On a record-setting opening weekend for the USL in the stands, the action on the field left plenty of food for thought. Between a record-setting moment for Las Vegas Lights FC on the way to an opening victory, a game for the memory banks at Greater Nevada Field and some impressive displays elsewhere by those viewed as preseason favorites and not, the 2018 USL season got off to a rousing start. Here are 11 takeaways from what we think we know now.
1. HOMETOWN HERO: There was a sense of anticipation before the debut for Fresno FC and Las Vegas Lights FC at Chukchansi Park on Saturday night, and while there were ideas as to how the contest would play out, all of those were blown up within 70 seconds of kickoff. Las Vegas native Matt Thomas’ goal was the fastest by an expansion club in its inaugural game in the USL’s modern era and paved the way for an enthralling 3-2 victory in front of 7,769 fans that saw both teams entertain. Lights FC hadn’t led, let alone claimed a victory, during its preseason preparations, but on Saturday night, the side pulled an ace as it returns home for its first meeting with in-state rival Reno 1868 FC.
2. FILL IT UP: Fresno’s stellar attendance was just one of a number of impressive opening-weekend attendance figures across the league, which saw the USL set a new high across the 14 games that welcomed the new season, as the opening weekend saw 69,633 fans attend games across the league, a 18-percent increase on 2017’s 13-game slate of games. Those numbers included big debuts for defending champion Louisville City FC, whose crowd of 7,993 was its highest for a home opener in club history, a sellout crowd of 6,757 fans at Taft Stadium as OKC Energy FC welcomed Tulsa Roughnecks FC for the first Black Gold Derby of the regular season and 6,049 fans at Cheney Stadium as Seattle Sounders FC 2 was welcomed to its new home in Tacoma, Washington by enthusiastic support.
3. MARKING THE GROUND: Sacramento Republic FC welcomed the biggest crowd of the weekend in the league, and the sellout of 11,569 was treated to a 2-1 victory against San Antonio FC that set a marker for the season to come for Head Coach Simon Elliott and his squad. The banner held aloft by the Tower Bridge Battalion before the game read, “No Need for Luck, We Are Indomitable,” and Republic FC’s newcomers in Keven Alemán and Christian Eissele certainly looked the part in providing the goals that earned a fourth consecutive victory in its home opener – dating back to the 2015 season. What was as impressive, however, was the overall display that saw the side be sharp in the tackle defensively and willing to successfully take opponents on one-on-one. It provided a good look into what the rest of the season might bring at Papa Murphy’s Park.
4. MEET THE BOSS: If there was added pressure going into the opening game of the regular season as defending USL Cup champion, Louisville City FC rarely showed it. A comprehensive 2-0 victory against Nashville SC at Slugger Field on Saturday afternoon saw the hosts provide the strongest measuring stick the USL newcomers could have hoped for, as Luke Spencer picked up where he left off a season ago. Niall McCabe continued his stellar preseason form with the second-half goals that earned all three points. Arguably the difference in the game was in the little things that allowed Louisville to appear in control of the game even while Nashville just shaded the possession numbers. Louisville won more duels, aerial duels, tackles and notched more interceptions than its guest, as it limited Nashville to more shots from outside the penalty area than in.
5. SNOW BUSINESS: The Swope Park Rangers aren’t uncommon with having to produce in difficult road conditions, just look at their late-season victory against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC a year ago that was played in almost-monsoon conditions, but no-one was quite prepared for what arrived at Greater Nevada Field as heavy snow produced a 4-3 victory for the defending Western Conference champion against Reno 1868 FC in quite dramatic fashion. The conditions certainly seemed to play a role as the snow started to build on the surface in the second half, and Reno Head Coach Ian Russell lamented his side’s lack of sharpness playing out of its own half. That the Rangers produced some goals of real quality through Kharlton Belmar and newcomer Hadji Barry said a lot and should serve as warning that SPR isn’t going anywhere as it aims for a third consecutive trip to the USL Cup.
