Scouting the Field: Ranking FCC’s Possible First-Round Opponents

Now that FC Cincinnati is guaranteed a first-round home match, what potential matchup could spell the most trouble?

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Image: Ryan Meyer

The common cliché in sports is that you need to take things “one game at a time.” Looking too far ahead in the future will catch you napping against your next opponent. As good as this undefeated streak has been, coach Alan Koch has emphasized doing what you can against the next opponent, not the one you might play in the USL playoffs. The near-loss to Toronto FC II this weekend was a reminder of that.

While it helps to scout the opposition before the last minute, the planets could still align badly in the playoffs. Last year, #2 Charleston couldn’t beat #7 New York during the regular season, then got trucked at home by the Baby Bulls the first round. The same thing happened with FC Cincinnati in 2016—despite the strong end to the season, FCC couldn’t figure out the Battery during the regular season, then wilted in the second half to get knocked out early.

Basically, solid preparation is good, but the last thing you want is for fate to provide a difficult opponent. For this article, without looking too far ahead, we scout FC Cincinnati’s possible first-round opponents and rank the six in order of upset potential.

The Playoff Picture

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Image: Connor Paquette, teams are ordered by projected points.

Currently, FCC is the only team that has safely qualified for the playoffs. While the competition is getting closer to the top, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Charleston still own paths to first-round home games.

Aside from Toronto, Richmond, and Atlanta, the rest of the pack is still realistically alive. Charlotte, Tampa Bay, and Penn FC all have a tough road to get to that coveted playoff line, and while all could upset FC Cincinnati if they make it in, for the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on the closer competition.

6. Ottawa Fury FC

1200px-Ottawa_Fury_svgRecord:               12-13-5 (41 pts.), currently 7th
Schedule:           at Louisville, at Toronto, vs. Bethlehem, vs. Charleston

While they started out of the gate with three losses, Ottawa has been able to hang in the middle of the table. Goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau leads the East with 13 clean sheets, while the defense has kept the powerful New York Red Bulls II offense checked over three games. Forward Tony Taylor has managed to get hot lately with five goals in 11 games.

However, it’s hard to really view the Fury as a credible away threat. The team has been shut out seven times in 15 road games and has yet to score on Cincinnati’s defense. In fact, most of Ottawa’s points have come against the poorer competition—they have no wins against the Top 4 teams (0-1-5). While the road wins against Indy and New York are notable, until they can break out a credible secondary scorer, Ottawa’s chances at pulling a first-round upset appear slim.

5. Indy Eleven

Indy_Eleven_Logo_svgRecord: 12-8-9 (45 pts.), currently 5th
Schedule: at Pittsburgh, vs. Tampa Bay, at Cincinnati, vs. Bethlehem, at Louisville

This position in the rankings could be debatable. For one thing, it’s hard to guess what position Indy may finish—four of the final five games are against projected playoff teams. On the other hand, Indy has yet to face FCC at Nippert Stadium, so it’s hard to gauge just how difficult a team they are on the road.

Goalkeeper Owain Fôn Williams has quietly claimed 10 clean sheets in 29 games started, and seven of them have been on the road. Forward Eugene Starikov (5 goals in his last 10 games) has become a solid second scorer next to Jack McInerney, while Ayoze (4 goals, 6 assists) is still a mammoth presence in the defending line.

Again, Indy could legitimately be higher after their game at Cincinnati—we’ll see how well they can perform at Nippert—but so far, they’ve yet to figure out FCC. They may also be searching for that extra threat on offense, as their other big offseason pickup, forward Soony Saad, hasn’t scored since Week 11. Their away offense also may need improvement, as they’ve only scored 14 on the road in 14 games.

Their proximity to Cincinnati could bring a huge away crowd to Nippert in the playoffs. Right now, the game on September 29th could be the indicator of how difficult Indy would be in the playoffs.

4. North Carolina FC

1200px-North_Carolina_FC_logo_svgRecord: 10-10-8 (38 pts.), currently 10th
Schedule: at Atlanta, at Charleston, vs. Richmond, vs. New York, at Louisville, at Charlotte

While the former Railhawks dug themselves into an early-season hole, NCFC has bounced back. They started the first 14 games with 7 losses (including two to FCC), but have gone 6-5-3 in the next 14 games.

Forward Daniel Ríos has been a blessing on loan from Guadalajara and currently sits second in the Golden Boot standings (17 goals). Midfielders Kyle Bekker (2nd in assists) and Austin da Luz (2nd in passing) are also high on the stats charts. The potent offense is ranked fifth in the East and has gotten better with the addition of midfielder Zach Steinberger from Indy.

