Photo courtesy L.E. Baskow / Las Vegas Lights FC
The 2018 USL regular season kicks off this Friday with 33 teams taking aim at first reaching the USL Cup Playoffs, and then potentially the USL Cup in mid-November. Kicking off our preview of the season to come, we first look at the teams that either missed out the first of those goals a season ago, or will be looking to emulate Reno 1868 FC, which earned a postseason berth in its inaugural season.
Home Venue: Weidner Field
2017 Season: 12-12-8, 44pts, ninth in Western Conference
Head Coach: Steve Trittschuh, 4th season
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC suffered an inconsistent third season that saw the club miss out on the postseason for the first time in its history, falling two points out of the playoff positions due to a defense that struggled to keep opponents out of the net consistently throughout the regular season.
The Switchbacks have been busy over the offseason aiming to return to the USL Cup Playoffs this year but will again rely on some familiar faces to lead them forward. At the forefront is new captain Josh Suggs, who led the club a season ago with eight assists, while fellow stalwarts in defender Jordan Burt and midfielder Luke Vercollone are also back with the squad.
Colorado Springs will also have a familiar face back with the side in the form of Northern Irish forward Marty Maybin, who will be called upon to fill the goal-scoring space left by the departure of Masta Kacher to Real Monarchs SLC. Other newcomers – including Canadian international Jordan Schweitzer, Trinidad & Tobago goalkeeper Steward Ceus and former Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC defender Jamal Jack – should strengthen the club’s spine as Head Coach Steve Trittschuh’s side looks to rebound into the top eight.
Home Venue: Chukchansi Park
2017 Season: N/A
Head Coach: Adam Smith, 1st year
Fresno FC is one of two expansion clubs in the Western Conference, but the Foxes have gone about their preparations diligently in putting together an experienced squad for their inaugural season at Chukchansi Park. Led by General Manager Frank Yallop, and holding a partnership with Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the club appointed former Sacramento Republic FC’s top assistant Adam Smith as its first Head Coach after helping marshal the progress of Fresno’s now-Northern California rival over its first four seasons.
Smith has dipped into his time in Sacramento to help build the Foxes, with defender Mickey Daly, midfielders Danny Barrera and Agustin Cazarez and forward Christian Chaney all having suited up for Republic FC previously. Add in the attacking possibilities brought by 2017 All-League Second Team selection Juan Pablo Caffa – formerly of Tulsa Roughnecks FC – and a midfield contingent that includes the experience of Rony Argueta and Alejandro Covarrubias, and there’s a strong group to build around.
The other element to watch will be the local products the Foxes have brought into the USL from their PDL predecessors, Fresno Fuego FC, with the likes of Renato Bustamante and 2012 USL Rookie of the Year Jose Cuevas adding a Fresno flavor to the squad. Given soccer’s deep roots in the city’s community, Fresno will be one to watch as it enters its first season.
Home Venue: StubHub Center Track & Field Stadium
2017 Season: 8-19-5, 29pts, 13th in Western Conference
Head Coach: Mike Munoz, 2nd season
The LA Galaxy II missed the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time in their history in 2017 as a number of young players were thrust into the lineup in Mike Muñoz’s first season in charge due to injuries both within Los Dos’ squad, and also at the Major League Soccer level.
The hope for the Galaxy II is that experience will have helped raise the level of those returning to the squad this season, with players like goalkeeper Eric Lopez bringing proven Youth International experience to the lineup. Finding the right mix of experience to sprinkle into the group is going to be key to Los Dos’ returning to its prior level, which saw the side win the Western Conference in 2015.
Bringing in the experience of returning midfielder Miguel Aguilar, who missed much of the 2017 season through injury, and former D.C. United player Julian Büscher should help add to the side’s experience this season. As the level of play in the Western Conference continues to rise, however, the likes of forwards Ethan Zubak and Adonis Amaya, midfielder Efrain Alvarez and defender Jefrey Payeras will need to continue to raise their games to ensure the Galaxy II can get into playoff contention.
Home Venue: Cashman Field
2017 Season: N/A
Head Coach: Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, 1st year
It’s arguable no team has drawn as much attention this offseason as Las Vegas Lights FC, which has established itself as one of the wild cards in the league both in terms of promotion and in terms of on-field play. Led by Jose Luis Sanchez Sola – better known as El Chélis – the club has played an emphasis on showmanship in the buildup to its inaugural season, but there are some pieces here that could make Lights FC more than just a surface-depth attraction.
With the side aiming to play attacking, entertaining soccer from the off, players like attacking midfielder Carlos Alvarez and veteran USL forward Sammy Ochoa could come to the fore quickly for the new side, with Ochoa bringing a record of 35 goals in the league over the past four seasons to his new destination. Veteran Japanese midfielder Daigo Kobayashi is also aboard after having played almost 100 games for the New England Revolution over the past four seasons.
While there is some solid experience here, additionally including Mexican veteran Joel Huiqui, what may be the most interesting storyline to follow throughout the first season for the club is that of the local standouts who are getting their chance at the pro ranks. From the likes of midfielder Julian Portugal – who briefly played for Tulsa Roughnecks FC two seasons ago – to young goalkeeper Angel Alvarez, Las Vegas will be one of the teams to follow throughout the season regardless of where the team finishes.
Home Venue: Champions Soccer Stadium
2017 Season: 11-11-10, 43pts, 10th in Western Conference
Head Coach: Braeden Cloutier, 1st year
Orange County had an up-and-down season that fell just short of enough ups to earn a third consecutive trip to the postseason, with the side finishing three points out of the eighth and final playoff place in the Western Conference. At the heart of the finish was a lack of consistency, which saw the club only earn back-to-back victories once over the course of the season.
