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USL’s Week Ahead – Opening Weekend Brings Marquee Matchups

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 03/13/18, 11:59AM EDT

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Louisville opens title defense against newcomers Nashville, San Antonio pays visit to Sacramento


Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC

TAMPA, Fla. – The United Soccer League, one of the most respected professional leagues in North America, opens the 2018 regular season this weekend with 14 games that include an array of marquee matchups to kick off the biggest season in the league’s history. The 2017 USL Cup champion Louisville City FC begins the defense of its title in one of those contests as it welcomes league newcomer Nashville SC to Slugger Field on Saturday afternoon, while elsewhere in the Eastern Conference matchups that see North Carolina FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies renew their rivalry and the Charleston Battery play host to FC Cincinnati should also be must-see contests. Two leading clubs from the Western Conference are also set to meet as Sacramento Republic FC hosts San Antonio FC late on Saturday night, and the spotlight will also fall on expansion clubs Fresno FC and Las Vegas Lights FC as they make their USL debuts at Chukchansi Park. Meanwhile, the first Black Gold Derby of the season between OKC Energy FC and Tulsa Roughnecks FC and Reno 1868 FC’s home opener against the Swope Park Rangers should also provide plenty of entertainment.

All 561 regular-season games, the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs and the 2018 USL Cup can be accessed via USLSoccer.com’s Match Center.

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11 THINGS TO KNOW

In the USL’s 11 Preseason Things to Know, Nicholas Murray looks at Sacramento Republic FC and San Antonio FC’s strong end to the preseason ahead of their regular-season opener this Saturday, where Louisville City FC and Saint Louis FC stand after their preseason meeting, and an Indy Eleven side that appears to be coming together quickly under Head Coach Martin Rennie.

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Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC

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Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC

Friday, March 16
Rio Grande Valley FC vs. Saint Louis FC
H-E-B Park, Edinburg, Texas | 8:30 p.m. ET
The 2018 USL regular season kicks off in South Texas as Rio Grande Valley FC plays host to Saint Louis FC in a meeting between two teams looking to get into playoff contention after disappointing 2017 seasons. The Toros and new Head Coach Gerson Echeverry, formerly of Seton Hall University, will be aiming to get off to a better start on home turf this year, with the side having only won five times in the league last season at H-E-B Park. Saint Louis also has a new coach at the helm in Anthony Pulis, and a refurbished roster that includes standout striker Corey Herzog, midfielder Wal Fall and defender Sean Reynolds among its new recruits.

Seattle Sounders FC 2 vs. Portland Timbers 2
Cheney Stadium, Tacoma, Washington | 10 p.m. ET
A new era begins for Seattle Sounders FC 2 as it opens its fourth season at historic Cheney Stadium with a visit from its Cascadia rival the Portland Timbers 2. A sellout crowd is expected to welcome S2 to its new home, with new Head Coach John Hutchinson aiming to get things off to a strong start after a middling season in 2017 that saw Seattle end well out of playoff contention. S2 has held the upper hand over T2 over the history between the two clubs, winning 10 out of 11 meetings, including a three-game sweep in the series a season ago. Portland also has a new Head Coach in Cameron Knowles, who will have his hands full looking to raise the side back from the worst record in the league last season.

Saturday, March 17
New York Red Bulls II vs. Toronto FC II

Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey | 1 p.m. ET
The New York Red Bulls II begin their pursuit of a fourth consecutive trip to the USL Cup Playoffs with a visit from Toronto FC II at Red Bull Arena, with a new set of faces looking to make their mark for Head Coach John Wolyniec this season. Among the returning players who will play an important role are midfielder Andrew Tinari and defender Ethan Kutler, but newcomer Brian White will also be one to watch after earning Premier Development League MVP honors last year for the Red Bulls U23. Toronto also has some familiar faces back, including Canadian youth internationals Luca Uccello and Shaan Hundal, as it looks to get into playoff contention for the first time.

Louisville City FC vs. Nashville SC
Slugger Field, Lousiville, Kentucky | 3 p.m. ET
One of the highly-anticipated matchups of the opening weekend of the season brings together defending USL Cup champion Louisville City FC and Nashville SC, which makes its professional debut at Slugger Field on Saturday. Led by Head Coach Gary Smith – who won the 2010 MLS Cup with the Colorado Rapids – Nashville has put together a squad that appears built for immediate contention, with experienced campaigner Matt Pickens in goal and the likes of defender Justin Davis, midfielders Michael Reed and Matt LaGrassa and forward Lebo Moloto set to lead the side into its inaugural season. Louisville will provide a stern opening test, with most of its championship-winning side back in the fold including goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh, defender Paco Craig, and midfielder Niall McCabe, who had three goals to lead the side in preseason.