Considering that NCFC still has four road games to play against difficult teams, the final stretch could show how serious the team is against competition. That would require a statement away win at either Louisville or Charleston. Without either, they may miss out on the playoffs completely.

3. Bethlehem Steel FC

Bethlehem_Steel_FC_(USL)_CrestRecord: 12-12-6 (42 pts), currently 6th
Schedule: vs. Toronto, at Ottawa, at Indy, vs. Tampa Bay

Bethlehem’s form may not scare most, as their inconsistency will flare up at bad times. Of their 12 wins, 11 have come against teams currently below them in the table. Their only marquee win is a victory at Indy Eleven in Week 10. They’ve also suffered bad losses to Penn FC twice and Atlanta. It’s hard to say which Bethlehem squad will show up.

That’s what makes them difficult to predict. So far, FC Cincinnati is the only team in the top half of the table that hasn’t defeated Bethlehem. The Orange & Blue looked inconsistent and shaky on the road, needing a Nazmi Albadawi goal late to force a 1-1 draw. The home match was even more deluding, as the team couldn’t take advantage of a lead late against a 10-man Bethlehem squad.

In total, 21 players have scored for Bethlehem, and their 50 goals ranks them fourth in the East. Santi Moar is a solid midfielder (6 goals, 8 assists) who has given FCC trouble this year, while forward Chris Nanco has improved over the season. This is an offense that will rarely be shut out. However, it’s also a team that will also rarely shut down your side. The goalkeepers have only six clean sheets, and their 40 goals allowed are tied for sixth-worst in the East.

As frustrating as the draws were against Bethlehem, let’s keep in mind that these two teams were vastly different then. Emmanuel Ledesma was serving a yellow-card suspension during the 2-2 home draw. FCC also have added Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe to the team since that match, while much of the Bethlehem offense has been promoted to the MLS squad. On paper, a match between the squads would look a lot different.

2. New York Red Bulls II

220px-Red_Bull_New_York_II.pngRecord: 10-8-11 (41 pts), currently 8th
Schedule: at Charlotte, at Nashville, at North Carolina, at Penn FC, vs. Pittsburgh

I don’t blame people if they see the Baby Bulls as less of a threat than the past two years. New York has been counterproductive on the road, as they haven’t won in 13 away games (0-5-8). Much of their talent could be frozen in place on their MLS squad, and the defense is the fourth-worst in the East (54 goals allowed). However, their defense was dead-last in the East last year, and they made it to the Conference Finals!

Even though they have no players with double-digit goals, Red Bulls II still leads the USL with 62 goals scored. Six of their players have five or more goals, including forward Jared Stroud, who is tied for second in the East in assists (10). The team has almost 100 more shots than the nearest competition (544 to Phoenix’s 442). They also play a very aggressive game—their 438 tackles lead the East, as well.

However, the top teams in the East still have the Red Bulls’ number. Their lone win over the Top 4 has been a home victory over Charleston. FC Cincinnati has also appeared to figure them out over the last three matches played (3-0-0). However, this is still a young and hungry team that sees the USL as a feeding ground, not as a training ground.

1. Nashville SC

Nashville_SCRecord: 10-9-9 (39 pts), currently 9th
Schedule: vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Charleston, at Atlanta, vs. New York, at Richmond, vs. Toronto, vs. Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati has exterminated a lot of ghosts this season. The Orange & Blue managed to claim their first victories over Charleston and Tampa Bay this year. They have also beaten Louisville and Charlotte after losses to both earlier.

However, there is one ghost they have not been able to bust—the enigma known as Matt Pickens.

Over the past two years, Pickens has had Cincinnati’s name. His Tampa Bay Rowdies squad eliminated FCC in the 2016 U.S. Open Cup and the 2017 USL Playoffs. While he may not have been the sole reason for the victories, Pickens only gave up one goal against FCC in four games as a Rowdie.

Pickens has only gotten better with the change of scenery. In 24 starts for Nashville SC, Pickens has conceded only 19 goals. His 12 clean sheets put him second in the USL and are already better than his numbers from last year. His 67 saves also puts him at fourth in the East. Over three seasons against Cincinnati (6 games), Pickens has never lost, giving up only two goals (3-3-0).

That solid wall in front of Pickens just adds to the frustration FCC fans have had with Nashville. While the offense has not been at Cincinnati’s level, forwards Brandon Allen, Ropapa Mensah, Alan Winn, and Tucker Hume have the potential to crack defenses. The team has shown that it is unafraid of the large Cincinnati crowds, which may be the kryptonite for an upset in the Queen City.

