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ARLIA: Three Teams That Missed the 2018 Playoffs That Will Make the 2019 Field

By JOHN ARLIA - john.arlia@uslsoccer.com, 02/23/19, 9:00AM EST

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Why coaching changes, new additions will reverse the fortunes for trio of bounce-back candidates


OKC Energy FC midfielder Callum Ross and his teammates might have even more to celebrate during the 2019 USL Championship campaign. | Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC

Some offseasons in the USL Championship last longer than others.

For some, it’s the actual amount of time a team has off after its final competitive match, while for others it has to do with the way the club finished the season and its morale heading into the new year.

Think about this: Which team had the longer offseason, Louisville City FC or Phoenix Rising FC?

Technically, the 2018 USL Cup finalists will, of course, have the exact same amount of time between competitive games, but for many at Rising FC it’s probably felt much longer given the disappointment of coming up just short of the league’s ultimate prize. 17 weeks is a long time for emotional wounds to linger before finally having the chance to begin anew.

Don’t feel too bad for Phoenix, though. Rising FC has re-tooled and is once again expected to compete for a title, while 17 other teams missed out entirely on the USL Cup Playoffs last season – including a handful of sides that had realistic expectations of contending after reaching the postseason the previous year.

But as we saw in 2018, making the most of the offseason can change a team’s fortunes quickly. The Portland Timbers 2, who finished bottom of the Western Conference standings in 2017, reached the USL Cup Playoffs in 2018, while Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, Orange County SC and Saint Louis FC also made significant strides to secure a spot in the postseason field.

Here are three teams that I expect will bounce back similarly in 2019:


 LAS VEGAS LIGHTS FC

You may not recognize a lot of the names that first-year Lights FC Head Coach Eric Wynalda has brought to Las Vegas this offseason, but from what I can tell that’s exactly the way he likes it.

Wynalda, who has had success in each of his prior coaching stints (albeit it at lower levels), has a knack for unearthing hidden gems. His method revolves around giving guys a second, third or fourth chance and watching as they repay his faith with an unmatched work ethic and will to win.

It’s only February, but the plan seems to be working.

Wynalda’s squad has already picked up impressive preseason results against MLS sides Toronto FC and the Colorado Rapids, with newcomers Cristhian Hernandez and Edwin Rivas delivering positive displays for a revitalized Lights FC. In all, Las Vegas brings back just five players from its 2018 squad that finished 15th in the West, but familiar faces Thomas Olsen and Christian Torres return as the team looks to take a big step forward in its second season.


Cristhian Hernandez (middle) scored a goal and assisted on another in Lights FC's 2-2 draw with the Colorado Rapids earlier this preseason.

The departure of leading goalscorer Raul Mendiola to Silver State Cup rival Reno 1868 FC will surely sting but retaining Sammy Ochoa as a veteran presence that can still lead the line – the 32-year-old scored eight goals and added seven assists in 2018 – will help mitigate any potential scoring drop off.

The biggest threat to a USL Cup Playoffs debut for Las Vegas in 2019 is its back line, which had the fourth-worst defensive record in the league last campaign, conceding 74 goals. To his credit, Wynalda has worked on addressing that need by bringing in former Chivas USA defender Bryan de la Fuente and UCLA product Javan Torre but time will tell if that’s enough given the significant need for improvement.

While the back line may endure some nervy moments along the way, I believe in Wynalda and his methods enough to think this Las Vegas side will compete for a top-six finish in the West.


 OKC ENERGY FC

Energy FC earned a 10th-place finish in the West in 2018 – a result that would’ve been just good enough to secure a spot in the expanded field for the 2019 USL Cup Playoffs, but instead proved to be a disappointment for a club that reached the 2017 Western Conference Final under now-Hartford Athletic Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen.

Steve Cooke’s first season in charge didn’t go according to plan as Energy FC started slowly and dug itself a hole too deep to climb out of after losing eight of its opening nine matches. A stronger start will be key to the club’s success in 2019 but could prove to be a tall order as Cooke works to integrate several new faces into his squad.


OKC Energy FC center back Atiba Harris will look to form a strong defensive partnership with new teammate Nicolas Taravel over the course of the 2019 USL Championship campaign.

Among the most intriguing of those arrivals is the French duo of Alexy Bosetti and Nicolas Taravel, who both featured internationally for their home country at the youth level. Taravel, 24, will look to shore up a back line that conceded 46 goals last season – he could make a very good tandem with St. Kitts & Nevis center back Atiba Harris – while Bosetti brings plenty of experience in attack having made 75 appearances for Ligue 1 club Nice.

The trio of Bosetti, fellow newcomer Christian Eissele and key returnee Deshorn Brown will look to reboot an attack that ranked 23rd in the league in 2018 with just 43 goals. Brown, who netted once in four appearances after joining the club in mid-September, enters this campaign with plenty to prove after bouncing around to four different clubs over two years. If the 28-year-old Jamaican can rediscover the form that earned him a shot at MLS and 14 caps with the Reggae Boyz, then Energy FC should have enough firepower to return to the USL Cup Playoffs in 2019.


 TAMPA BAY ROWDIES

After finishing third in the Eastern Conference in 2017, the Tampa Bay Rowdies entered the 2018 Championship campaign with the aspirations of taking their title challenge a step further.

However, a 4-5-0 start to the season saw former Head Coach Stuart Campbell replaced by veteran defender Neill Collins and any lofty expectations for the side were quickly brought back down to earth. While there were still 25 games to right the ship after the coaching change, Collins’ transition from the pitch to the touchline took some time as he led the Rowdies to a 7-10-8 mark and a 12th-place finish in the East.


Tampa Bay Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins speaks with defender Papé Diakité during a 2018 regular season contest at Al Lang Stadium

The Rowdies’ downfall in 2018 came mostly on the offensive end as the club ranked in the bottom 10 in goals scored, managing to strike just 32 times during Collins’ 25 games in charge. That number looks likely to rise in 2019, even after factoring in the offseason departure of Junior Flemmings to Phoenix Rising FC and the retirements of fan favorites Joe Cole and Georgi Hristov.

Sebastian Guenzatti returns to Tampa Bay to lead the line in 2019 and the forward will be joined by a trio of new attacking pieces that are all coming off strong seasons in the Championship. Former All-League First Team selection Brandon Allen netted eight goals in 21 appearances for Nashville SC last year, while Andrew Tinari ranked second in the league in chances created (102) and Antoine Hoppenot ranked third league-wide with 13 assists.

If midfielder Kwadwo Poku can improve on his return of one goal and one assist in his first season with the club, the Rowdies’ attack should be back among the league’s best in 2019. A dynamic attack backed by a resolute defense – that features offseason signings Shawn Barry, Mohamed Kone and goalkeeper John McCarthy – makes the Rowdies contenders in a crowded Eastern Conference.

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