Photo courtesy Delaney Hoolahan / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
There are no prizes for winning the offseason, only the potential for what those decisions will bring when the regular season kicks off, but looking around the USL as we enter the final week of preseason for most of the league’s teams there are some clubs that appear to have made the most of the past four months since Louisville City FC raised the USL Cup. After a weekend that saw numerous head-to-head matchups between USL squads, the picture isn’t completely clear yet, but we’re certainly getting valuable information as to the way the early-season at least might shape up.
1. SHARPENED STEEL: Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC knew what it was getting when it hired Bob Lilley as its new Head Coach, with the veteran having always found a way to put his sides in contention for the USL Cup Playoffs through a combination of excellent organization and hard work that has been a hallmark of Lilley’s teams. Pittsburgh won its seventh consecutive preseason game on Sunday with those traits at the fore as it defeated what had been a high-scoring Bethlehem Steel FC side 2-0 at the Power Training Complex in Chester, Pa., and as the season nears appears to have all the elements of a side that is going to make life hard for opponents in the Eastern Conference this season.
2. FINDING FOCUS: FC Cincinnati is still undefeated this preseason after its 2-2 draw with Nashville SC on Saturday afternoon at Gettler Field, but while conceding a late equalizer from the penalty spot might have been disappointing for Head Coach Alan Koch – who saw his side rally from a first-half deficit to take the lead in the second half – the game appeared to provide exactly the type of battle Koch was looking for as his team looks to come together. “To be completely honest I’m glad we didn’t win because if we would have left the pitch today winning I think some people, some players and some fans would have left today with a full sense of confidence,” said Koch. FCC’s squad is full of recognizable names, but it seems clear Koch doesn’t want that fact to mean his squad slips into a position of complacency when the regular season arrives.
3. UPWARD PATH: Nashville SC, meanwhile, probably felt they got their just reward from Saturday’s game in Cincinnati as the progression of Head Coach Gary Smith’s squad continued apace. “Once we got to grips with the surface I thought we absolutely dominated the first half,” said Smith. “[Michael] Cox had a great chance that he smashed off the crossbar. Tucker [Hume] had some good chances as well after the goal. I thought we controlled the first 45.” Nashville’s mix of personnel seems to be coming together well, with the midfield duo of Matt LaGrassa and Michael Reed drawing praise from Smith after Saturday’s game. After the strong debuts we’ve seen recently in the USL, Nashville looks to be on course to make a serious mark when things kick off for real.
4. FINDING THE LEVEL: There will be somewhat of a baptism by fire for Nashville to kick off its inaugural professional season, though, with Louisville City FC waiting to welcome the newcomers to the league on March 17 as it begins the defense of its USL Cup. Louisville’s preparations continued Saturday as Luke Spencer scored twice in a 4-0 victory against Northern Kentucky University that saw the side put in a strong first half, but not quite execute to the standard Head Coach James O’Connor was looking for after the halftime break. “We had some nice passages in the first half with some things we wanted to see, but we’re disappointed with the second half,” O’Connor said. “I thought the intensity wasn’t where it needed to be – a lot of sloppiness. Whether that’s down to the 90 minutes for some of them or not, I don’t know, but irritated with that second half.”
5. UP FOR THE CUP: Given his exacting nature, it’s not surprising to see O’Connor’s words, but we might have a much better indication of where Louisville stands after this Saturday when they meet a Saint Louis FC side that – much in the same manner as Pittsburgh – has used its offseason to effect changes that will put the side into serious playoff contention. Two one-sided victories against an FC Denver side that will make its debut this year in the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup once again showed the potency that STLFC could bring to the field this season as Corey Hertzog produced a four-goal outing on Saturday and Joey Calistri a hat trick on Sunday. The lone meeting for the Kings’ Cup this season is going to be one to watch.
