The staff of Cincinnati Soccer Talk along with friends Evan Villella (@villellaBSFC) of the USL Show, Matt Cox (@UnSub_Matt) of the Unused Substitutes Podcast, and Harry Austin (@ramincol) have put together a WAY-TOO-EARLY preseason ranking for the USL Eastern Conference. While there are many changes still to come with each club, we thought this could be a fun exercise on where the squads stand now and where we project they could finish at the end of the season.
These rankings will be updated every few weeks from now until the end of the season. We hope you enjoy this fun experiment and that only Lousiville fans are offended.
WAY-TOO-EARLY USL Eastern Conf. Power Rankings
1. Tampa Bay Rowdies (7 First Place Votes)
This is a logical preseason favorite for 2018. Tampa Bay seemed to add to an already loaded roster with the additions for former NYRB II players Junior Flemmings and David Najem, Jochen Graf (Rochester), Lance Rozeboom (Ottawa) among others. The Rowdies look two deep at every position including keeper where they added Cody Mizell (Charlotte/Colorado Rapids), arguably one of the best keepers in the USL in 2017. If Head Coach Stuart Campbell can figure out the Rowdies road woes, Joe Cole & Marcel Schafer may be able to hoist their final piece of silverware in their illustrious careers.
2. FC Cincinnati (5)
What club can surpass the “hype” of FC Cincinnati going into 2018? A roster overhaul that will now feature the likes of NASL Best XI members Emmanuel Ledesma (NY Cosmos) and Nazmi Albadawi (NCFC), NASL Champions Tommy Heinemann and Tyler Gibson, and USL Best XI defender Forrest Lasso should contend if the group can “gel” from day one. FCC coach Alan Koch has taken a different style in assembling this group. As in the case of many USL squads who snatch up former “2” team players, USL vets, or MLS cast-offs, Koch went to find in-form NASL, foreign-located and some USL starters for 2018. The big question will be the defense. Can Lasso, Dekel Keinan (Maccabi Haifa), Lance Laing (NCFC) and others be rock solid from the beginning?
3. Louisville City FC (1)
This was perhaps one of the most well-coach and disciplined sides in 2017 and they should carry that over into the new season. Coach James O’Connor will need to fill one starting spot on his back line and that is about it for 2018. LCFC has one of the best “next man up” mentalities in the USL and they will be tough from the get-go. The only reason why they are in a close third is their lack of quality offseason moves. If they sign a quality CB, they absolutely could pop to the top of this list. Tampa, Cincinnati, Nashville and Pittsburgh have all seemed to improve dramatically in the offseason. Will last year’s formula work to get a 2nd championship or will they come up short by staying pat?
4. Nashville SC
This group was in the top-5 on every ballot, but only in the top-3 twice. Like Cincinnati, this group will have to gel fast, but without any carryover players, will the team be able to have an identity early on? This group has the potential to be one of the best defenses early on with London Woodberry (New England Revolution), Justin Davis (Minnesota United), Liam Doyle (Swope Park) and Matt Pickens (Tampa Bay) between the sticks. The big question is, will this offense capable enough to produce at an elite level? Midfielders Matt LaGrassa (Reno), Michael Reed (SAFC) and others will be able to get them the ball, but will Michael Cox (OCB), Tucker Hume (Ottawa), Ropapa Mensah (Harrisburg) and Robin Shroot (IL Hødd) capitalize on these chances.
5. Pittsburgh Riverhounds
I feel like all I need to write is “Bob Lilley” and I can move on. The USL legend is now at the helm of the Riverhounds with a bigger budget and more attractive city in Pittsburgh. Lilley has brought in five players from Rochester, but none bigger than former USL Second Team midfielder Kenardo Forbes. Forbes will line up in front of CB Joe Greenspan (Minnesota United) and behind forward Romeo Parkes to make a better than average spine of the team. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the lineup forms, but Lilley is notorious for finding hidden talents.
6. Charlotte Independence
This group was ranked all over the map being as low as 10th (twice) and high as fourth. Based on past experience, any roster with the Martinez brothers (Alex & Enzo) will be tough in the USL. The ageless wonder Jorge Herrera returns for his fourth season with the club and is always a threat up top. One of the more blue-collar and physical teams of the USL, they are always a tough out and I expect them to battle until the end of 2018. However, this could be the year their luck runs out with many clubs bringing on more technically gifted personnel.
7. New York Red Bulls II
Will the Baby Bulls pull off a Galaxy 2 of 2017 or will they continue to bring through what seems to be an endless supply of talent? We probably won’t know the exact roster until later in the preseason, but you can expect to see plenty of Andrew Tinari in the midfield. I would also venture a guess that we will also see youngster Ben Mines, forward Stefano Bonomo and possibly Florian Valot. Many questions still need to be asked, but without returning a large core from 2017, it’s safe to expect the Baby Bulls to drop off a bit.