North Carolina FC vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies
Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary, N.C. | 3:30 p.m. ET
North Carolina FC makes its USL debut as it welcomes an old rival to Sahlen’s Stadium with the Tampa Bay Rowdies looking to build on their successful first season in the league in 2017. The Rowdies reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the USL Cup Playoffs last fall before falling in extra time, and appear primed for another serious run at silverware after returning the majority of last season’s squad – including All-League First Team selection Marcel Schäfer and former England international Joe Cole – and bringing in new additions like Jamaican international Junior Flemmings and former Rochester Rhinos forward Jochen Graf. NCFC’s squad, led by Head Coach Colin Clarke, also has some key returning players including midfielders Austin da Luz and Steven Miller, with the goal of a place in the playoffs at the top of the priority list for the historic club.

Charleston Battery vs. FC Cincinnati
MUSC Health Stadium, Charleston, South Carolina | 7 p.m. ET
The Charleston Battery play host to FC Cincinnati to open the USL regular season for a third successive season with the hosts looking to maintain their upper hand in the all-time series between the clubs. The Battery have taken victory in each of the two prior meetings in this scenario and are undefeated all-time against FCC after going 1-0-1 in the regular season a year ago. Cincinnati scooped up All-League defender Forrest Lasso from the Battery this offseason, however, one of numerous moves made by Head Coach Alan Koch to bolster his squad after a sixth-place finish and Eastern Conference Quarterfinals exit in the USL Cup Playoffs last fall. The Battery still have a strong core intact despite other offseason departures, with goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper and defender Taylor Mueller among those manning the back line again. The matchup to watch, however, could be that of Lasso and Battery forward Ian Svantesson, with the two 6-foot-5 players set to square off regularly on Saturday night.

Charlotte Independence vs. Ottawa Fury FC
Sportsplex at Matthews, Matthews, N.C. | 7 p.m. ET
The Charlotte Independence begin a new era when they play host to Ottawa Fury FC in their home opener after the offseason move of standout attacking midfielder Enzo Martinez to the Colorado Rapids after scoring 24 goals over the past two seasons in Charlotte. The Independence will be aiming to return to the postseason for a third successive year, however, with Head Coach Mike Jeffries bringing in some solid talent to try and fill the gaps in his squad. Among them are the Trinidad & Tobago international duo of Cordell Cato and Kevan George, while South Korean defender Jungsoo Lee brings World Cup experience. Ottawa has also undergone an offseason overhaul, with new Head Coach Nikola Popovic hoping to emulate the success he had a season ago with the Swope Park Rangers in Canada’s capital. After the additions of 2013 USL Defender of the Year Colin Falvey and Canadian internationals Maxim Tissot and Nana Attakora, expectations have been raised for Fury FC this season.

Reno 1868 FC vs. Swope Park Rangers
Greater Nevada Field, Reno, Nevada | 7 p.m. ET
Two of the top four teams in the USL Western Conference a season ago meet in the opening weekend of the season with both 1868 FC and the Rangers hoping to get into an early groove after offseason movement within both squads. 1868 FC notably saw 2017 USL Most Valuable Player Dane Kelly move on to Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, but will have a handful of key figures back for the club’s second season including forward Antoine Hoppenot and defenders Jordan Murrell and Brent Richards. Swope Park enters its third season with its third Head Coach as Paulo Nagamura takes the reins of the back-to-back Western Conference champion. The Rangers will be without former captain Christian Duke, who departed for Orange County, but have added some solid veterans in forwards Tyler Blackwood and Hadji Barry, and former Columbus Crew SC midfielder Rodrigo Saravia to help keep the side in postseason contention.

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC vs. LA Galaxy II
Weidner Field, Colorado Springs, Colorado | 8 p.m. ET
Two teams that missed out on the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time in their respective histories meet at Weidner Field to open the new season with Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC hosting the LA Galaxy II. The Switchbacks just missed out on a third consecutive playoff berth a season ago by two points and have looked to bolster their defense this offseason with the signing of Haitian goalkeeper Steward Ceus and former Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC defender Jamal Jack while retaining the familiar faces of Jordan Burt, Josh Suggs and Luke Vercollone. The Galaxy II also have some new faces in the fold, and the experience of Julian Büscher should help the side, but the club will also be expecting more from forward Ethan Zubak and goalkeeper Eric Lopez after last season’s experience.

