Periodically this season, Orange & Blue Press will take a snapshot and recap major USL Eastern Conference happenings with an eye on FC Cincinnati’s competition and postseason run.
If you’ve been solely focused on FC Cincinnati so far this season, you may have missed all the offseason USL changes. The Eastern Conference expanded to sixteen teams this season. Joining MLS bound Nashville SC are FCC’s new I-74 rival and former NASL side Indy Eleven, North Carolina FC (formerly the NASL Carolina Railhawks), and the Atlanta United 2 squad. The Harrisburg City Islanders re-branded as Penn FC. Both the Rochester Rhinos and Orlando City B teams are taking a hiatus. Additionally, Saint Louis FC has moved to the Western Conference. In typical U.S. sports fashion, one-half of the sixteen USL Eastern Conference teams will make the playoffs.
Four Weeks In
The opening few weeks have had no shortage of action and early season drama. Here are three early-season takeaways:
- The defending USL champions, Louisville City FC, are still the side to beat in 2018. James O’Connor has his squad playing compact and efficient soccer. They have already beaten and blanked playoff hopefuls Nashville SC, Tampa Bay Rowdies, and FC Cincinnati.
- Two USL Player of the Month (“POTM”) honorees for March come from the East. First, the ageless Colombian Jorge Herrera netted four goals for the Charlotte Independence. Next, FCC’s Evan Newton has already taken home two USL save of the week honors and was just chosen the fans USL save of the month. Through the end of fan voting Monday, Newton tallied the most POTM fan votes, but this makes up only 51% of the poll. The USL Technical Committee (25%) and USL National Media Panel (24%) ballots round out the equation. Final results will be announced on Thursday.
- As seen in the Eastern Conference tables below, separation is already occurring between the hopefuls and the laggards. Three teams have failed to earn a point – North Carolina FC, TFCII, and Ottawa Fury F.C, although it is still early in the season.
The surprise developments over the first few weeks of action include:
- Charlotte Independence, the “Jacks” as their fanbase refer to them, unexpectedly sits in 3rd place overall with 7 points. Charlotte came out of the gate in full stride winning their first two 2018 contests. The Jacks have started to roll back down the hill with only one point earned in their past two matches. Could their hot start be the result of early season winnable home fixtures?
- Tommy Heinemann, the dynamic striker FC Cincinnati signed and then released, joined Penn FC on March 29th. Tommy notched his first goal for the newly branded side on Sunday, but his mysterious start to the 2018 season continued as he was subbed off in the 49th minute. There appeared to be no apparent contact but he raised his hand and limped off the pitch. Where will this intriguing story go next?
- Nashville SC’s home attendance. The Fighting Six Strings drew a very strong crowd of 18,922 to their USL home opener at Nissan Stadium. However, this past weekend they could only find 7,487 fans in the Nashville market to fill the seats at First Tennessee Park (capacity of 10,000). That’s disappointing second home game support from the MLS starlet.
Orange and Blue Press writer Geoff Tebbetts took a shot at his prognostication abilities last month in 2018 USL Season Preview: Five Teams to Challenge FCC. Let’s check-in and see how his analysis is faring by looking at the standings based on points per match. The teams he tipped look pretty good so far, with Louisville, Tampa, Indy, and FCC all in the top 4.
Stay tuned for additional Orange and Blue Press coverage and analytical insight as we gear up for the Bethlehem Steel FC match.