Analysis / Philadelphia Union II

The new United Soccer League Championship and Bethlehem’s prospects in it

Photo courtesy Bethlehem Steel

The United Soccer League Championship, aka USLC, the second-division league in which Bethlehem Steel FC competes, has some changes of substance in addition to its new label.

League-wide fundamentals

There will be 36 teams divided into two 18-team conferences (see chart below) playing a 34-game home-and-away schedule in 33 weeks.

  • These are net increases of three teams and two weeks.
  • The 34-game total is unchanged.
  • Each team plays its 17 conference opponents home-and-away, no more extra games, so competitive balance within each conference will be more even.
  • A longer season means fewer double-up weeks.
  • There are some playoff changes.
    • Ten teams from each conference will make the playoffs, not eight.
    • In a mid-week preliminary round before the first weekend’s quarter finals, 7th place hosts 10th and 8th hosts 9th.
    • Single elimination games at the home field of the higher seed remain the pattern, highest hosting lowest, etc.
Eastern Conference changes

Bethlehem will face a different jumble of opponents in the Eastern Conference this season.

  • Runaway regular season league champion FC Cincinnati has departed for MLS.
  • Toronto FC II and the Richmond Kickers have shifted to USL League One as founding members of the new division three league, USL1, this season.
  • Penn FC has also departed for division three, but will join in 2020, because it is hunting a stadium this year.
  • Rochester Rhinos are doing the same as Penn.
  • Saint Louis and Swope Park have switched from West to East.
Eastern Conference competitive strength

Nashville should be stronger, since it is preparing to join MLS in 2020. It is already signing players to MLS contracts and loaning them to the USL side for this season.

Weaker teams in the east have left, strengthening intra-conference competition, and it will be interesting to see how two good former Western Conference sides compete in the east.

The four new east expansion sides are harder to judge than last year’s NASL refugees. Three are “stand-alones:” Birmingham Legion FC in Alabama, Hartford Athletic in Connecticut, and Memphis 901 FC in Tennessee. The fourth is D.C. United’s new MLS2 player development project, wholly-owned affiliate Loudon United FC in Leesburg, Loudon County, Virginia.

Information about the four newcomers’ preseason performances is sparse.

There is one report about a Hartford Athletic preseason match. They beat Eastern Florida State College 2-1 in Melbourne, Florida March 1.  Head coach Jimmy Nielsen — a former goalkeeper for Sporting Kanasas City — had success in the USL in earlier years with OKC Energy in USL-West. He seems to have most of his lineup in place.

Memphis 901 won against two NCAA sides, lost to USLC-East powerhouse Louisville City, lost to St. Louis, and finished by beating the University of Memphis again, as far as is known.  They are emphasizing local interest and may be trying to sell tickets. They have Heviel Cordoves at striker, and former Bethlehem midfield mainstay Adam Najem, who scored in the Louisville loss.

Birmingham Legion’s publicly known preseason features stiff tests, presumably for effective roster evaluation. Former New England Revolution head coach Jay Heaps is club president and general manager. They have lost to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the Philadelphia Union, and Nashville, SC, and won over division three side Chattanooga Red Wolves.  They feature established USL striker Chandler Hoffman, a native son of Birmingham who scored against his old club the Union.

Loudon United have a well-respected head coach, Richie Williams, and like all other MLS2 sides are slow to finalize their roster. Bethlehem scrimmaged them towards the end of February losing 2-1, although head coach Brendan Burke has said Steel controlled about two-thirds of the game, conceding twice on the counter.

 “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”

If Bethlehem’s speed and skill can prevent older, more physical opponents from using size and strength, they can win, like Muhammad Ali against Sonny Liston. But there are some “Smokin’ Joe” Fraziers in the USLC ring.

The Achilles heel of any teenage lineup is consistency, and the Bethlehem player development project epitomizes its lack. Last year in 36 games the Steel started 36 different lineups.

But Burke and his assistant Steven Hogan adapt to the roster inconsistently well.

Appendix: USLC’s Conferences for 2019

Atlanta United 2*Austin Bold FC
Bethlehem Steel FC*Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Birmingham Legion FCEl Paso Locomotive FC
Charleston BatteryFresno FC
Charlotte IndependenceLA Galaxy II (aka Los Dos)*
Hartford AthleticLas Vegas Lights FC
Indy ElevenNew Mexico United
Loudon United FCOKC Energy FC
Louisville City FCOrange County SC
Memphis 901 FCPhoenix Rising FC
Nashville SCPortland Timbers 2*
New York Red Bulls II*Real Monarchs SLC*
North Carolina FCReno 1868 FC
Ottawa FuryRio Grande Valley FC
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SCSacramento Republic FC
Saint Louis FCSan Antonio FC
Swope Park Rangers*Seattle Sounders FC 2*
Tampa Bay RowdiesTulsa Roughnecks FC

*=Wholly-owned affiliate of an MLS club (8)


  1. John O'Donnell says:

    Should be a fun season and because of my work schedule I’ll get a chance to see many Sunday games in person.

  2. SilverRey says:

    Is anyone else fully annoyed that they are calling this the ‘Championship’ division? It didn’t make any sense when England renamed their leagues and it doesn’t make ANY sense for USL.
    Anyway, I haven’t taken the opportunity to get up to Bethlehem Steel in the past so I’m excited to be able to see them at Talen. Looking forward to the season!

  3. Tim Jones says:

    This is a vague, unresearched memory, Silver Rey, so with a dump truck loads of salt.
    At the time of he announcement of the relabeling, in nothing so overt as a direct statement, a connection was implied between the sequence of names in the Nglish second third and fourth divisions and the New USL names, there may have been some mention of familiarity and comprehension through imitation.
    I was paying attention for hints of intent towards pro-rel within USL as a whole, They were more overt for sometime in the future ifI the new 3rd division league actually succeeds.
    Sorry to rely on such uncertainty.

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