Welcome to the 4th installment of Cincinnati Soccer Talk’s 2016 USL Eastern Conference Preview. Unlike the last several articles where we covered a mix between MLS II, and expansion teams, this week we cover 3 of the longest tenured professional soccer franchises in US Soccer. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Richmond Kicker, and 2015 USL Champion Rochester Rhinos have all spent at least 16 years in the USL pyramid. With 7 League Titles and 2 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups between them, these 3 can all be expected to compete for the title in the 2016 season.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds (2015: 5th Place-41 pts.)
MLS Affiliation: Columbus Crew- Affiliation Agreement
Background: Founded in 1998, the Riverhounds return Coach Mark Steffens for his second year with a squad that took D.C. United to extra time in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup and a 2015 USL Playoff appearance. During this offseason there have been many exciting developments that have moved the organization past their voluntary bankruptcy from 2014. The club announced that the club had formed an affiliate partnership with the reigning Eastern Conference playoff champion and MLS Cup runner-up Columbus Crew SC for the 2016 season. In addition, the Riverhounds officially moved into their new training facility, the Allegheny Health Network Sports Complex. The new facility will allowing for year round training for all levels of the organization including the USL, PDL, and academy sides.
Key Players: The Riverhounds return 2 of their top 3 scorers from last season in Kevin Kerr and Lebo Moloto who combined for 16 goals last season. Unfortunately they lost USL 1st Team Midfielder/Forward Rob Vincent to the D.C. United during the off-season. Vincent led the Riverhounds with 21 goals between USL and Open Cup play. The club added Costa Rican goalkeeper Mauricio Vargas and Togolese midfielder Alex Harlley. Vargas spent time with FC Wichita of the NPSL last season and played in the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup and the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup for Costa Rica. Harlley played with the Atlanta Silverbacks in the North American Soccer League the last 2 season and was one of the league’s 11 Young Players to Watch last season.
Season Outlook: 5th-10th, Borderline Playoffs. Coach Steffens has his work cut out to replace top scorer Rob Vincent this season but has a couple options to replace him. Midfielder Stephen Okai has picked up the scoring slack so far this season. I am also interested to see how MF/F and former Tampa Bay Rowdie Zak Boggs adds to the team. Boggs left the game in 2012 to accept a Fulbright scholarship to study medical sciences at Leicester University in England. He returned in 2014 when Riverhounds head coach Mark Steffens signed him for the Charlotte Eagles. Overall I expect Pittsburgh to fight for the last couple of spots in the playoffs but the loss of Vincent may be too tough to overcome without another top tier scoring threat.
For an updated Pittsburgh squad click here.
Fixtures vs. FC Cincinnati: Home- May 14, 4:00 P.M.; Away- September 14, 7:00 P.M.; September 24, 7:00 P.M.
Richmond Kickers (2015: 6th Place-41 pts.)
MLS Affiliation: D.C. United- Affiliation Agreement
Background: The Richmond Kickers along with the Charleston Battery are the oldest continuously operating professional clubs in the United States. In addition to being one of the oldest clubs, they are one of the most successful non-first division clubs with 3 league titles and a U.S. Open Cup victory in 1995. Last season the Kickers bowed out during the Conference Quarterfinals losing 2-1 to the Battery.
Key Players: Richmond returns Jason Yeisley off of a 13 goal performance last season. Yeisley spent time in 2010 with FC Dallas of the MLS before joining the Strikers in 2011. Homegrown goalkeeper Ryan Taylor and Defender William Yomby return to the Kickers for the 2016 USL season. Taylor had a record of 9-5-3 record and a career-high five shutouts. Last November the coaching staff spent some time in Brazil with S.C. Corinthians and returned with strikers forwards Luiz Fernando Nascimento and Romulo Peretta. The two may have some troubles adjusting with the language barriers and the move to the US but the club is very high on the. Coach Leigh Cowlishaw described the two as “young, dynamic attacking players who will entertain Kickers fans immensely.”
Season Outlook: 5th-10th, Borderline Playoffs. It is hard to get a read on how the Kickers will perform this year. I believe they will be squarely in the thick of things in the battle for the last couple of playoff spots. Taylor will be key to organizing the back line along with Yomby but can Coach Cowlishaw provide Yeisley with help up front?
For an updated Richmond Kickers squad click here.
Rochester Rhinos (2015: 1st Place-48 pts. 2015 USL Champions)
MLS Affiliation: New England Revolution- Affiliation Agreement up to 4 players
Background: How did the Rochester Rhino’s follow up their record setting championship 2015 campaign? With one of the craziest off-season’s in USL history. Former owner Rob Clark had his ownership revoked after he threatened to cease operations due to a fight between the city of Rochester and their termination of the operating lease at Sahlen’s Stadium. Local real estate developers David and Wendy Dworkin, who are minority owners in the Sacramento Kings, agreed to take ownership of the club in early March. Under their agreement they will put more than $1 million in improvements to the stadium including new turf.
Key Players: If you are Head Coach Bob Lilley, how do you follow up a 2015 campaign where your team lost 1 game? You bring back 2015 USL All-League First Team Midfielder Tony Walls, captain of the Rhinos. Walls led the team in minutes played (2,383) while adding four goals and two assists. First Team Defender Grant Van de Casteele returns to anchor a defense that conceded just 15 goals. Christian Volesky led the 2015 Rochester Rhinos in scoring with 19 points from eight goals and three assists, while fellow striker Steevan dos Santos scored eight goals for the club. All in all the Rhinos return 10 members of the 2015 squad. A key loss in defense was Pat McMahon. McMahon who moved to FC Cincinnati, anchored the Right Back position and was second in minutes played.
Season Outlook: 1st-4th, Playoffs. Like most USL managers, 2015 Coach of the Year Bob Lilley finds himself in the situation having to replace a large part of his squad from the previous year. He was able to retain key cogs but will he be able to plug in late arrivals and build another strong team. Though they may slip back in the loss column, I fully expect them to challenge for another title to go along with their previous 2 under Lilley. One thing is for sure, you can expect the Rhinos to be fundamentally sound on defense and pick up opportune goals.
For an updated Rochester Rhinos squad click here.
Fixtures vs. FC Cincinnati: Away- July 6, 7:05 P.M.; Home- August 24, 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.
For our second preview of the Charlotte Independence, FC Montreal, and Harrisburg City Islanders click here.
For our third preview of the Louisville City FC, New York Red Bulls II, and Orlando City B click here.