Most importantly, of the teams that are trying to make the playoffs, Nashville has the best record when it comes to playing the Top 4 (2-4-1). NSC is one of only two teams to have beaten the Riverhounds in Pittsburgh, and their only loss was a Week 1 loss at Louisville. Considering the team also has a U.S. Open Cup victory over an MLS side, the potential for a Music City upset is there.

Of course, they must make the playoffs first, and they’ll need to face FCC once more to do so.


Which team outside of the Top 4 terrifies you the most in a potential first-round matchup? Let us know what you think!

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Looking to the Pacific: The Top 5 Threats from the USL Western Conference

We’re not looking too far into the future, but what teams from the West could stand in the way during the march to the USL Cup?

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Image: Joe Craven Photography

The 2018 season is one that might be giving the typical FC Cincinnati fan whiplash.

While the season started slowly with some questioning what the next step might be, the second half of the year has us looking towards the future and the 2019 MLS season. At the same time, the rearview mirror cannot be ignored—Charleston, Pittsburgh, and Louisville are all preparing themselves for rematches.

With all that is occurring around the club, it’s easy to forget that there is another race towards the USL Cup. The USL Western Conference is starting to create similar distance between the hopeful and the hopeless. Considering that FCC will have to acclimate to games in other time zones next year, it’s time to start expanding our field of vision to look at the bigger USL picture.

Let’s also not forget that the USL used to be a league where there was no division between the East and West. Yes, it’s true that only one USL champion in the past seven years came from west of the Mississippi—we see you, Sacramento—but there wasn’t a legitimate Western Conference until 2015. While the league has expanded by leaps and bounds, it would be worthy to see how talented the other conference is, just in case FCC found themselves having to face the West’s best.

So which of the teams in the West could end up facing the East in the USL Cup final? Here are our safest bets, if you haven’t been following…

5. Reno 1868 FC

Record:               10-4-7 (37 pts), 5th in the West

Truth be told, this spot could end up belonging to San Antonio FC (if they can remain hot), but Reno’s recent 16-game unbeaten streak is hard to ignore.

440px-Reno_1868_FC_logo.svgCoach Ian Russell might not have the same team that destroyed the USL single-season goal record last year (75), but Reno pulled themselves out of an early-season hole to go undefeated so far in 11 away games (6-0-5). Ex-FCC midfielder Antoine Hoppenot shares the lead in the West with 8 assists, and forward Brian Brown has also shown to be dependable recently, scoring 6 goals in the last 8 games.

While this team is disciplined (25 yellow cards, lowest in the West) and consistent in getting points each game, the ultimate concern may be Reno’s schedule. While Reno plays most of their remaining games at home, they have only a +1 goal differential at Greater Nevada Field and have to face in-state rival Las Vegas twice. They also must face six teams on the road that all still have shots at making the playoffs, including three with a +10 goal differential at home (Fresno, Phoenix, Real Monarchs). That’s not good for a team with only 6 clean sheets total.

4. Sacramento Republic FC

Record:               11-5-7 (40 pts), 4th in the West

Last year may have been an anomaly on the radar for Sacramento, but the upset of Real Monarchs in the first round of the playoffs last year was no illusion.

440px-Sacramento_Republic_FC.svgThe team promoted head coach Simon Elliot from the Republic’s academy system and re-signed forward Cameron Iwasa, who failed to really break it big with Sporting Kansas City last year. Iwasa has scored 10 goals and 4 assists in his return to the team, while goalkeeper Josh Cohen has filled the gloves of the departed Evan Newton very well (72 saves, 8 clean sheets).

Sacramento has a very good away record (wins at Phoenix and Orange County) and only faces three playoff contenders down the stretch. Their home record could be better (only 16 points in 11 games), but the team is going to have to convert the opportunities they’re given. While they are third in the West in shots taken (330), they are near the bottom in conversion rate (11%). In particular, the team is going to need more production from midfielder Villyan Bijev (4 goals from 55 shots) and defender Adam Moffat (1 goal in 23 shots).

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Source: Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC

3. Phoenix Rising FC

Record:               12-5-5 (41 pts), tied for 2nd in the West

Even though the big names on Phoenix may belong to their ownership group, the Rising have become a completely different team since their years as Arizona United. Despite the carousel of leadership, interim coach Rick Schantz has managed to keep Phoenix consistent as an offensive threat, even without Didier Drogba playing every game.