8. North Carolina FC
This is another group that the jury is still out on. One panelist ranked the NASL-crossover 13th, while several had the group as high as 5th. NCFC has not wowed anyone with their signings, yet. However, they will bring at least five members back from their 2017 NASL squad. Their biggest pickup has been Michael Harrington from the Chicago Fire. This was a big money for for a USL club as he was contracted at $135,000 for 2017. Several questions are who starts in goal for NCFC? Their top 2 keepers moved on in 2016 and it could fall on Austin Guerrero (Alianza FC) or the re-signed George Marks. Who will also start up top? Their only forward played for Creighton this past fall, so this is a group who could improve quickly.
9. Bethlehem Steel FC
Steel FC made some waves in the offseason with the signings of USL Cup MVP Brandon Allen and former RSL midfielder Omar Holness. That momentum continued with the signing of former 1st Round MLS Draft pick Brandon Aubrey for Toronto FC. Coach Brendan Burke will have to contend with call-ups and loans by the Philadelphia Union, but he does have a foundation in the midfield in captain James Chambers. You will most likely see MLS Draft picks Mike Catalano, Aidan Apodaca (NCAA D2 PoY), and Matt Danilack in the Lehigh Valley, along with Santi Moar and Chris Nanco. Should be a competitive side with high upside. If Holness can be close to 100% they could be a contender.
10. Charleston Battery
This is side who’s departures have overshadowed the new signings. The losses of Forrest Lasso, Romario Williams, Heviel Cordoves, Justin Portillo and Maikel Chang will be tough to overcome in 2018. New forward Ian Svantesson did score 10 goals for Tulsa in 2017, but will he be able to click on day one in the Battery system. I can see this club as a late bloomer with a playoff charge, but don’t see them contending without some luck.
11. Indy Eleven
Martin Rennie passes to Martin Rennie, who dishes it to Martin Rennie, who heads it home. While that may not be accurate, the new skipper will have to put a squad together unless he wants to play 1 v 11. It seems as if this club has undergone a huge culture change with almost the entire 2017 roster being released or not extended a contract after switching from the NASL. Why aren’t these guys #16? Well, signing Rennie was huge for the club and his name alone should at least draw interest from some pros. I’d expect a young roster vs. 2017 with Rennie finding some unsigned talent.
12. Ottawa Fury FC
Ottawa has had an impressive offseason adding two starters, Maxim Tissot and Nana Attakora, from the 2017 NASL Champion San Francisco Deltas. Winger Kevin Olivera was added from Sporting KC and in a stunning move, Montreal Impact loaned goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau to the Fury. How does he stack up from starter Callum Irving? New coach Nikola Popovic brought back 10 players from 2017, so it seems as they can only go up. If they do indeed improve, they should be able to contend for spots 5-8 out of the East.
13. Richmond Kickers
Richmond coach Leigh Cowlishaw brought back 12 players from a dismal 2017 campaign. The additions of Austin Yearwood (Charlotte) and Heviel Cordoves should improve the club, but are they adding enough quality in comparison to the other clubs in the league? They will always make for a tough game in City Stadium and therefore should gain some points at home. The key addition for the Kickers is aging forward Brian Shriver. The 2013 NASL Golden Boot & Bext XI member brings a wealth of talent and experience to the club. He should be good for 8-12 goals in 2018, which may give them a shot to clinch a final playoff spot.
14. ATL UTD 2
A numbers battle could determine the roster for ATL UTD 2. The parent club has 13 international players for 8 spots, so it seems logical 4-5 players could be dropped down to the USL side. Jon Gallagher and Gordon Wild could be dropped due to their age while Oliver Shannon is in camp without an MLS contract. Romario Williams may be given a shot, but I’d think you may see him traded or kept on United in MLS. There are rumors Mitch Hildebrandt could be in line for some appearances, but I’m not sure we can say for certain he will be the “2” teams starter. Too many unknowns to give a higher grade, but with the talent on the parent roster, Utd 2 can’t be too far off from being a D2 power.
15. Penn FC
It’s a two months before season and these guys still don’t have anything but a landing page on pennfc.com. The team formerly known as the Harrisburg City Islanders used to be a USL power. The past several seasons and an owner change leave us to think not much good can come from this side. Honestly, I thought they may improve in 2018 with some talented youngsters but the loss of Ropapa Mensah and uncertainty of the remaining 2017 group leave little hope. Good luck to their fans.
16. Toronto FC II
Do we really need a reason for this ranking? Their is talent in Ontario, but the quick leash on several youngsters saw a squad constantly in flux and missing several key piece. The midfield of Malik Johnson, Liam Fraser and Luca Uccello is average in the league. I’m not sure if they can make it about 10th place for 2018.