6. ROWDY ROAD SHOW: The Tampa Bay Rowdies struggled mightily on the road in 2017, earning only three victories away from Al Lang Stadium, but if Saturday’s 3-1 win against North Carolina FC is an indicator of what’s to come, then that is going to change fast. The Rowdies never trailed against their old rivals in the first meeting between the clubs in the USL as a solid display in goal by Cody Mizell in his return to the club and fine goals by Leo Fernandes and Jack Blake that bracketed a penalty kick by Georgi Hristov saw the visitors leave Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park with a win. The Rowdies entered the season viewed as one of the preseason favorites in the Eastern Conference, and their opening display did nothing to disabuse anyone of that notion.
7. CHOP IT UP: While Tampa Bay was living up to preseason expectations, across the state at the Sportsplex at Matthews, the Charlotte Independence made the kind of statement that indicated the side will be just fine without departed USL Most Valuable Player Finalist Enzo Martinez. The Independence’s 4-1 victory against Ottawa Fury FC should make a lot of people stand up and take notice that last year’s playoff contender is going to be strongly in the mix once again. Trinidad & Tobago international Cordell Cato introduced himself to the Independence’s fans with two goals, as Charlotte’s incisiveness allowed the side to register 12 of its 14 shots from inside the penalty area. The combination of Cato and young Colorado Rapids loanee Sam Vines – who was selected for the U.S. U20 National Team’s Training Camp in January – down the left flank in particular looked a winner and put a very positive spin on a preseason that had left questions to be addressed.
8. AT YOUR SERVICE: The lack of loanees arriving with OKC Energy FC from MLS partner FC Dallas was one that had many perplexed last season, but on Saturday night as the Steve Cooke era began for the club, the arrivals from Texas were on full display, led by Francis Atuahene. The former PDL Top Prospect for the Michigan Bucks, and FCD’s top SuperDraft selection in January, provided the only goal of the game as the hosts claimed the first Black Gold Derby of the season against Tulsa Roughnecks FC. Atuahene almost produced a second that would have iced the game in a move that he started and finished, only for a good save by Roughnecks goalkeeper to deny him, but with fellow FCD arrivals Jordan Cano and Ema Twumasi also seeing action on Saturday night, it seems the partnership could be picking up to OKC’s benefit.
9. HOLD ON TO BREAK THROUGH: By the time the game arrived, FC Cincinnati might have been slightly tired by the mentions that the club had failed to defeat the Charleston Battery in five prior meetings between the clubs, but while Blake Smith’s first goal for FCC made the difference in a 1-0 win at Blackbaud Stadium, it was goalkeeper Evan Newton and a staunch defensive display that proved key as the Battery could easily have come away with something from the game. The Battery will probably feel they should have been more clinical with their chances, putting only five of their 24 shots on target as Cincinnati blocked 11 efforts that didn’t make their way through to Newton, but with two weeks before a trip to Indy Eleven, there seems to still be work needed to get Cincinnati running at the level that many are expecting.
10. HIGH TIDE: As they prepared for their first game at Cheney Stadium on Friday night, Seattle Sounders FC 2’s players were ready for something very different than they’d experienced last season. When a sellout crowd of 6,049 showed for their 2-1 victory against the Portland Timbers 2, the buzz on the field and in the stands was evident. “To have 6,000 people cheering and shouting for them is incredible,” S2 Head Coach John Hutchinson told the Tacoma News Tribune’s John McGrath. “When the players were told about amount of tickets they sold here, they got very excited.” S2’s exuberance spilled over into its attacking play, which saw former Akron standout Nick Hinds score a tremendous goal on his professional debut to lead the side to an opening weekend win for the first time since 2015. A new home appears to have brought a new energy for the side, one that could carry forward to a rise in the standings this season.
11. MAKE IT, TAKE IT: With two of the club’s three leading scorers from a season ago departing this offseason, the biggest question for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC going into its season-opener was which of its forward lineup would step in to fill the void. After a brilliant strike to open the Switchbacks’ 2-0 victory against the LA Galaxy II at Weidner Field, the first candidate to make his case is A.J. Ajeakwa, whose top-corner effort provided the exclamation point on a strong all-around display for Head Coach Steve Trittschuh’s side. Given the Switchbacks’ level of control in the contest – which will provide nothing but questions for Los Dos Head Coach Mike Munoz – Trittschuh likely hasn’t had all the questions answered about where his team stands as it looks for a bounce-back season. For the opening night, though, it definitely appeared there was plenty of room for optimism for the Trailheads and the club.