Phoenix_Rising_FCThe team, overall, only fields 21 players on the roster, but Phoenix stays competitive through their offense. The big offseason arrival may have been winger Solomon Asante. While forwards Chris Cortez and Jason Johnson have formed a strong scoring core (18 goals combined), Asante has been arguably the team’s MVP. The Ghanaian national has consistently produced (7 goals, 7 assists) and created 74 chances for the team, first in the West. Bolstered by goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski’s 9 clean sheets, Phoenix enjoys the second-best goal differential in the West.

While Phoenix has similar home and away records, they still have five games left against contenders. Opponents have also been able to take advantage of poor possession numbers (46%) and Phoenix’s inability to stay out of foul trouble. Their last two losses (at Fresno, at Real Monarchs) have been lopsided and stained with straight red cards. If they must hit the road against a more talented offense, they may have to foul to slow the game down enough to stay competitive.

2. Real Monarchs SLC

Record:               14-5-2 (44 pts), 1st in the West

In any other year, a team with the most wins (34) and points (111) in the past two seasons would be the team to beat in the West. However, it’s hard to trust a #1 seed that could not get past the first round last year.

Real_Monarchs_LogoThe production may not be as impressive as Phoenix or as trigger-happy as Sacramento, but the Monarchs are a model of the “MLS 2” team. The team has fielded 36 players at some point during the season, spreading out the minutes economically. Sebastian Velasquez and Chandler Hoffman lead the team with 7 goals each and are the elder statesmen on a fresh Starting XI. The Monarchs also lead the West in passing efficiency (82%) and clean sheets (10), even though the team has started four goalkeepers so far.

While they have plenty of games in hand, the Monarchs are a team that has a two-sided nature. At home, they are untouchable, obtaining 28 of 30 possible points at the brand-new Zions Bank Stadium. However, their away form is comparatively brutal—the Monarchs have lost five of their 11 road games and have a -2 goal differential. Real Salt Lake’s USL affiliate is going to need more production on the road if they do get passed by…

1. Orange County SC

Record:               12-6-5 (41 pts), 2nd in the West

Orange County’s bounce-back season has been remarkable to follow. The team underwent a complete overhaul from their 10th-place finish in 2017 and are four points away from surpassing last year’s total. Braeden Cloutier was promoted to head coach from their academy, and all but four players from the 2017 squad were shown the door. In fact, the entire back and front lines were fully replaced.

250px-Orange_County_SC_logo.svgDanish winger Thomas Enevoldsen has resurrected his career by scoring 5 assists and 12 goals to lead the West in the race for the Golden Boot. However, the biggest surprise contribution has come from former FC Cincinnati midfielder Aodhan Quinn. Along with his 8 assists, he leads the USL in passes and is tied for third in chances created (63). Thanks to goalkeeper Andre Rawls’s 7 clean sheets and OCSC’s West-leading conversion rate (18%), the team leads the USL in goal differential (+22).

While team is rounding into form and shaking off mid-season rust, the only big concern may be the distribution of their remaining schedule. Orange County will alternate home and away trips, having to bounce back and forth from Portland, Seattle, Nevada, Fresno, and Phoenix. The travel schedule might bog the team down and make it hard to get into a familiar groove.


In the end, it may not matter who wins the regular season title in the West. Over the past three years, #1 seeds have not won a single match in the Western Conference playoffs. Orange County’s first-round bye in 2015 led to a home loss against LA Galaxy II, and both Sacramento and Real Monarchs lost on penalty kicks in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Perhaps that might also be a reason the West has never won the USL Cup over the past three years—the #1 seed in the East has won it each time.

Hopefully, that team out of the West will have to go through the boys in Orange & Blue to get it.

What team out of the West do you think will challenge the East for the USL Cup? Let us know what you think!

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USL Eastern Conference Starting XI: Midseason Inventory

We’re halfway there! Which players would make up a theoretical Starting XI for a USL Eastern Conference all-star squad?

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It’s taken a few weeks, but the USL has finally hit its “All-Star Break”. All 33 teams in the USL have played half of their 34-game schedule. Of course, there is no actual USL “All-Star” game—it’s hard to create a pocket during the season when all teams can afford time off. Demand to see the best in both conferences is not as high as what one would experience in the MLS.

However, let’s never say “never”. The growth of the USL as a second division league and the exposure provided by the YouTube/ESPN+ partnership could make the faint possibility a reality in the future. It all depends on how hungry fans will be in the future to see more East versus West match-ups.

