TAMPA, Fla. – The 2016 season will see another step up in competition on the field in the USL, which in the past 12 months has seen the league’s players feature in both CONCACAF World Cup Qualification and the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Players who have competed in the USL represented both the United States and Canada at the full, U23 and U20 levels internationally in the past 12 months, highlighting the outstanding talent throughout the league.
The 2015 USL Playoffs also featured an outstanding level of competition in both the Eastern and Western Conferences. Five of the league’s 11 playoff games last fall needed at least overtime to be settled, including the thrilling 2015 USL Championship, which saw the Rochester Rhinos score deep in second-half stoppage time to equalize against the LA Galaxy II before going on to win 2-1 in overtime.
The heightened quality of USL players and teams was also reflected both in the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which saw a record 12 USL clubs advance to face MLS opposition in the Fourth Round, and this offseason, when 15 USL standouts were signed by MLS clubs ahead of the new season, a record number in the league’s five-year history.
The level of coaching within the league is also continuing to rise, as veteran USL Hall of Famers like Charleston’s Mike Anhaeuser and Rochester’s Bob Lilley are joined by those who bring outstanding playing and coaching experience to their new positions. Arizona United SC will be led by two-time MLS Coach of the Year Frank Yallop in 2016, highlighting the club’s heightened ambition. Former MLS and U.S. Youth National Team Coach Wilmer Cabrera takes the reins at expansion side Rio Grande Valley FC, while U.S. Soccer legend and National Soccer Hall of Famer John Harkes will lead the way for FC Cincinnati in its first season in the league.
The USL’s 2016 regular season schedule features a 435-game slate kicking off on March 25. The 2016 USL Regular Season will be staged over 27 weeks, with the final day of the season set for September 25. The USL’s 29 teams are divided into two conferences – Eastern and Western – with each team playing 30 games:
Eastern Conference Western Conference
Bethlehem Steel FC Arizona United SC
Charleston Battery Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Charlotte Independence LA Galaxy II
FC Cincinnati OKC Energy FC
FC Montreal Orange County Blues FC
Harrisburg City Islanders Portland Timbers 2
Louisville City FC Real Monarchs SLC
New York Red Bulls II Rio Grande Valley FC
Orlando City B Sacramento Republic FC
Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saint Louis FC
Richmond Kickers San Antonio FC
Rochester Rhinos Seattle Sounders FC 2
Toronto FC II Swope Park Rangers
Wilmington Hammerheads FC Tulsa Roughnecks FC
Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2
The top eight teams from the Eastern Conference and Western Conference will advance to the 2016 USL Playoffs, with four weeks of postseason action set to crown the league’s next champion. The fixed-seed format concludes with the USL Championship, which is held at the venue of the conference champion with the best regular season record.
There will be 11 USL teams owned and operated by MLS clubs and nine USL-MLS affiliations among the 29 USL clubs.
USL clubs will again be strongly represented in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup after 2015’s remarkable success continued a tradition of strong performances throughout the years by USL clubs. The USL’s Rochester Rhinos are the last non-MLS team to win the U.S. Open Cup (1999) and the USL’s Charleston Battery were the last non-MLS team to advance to the Final (2008), while teams like the Richmond Kickers (2011 semifinals), Harrisburg City Islanders (2012 quarterfinals) and Orlando City SC (2013 quarterfinals) have all made remarkable runs in recent seasons.
- Luke Vercollone, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC – A standout midfielder for the Richmond Kickers in years past, Vercollone had an exceptional season to lead the Switchbacks to the playoffs in their inaugural season. The 2015 Most Valuable Player finalist is back to lead a deep squad that will likely be a major contender in the West.
- Danni König, OKC Energy FC – The Danish forward had a brilliant first season for Energy FC after being brought in by compatriot Jimmy Nielsen last offseason, as he recorded 21 goals, earned a nomination for MVP in the USL regular season and helped OKC reach the Western Conference Final of the 2015 USL Playoffs.
- Shawn Ferguson, Charleston Battery – The powerful center back earned his first All-League selection in 2015 as he marshalled a defense that gave up only 28 goals in 28 games during the regular season. After training this offseason with the Houston Dynamo, Ferguson will be one to watch again in a strong Battery squad.
- Kharlton Belmar, Portland Timbers 2 – The 2015 USL Rookie of the Year recorded 12 goals in his first season for T2, as his speed and positioning provided Portland with a central point of attack. As he enters his second season, Belmar will be looking to lead T2 to their first playoff berth
- Kevin Kerr, Pittsburgh Riverhounds – After finishing tied for second in the USL with nine assists a season ago, Kerr will lead a good Riverhounds squad into the new season looking to build on its return to the playoffs a year ago. The Scottish standout teamed with new D.C. United signing Rob Vincent to create a dynamic duo a season ago, but will have plenty of back-up at Highmark Stadium this season.
New Faces, New Places
- Brandon Miller, Orange County Blues FC – The 2015 USL Goalkeeper of the Year headed west after claiming a championship with the Rochester Rhinos a season ago. After a record-setting season that saw Miller record 13 shutouts, and post a 0.54 goals-against average, he joins a squad that finished at the top of the Western Conference standings in 2015, and is looking for playoff success this year.
- Dane Kelly, Swope Park Rangers – The USL’s all-time leading scorer with 42 goals in five seasons, Kelly became part of expansion side Swope Park Rangers after a standout stint with the Charleston Battery. The Jamaican has recorded double-digit goals in each of the past three seasons, and with former Austin Aztex standout Kris Tyrpak alongside him should spearhead a formidable attack for Coach Marc Dos Santos.
- George Davis IV, Louisville City FC – The three-time All-League selection headed to Louisville this offseason after two good seasons with the Richmond Kickers, and will look to help City push to even greater heights after a remarkable inaugural season. After reaching the Eastern Conference Final a season ago, Davis and fellow newcomer Chandler Hoffman are major additions to a club with big aspirations for 2016, and beyond.
- Austin Berry, FC Cincinnati – The 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year returned home to Cincinnati to lead what appears to be a strong expansion side into its inaugural season. Berry was the centerpiece when the club unveiled its first signings in club history, and will be a key part of a defense that has a number of good pieces to build around as John Harkes makes his professional coaching debut.
- Evan Newton, Sacramento Republic FC – A finalist for USL Goalkeeper of the Year a season ago, Newton was signed this offseason by Sacramento to replace Chicago Fire signing Patrick McLain. After helping Energy FC make a strong run to the Western Conference Final, including heroics in a conference semifinal penalty shootout win against Colorado Springs, Republic FC will look to Newton to backstop a re-tooled side that will take aim at a second championship in three seasons this year.