This is NOT a Power Ranking
With the start of the USL Season coming around on the 12th of March, it’s time for my formal predictions. Last year, I had my predictions where I was very accurate except for the sudden explosion by Atlanta United 2 and OKC Energy. This year, well, this was much harder to predict.
There are some teams on paper that are much better than others who end up lower on the table. Why? Well, it has everything to do with schedules and how difficult it is. I don’t mean just talent of opponent. It’s all about who teams play, when they play those teams, where they play those teams. It has everything to do with sequencing. We’ll talk about that A LOT, especially with Louisville City, Tampa Bay, and of course, Birmingham.
1. Louisville City FC
I know what you’re thinking. “But Tampa just beat Louisville last year!” “The East runs through Tampa!” “Kaylor, aren’t a Legion fan? Why aren’t you putting them in first?” All fair questions. It’s no question that when it comes to talent and dominance, Tampa and Louisville are your 1a and 1b. So why do I have Louisville in first? Look at the schedule. The SEQUENCING of matches is much more favorable for Louisville. While Tampa has largely the same schedule, I think the sequencing of those harder matches makes the entire difference. You know what to expect from this Danny Cruz team, it’s all about if they play to their abilities.
2. Tampa Bay Rowdies
“Okay, Kaylor. If it’s all about sequencing, why do I see more green and yellow together for the Rowdies than Louisville City?!” Fair. If you notice, I have Tampa and Louisville losing the same amount of games. The difference is ONE draw. You might be able to point at the October 8th draw against Loudon United as an easy win for the Rowdies, but my gut just said it’s a draw. Again, it’s really too early to tell. What I’m getting at here is that one result going differently for either Louisville or Tampa Bay and we have a new first place winner. It’s these two teams, and anybody else winning will probably be a massive shock. Tampa Bay is really good.
3. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
In this next tier of teams, Pittsburgh is the best of rest. What makes Pittsburgh so good? Ever heard of this guy named “Bob Lilley”? Year in, year out, Riverhounds will be some of the best defenses you’ll ever see in the US Soccer-verse. Oh, and they have a couple of stunning faces who will score. Russell Cicerone is one of the best offensive talents in the USL and of course the USL all-time leading scorer Dane Kelly. Their schedule is fairly friendly with no real away trips and all their away games are matches being winnable matches for a team of the caliber of Pittsburgh.
4. Birmingham Legion FC
Why are Legion FC not the “best of the rest?” Check out May 27th-July 16th. This might be the hardest stretch I’ve seen in the USL this year. 8 Matches, 7 (SEVEN) AWAY MATCHES, only 1 (ONE) HOME MATCH.
If you’re wondering why they have that horrible schedule, you can thank the World Games for kicking the 3 Sparks out of their new home… As a biased Legion fan, I am furious about this and very well could cost us some much important seeding, but it’s okay…
Honestly, that is where we find out what Legion are made of. In this stretch, Legion take on the Top 3 teams in the Western Conference, ALL AWAY FROM HOME. In my predictions, there’s only two teams in that stretch that will not make the playoffs (in my opinion), and that’s Atlanta and New York. The rest, it’s a GRIND of a schedule. Don’t be surprised if Legion slide farther than 4.
5. THE Miami FC
Miami FC very well might have the most talent in the East outside of Tampa or Louisville. So, why aren’t they higher? Frankly, I don’t really believe in them yet. Miami always has players and some talent, but never puts it together. I believe that they will be HIGHLY competitive side, but I just don’t know yet. They have talent like Kyle Murphy, my predicted Golden Boot winner, Bolu Akinyode, one of the best defensive midfielders in the USL, and Ben Ofeimu, one of the great young talents in the US. They have all the pieces, but will they put it all together? Who the heck knows.
6. Charleston Battery
Don’t get it twisted, this is a top 4 team in the East. They’re finishing 6th, but that’s not because of talent. Their away games are hard, and following those away games they almost always have a team that’s insanely good at home. They’re going to be competitive. I think that’s OBVIOUS. This just feels like a schedule where they don’t get much of a chance to really get their feet under them. The stretch from July 30th-October 1st seems like the right time to go on a run, but it feels a little bit “too little, too late” to me. Like I said, this team could finish 3rd and I wouldn’t be shocked. The range of 3rd-6th is CLOSE.