This progressive rise of the USL has made it easier to follow which players are succeeding individually. While a lot of coverage tends to be regional, let’s at least try a shot at forming a mid-season team composed of USL Eastern Conference players. Maybe one day we’ll get to see a USL team of talent challenge an MLS team of talent. (My breath isn’t being held very long for that.)

Judging by results, statistics, and my personal gut instincts (which have only failed me in Vegas), this is my Starting XI for your 2018 USL East All-Stars.

Head Coach

Bob Lilley (Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC)

Considering that the USL Eastern Conference has already had four managerial changes over the past two months, some of the sour cream has already sunk. Louisville’s James O’Connor could have run away with the award early, but Bob Lilley’s form of defensive soccer has revitalized the Riverhounds. Pittsburgh has only conceded 7 goals over 17 games and 12 clean sheets in the process. Remarkably, this is even better than the rate Lilley enjoyed back during the 2015 Rochester Rhinos championship campaign (15 goals against and 17 clean sheets in 28 games). If the Hounds find a scoring streak, Lilley could lift another title.

Alternates: Alan Koch (CIN), Gary Smith (NAS)

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Goalkeeper

Matt Pickens (Nashville SC)

There was some doubt when Nashville opted to build their team around the 36-year-old Pickens, but the former Tampa Bay Rowdies keeper has improved with age. Pickens has played every regular-season minute for Nashville, claiming 9 clean sheets and giving up only 11 goals over 17 games. While Pittsburgh’s Daniel Lynd has given up less goals, Pittsburgh also has also only allowed 40 shots on goal. Pickens has made his saves while facing 57 shots on goal, indicating his worth to the team’s overall defense.

Alternates: Daniel Lynd (PGH), Maxime Crépeau (OTT)

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Paco Craig and LCFC’s defense frustrated FCC twice at Nippert Stadium.

Defenders

Ayoze (Indy Eleven)

Ken Tribbett (Penn FC)

Paco Craig (Louisville City FC)

While goal production in the Hoosier State has been relatively uniform, Indy Eleven’s Ayoze has been arguably one of the stronger offensive defenders in the league. Yes, three of his 4 goals have come from the penalty spot, but his other goal and three assists have come from set pieces. Ayoze is also in the Top 20 in both crosses and chances created, two categories not normally reserved for defenders.

After two injury-plagued seasons with Philadelphia and Bethlehem, Tribbett has returned to Penn FC and seen a resurgence. While he has only played 14 of the team’s 19 games so far, the Penn FC captain has contributed 5 goals (tops among USL defenders), 53 interceptions, and 59 clearances from the center-back position. Those numbers have helped Penn FC stake out a realistic shot at the playoffs.

Craig may not be glorious in the offensive categories like Ayoze and Tribbett, but he and Sean Totsch have been massive defensive stalwarts that have kept Louisville high in the table. While Totsch’s distribution numbers tick ahead slightly, Craig has been the defensive stallion, leading the team in clearances (83), tackles won (35), and interceptions (40). If Lou City can endure their coaching changes, Craig and Totsch could both be on the All-USL squad come season’s end.

Alternates: Blake Smith (CIN), Sean Totsch (LOU), Marcel Schäfer (TBR)

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Midfielders

Jorge Herrera (Charlotte Independence)

Andrew Tinari (New York Red Bulls II)

Kyle Bekker (North Carolina FC)

Corben Bone (FC Cincinnati)

Frankly, the midfield features a ton of patrolling talent in the East. Some teams (FC Cincinnati, Red Bulls II, Pittsburgh SC) could field their entire crew and then some, but field generals dominate my coveted four choices.

Much like Pickens in goal, Herrera has turned back the clock this year. Herrera has spent a good decade of his career in Charlotte, scoring 63 goals with the Independence and the former USL incarnation of the Eagles. His production doesn’t seem to be ending—the 37-year-old Colombian striker has 9 goals and 3 assists over 19 games and may end up setting a career high for minutes in a season.

Considering his team has constantly changed around him, Tinari has been a rock-solid part of the potent Red Bulls II offense. The 22-year-old leads the team in minutes and has 64 created chances – the nearest competitor in this category in the East has only 40. While he has 5 goals and only 3 assists this year, that should change with Brian White, Armando Moreno, and Jared Stroud all getting more time in the forward line.

Bekker has flown under the radar due to NCFC’s slow start out of the gate. He is second in the conference in assists (7) and in the Top 10 in chances created and crosses. If the North Carolina defense can fortify to free up Bekker for more distribution to forwards Daniel Ríos and Marios Lomis, his production numbers should go up.