OKC Energy FC vs. Tulsa Roughnecks FC
Taft Stadium, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma | 8 p.m. ET
The first Black Gold Derby of the 2018 season sees OKC Energy FC looking to make the first step toward regaining the upper hand in the rivalry after Tulsa Roughnecks FC’s victory in the regular-season series for the first time in 2017. Energy FC picked up steam at the end of last season to reach the Western Conference Final of the USL Cup Playoffs and will be hoping that momentum continues with new Head Coach Steve Cooke at the helm. The side does return numerous key players, including leading scorer Jose Angulo and playmakers Jose Barril and Miguel Gonzalez, and they seem set to test a Roughnecks side that will have a different look to it from a season ago. While goalkeeper Fabian Cerda returns for Tulsa, Head Coach David Vaudreuil will need his new additions to find the pace quickly in what should be a high-tempo contest.

Fresno FC vs. Las Vegas Lights FC
Chukchansi Park, Fresno, California | 10 p.m. ET
The Western Conference’s two newcomers meet for their inaugural regular season contest with a strong crowd expected from Fresno’s passionate soccer fanbase to welcome to Foxes to the professional ranks. Fresno has brought in a good contingent of established talent to lead it forward, including 2017 All-League selection Juan Pablo Caffa and playmaker Danny Barrera, which should put the side in the conversation for a place in the playoffs in what is looking like a tough Western Conference. Las Vegas has drawn all kinds of buzz for its buildup to the new season, and with veterans like Carlos Alvarez and Sammy Ochoa leading the way it will be fascinating to see if the up-tempo attacking game that the side is looking to produce materializes ahead of its home opener against in-state rival Reno 1868 FC next weekend.

Orange County SC vs. Phoenix Rising FC
Champions Soccer Stadium, Irvine, California | 10 p.m. ET
Phoenix Rising FC will aim to continue the upward trajectory the side produced in the second half of the 2017 regular season when it visits Orange County SC to open the new season. Rising FC posted a sterling record under Head Coach Patrice Carteron that almost pushed it into the top four of the Western Conference a season ago, and with some major offseason additions that include All-League selection Billy Forbes, New Zealand international James Musa and top defender Joe Farrell are expecting to push even higher this season. Orange County’s preparations under new Head Coach Braeden Troyer haven’t been as high-profile, but there have been some quality additions to the squad that include former Danish international Thomas Enevoldsen and Jamaican forward Michael Seaton, which should make for an interesting opening contest at Orange County’s home.

Sacramento Republic FC vs. San Antonio FC
Papa Murphy’s Park, Sacramento, California | 10:30 p.m. ET
Two major Western Conference contenders will get the new season off to a rousing start at what is set to be a sold-out Papa Murphy’s Park as Sacramento Republic FC hosts a home opener in the opening weekend of the regular season for the first time. Sacramento has undergone some changes that have appeared to produce the desired effect this preseason, with new Head Coach – former New Zealand international Simon Elliott – having a revamped roster to work with that has seen impressive performances this preseason from forward Christian Eissele and experienced goalkeeper Josh Cohen. San Antonio has also added quality to its ranks after its second-place finish last year, with Texas native Mikey Lopez added to the midfield and former Rochester Rhinos defender Ryan Felix to the backline to replace the departed Michael Reed and Sebastien Ibeagha. With both sides coming in off positive preseason results, the first real test of the year for both should provide a compelling contest.

Sunday, March 18
Bethlehem Steel FC vs. Richmond Kickers

Goodman Stadium, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania | 2 p.m. ET
Bethlehem Steel FC will begin the pursuit of its second consecutive place in the USL Cup Playoffs when it plays host to a Richmond Kickers side that has undergone an attacking overhaul this offseason in search of a bounce-back season. The Kickers missed the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time a season ago as the club's attack struggled for consistency, something Richmond looked to address with the signings of former Charleston Battery forward Heviel Cordoves and veteran strikers Giussi Gentile and Brian Shriver. Bethlehem also made a big addition to its attacking corps this offseason in Brandon Allen, who scored 30 goals over two seasons for the New York Red Bulls II. While Steel FC reached the playoffs a season ago, however, it will be looking for its first win in four contests against the Kickers, with Richmond having taken the regular-season series 1-0-1 a year ago.

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