7. Memphis 901 FC
This is the beginning of that next tier down. Memphis is a talented team, but they’re not in the same tier as the rest of the playoff teams. They’re sitting in the void of being clear of the teams fighting for playoffs, but they’re not as good as 1-6. Who cares, though? All they need is to get in the playoffs and raise some Cain. They can do that. They have the talent. They have the right coaches. A couple of years ago, 901 was a punchline in the USL. Now? They’re building it right from the ground up. They’re not great, but they’ll be perfectly fine.
T-8. Detroit City FC
Why the tie? Indy and Detroit tried on points, but I have Detroit winning the Head-to-Head, for what it’s worth…
Please don’t kill me, Northern Guard… It’s no secret that the talent of Detroit City (as of writing this article) is below the rest of the playoff teams in the East, but that doesn’t mean that they will not be competitive. Here’s the thing. The top 6 in the USL East are so good that this schedule is near impossible. I could easily see Detroit sneaking in as the 7th seed, overtaking 901, but this schedule and its sequencing is very difficult. That July 23rd-September 3rd is pretty harsh, not really allowing Detroit City to get the ball rolling. Again, we don’t really know yet, but it just feels like they’re sitting right on the bubble.
If you’re looking for a fun player to watch this year for Detroit, Nate Steinwascher very well could be the best keeper in the USL. Keepers tend to move up well, and Steinwascher is way too good for NISA. You’ll be surprised…
T-8 Indy Eleven
Everybody knows that Mark Lowry is an amazing coach. What he did at El Paso was nothing short of remarkable, but there is a real rebuild that needs to happen in Indy. They have some talent, but no real improvements on last year’s squad. The only real way for Indy to get back into the playoffs is to beat some teams along the way and eat on the bottom feeders. Other than that? I don’t know. The schedule is very friendly, especially with their section of April 2nd-May 28th. Should be getting points on all those teams except New Mexico and 901, but it just doesn’t seem like it’s enough to save this squad.
9. FC Tulsa
I’m not happy about putting Tulsa in this 9/10 role. My heart tells me that they’re better than this, but the rest of the East built up and they stayed mostly the same. The biggest known signing was former Legion standout JJ Williams. While Williams is a great player, he’s not going to make up for the pieces lost or not improved on by Tulsa. There is no point of “easy matches” for FC Tulsa. Every single match is followed by a team that is simply better than them, and that sucks for the Black and Gold faithful. But it could be worse, they could be with OKC right now, I guess…
10. Hartford Athletic
We’re starting to get where it’s kinda sad to talk about. Hartford is simply just not good enough. The only reason they were truly competitive was because of goal keeper Jeff Caldwell, who should be considered one of the best, if not THE best keeper in the USL. Well, he left Hartford for Colorado Springs on a free and we’re just waiting to see if the next man up is even serviceable to Caldwell. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true. I hope I’m wrong for Hartford faithful’s sake, but… I don’t think I am…
11. Atlanta United 2
I did this last year. I predicted Atlanta United 2 to be horrific, and what did they do? They had the most bipolar season I’ve ever seen. Their star man Aidan McFadden is still with the club but players like Macky Diop has left to Birmingham, Josh Bauer looks like a staple for Nashville SC’s future, and Caleb Wiley is scoring for Atlanta United Senior. Aidan is all alone to try and carry this club again. Last year they were a surprise team, but all those aces up the sleeve are gone.
Atlanta United, call up Aidan McFadden because it honestly just makes me depressed to see this good of a talent wasting away in this horrible United 2 side…
12. New York Red Bulls II
Gone are the days of “Baby Bulls” running the USL and having arguably the best team in USL history. This team is a shell of its former self. I mean, the talent on those old teams were absolutely nutty, but now it’s time to put this team on Wooden Spoon watch. I’m sure Red Bull is going to have some star come through and tear up the league, but he’ll be called up the moment he shows potential and the Baby Bulls will be left behind. They could be great, but it’s not likely.
13. Loudon United
I, for one, am shocked that Loudon are in this situation.
Okay, I’m not that shocked. They’re giving FC Cincinnati a real run for their money on wooden kitchen utensils. Loudon went out and have a real flurry of signings and announcements, and then just went silent. Why? I don’t know. Sometimes I think Loudon hates winning.
But on the bright side, this is a 2 point improvement on last year! Congratulations, Loudon.