The choice of Bone for my Starting XI could be considered a biased pick, but when looking at the remaining candidates to fill the midfield, Bone’s overall numbers feel stronger. His passes (870) and success rate (83.4%) are among the highest in the conference, and his 3 goals and 4 assists show his workhorse mentality. While Moloto and Jimenez have the stats, I feel Bone has done more to lift the FCC midfield than people think.

Alternates: Nazmi Albadawi (CIN), Lebo Moloto (NAS), Santi Moar (BTH), Oscar Jimenez (LOU)

Forwards

Emmanuel Ledesma (FC Cincinnati)

Cameron Lancaster (Louisville City FC)

Ataullah Guerra (Charleston Battery)

There is no doubt that Ledesma would be my runaway pick as the mid-season USL MVP. Manu’s 9 goals and 8 assists allow him to lead the league in combined points, and he is among the conference leaders in chances created, shots, and crosses. His physical play also identifies him as one of the more aggressive forwards in the league, and his distribution to Danni König and Nazmi Albadawi has given FCC one of the strongest front lines in the league. (And some of Ledesma’s 2018 goals have been pretty sweet, too.)

In a season where Lou City has started without their most prolific scorer from last year, Lancaster has managed to be productive when it counts. While he has only played an average of 66 minutes per game, Lancaster has taken 45 shots and scored 9 goals. His clip of a goal every 102 minutes puts him as one of the most productive scorers in the East. If he can remain healthy before the return of Luke Spencer, he could help Louisville in the long run.

While Guerra may not score in bunches, he has been a model of consistency for Charleston this season. The native of Trinidad and Tobago leads the East in goals (10), as well as game-winning goals (4), all without collecting a single brace or hat trick. Considering that Charleston’s remaining schedule features a lot of teams not projected to make the playoffs, Guerra’s stats could surge.

Alternates: Neco Brett (PGH), Daniel Rios (NCFC), Lucky Mkosana (PEN), Danni König (CIN)

Does this lineup remotely match what you had in mind for a Starting XI? Is Geoff a complete Homer for FC Cincinnati players? Let us know what you think!

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for continued coverage of the 2018 USL season.
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USL Eastern Conference Snapshot

With four weeks of the USL regular season in the books, let’s take a snapshot of the Eastern Conference, acknowledge the leaders, and highlight the surprises.

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.

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2018 USL Conference Alignment

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.

Surprises

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.

Conference Leaders

Table Watch

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.

Ironing Out the Wrinkles: The Top 5 USL Eastern Conference Kits

FC Cincinnati has new unis! But what other 2018 kits in the USL Eastern Conference will be flying off the shelves? We give you our take on the top five.

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Source: USL

With all of the uncertainty surrounding FC Cincinnati’s stadium applications and roster alterations, the fan base has been anxiously waiting for change. To coincide with the team’s third USL season, there were indications that FCC’s kit designs would be changing. On the whole, fans loved the initial 2016 blue-orange bomb-pop designs. However, the 2017 all-black third jerseys felt recycled from the San Antonio FC collection and a step back from the previous year.

2018 felt like a complete facelift was in order. Pittsburgh and Harrisburg were revamping their logo and appearance, while Nashville and Fresno were coming out of the blocks with a fresh look. However, both were completely upstaged by the neon-and-confetti Las Vegas Lights FC kits with emoji faces on the inside.

FC Cincinnati had to make a splash, and I feel they hit all the right buttons with the concept. The new primary kit rocks a hooped orange-on-blue design, while the secondary white kit with orange sleeves has me thirsty to spend my hard-earned dollars. For both designs, the Bavarian diamonds are exactly what the team needed to make the brand unique.

All of the kit changes have me wondering—which ones are the best in the Eastern Conference? Which kit would I be willing to trade for? Since it’s hard for me to stay unbiased, I’m going to keep the FCC threads out of my rankings. Here are my Top 5 from 2018.

5. Charleston Battery (Home/Away/Third: 2018)

Last year’s black-and-yellow design was cool with a top-to-bottom gradient transitioning from shoulders to hem. Still, if you’ve witnessed Charleston’s quarter-century history, the horizontal look was a step back from the traditional black-and-yellow vertical-stripe design. The team returned to that thick-striped iconic look from the past and introduced secondary and third jerseys that are photonegatives of each other. Bengals diehards will likely shy away from the primary kits, but the black “25th Anniversary” alternate jersey is pretty sweet with the Battery logo in black and white.

