Analysis / USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Predicting the USL East

Bethlehem Steel opened training camp Tuesday. Conference alignments are finally set. Game schedules are announced. So, it is time for a first look at the rest of the Steel’s eastern conference opponents.

Fluidity

Today’s minor league soccer off-seasons and preseasons are more interesting than major league ones. They are chaotic, unstable, and last-minute, particularly during both deliberate and reactive expansion. Some USL clubs have over 20 players signed already. Others have only just announced general managers and coaching changes. One club does not have a head coach yet. And one game venue has been announced  several days after the club’s game schedule was announced.

Old friends

Charleston Battery: The longtime USL franchise is no longer affiliated with Atlanta. The Battery website lists a goalkeeper, three defenders, six midfielders and a forward. Notable departures are Forrest Lasso from the defense, Justin Portillo from the midfield, and Heviel Cordoves from the attack, in addition to all players on loan from Georgia, especially Romario Williams.

Charlotte Independence: The Independence will return the major pieces of their attack to the 2018 pitch, including Jorge Herrera and Enzo Martinez. Goalkeeper Cody Mizell has departed for Tampa Bay. Barring injuries, the Independence should remain formidable, although chased by Father Time.

FC Cincinnati: Cincy experienced significant defensive losses, but already list 23 players for 2018 and are rumored to have been practicing for a month. Goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt has joined Atlanta United. Both center backs are gone, one has retired into coaching and the other went home to Australia. Speedy winger Kadeem Dacres has moved on, and Andrew Weidemann has retired to finish at Cal-Berkley. Djiby Fall was released last fall, but was reported in talks with the club. They will be formidably angry about their 2017 defeats to the Steel.

Louisville City FC: The 2017 defending USL Cup champs return 16 of their 20 champions, and have brought back another from their initial 2016 squad. Guy Abend and Tarek Morad are the recognizable departures. Coach James O’Connor’s side will again set a high bar for its competitors.

New York Red Bulls II: The best, most experienced player development system in the eastern conference grinds on. Head coach John Wolyniec will stay his course following the organization’s template with the next group from the pipeline, and by the end of the season they will be strong, whatever their start in the spring. The Steel play them in mid-May, late June, and mid-July. RB2 will remember last year’s two losses to the Steel.

Ottawa Fury: Striker Tucker Hume left for Nashville. Striker Steeven Dos Santos returns, as does playmaker Gerardo Bruna. The Fury are returning much of last year’s squad, so expect the same approach in spite of the new coach. The 2017 Steel managed to handle them, but not easily. They will be big, physical and direct, and will bunker counter, and threaten on set pieces.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds: The ‘Hounds should be a distinctly stronger side in 2018. Bob Lilley is their new coach — remember Rochester’s suspension of play — and he has re-signed most of the ‘Hounds good players and brought in several from the Rhinos, including Kenardo Forbes. Never underestimate Bob Lilley.

Richmond Kickers: Head coach Leigh Cowlishaw will improve the Kickers’ miserable 2017 performance. How much remains to be seen. The connection to DC United seems gone. He has signed two strikers from NASL clubs Puerto Rico and Jacksonville. Steel fans get to evaluate Cowlishaw’s rebuild immediately, at Goodman Stadium at 2 PM on Sunday, March 18th.

Tampa Bay Rowdies: Stuart Campbell continues to field a strong, experienced, expensive USL side. He has replaced keeper Matt Pickens with Cody Mizell from Charlotte, and striker Martin Paterson with Joachim Graf from Rochester. He has added midfielder Junior Flemings and left back David Najem from New York Red Bulls 2. Georgi Hristov has re-signed, and Joe Cole and Marcel Shafer return. The Rowdies will be old and tough once again.

Toronto FC II: The eastern conference’s player development side north of the border seems about where they should be at this time of the season. Only one 2017 player was signed to the MLS double winners, Ayo Akinola, and he will likely still play his games in USL. Head coach Jason Bent has moved up to the first team to be replaced by former Academy Director Laurent Guyot. Roster-build announcements are sparse to date.

Incidentally, they will no longer play home games on the turf at Vaughn. They are moving to a larger capacity stadium within walking distance of BMO field, although details may not yet be fully finalized. They will host the Steel at Rochester on August 16.

Newcomers

Atlanta United 2: The USL website transfer tracker, a self-declared incomplete record, listed its first four players only last Friday. Additionally, we expect that prominent Atlanta youth prospect Andrew Carleton might play for them, and possibly veteran USL striker Jamaican international Romario Williams. Only the head coach, Scott Donnelly, most recently an assistant with the USMNT U-18s, and assistant coach, Rob Valentino from Orlando City B’s technical staff, are known.

Penn FC (formerly Harrisburg City Islanders): A week ago the club announced its new general manager, the president and CEO of Rush Soccer, Tim Schulz. Concurrently, it announced that former head coach Bill Becher will assume the role of Technical Advisor. Only last Friday have they begun to announce signings (4), and the head coach remains unknown.

Indy Eleven: The public learned Indy Eleven was a 2018 USL side a day or two before it then heard Orlando City B was not playing. Indy led NASL in attendance in 2017 averaging roughly 9,000. Their new head coach is former Vancouver Whitecaps head Martin Rennie, who was announced January 16. He has just been joined by new assistant Phillip Dos Santos, with Trevor James being heldover from the previous staff. The Indianapolis Star reports that Rennie expects to open training camp about February 7th. Only over the weekend have a few roster names begun to appear. “Last second landing” seems to apply.

Nashville SC: In direct contrast to Indianapolis, expansion side Nashville has a coaching staff and 23 players. But they have been at work for two years. Head Coach Gary Smith has an opening game against reigning USL champions Louisville City. Of interest to Steel fans will be two names, left back Taylor Washington, and defensive center midfielder Bolu Akinyode.

North Carolina FC: Head coach Colin Clarke has seen one significant roster departure, Nawzie Albadwi, from his midfield, and others of lesser importance including two names familiar to southeastern Pennsylvania soccer fans, keeper Brian Sylvestre and Akinyode. He has re-signed five from last year, and brought in two internationals, four collegians, an NASL refugee, and an MLS alum. Clarke is a good coach, and Carolina have intended to move to USL for some months, so his side should be quite credible.

Predictions

Home playoff games:    Louisville, Cincinnati, Tampa, Pittsburgh

Mid-Table:                       Charlotte, New York, Charleston, North Carolina, Indy, Richmond, Bethlehem

Bottom Five:                   Ottawa, Toronto, Atlanta, Nashville, Penn.

2 Comments

  1. Great insight Tim. Looking forward to another USL season

  2. Tim…with write-ups and reporting like this you make Usl more exciting than mls. Good job. Thank you for sharing.
    In your opinion do you think Usl will start making rules to limit mls owned teams from having their players play down to allow independents to thrive..or just wait until next year to create Usl div3 with the mls farm teams?
    UnionGoal

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