6. MAKING THE PLAY: What Nashville SC is looking to accomplish in the Eastern Conference, Fresno FC is aiming to replicate in the West, and Sunday night’s 1-1 draw with Sacramento Republic FC will have been a nice confidence boost for the Foxes, even if they were twice an assistant referee’s flag away from falling to their Northern California rivals. What should be a positive coming out of this contest is the fact that both Danny Barrera and Juan Pablo Caffa appear ready to go, since both are going to be key to generating the offense this side will need in 2018. Fresno now has two weeks to prepare for its debut at Chukchansi Park against Las Vegas Lights FC on March 17, and what should be one of the more-anticipated games of the opening weekend of the regular season.
Photo courtesy Fresno FC
7. CHEMISTRY LESSON: On Sacramento’s side, there seemed plenty to be pleased about from Sunday’s game as well, most notably the chemistry that appears to be picking up between the attacking duo of Cameron Iwasa and Villyan Bijev. Both members of the 2016 USL All-League Team when Iwasa was last in Sacramento and Bijev was in Portland, there seems the potential for both to measure up to the numbers they produced that season this year with Bijev taking over the role Danny Barrera played for Iwasa two years ago. There will be other options, too, with Wilson Kneeshaw having looked positive in Sacramento’s two games against MLS opposition this preseason, but if Bijev can pull the strings in the attacking third it could be a very positive season at Papa Murphy’s Park.
8. SOLID STEWARD: There were positives to be taken for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC after Saturday’s 1-0 victory on the road at a frigid Greater Nevada Field, but maybe the biggest was that in goalkeeper Steward Ceus they appear to have made a serious upgrade for the new season. The Haitian stood up well to that which Reno produced throughout the first half, allowing Jordan Burt’s early penalty kick to stand as the winner. There’s work to be done organizationally for the Switchbacks’ back four, which didn’t always seem to be on the same page in terms of holding its line, but on the flipside the counterattacking potential of players like A.J. Ajeakwa and Saeed Robinson looked dangerous when they got out in space.
9. SHARPENING UP: That Saturday’s exhibition in Reno was played at all was thanks to the tremendous efforts of Reno’s groundkeepers and volunteers, who cleared six inches of snow in the morning to make the pitch playable, and while 1868 FC ended up on the short end of the result there was a lot to like from what was on display, especially in the attacking end. The chemistry between Christian Thierjung and Antoine Hoppenot jumped out in particular, and if not for both a stellar display from Switchbacks’ goalkeeper Steward Ceus and some otherwise missed opportunities the final result could have been very different. Sharpen up the finishing, and 1868 FC will continue to be capable of fireworks this season.
Photo courtesy David Calvert / Reno 1868 FC
10. RETURN OF THE KING: Reno’s next preseason outing arrives on Wednesday as it takes on defending USL Regular Season-champion Real Monarchs SLC, with the Monarchs continuing the preparations for their title defense at the newly-constructed Zions Bank Stadium this past weekend in a 4-0 win against Sacramento State University. The Monarchs look to have done a lot right this offseason, keeping some of their key players while adding the likes of Masta Kacher, and with the depth the organization possesses from top to bottom it was interesting to see former U.S. U20 international Brooks Lennon suiting up in California on Saturday to net two goals. With Head Coach Mark Briggs continuing to focus on the details that he believes will keep the team on top, Wednesday’s litmus test could be an interesting one for both clubs.
11. RISING TO THE TOP: While the USL regular season is still two weeks from kicking off, this past weekend saw the return of Major League Soccer and some notable debuts in the top flight by former USL standouts. At the top of the list were Mark-Anthony Kaye and Tyler Miller, who helped Los Angeles FC make history with a 1-0 win against Seattle Sounders FC on Sunday afternoon in the club’s first official game, but the impact the likes of the Philadelphia Union’s Auston Trusty, Anthony Fontana and Cory Burke had in their MLS debuts was also a major feather in the cap of Bethlehem Steel FC Head Coach Brendan Burke and the entire organization. More than 20 former USL signings saw action this weekend, with many more players who have spent time on loan in the league also playing a part, highlighting the impact the USL is having through the continued partnership between the leagues.