4. Bethlehem Steel FC (Home: 2018, Away: 2016)

This is the point of the list where I could honestly see myself purchasing any of the kits available this year. Philadelphia Union tried before with a 2013 ode to the old 1920s Bethlehem Steel, but the bloated Bimbo logo was a hindrance. Bethlehem’s kits from 2016 were a solid restart and a comfortable dichotomy of a collared white secondary with a non-collared dark primary kit. Even though the big red B on the hem may be gone, the new primary kits look quite nice with the diagonal pinstripes, opting to use the Bethlehem-logo red in the collar.

3. Penn FC (Home/Away: 2018)

You may laugh at my choice of Penn FC at this point of the list, but I like variety. I’m a big fan of having one kit with a collar and the other without it. It tells me that the team wants to stand out between the home and away models. The electric-blue and white color scheme is bold, a daring choice for a reset team that needed to make an immediate splash in the USL. The secondary kit’s staggered collar, white sides, and dotted-line shoulders stand out from other away kits, and the home kit’s polo collar is pronounced, blue on a white shirt. Take away one of the three logos on the front, and I’m buying one.

2. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (Home/Away/Third: 2018)

There have been some chuckles about the Riverhounds’ branding in the past. However, it’s 2018, and the complete logo refurbishing has led to a really solid improvement in kit design. As overused as the yellow color may be, it’s a constant torchbearer and unifying scheme in the Pittsburgh sports scene. The primary jerseys with horizontal black stripes are eye-catching, and the yellow color is brighter than last year’s mustard. The tertiary jersey is also quite unique, as its vertical black stripes are composed of finer smaller stripes. The secondary kit—a black-and-grey half-and-half design—is a little distracting like Louisville’s third design, but overall the kits make these designs a terrific upgrade.

1. Tampa Bay Rowdies (Home/Away/Third: 2018)

It’s hard for me to deny that Tampa Bay has the most remarkable color scheme in the second division. A team in the Sunshine State needs to have something as citrusy as possible, so the lemon-lime hoops make sense. The home and third designs are merely flopped versions of each other, but the white away kit is unique to both. Look closely, and you’ll see a very light yellow tiger-striped edge to the white-green hoops. The Hard Rock Café logo is perhaps one of the more recognized ones in the USL, and I can’t imagine the Rowdies not wearing that sponsor now or in the future.

What USL team kits have caught your eye this season? What are your thoughts regarding the new FC Cincinnati jerseys?  How bad is the Louisville City FC third kit? Let us know what you think!

2018 USL Season Preview: Five Teams to Challenge FCC

Which teams in the Eastern Conference pose the biggest threats to FC Cincinnati in their quest for a USL cup in their third season?

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That’s a wrap on the dress rehearsals. Time for the real performances.

Granted, talking about the teams who will challenge FC Cincinnati for the Eastern Conference crown is a delicate maneuver. It’s way too soon to assume that a retooled team that was wiped out in the first round last year has the conference locked down. However, considering all of the talent drawn to the Queen City in the off-season, it’s hard to not mention FCC when possible contenders are brought up in conversation.

Naturally, the Orange & Blue shouldn’t be the only ones in that conversation. It begs the question—who will be FC Cincinnati’s biggest challenges during the 2018 USL season?

Louisville City FC

It’s a safe bet that, as long as Coach James O’Connor is calling the shots, Louisville City will be in the running for the top of the conference. It’s been an impressive run for the Boys in Purple since 2015, continuously bettering their team while shedding very little of the roster each year—15 players remain after their 2017 championship run, while 3 (goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh, forward Ilija Ilić, and midfielder Niall McCabe) have been on the team since the beginning.

That low turnover rate and the return of forward Magnus Rasmussen after a stint back in Denmark will bring a ton of familiarity to the team. While Louisville has lost two of their four defenders from 2017, O’Connor has often used a sparse D-line. He’s also buffered the back with ex-FCC-defenseman Pat McMahon and Jamaican national Shaun Francis. Couple their overall stability with unselfish play (65 goals between 17 players in 2017), and our neighbors to the south could be pushing for a second star to their logo.

Does Louisville have a weakness? If anything, it could be depth, as the team fields only 20 players on their roster. Then again, Lou City had the same number of players last year, and we know how far they went with that.

Indy Eleven

After their declaration to join the USL in January, Indy didn’t even have five players ready for the 2018 season, let alone their “Eleven” namesake. While FC Cincinnati had done a purge of their own roster, Indy Eleven went into full upheaval, holding onto only three of their players from 2017, and letting go of their head coach. Since then, they’ve completely rebuilt their squad, hired ex-Carolina Railhawks and Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie, and gone for broke by scheduling games at Lucas Oil Stadium. That’s a high roll for an ownership group that was low in the MLS expansion rankings.

