by: Miguel Padilla
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Spring is in the air, or at least trying to be in parts of the country. The 2019 USL Championship is upon us, its first year in the new format. Many changes have come along since last season. The playoffs have expanded from eight to ten clubs (first round is a play-in round). Two clubs have shifted conferences (St. Louis and Swope Park Rangers) One club has moved on to Major League Soccer (FC Cincinnati), one changed it’s name (Seattle S2 became Tacoma Defiance), some went to USL League One, some have joined the USL as expansion clubs (Austin, El Paso, New Mexico). Players have retired, transferred, or moved on. 18 clubs will be playing in each conference this season.
With the silly season of transfers pretty much behind us, most clubs have shaped out their rosters and have completed preseason. Now we will make an attempt to be soothsayers and predict how the 2019 USL Championship Western Conference will end up once the smoke settles.
The Non Playoff Clubs, 18th through 11th
18th – LA Galaxy II (2018 record: 14th 10 W 7 D 17 L 37 PTS)
Los Dos had a couple key signings but don’t except much improvement from the club as a whole. Any players on the squad that excel will probably get called up and see time with the MLS side Galaxy.
17th – Las Vegas Lights (2018 record: 15th 8 W 7 D 19 L 31 PTS)
Lost 2018 top goal scorer Paul Mendiola (10 goals) to instate rivals Reno 1868 FC, not much improvement defensively in a squad that gave up 74 goals last year. Is still the go to road trip for USL fans in the West.
16th – New Mexico United (expansion club)
Will get most of their points and be higher on the table in the first few matches early in the season due to excitement and adrenaline. Will fade quickly after. Key signing, Kevaughn Frater from Phoenix Rising FC (3 goals in 2018)
15th – Tacoma Defiance ( formerly S2) (2018 record: 16th 6 W 7 D 21 L 25 PTS)
Formerly Seattle Sounders 2. Key additions, a pair of loanees from a Czech Republic club – Modou Ndow and Ben Numbi. not much fire power other than a re-branding.
14th – Rio Grande Valley Toros (2018 record: 13th 8 W 14 D 12 L 38 PTS)
Kept Carlos Small on loan for the 2019 season, the Panamanian international scored 5 goals for the Toros in 2018, lost Kai Greene to San Antonio FC. Will remain in the doldrums of being a farm team and a pathway for those hopeful to make it to the Houston Dynamo.
13th – Colorado Springs Switchbacks (2018 record 11th 11 W 6 D 17 L 39 PTS)
Will remain tough at home due to playing at a high altitude, will struggle on the road. Key additions: F Mike Seth from San Antonio FC and D Kris Reaves from FC Dallas.
12th – El Paso Locomotive FC (expansion club)
Interesting to see where El Paso will finish, a couple fortuitous victories could find the Locomotives in a play-in round only time will tell. Key additions Omar Salgado from the Las Vegas Lights and Richie Ryan from FC Cincinnati.
11th – Reno 1868 FC ( 2018 record 5th 16 W 11D 7 L PTS 59 PTS
Reno lost Kevin Partida to the San Jose Earthquakes and Antoine Happenot with his 17 goals last season to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Key signing: Raul Mendiola from Las Vegas but it wont be enough. Reno will take a big step back this season.
Clubs making the play-in round, 10th through 7th
10th – Austin Bold FC (expansion club)
The third expansion club in the West and most prepared to play in the first season with some high profile signings in Xavier Baez, Marcelo Saragosa, and few former San Antonio FC players in Diego Restrepo, Kris Tyrpak and Sonny Guadarrama. Head coach Marcelo Serrano who also coaches the US Virgin Islands and coached Brazil at the youth level will guide the Bold into the last play-in round spot. Biggest question is will there be fan support with some off the field issues seemly disenfranchising some Austin soccer fans who prefer Major League Soccer.
9th – Fresno FC (2018 record 12th 9 W 12 D 13 L 39 PTS)
After missing out on the playoffs last season, the Foxes will be the club to take advantage of poaching points off of the three expansion clubs and an expanded playoff format. Key addition Jamie Chavez who has 41 goals since 2014 with various clubs.
8th – Tulsa Roughnecks (2018 record 17th 3 W 12 D 19 L 21 PTS
Will be the club that improves the most from last season. A club that finished dead last in 2018 went through an aggressive overhaul. Wayne Farmer was named General Manager in November, Barry Williams became president and also introduced in November. Named 2018 interim coach, Micheal Nsien stayed on as permanent head coach. Key additions: Cyprian Hedrick (SAFC), Akwafei “AJ” Ajeakwa (COS), and Matt Sheldon, possibly the hardest working and most humble guy in soccer. Matt has a YouTube Channel “Become Elite” that is worth checking out. Tulsa will surprise a few clubs this year and make their second playoff appearance in modern club history.
