Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel/Saint Louis FC
Following the release of the 2018 USL Schedule fans were asked to give their opinion on expansion teams, the USL Cup Playoffs, and the question lighting up Twitter, which conference is stronger? After more than 1,000 answers, these great questions surrounding the USL may finally be solved.
With five expansion teams coming to USL in 2018 from all over the country, Indy Eleven was seen as the overwhelming favorite expansion team that fans a looking forward to playing this season. With a successful history in recent years, Indy has a lot of elements fans are looking for, getting 32.4 percent of the vote.
Nashville SC was the second favorite, but without the history that Indy has, fans were positive on the impressive squad that Nashville has put together, led by goalkeeper Matt Pickens. Surprisingly Las Vegas Lights FC was in fourth place, the allure of a road trip to Vegas not playing enough of a role to entice fans to vote for the Vegas club.
The debate surrounding which USL Eastern Conference team would make the USL Cup Playoffs after coming up short in 2017 was tight. In the end Ottawa Fury FC just edged the poll, finishing less than half a percentage point clear of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Given Ottawa finished the closest of the 2018 Eastern Conference teams to making the Playoffs in 2017, missing out by six points, that comes as no surprise, but the appointments of Head Coaches Nikola Popovic in Ottawa fresh off his run to a Western Conference championship and Bob Lilley in Pittsburgh are major reasons for optimism in both fanbases.
Photo courtesy Steve Kingsman / Freestyle Photography / Ottawa Fury FC
Saint Louis FC has emerged as a clear favorite in the USL Western Conference, with 59.4 percent of fans voting for Saint Louis to make the playoffs after missing out in the Eastern Conference last year by eight points. Saint Louis' offseason recruitment under new Head Coach Anthony Pulis, which has seen standout forward Corey Hertzog and goalkeeper Tomas Gomez arrive in the Midwest, has been impressive and that has been recognized by the fans' endorsement.
With one side being voted in each conference to get into the playoffs the question then became who drop out to make room for those two teams. The Eastern Conference was unsurprising, with Bethlehem Steel FC, who only made the USL Cup Playoffs by two points, being the team favored by fans to drop out, getting 28.5 percent of the vote. At the opposite end, it was the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who have managed to build a squad with a mixture of re-signing vital players and talented new additions, including Jochen Graf, seeing the Rowdies get just 5.9 percent of the poll, a lower total than defending champions Louisville City FC.
In the Western Conference, it seems fans feel like the rise of Tulsa Roughnecks FC is just a temporary rise, with 29.6 percent voting that Tulsa will be the side to miss out. The Roughnecks finished seventh in 2017 after finishing rock bottom of the table in 2016 but fans feel like this will be a one-off appearance in the playoffs. San Antonio FC received the biggest endorsement, and with a strong core of players returning to the squad looking to maintain their position as the strongest defense in the league, fans expect more of the same.
Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
Fans are expecting goals in the first game of the season with Saint Louis FC getting 62.7 percent of the vote about which team will score first in its season-opening clash. In second place was Saint Louis’ opponent in that contest, Rio Grande Valley FC, which took 16.7 percent of the vote. That would be a big change from 2017, when Saint Louis played to a scoreless draw with Louisville in the first match of the season.
The vote to decide which team will score the final goal of the USL season was a little tighter but it was still a clear win for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, with 43.4 percent of the vote. The Rowdies will be playing a team which played on the final day of the regular season in 2017, Bethlehem Steel FC, with Bethlehem managing a goal on that occasion. The vote comes as a surprise with two Western Conference teams, Swope Park Rangers and LA Galaxy II, likely to kick off later in the day, making both a more likely candidate to have the last goal scored in the regular season.
The biggest debate in the USL world since the release of the conference alignment has been which conference is stronger. Finally after several tweets the fans have responded, and done so overwhelmingly with the Eastern Conference getting 67.9 percent of the vote. This has to be at least in part due to the recent success of the conference's sides in the USL Cup, with the last three champions coming from the Eastern Conference.