The complete 2018 USL schedule has arrived, which means for plenty of fans this weekend is one that could see some time set aside to plan for the year ahead. After we looked at five of the most enticing home openers last week, this time around we’re looking at the broad spectrum of games that you should keep an eye on as the season plays out.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies were involved in one of the high-profile inter-conference games last season when they visited San Antonio FC, but this season they get to welcome the defending USL Regular Season Championship-holders Real Monarchs SLC to Al Lang Stadium. With both teams boasting powerful returning attacks, there could be plenty of entertainment in an big litmus test for the championship aspirations of both.
The quadrangle that includes defending USL Cup champion Louisville City FC, FC Cincinnati, Indy Eleven and Nashville SC will be worth watching throughout the season, not just because of the potential rivalries between the clubs, but also because all four will have high expectations in an Eastern Conference that looks even harder to navigate than previously. Louisville’s visit to Indy in early May should have allowed both teams to settle in, and will build on previous meetings in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
With a two-hour, 33-minute drive separating Papa Murphy’s Park in Sacramento from Chukchansi Park in Fresno, you might expect plenty of members of the Tower Bridge Battalion to take a half-day from work to be at the first meeting between the two clubs, which should make for a cracking midweek atmosphere. Adding to the intrigue will be the first opportunity for Fresno Head Coach Adam Smith to go up against the club he departed this offseason after four years. With former Republic FC players Mickey Daly and Agustin Cazarez among the Foxes’ ranks, this has all the makings of the start of something special.
The rematch of the Eastern Conference Final in the 2017 USL Cup Playoffs will bring the New York Red Bulls II back to Slugger Field for what could be a key mid-season game for both clubs in the Eastern Conference. New York will have some new faces at its disposal this season, but regardless whenever Head Coach John Wolyniec’s side has visited Louisville it has gone for the gusto, which should make for some great entertainment against a City side that is consistently strong on home turf.
This matchup a season ago produced one of the best goals of the 2017 season by the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Marcel Schäfer, and while we can’t promise that will happen again this should be one of the biggest games in July for two Eastern Conference contenders. After the Rowdies’ emphatic victory in the postseason last fall, Tampa Bay holds an undefeated record against FCC in their four previous meetings in all competitions, a blemish on their record that Head Coach Alan Koch’s men will be looking to erase in front of a raucous Nippert Stadium crowd.
New rivalries have brought major buzz to the USL over recent years, but there’s still something special in the air when the Charleston Battery and Richmond Kickers square off. July’s meeting at MUSC Health Stadium will also be one to watch as former Battery forward Heviel Cordoves makes his return to Charleston as a member of the Kickers. With Richmond aiming to get back into the playoff picture this year after a disappointing 2017 season there could be much more than bragging rights on the line in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Given the manner Phoenix Rising FC closed the 2017 regular season under Head Coach Patrice Carteron, say nothing of the offseason moves the club has made that include the addition of former SAFC winger Billy Forbes, it’s a fair assumption to put Rising on the shortlist of major preseason contenders for silverware in the Western Conference, with San Antonio FC in the same position as it looks to build on a stellar second season. That makes their meeting at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex one that should be massive for both as they look to gain the upper hand in position for the playoffs with less than two months to go in the regular season.
The second meeting of the season for Reno 1868 FC and Sacramento Republic FC will not only decide the victor of the Donner Pass Derby this season, but could also serve as a key moment in the Western Conference playoff race for both clubs in what appears to be on paper another fierce fight for the postseason. The teams meet for the first time this season at May 12 at Papa Murphy’s Park in what should be another must-see game, but the heightened tension of a playoff race should ratchet things up a notch or two here.
The Keystone Derby Cup hasn’t got the stature of some of the other rivalry series in the USL, but after fascinating offseasons for both Penn FC and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, the final meeting of the season at FNB Field could not only determine which club claims the series in 2018, but could also pit two teams that are in the thick of the playoff race after missing out for the past two years. Penn FC’s offseason transformation, led by its partnership with Rush Soccer, has the club hoping for big things this year, while the arrival of perennial playoff contending Head Coach Bob Lilley to Highmark Stadium has also raised expectations. That makes this one to circle.
Yeah, we’re going to cheat here, and with good reason. I mean, have you looked at the slate for the final Saturday of the regular season?
Charlotte Independence vs. North Carolina FC
Louisville City FC vs. Indy Eleven
Nashville SC vs. FC Cincinnati
Reno 1868 FC vs. Orange County SC
Sacramento Republic FC vs. Las Vegas Lights FC
Saint Louis FC vs. OKC Energy FC
San Antonio FC vs. Rio Grande Valley FC
Those are some top-level games in both conferences, and all are pretty much certain to have an impact on the playoff races as the final field for the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs gets set. Personally, Nashville SC vs. FC Cincinnati probably comes in at the top of the list, with San Antonio FC vs. Rio Grande Valley FC close behind, but given the matchups in involved there’s should be a high level of anticipation and anxiety in equal measure in the week leading up to this slate.