As we previously reported, the USL Championship has announced new divisional alignments for this season’s play. From 2015 until 2019, the league had played under Eastern and Western Conference alignments (before expansion in 2015 a single table was used). That changed last year due to COVID, and the league was hastily rearranged into 8 regional groups with almost no regular season play outside those groups.
Earlier this year, the league announced it would organize under four divisions, two in each conference. Many expected these to be grouped with north and south divisions in each conference. Instead, they opted to align as near as possible to the four U.S. mainland time zones. That seems an odd choice, since travel costs are not necessarily minimized that way, especially out west. It’s not great in the new Atlantic division either: Hartford and Miami will have to visit each other twice, for example. At least there isn’t a team in Portland (the real one in Maine, that is. Or the weird one in Oregon either, for that matter).
Atlanta United 2 for this season is shifting time zones to the Central. Stephen Glass will have to remind his players that does not mean they get to stay up an hour later, though. It also means that, barring non-divisional games, the 2s will not face any teams they were grouped with last year (Tampa, Charlotte and Miami). They will also get to play two teams they have never previously played: Oklahoma City and Tulsa are being moved to the Eastern Conference as a result of expansion and contraction in various USL cities.
So who are the 2s facing this year, and what can we expect from them? Let’s do the rundown:
Birmingham Legion FC
First alphabetically and best known to myself as a Hoover, Alabama resident and Legion season ticket holder is Birmingham. The Legion played both United teams last year, including a pre-season friendly against the first team before everything went sideways. They entered the league in 2019, making the playoffs in both their first two seasons. The 2019 team was strong defensively, but anemic in attack. The latter was boosted in 2020, and has been further strengthened this year, and the team is hungry to advance further in the playoffs this season. Players to watch include Brazilian Bruno Lapa (team MVP and All-League first team selection in his rookie season), goalscorer Neco Brett and defender and captain Mikey Lopez. The team also features recognizable names in Anderson Asiedu and JJ Williams.
Originally the Tulsa Roughnecks, the team changed its name last season under new ownership. The most interesting thing about this team is probably its new logo, which is one of the more attractive and meaningful ones in US soccer. Over 6 seasons the team has not been very successful, reaching the playoffs only twice. But that includes last season, when they finished second (albeit distantly) in a 5-team group. They reached the conference quarterfinals, losing on penalties to El Paso. The team typically plays a 4-2-3-1 in a wide press. They don’t have many well-known names, the major exception being newly-signed forward Jerome Kiesewetter, who has two senior USMNT caps. Also familiar would be their goalkeeping coach, long-time MLS stalwart Donovan Ricketts.
Most readers will know Indy mostly as Andrew Carleton’s landing site last year, and perhaps slightly less so as Gordon Wild’s new club this year. After 2 seasons in the NASL, Indy joined the USL in 2018. Their most successful season was 2016, when they finished runner-up in the NASL. Last year they failed to qualify for the playoffs, finishing 3rd in Group E. The Eleven plays a largely conservative style under head coach Martin Rennie (once head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps), but their game this year will be difficult to predict as they lost their target striker Tyler Pasher to the Houston Dynamo in January.
Louisville City FC
Louisville is probably the favorite to win the division. Despite being managed for several seasons by James O’Connor, in its 6 years the team has never finished lower than the conference semi-finals and has been champion twice and runner-up once. They were runaway winners of Group E in 2020. The team has a literal embarrassment of riches, it seems: they are playing in the brand-new Lynn Family Stadium and also have a new team, Racing Louisville, starting play in the NWSL this year. The team has no real stand-out players, but as a group they simply overpower opponents. They are also stingy in defense: over a total of 19 games in 2020 they allowed just 13 goals.
Memphis 901 FC
Memphis joined the league along with Birmingham in 2019 and are their main rivals. They finished dead last in Group G last year, and 15th of 18 in the Eastern Conference in 2019. The 901 made news last year when part-owner Tim Howard announced he would play for them. He subsequently got pummeled for 3 goals by the Legion in his first game and ended up making just 6 appearances. The team is a total dark horse this year: after firing head coach Tim Mulqueen late last season, they still don’t have a permanent head coach and the official team roster currently features a whopping 2 players.
OKC Energy FC
Also moving from the Western Conference is Oklahoma City, obvious rivals of FC Tulsa (although the teams at one time shared partial ownership). They were 4th of 5 in Group D last season, winning just 1 game. The team has been on a slow decline since entering the USL Championship in 2015, finishing worse almost every year since its 2nd place in 2015. They have not made the playoffs since 2017. Don’t expect much from them in 2021. Only one name on the roster sticks out: long-time former MLSer Atiba Harris. And he’s 36.
Sporting KC II
Swope Park Rangers was such a more interesting name. SKC2 is another struggling franchise: they were last in Group E in 2020 (the entirety of Group E is in the Central Division, except the now-defunct Saint Louis FC). That made them 12th overall in the conference, which was at least a step up from dead last in 2019. There is a possibility they will develop a rivalry with OKC, as the latter was SKC’s original USL affiliate. MLS affiliate teams are always tough to predict, and SKC2 is much like our own 2s: they have a sprinkling of international loanees but mostly younger SKC academy graduates, including Iranian twins Kaveh and Jahon Rad.