Welcome to the 2nd installment of Cincinnati Soccer Talk’s 2016 USL Eastern Conference preview. This article will cover 2 clubs returning for their sophomore season, the Charlotte Independence and FC Montreal in addition to the USL veteran club Harrisburg City Islanders. These 3 teams struggled for the majority and are looking for a turnaround to snatch 1 of the 8 spots in and expanded Eastern Conference playoffs in 2016.
Charlotte Independence (2015: 7th Place-40 pts.)
MLS Affiliation: Colorado Rapids- Affiliation Agreement
Background: Founded in 2014, The Charlotte Independence look to follow up a freshman performance where they barely missed out on the playoffs by a single point. Even though Charlotte is starting its 2nd season in the current form of USL, Charlotte itself is not new to the league carrying on the tradition of the Charlotte Eagles that have been affiliated with the USL top division since 2011. Upon creation of the Independence, the Eagles dropped to the PDL for the 2015 season.
Key Players: 2nd Team All USL Defender Mechack Jérôme has moved on to Jacksonville of the NASL but return Patrick Slogic to a defense that conceded the 5th fewest goals in 2015. Coach Mike Jefferies added former Seattle Sounders Forward David Estrada to headline their attack. Estrada spent time with the Sacramento Republic and Orange County Blues last season and looks to improve on 3 goals and 6 assists in 25 games in 2015.
Season Outlook: 6-9th, Borderline Playoffs. Coach Jefferies is in the midst of his first complete off-season to build his squad after the rapid 2 month period he had to assemble his 2015 team. As mentioned, David Estrada has the firepower to lead Charlotte as he looks to recapture the magic that led to 5 goals in 17 appearance in 2012 with Seattle. The real question is if the affiliation with Colorado Rapids organization already strapped for depth yield talent to push them to a top 8 finish and a spot in the playoffs?
Fixtures vs. FC Cincinnati: Home- April 9, 7:00 P.M.; Away- May 21, 7:00 P.M.
FC Montreal (2015: 10th Place-28 pts.)
MLS Affiliation: Montreal Impact- Owned
Background: FC Montreal was created in 2015 as the “developmental team” for the Montreal Impact. Both team share the same practice facilities but starting this season FC Montreal moves into the recently renovated 3,500 seat Complexe sportif Claude-Robillard. Last year the squad was constantly one of the leagues youngest with most players at the U-18 or academy level.
Key Players: The squad returns Winger Alessandro Riggi who scored nine goals with two assists, finishing the 2015 season as the best scorer of the team and 14th-best in the USL. As said above, this team will once again consist of mostly Canadian academy players looking for their first professional experience. You may also see a first-team player of the Montreal Impact added to the roster for certain games, should the MLS coaching staff want to give players some playing time or help injured players recover their fitness.
Season Outlook: 11-14th, Out of Playoffs. Head Coach Philippe Eullaffroy will again have one of the youngest squads in the USL and could face the same struggles that the team had in its first few months in the league as the players learn to play at this level. Their playoff hopes will depend if they can shorten the learning curve and get to the point where they won 6 of 8 games towards the middle to end of last season. In a season where you add teams like FC Cincinnati, Orlando B, and a Louisville City FC squad that moves towards its own separate organization, it is hard to see where FC Montreal improved enough to make up the 13 point gap for a playoff spot.
Fixtures vs. FC Cincinnati: Home- June 11, 7:00 P.M.; Away- August 3, 7:00 P.M.
Harrisburg City Islanders (2015: 8th Place-39 pts.)
MLS Affiliation: Unaffiliated
Background: The Harrisburg City Islanders have a long storied history in the USL that started in 2004 and includes several Elite 8 appearance in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and 2 appearances in the USL Finals in 2011 and 2014. Up until 2015 the City Islanders had an affiliation agreement with the Philadelphia Union which ended with the creation of Bethlehem Steel FC.
Key Players: Harrisburg will return 4 key players, Midfielder Jason Plumhoff (10 G, 6 A, 26 PTS), Forward Craig Foster (8 G, 2 A, 18 PTS), Forward Brett Jankouskas (5 G, 1 A, 11 PTS), and Goalkeeper Nicholas Noble (1.89 GAA, 9 Shutouts). They also added veteran MLS Forward Aaron Wheeler. At 6’4”, Wheeler could be a great option in the air for the City Islanders. In addition to these USL veterans, the City Islanders recently signed former US U-18 defender Darvin Ebanks. Ebanks was a 5-star recruit for the University of North Carolina where he was part of the 2011 NCAA National Championship Team. Last season he spent time in the NPSL with the Georgia Revolution
Season Outlook: 6-9th, Borderline Playoffs. 2015 was a year of up and downs for Harrisburg. Even through all the inconsistency Harrisburg was still in the fight for the playoffs until the final day of the season missing the playoffs by 2 points. Will the City Islanders be able to re-capture the magic of the run that led to the USL Finals in 2014 or will the move away from the partnership with the Philadelphia Union lead to a drop in talent that makes them fall further behind? These are questions that Head Coach Bill Becher will have to answer in 2016.
Fixtures vs. FC Cincinnati: Away- May 7, 7:00 P.M.; Home- May 28, 7:00 P.M.
Look for more previews over the next couple of weeks as we head towards FC Cincinnati’s inaugural 2016 season.
For our first preview of Bethlehem Steel FC and Charleston Battery click here.