The 2018 USL season has begun, marking the start of a campaign that comes with plenty of intrigue for the Division II circuit.
Over the offseason, there was plenty of change within the USL. Two clubs—North Carolina FC and Indy Eleven—joined from the NASL after that circuit failed to obtain Division II sanctioning for 2018. The USL also welcomed four expansion clubs in Atlanta United 2, Fresno FC, Las Vegas Lights FC, and Nashville SC. There were a few losses—Orlando City B and the Rochester Rhinos will not field teams in 2018, while Vancouver Whitecaps 2 has folded—but that still gives the USL a 33-club, two-conference alignment for this season.
All four expansion clubs will play their home matches at existing Minor League Baseball venues. However, Nashville SC moved its March 24 home opener to Nissan Stadium—home of the NFL’s Titans—to accommodate high demand for tickets. With Nashville’s MLS expansion bid having already received formal league approval, Nashville SC will be closely watched in 2018.
Fresno FC played its opening match at Chukchansi Park on Saturday, with over 7,700 fans turning out for the club’s 3-2 loss to Las Vegas. Though the on-field result may have been disappointing, the strong support from the club’s fan base could be a good sign as it moves forward with its inaugural season.
Another new development that should be watched closely is the new arrangement for Sounders 2, which now plays its home matches in Tacoma. MLS’s Seattle Sounders will supply the players and coaches, while the business operations will be overseen by baseball’s Tacoma Rainiers (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League). The goal is to eventually move Sounders 2 into a new soccer-specific venue in Tacoma, but for now the club will share Cheney Stadium with the Rainiers. Sounders 2 made its Tacoma debut on Friday, when 6,049 fans turned out for a 2-1 victory over Portland.
On the stadium front, one of the USL’s most notable development comes in Herriman, Utah. This season will be Real Monarchs’ first in Zions Bank Stadium, a 5,000-seat stadium designed to USL standards. Zions Bank Stadium is part of the larger Zions Bank Real Academy, which will serve the entire Real Salt Lake organization, and is scheduled to host its first USL match on April 30.
Of course, the more established USL teams will have their own storylines to follow. Clubs such as FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic FC—both of which are making pitches for an MLS expansion slot—will look to continue their strong track records on the attendance front. Sacramento played its home opener on Saturday, drawing a crowd of 11,569 to its win over San Antonio.
In another market with MLS aspirations, Phoenix Rising FC will look to build on its recent momentum. An extensive rebranding and move to a new pop-up stadium brought the club to new heights in 2017, and it will try to expand upon that success in 2018.
These storylines certainly add another layer of intrigue to the 2018 USL season, and should allow the league to attract attention both on and off the field.
Image courtesy Nashville SC.
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