While this alone wouldn’t necessarily make them a challenge, Indy has done well to pick up their own talents from the NASL and MLS. To anchor the defense, they grabbed Reiner and Karl Ouimette from the disbanded NASL champion San Francisco Deltas, then managed to coax MLS strikers Jack McInerney and Soony Saad into joining their souped-up squad. Take into account Indy’s close proximity and solid audience (they’ve consistently flirted with attendances close to 10,000), and they could legitimately throw scares into FC Cincinnati’s own rebuilt team by bringing their own traveling chorus of fans with them.

Tampa Bay Rowdies

Tampa Bay’s second season as a USL participant (if 2010’s “USSF Division 2” league counts) was incredibly successful by all standards, losing only twice at home on their way to second place in the Eastern Conference, their highest overall finish since their NASL championship team in 2012. FCC still hasn’t figured out how to earn points at Al Lang Stadium, losing all three away games there.

While the team held on to its veterans, fielding a team that has seven players in their 30s, they’ve managed to steal some huge talents from others. Jochen Graf, the lead scorer for Rochester in 2017, fills in a need at the striker position, as he and Georgi Hristov could become a potent double-forward combination. Meanwhile, Junior Flemmings and Jack Blake give them youth in an already stacked midfield brimming with international talent (Joe Cole, Marcel Schäfer).

A key grab may be in the goalkeeper position, as the Rowdies obtained ex-Charlotte Independence keeper Cody Mizell in the offseason. Mizell was second in the Eastern Conference in saves behind Mitch Hildebrandt. However, getting younger in goal might come at a cost, as Mizell had only 5 clean sheets in 2017, half as many as the departing Matt Pickens. Still, if this team clicks like they did last year, there’s no doubting the Rowdies should make the playoffs.

Nashville SC

When Major League Soccer came calling Nashville before the likes of Cincinnati, Sacramento, and other candidates with a D2 presence, it legitimately ruffled feathers in the Queen City. But there were doubts that NSC could construct an intimidating roster for the first of their two short years in the USL. However, a look through the roster shows that there are believers who have come to the Music City.

Head coach Gary Smith, who won an MLS title managing the Colorado Rapids in 2010, has already stockpiled 25 players on the Nashville roster. The offense will likely revolve around forwards Ropapa Mensah and Michael Cox, with Lebo Moloto and Matt LaGrassa leading the midfield. But Nashville is most likely to be known for their defense. The aforementioned Matt Pickens, Nashville’s first signee, was with Smith during the 2010 MLS Cup win with Colorado and had arguably his best season in net in 2017. The back line is comprised of solid USL talent gathered in a short amount of time and should give Pickens the help he needs.

Nashville will be a team that wants to win to prove to everyone that they deserved that MLS bid.

FC Cincinnati Themselves

While Pittsburgh has improved immensely by absorbing the remains of the Rochester Rhinos, and Charleston always seems to have FCC’s number in head-to-head competitions, it’s not unwise to suggest that the one team who can beat FC Cincinnati this season is FC Cincinnati themselves. (Yes, this is the coward’s way out when it comes to predictions, and I am a coward.)

The third year of a team’s existence feels like the one where results have to start coming. Despite the fuel from attendance numbers and the long run in last year’s U.S. Open Cup, the team fell flat from inconsistency in 2017. Winning streaks were rare, and players had to be signed in mid-season due to injuries, suspension, and fatigue. The early post-season exit for the second year in a row felt all too familiar in Cincinnati.

However, considering that head coach Alan Koch is now in his first full year with all the controls at his fingertips, there is a general vibe that this team can get it together. Quality players have been obtained from last year’s NASL Best XI team. Additionally, retirements and Division-1 call-ups on the defensive end have been countered with positive signings. On paper, this is an extraordinarily talented team rich with a desire to perform.

And that’s what critics will bring up—soccer games are played on fields, not on paper.

Much like Indy and Nashville, this Cincinnati team will need time to gel. 2018 will feel a little like 2016, where fans came in enthusiastic, but a little hesitant about where production will come from. A solid preseason showed an ability to spread the ball, and the emergence of new leadership in the back line. But the regular season will be a different beast altogether, especially if a potential MLS promotion motivates other teams to humble FCC.

The talent and the expectations are at higher levels than ever before, so can this band of 26 led by Koch, Damet, and Stern deliver on their potential? The march begins anew this Saturday, March 17th.

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for our Charleston preview as the season officially kicks off in South Carolina this weekend.

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