday against FC Cincinnati in Ohio.
9. SWITCHED ON: Sacramento Republic FC’s second preseason exhibition against MLS opposition played out in much the same manner as its first, with the USL side putting up a solid display against Los Angeles FC before 11,035 fans at Papa Murphy’s Park before being edged out. While the game was a good exercise for Republic FC, what will be interesting to monitor ahead of the club’s season-opening game against San Antonio FC is how Sacramento makes the shift to a more reactive style against top-level opposition to dictating the terms of the game in Head Coach Simon Elliott’s system. Republic FC’s new-look squad appears to have the pieces to achieve that, but there’s plenty to work on in the next three weeks.
10. ATL OPENS UP: Given the core fan base’s intrigue in the club’s young players, there was plenty of interest in ATL UTD 2’s first scrimmages of the season on Saturday – which saw the side play two 45-minute periods against Georgia State University and Furman University. At the fore was young Homegrown player George Bello, who impressed along the back line, and Lagos Kunga, who picked up experience last season while he was on loan at the Charleston Battery. Kunga found the net against GSU, while Brian Gambarte and Vixamar struck against Furman to get Head Coach Scott Donnelly’s side off to a positive start. Add in what we saw from the likes of Andrew Carleton for Atlanta’s MLS squad on Saturday to close out the Carolina Challenge Cup, it could be a very fun season indeed at Coolray Field.
11. TESTING TIMES: Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and Reno 1868 FC have kicked off their preseason schedules with differing levels of competition, but when the two teams meet this Saturday, it could provide insight into a pair of teams that went in opposite directions a season ago. For the Switchbacks in particular, who are looking to rebound after missing the postseason for the first time last fall, the visit to Greater Nevada Field should provide a good measuring stick to see how its new additions have bedded in after games against local opposition. For Reno, getting out on the front foot after a pair of scrimmages against the San Jose Earthquakes will give a roadmap as to what the club will look like when its second season begins.