7th – Oklahoma City Energy FC (2018 record 10th 12 W 7 D 15 L 43 PTS)
Looks like both clubs from the Sooner state will make the playoffs in 2019. Key signings: Omar Gordon (SAFC), Cody Laurendi , Atiba Harris (formerly FC Dallas) and Christian Eissele (Sac Republic) who has 78 goals across various European clubs. The Energy have improved their defense with a healthy Laurendi and a tenacious Atiba Harris as part of the back line. Question for OKC is, will Omar Gordon find his form once again and score goals. Omar faded late in the season in 2018 when SAFC needed him the most.
The Conference Quarterfinal clubs , 6th through 1st
6th – Real Monarchs (2018 record 4th 19 W 3 D 12 L 60 PTS)
Won the West in 2017 and led for most of 2018 then fell apart at the end with a 2 W 1 D 6 L record and finished 4th. The loss of GK Jake Leeker and D Michael Gallagher will expose the Monarch’s defense. Monarchs will scratch their way to the 6th spot with first year coach Martin Vasquez.
5th – Portland Timbers 2 ( 2018 record 6th 17 W 4 D 13 L 55 PTS)
T2, like Reno, surprised many by making the playoffs last year. While they won’t surprise anyone this year they will have the talent to make a run into the playoffs. The Timbers acquired Jake Leeker the standout GK from Real Monarchs and Todd Wharton who had 61 appearances and 6 goals with RGV Toros.
4th – Orange County SC (2018 record 1st 20 W 6 D 8 L 66 PTS)
Lost 2-1 to Phoenix Rising in the 2018 USL Western Conference final. OCSC suffered a big loss in the off season as well when striker Thomas Enevoldsen signed with Indy Eleven. It’s hard to replace 20 goals by a striker in a season in any league. OCSC signed MF Charlie Adams in hopes to remain on top of the West. But with no suitable replacement at striker, 4th place will be Orange County’s ceiling.
3rd San Antonio FC (2018 record 9th 14 W 8 D 12 50 PTS)
A club that last year looked like a playoff squad and top 4 team on paper sputtered all year long, with injuries, an anemic offense and a so-so inconsistent defense. Many fans called for Darren Powell to be out; instead the club decided to go with a roster turn over. SAFC has added some key components to the staff also dug deep and scouted well to find some quality signings. We will go more in depth on our detailed season preview of San Antonio FC in a separate article. It will be a close race until the end but SAFC will comfortably clinch a playoff spot and if things go right, find itself in the Western Conference Championship.
2nd Phoenix Rising FC (2018 record 3rd 19 W 6 D 9 L 63 PTS)
Reigning USL Western Conference Champion, lost in the USL Cup 1-0 to Louisville City FC. Phoenix is looking to repeat their success in 2018. Rising lost Billy Forbes to SAFC and Drogba retired. Biggest loss of the offseason was Chris Cortez who had 19 goals and 5 assists in 2018 and was part of the goal scoring duo with re-signed Solomon Asante. Chris is off to Thailand and was replaced by Adam Jahn who has recent MLS experience with Columbus Crew SC, has 12 MLS goals and 11 in the USL since 2013. Asante should repeat his 2018 success of 14 goals and 5 assists. SAFC and Phoenix square off the first match of the season in San Antonio and could very well be an early preview of the Western Conference Final.
1st Sacramento Republic FC (2018 record 2nd 19 W 8 D 7 L 65 PTS)
SAC Republic was left with a bitter taste in their mouths as they were dealt an early first round exit at the hands of Swope Park Rangers. SAC wont be able to exact revenge on SPR due to conference realignment, unless they meet in the USL Cup final. The team kept most of its core players at the club this season. Biggest departure was Justin Schmidt going to New Mexico United and biggest addition being Tyler Blackwood who was with SAC Republic in 2017 and scored 6 goals, Tyler recorded 8 goals in 2018 for Swope Park Rangers. History wont be on the side of the Republic or Rising as clubs who have finished 1st or 2nd in the West have never made to the USL Cup Final and only two (OKC Energy in 2015 and Orange County SC in 2018) made it to the Western Conference final
Of course it’s all a prediction, the long 34 match season, injuries, a player going on a hot or cold streak or travel issues could all throw a wrench into how we guess the season will turn out. It’s fun to speculate and have conversations on who finishes where.
Let us know your thoughts and revisit this article at the end of season to see how bad we botched it up!