New Mexico United and Real Monarchs SLC are both aiming for a return trip to the postseason, but the road through Group C looks tough for all concerned. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
Welcome to the 2020 USL Championship World Cup… well, almost.
But you’ve got to admit, the format of the redesigned 2020 season is looking an awful lot like the quadrennial summer jamboree that will show up on these shorts in six years. And as a result, the regionalized structure that has divided the league into eight groups ahead of the resumption of play has produced some with heavy favorites, and some where it appears anything could happen.
So, which is the group of unpredictability? Let’s find out.
I’m really sorry, Portland Timbers 2 and Tacoma Defiance fans, but it seems inconceivable that Reno 1868 FC and Sacramento Republic FC will fail to emerge from this quartet, and the race for first place the most interesting aspect of this grouping. Reno has held the upper hand in prior regular-season meetings, which you’d think will give them the edge over Sacramento here, but Republic FC’s victory in last year’s playoffs might have turned the tide.
Orange County SC and Phoenix Rising FC have squared off for some big games in the past two seasons, and look like the favorites to emerge from Group B in the Championship's restructured format for 2020. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
There’s a lot to like about the teams in this group, honestly. San Diego Loyal SC made a solid start for an expansion side, and the LA Galaxy II and Las Vegas Lights FC both looked on a bit of an upswing in their opening games. But they’re all going to have to go great if they’re going to be sitting ahead of either Phoenix Rising FC or Orange County SC – which just loaded up even more for a title shot as it acquired Chandler Hoffman on loan to fortify even further a menacing attack.
We’re moving out of the realm of two favorites here, with in my mind the Tampa Bay Rowdies the only certainty to be playoff bound out of this collection. There’s plenty for both the Charleston Battery and Miami FC to prove – even after Charleston’s opening victory against Atlanta – as they vie to join the Rowdies in the postseason. A fast start for either coming out of the break could be big ahead of a set of four rapid-fire meetings in the span of just over a month.
The prospects for a playoff place for all four of the teams not named Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC took a big upturn upon the announcement of the groups. You can now make a decent case for all of these teams to have a shot, from a revamped New York Red Bulls II lineup that was uncharacteristically shut out at home in its home opener to a new-look Hartford Athletic under Head Coach Radhi Jaïdi and either Loudoun United FC and the Philadelphia Union II, who split points on the opening weekend. This could be a lot of fun to follow.
San Antonio FC and OKC Energy FC are both looking for a return to the playoffs this year in what looks like it might be an open battle in Group D. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
This is where things start to feel really interesting, because while Austin Bold FC and San Antonio FC picked up nice wins to start the season and feel like the favorites here, the tumultuous nature of the way these rivalries have gone over the years feels like it will bring game after game of surprises. Heck, Rio Grande Valley FC has a 12-12-9 record combined against everyone else in the group and could easily make life very interesting indeed. As the reigning Copa Tejas champions, Austin feels like the team to beat, but you certainly wouldn’t be surprised if FC Tulsa or OKC Energy FC jumped up into the top two either.
Before the season was suspended, Indy Eleven (96%), Louisville City FC (93%) and Saint Louis FC (85%) were in the top eight in the Championship off their first performances when it came to playoff chances according to fivethirtyeight.com. Under the new format, those percentages drop to Indy (75%), LouCity (73%) and STLFC (53%). I guess those are the breaks. The games between this trio – starting on Saturday between Indy and Saint Louis – are going to be must-see throughout the next 13 weeks, and are going to decide which team that otherwise would have almost certainly been a playoff contender has to stay home for the postseason.
North Carolina FC and Birmingham Legion FC squared off in last year's playoffs, this year they'll have to get past both the Charlotte Independence and Memphis 901 FC to earn a trip back to the postseason. | Photo courtesy Rob Kinnan / North Carolina FC
Can you pick the team that’s going to win this group? If you can, your crystal ball is far better than the one I got off the back of Mr. Fox’s truck. (Yes, I’ve been watching Peppa Pig with my two-year-old son during quarantine, what of it?) Even after the opening weekend of results, there is enough to inspire confidence in me to say that Memphis is going to be better this season, and while we’ve yet to see Birmingham officially in action, they feel like they’ll take a step forward too. North Carolina FC and the Charlotte Independence might both be a 1-in-3 shot to top the group in fivethirtyeight.com’s odds, but they’re the lowest for a favorite in any group.
It’s not quite the Four Corners Cup that some people were hoping for – although let’s be honest, in a regionalized format, El Paso Locomotive FC and New Mexico United were always going to end up together – but given the pedigree of all four teams involved this one feels as though it has the most potential for drama all the way up to the final day when it comes to both playoff spots. With Real Monarchs SLC facing Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, New Mexico and El Paso in its final three games, it very well may come right down to the wire.