The 2017 United Soccer League season is finally here as the world's largest Division II league prepares for a banner season. The USL's largest regular season in its history opens with a combined 13 games this Saturday, March 25 (11 games) and Sunday, March 26 (two games). Two of the three expansion sides - Reno 1868 FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies - are making their USL debuts (2017 USL Preview - The Newcomers), while the defending champion New York Red Bulls II open their 2017 campaign on the road against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Here are the USL essentials for the week ahead:
WHERE TO WATCH:
All 480 regular-season games, the 2017 USL Cup Playoffs and the 2017 USL Cup Final can be accessed via USLSoccer.com's Match Center: http://www.uslsoccer.com/match-center
Standings | Statistics | Videos
With kickoff nearing, USLSoccer.com wraps up its team-by-team 2017 previews on Friday. Nicholas Murray takes a detailed look at the 30-team field, position-by-position, targeting strengths and weaknesses, significant player movement and much more:
Eastern Conference: Bethlehem Steel FC, Charleston Battery, Charlotte Independence, FC Cincinnati, Louisville City FC, Orlando City B, Ottawa Fury FC, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Richmond Kickers, Saint Louis FC, Tampa Bay Rowdies (upcoming: Harrisburg City Islanders, New York Red Bulls II, Rochester Rhinos, Toronto FC II)
Western Conference: Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, OKC Energy FC, Orange County SC, Phoenix Rising FC, Portland Timbers 2, Real Monarchs SLC, Reno 1868 FC, Sacramento Republic FC, San Antonio FC, Swope Park Rangers, Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 (upcoming: LA Galaxy II, Rio Grande Valley FC, Seattle Sounders FC 2, Tulsa Roughnecks FC)
TOP FIVE SERIES:
This week, USLSoccer.com is rolling out a recurring Top Five series featuring some of the key players who should play a heavy role toward the success of their respective teams. On Monday, the series kicked off with USL Top Five - Goalkeepers to Watch.
USL NEWS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED:
FourFourTwo: Best 20 Stadiums for Soccer
Charlotte Post: Independence's Kalungi Making Difference in Uganda
USLSoccer.com: USL Ignites Fans' Passion with 'Raise Your Game' Campaign
USL OFFSEASON NEWS ON USLSOCCER.COM:
BUZZING ON SOCIAL:
Phoenix Rising FC (@PHXRisingFC): So what's it going to be like for a player standing at midfield, just before kickoff? Well, we took a guess. #RisingAsOne
San Antonio FC Head Coach Darren Powell (@dpowell6): Solid preseason by @SanAntonioFC players & staff looking fwd to @USL regular season next week!! #keepworkinghard #OurClub #OurCity
Tampa Bay Rowdies (@TampaBayRowdies): Welcome to your new home, Schäfi!
ELSEWHERE IN THE SOCCER WORLD:
USLSoccer.com: Canada U23s Name Squad for Qatar
USLSoccer.com: NYRB II Alum Etienne Joins Haiti National Team
USL WEEK 1 SCHEDULE | RAPID-FIRE PREVIEWS:
Games in order of kickoff times (ET); host team listed first
Saturday, March 25:
Louisville City FC vs. Saint Louis FC, 2 p.m. ET: At Slugger Field in Louisville, the Kings' Cup kicks off the season as City FC hosts Eastern Conference rival Saint Louis FC. STLFC returns to the Eastern Conference for 2017. Saint Louis (8-12-10, 34 points in 2016) has missed the USL Cup Playoffs in its first two seasons but has a revamped roster and the addition of 2014 USL Coach of the Year Preki. In its first two seasons, Louisville reached back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals, posting a 17-4-9 regular-season record in 2016 (60 points). Louisville won the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Kings' Cup, a supporters' group cup recognizing the season victor based on head-to-head regular-season play. (#LOUvSTL)
LA Galaxy II vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2, 5 p.m. ET: At StubHub Center Track & Field Stadium in Carson, Calif., both Western Conference clubs enter 2017 with new head coaches who already have a strong knowledge of their respective rosters from the Academy ranks. Mike Muñoz leads the Galaxy II (12-7-11, 47 points in 2016) and Rich Fagan heads WFC2 (12-9-9, 45 points in 2016) as both clubs look to return to the postseason. (#LAvVAN)
Pittsburgh Riverhounds vs. New York Red Bulls II, 5 p.m. ET: At Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh, the defending USL champion Red Bulls II open their new season on the road. NYRB II (21-3-6, 69 points in 2016) had a record-breaking 2016 that included league records in wins (21), road victories (13), points (69) and goals (61) during the regular season. The Red Bulls II became the first MLS-owned-and-operated USL team to win the 2016 USL Cup Final against the Swope Park Rangers. Pittsburgh (6-17-7, 25 points in 2016) underwent a coaching change last year as Dave Brandt prepares for his first full campaign at the helm in 2017. (#PGHvNY)
Richmond Kickers vs. Harrisburg City Islanders, 5 p.m. ET: At City Stadium in Richmond, Va., the Kickers open their 25th anniversary against longtime rival Harrisburg. Richmond has clinched six consecutive USL Cup Playoffs berths and is coming off a 12-9-9 regular season in 2016. Harrisburg (8-15-7, 31 points in 2016) missed the postseason for a second straight year and tries to find the form that generated USL Cup Final appearances in 2011 and 2014. (#RICvHAR)
Charleston Battery vs. FC Cincinnati, 7 p.m. ET: At MUSC Health Stadium in Charleston, S.C., the Battery host FCC in a rematch of the 2016 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, where Charleston topped expansion Cincinnati 2-1 in front of a USL postseason-record crowd of 30,187 at Nippert Stadium. Charleston is one of two teams to advance to the USL Cup Playoffs in every season since 2011 while Cincinnati looks to follow up a banner first season with new Head Coach Alan Koch leading the club. (#CHSvCIN)
Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Orlando City B, 7:30 p.m. ET: At Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla., the Rowdies will be the first 2017 expansion side to open its USL account when it hosts in-state rival Orlando City B. Second-year OCB (9-13-8, 35 points in 2016) is coming off a postseason-bound campaign during its first year, sneaking into the eighth and final USL Playoffs spot from the Eastern Conference. (#TBRvORL)
Tulsa Roughnecks FC vs. Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, 8 p.m. ET: At ONEOK Field in Tulsa, Okla., the third-year side Switchbacks (14-9-7, 49 points in 2016) are coming off their second straight postseason-clinching campaign, but itching to turn around what was a quick exit from the 2016 USL Cup Playoffs. The host Roughnecks (5-21-4, 19 points in 2016) are attempting to end a 10-game winless streak (0-9-1) to close out last year as Head Coach David Vaudreuil makes his debut for Tulsa. (#TULvCOS)
Swope Park Rangers vs. OKC Energy FC, 8:30 p.m. ET: At Children's Mercy Victory Field in Kansas City, Mo., last year's Western Conference champion Rangers (14-10-6, 48 points in 2016) follow up their strong first season with a home match against OKC, as Nikola Popovic moves from assistant to head coach. OKC (10-7-13, 43 points in 2016) is coming off a second straight postseason campaign that included a dramatic 3-2 comeback win against Rio Grande Valley FC to open the 2016 USL Cup Playoffs. (#SPRvOKC)
Phoenix Rising FC vs. Toronto FC II, 9:30 p.m. ET: At Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex, in Scottsdale Ariz., the newly branded Western Conference side Phoenix (9-14-7, 34 points in 2016) opens up its new venue with a crossover match against the Eastern Conference's TFC II (7-18-5, 26 points). Both clubs are still in search of their first postseason berths, and Phoenix particularly has gone out of its way with big signings such as Chivas de Guadalajara's all-time scoring leader Omar Bravo. (#PHXvTOR)
Reno 1868 FC vs. Orange County SC, 10 p.m. ET: At Greater Nevada Field in Reno, Nev., expansion side Reno, under the direction of Head Coach Ian Russell, opens up its USL account against a newly branded Orange County SC (12-14-4, 40 points in 2016). The former Blues side, which upset top-seeded Sacramento Republic FC to open the 2016 USL Cup Playoffs, features the professional coaching debut of former Chicago Fire midfielder Logan Pause. (#RNOvOC)
Portland Timbers 2 vs. Real Monarchs SLC, 10:30 p.m. ET: At Providence Park in Portland, Ore., the league's hottest team to end the 2016 season in Portland (five-game winning streak) faces the hottest organization to cap off 2015 in the Monarchs (also a five-game winning streak to close out that year). Former MLS Supporters' Shield winner and former New York Red Bulls Head Coach Mike Petke takes the coaching reins for Real (10-14-6, 36 points in 2016) and faces a T2 side (12-4-14, 40 points in 2016) that fell one spot short of clinching a USL Cup Playoffs berth. (#PORvSLC)
Sunday, March 26:
Seattle Sounders FC 2 vs. Sacramento Republic FC, 5 p.m. ET: At Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, Wash., the Western Conference's top regular-season side a year ago Sacramento (14-6-10, 52 points in 2016) hits the road to face the Sounders 2 (9-13-8, 35 points in 2016). It marks a repeat season-opening matchup as Sacramento defeated Seattle 1-0 on March 25, 2016, at Starfire. (#SEAvSAC)
Rio Grande Valley FC vs. San Antonio FC, 7 p.m. ET: At H-E-B Park, Rio Grande Valley FC (14-7-9, 51 points in 2016) opens its much-anticipated state-of-the-art venue in Edinburg, Texas. The nearly 10,000-seat park serves as the landscape of the South Texas Derby between the Toros - who finished second in the Western Conference standings in 2016, and San Antonio FC (10-12-8, 30 points in 2016), which fell just a couple points shy of a postseason slot in the tightly contested West. (#RGVvSA)
About USL: The USL is the world's largest Division II professional soccer league, with 30 markets in 20 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces for the 2017 season. In total, the USL reaches a population of 75 million people, fueling the growth of professional soccer across North America.
In 2016, more than $100 million were invested league-wide into stadium infrastructure to create venues that deliver an unforgettable fan and competitor experience. The USL has national media partnerships with ESPN and SiriusXM, and recently invested $10 million to create USL Productions - which includes a state-of-the-art facility that will produce and distribute nearly 500 league matches and more than 1,000 hours of original content to national partners, local affiliates, USL's Match Center and international markets.
A growing league, the USL has more than doubled in size since 2014, with Ottawa Fury FC, Reno 1868 FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies scheduled to debut in 2017. Nashville SC is the first club set to join the league for 2018. Beyond league play, the USL regularly features international exhibitions against leading Premier League, Liga MX, and Bundesliga clubs, among others.
Headquartered in Tampa, Fla., the USL provides unparalleled club support with a growing team of more than 50 professionals across 17 departments, ranging from operations to marketing, communications and sponsorship. Follow the USL at USLSoccer.com, the USL Match Center, and on social media via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.