The year was still a positive one, however, with the club’s opening of Champions Soccer Stadium – a 5,000-seat soccer-specific venue in Orange County Great Park – giving OCSC a permanent home for the first time. The outstanding facility, completed in August, should offer the club the chance to thrive well into the future.
The man charged with leading that resurgence on the field is former assistant and USL player Braeden Cloutier, who was appointed as Head Coach following the departure of Logan Pause this offseason. Cloutier will have some interesting new pieces to work with, too, with the arrival of former Danish international Thomas Enevoldsen and USL veterans Christian Duke and Aodhan Quinn bringing a high level of quality to the squad. A third trip to the USL Cup Playoffs in four years is squarely in the club’s sights for 2018.
Home Venue: Providence Park/Merlo Field
2017 Season: 3-23-6, 15th in Western Conference
Head Coach: Cameron Knowles, 1st year
The Timbers 2 didn’t look over their shoulders long at a 2017 season that saw the side struggle mightily due to its inability to find the back of the net, scoring only 27 goals in the regular season to finish with the fewest points in the league.
If Portland is to get back into playoff contention this year, as it was two years ago, turning that productivity level in front of goal back up is going to be essential. The Timbers finished 17th in the league in shots last year, but their conversion rate sat at just 10 percent, meaning much more will be expected this year from returning forward Augustine Williams and newcomers Darixon Vuelto (Honduras) and Marvin Loria (Costa Rica), both of whom bring solid youth international experience to the Rose City.
Portland has some good returning pieces like midfielder Andre Lewis and Renzo Zambrano, who notched 14 key passes in seven games after a late-season arrival. It also looked to add experience to its defense, including the signing of former Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC center back Josh Phillips, former LA Galaxy fullback Nathan Smith and goalkeeper Alex Mangels. The question, however, will be whether T2 can find enough consistency in its performances and its finishing to avoid another season of disappointment.
Home Venue: H-E-B Park
2017 Season: 9-15-8, 35pts, 11th in Western Conference
Head Coach: Gerson Echeverry, 1st year
The Toros were unable to replicate the success they had in the club’s inaugural season, and as a result took a fall down the standings to miss out on the postseason in their first season at H-E-B Park. The new 10,000-seat venue proved more hospitable to visitors in 2017, with the Toros only able to claim five wins out of 16 games on its home turf.
Tasked with returning the club to playoff contention this year is Head Coach Gerson Echeverry, who arrived after the departure of Junior Gonzalez to join the LA Galaxy’s coaching staff this offseason. The former Head Coach at Seton Hall University, Echeverry has close ties with former Toros and current Houston Dynamo Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera, and will be hoping to emulate the rising tide the Dynamo rode last year.
Echeverry will have some good pieces to work with returning to the squad, with defender Kai Greene and midfielder Todd Wharton both experienced veterans that performed well last year. Goalkeeper Nico Corti arrives with a solid pedigree from Stanford University, but maybe the biggest key for the Toros this season will be getting the club’s attack back on track. After scoring only 20 goals at home a season ago, making H-E-B Park a far tougher place to play will need to be the priority this season.
Home Venue: Toyota Stadium – Saint Louis
2017 Season: 9-14-9, 36pts, 12th in Eastern Conference
Head Coach: Anthony Pulis, 1st season
After three consecutive seasons without a trip to the USL Cup Playoffs, Saint Louis FC had one of the biggest offseasons in the league as new Head Coach Anthony Pulis and returning General Manager Jeremy Alumbaugh looked to put together a side that will be a major contender in the Western Conference.
On paper, they certainly appear to have done a fine job of it, with the likes of forward Corey Hertzog, who earned back-to-back All-League selections for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC the past two years, and former USL Cup champions Wal Fall and Sean Reynolds among the newcomers to the side. Hertzog and returning forward Christian Volesky will be joined Pulis’ former charge at Orlando City B Albert Dikwa in attack, with Kadeem Dacres and Kyle Greig also arriving to help provide additional firepower.
The side has also made some notable additions to join Tony Walls in midfield, with former Chicago Fire Homegrown signing Joey Calistri arriving after helping Tulsa Roughnecks FC make the postseason for the first time a season ago. Two-time USL Golden Glove goalkeeper Tomas Gomez also returned home from Rochester, although a preseason injury will delay his first appearance to mid-season, but despite that the expectations remain very high at Toyota Stadium – Saint Louis as the new season arrives.
Home Venue: Cheney Stadium
2017 Season: 9-19-4, 31pts, 12th in Western Conference
Head Coach: John Hutchinson, 1st year
Seattle went through another middling performance in 2017, with the club’s defense putting paid to hopes of a postseason berth as it conceded more than 60 goals to overshadow what was at times an entertaining attacking group within the club. The play of Zach Mathers a season ago was a major bright spot for the side but wasn’t enough to put S2 in serious playoff contention for a second consecutive season.
The new season brings a new home, however, with the club heading to Tacoma, Washington’s historic Cheney Stadium in a move that should add to the club’s support. John Hutchinson has been appointed Head Coach, succeeding Ezra Hendrickson, and will be hoping some of the club’s impressive young talent can step to the fore and help the side get back into playoff contention. The Sounders organization has clear belief in players like defender Sam Rogers and midfielder Azriel Gonzalez, and both should play a major role at either end of the field.
There are some experienced heads back with the side again, too, with midfielders Francisco Narnon and Ray Saari both having logged more than 1,900 minutes a season ago, but it will be the play of the club’s talented youngsters that will determine how far Hutchinson can lead S2 in an important season for the club overall.