It’s the beginning of March and FC Cincinnati’s pre-season schedule is half way over. That means we are less than 3 weeks from their first kick off away to the Charleston Battery on March 26. With this in mind we at Cincinnati Soccer Talk want to bring FC Cincinnati fans up to speed on the teams the club will face as they strive to claim the USL Championship and their second piece of silverware this season.
For those new to the USL, it consists of two conferences, East and West. There are 29 teams up from 24 the previous season. In 2016 the league added FC Cincinnati, Bethlehem Steel, Orlando City B, Rio Grande Valley FC, San Antonio FC, and Swope Park Rangers while the Austin Aztecs announced they would go on year hiatus in 2016. 14 teams will compete in the East and 15 in the West. FC Cincinnati will compete in the Eastern Conference and will face each conference foe twice for a total of 26 games and will face a regional rival for another 4 games (St. Louis 2x, Pittsburgh, Louisville). All in all they will play 30 USL regular season games. At the end of the season, the top 8 teams in each conference will earn a spot in the USL Playoffs. We will preview all the clubs in the USL Eastern Conference teams in addition to St. Louis who moves to the Western Conference this season.
Bethlehem Steel FC (Expansion Team)
MLS Affiliation: Philadelphia Union-Owned
Background: Created for the 2016 as the second team for the Philadelphia Union, Bethlehem Steel FC will play their games at Goodman Stadium, home to the Lehigh University football team yet will practice in Philadelphia with the Union. Their name gives tribute to one of the earliest successful American soccer teams in history, Bethlehem Steel F.C., which played in the area from 1907- 1930.
Key Players: With just 13 players under contract as of March 6th, the squad will rely on a steady stream of players going up and down from the parent club as well as members coming up from the Union academy. This could include the 2nd pick in the MLS Superdraft Joshua Yaro as he adapts to Center Back in a professional set-up. Right Back Ryan Richter has MLS experience with the Union and Toronto FC and spent last season in the NASL with the Ottawa Fury. Jamaican Forward Cory Burke was acquired via loan ahead of the club’s inaugural 2016 season. Burke is under contract with Rivoli United of the Red Stripe Premier League and is second in scoring with 12 goals.
Season Outlook: 11th- 14th, Out of Playoffs. First Year Head Coach Brendan Burke will have his hands full. You need to look no further than the parent club to see how you could expect the team to perform. Unfortunately the Union are not expected to compete for the MLS Cup and the Steel may suffer from the lack of quality sent to them by the parent organization. GM Ernie Stewart may have the organization on the right path but it may be a season or two before you expect the Union to have the depth to send the quality of player to win a championship at this level.
Fixtures vs. FC Cincinnati: Away- April 3, 3:00 P.M.; Home- July 2, 6:00 P.M.
Please click here for an up to date roster for Bethlehem Steel FC.
Charleston Battery (2015: 3rd Place-46 pts.)
MLS Affiliation: Atlanta United FC- MLS Expansion Franchise 2017- Affiliation Agreement
Background: Founded in 1993, the Charleston Battery created news this off-season by being sold by longtime owner Tony Bakker to B Sports Entertainment. Along with the Richmond Kickers, the Battery hold the record for being the longest operating soccer team in America. With 4 titles to their name, the club has a tradition for success having made the playoffs 8 seasons in a row.
Key Players: The first fruit from the association with Atlanta comes in the form of Alexandros Tabakis. Tabakis is a Greek goalkeeper who is the first player ever signed by Atlanta United. Prior to joining Atlanta, Tambakis played for Panathinaikos of Superleague Greece. He is expected to compete with long time starter and 2015 USL All-League 2nd Team keeper Odisnel Cooper. They club also returns 2015 USL All-League 1st Team Defender Shawn Ferguson. The Center Back started 27 of the Battery’s 28 games and lead the club to the 2nd rated defense in the USL. Missing from the team is the star Forward Dane Kelly who moved to the Swope Park Rangers.
Season Outlook: Top 5, Playoffs. Mike Anhaeuser may still be filling out his roster but you can expect the club to field another competitive roster and fight for 5th Championship. The clubs pre-season fixtures thus far led to ties against 2 NASL sides including the expansion Miami FC and Jacksonville Armada. The Battery were able to hold 2015 USL MVP Matt Fondy scoreless in a 0-0 draw and shows that their defense will remain among the league’s best this season. With the replacement for Kelly yet to emerge, Charleston will count on Forward Ricky Garbanzo to lead the offense and follow up his 6 goal, 27 appearance 2015 season with another impressive year.
Fixtures vs. FC Cincinnati: Away- March 26, 7:30 P.M.; Home- July 30, 7:00 P.M.
Please click here for an up to date roster for the Charleston Battery.
Look for more previews over the next couple of weeks as we head towards FC Cincinnati’s inaugural 2016 season.