I assigned each returning team in USL-Pro a letter grade based on how impressed I’ve been with its off-season/preseason up to this point (the morning of February 28). Tell me why you think my grades are completely arbitrary.
Austin da Luz, Yordany Alvarez, Corey Hertzog, Brad Rusin, Carl Woszczynski
An MLS Homegrown player with quality NASL experience. A former player returning with a wealth of experience from his two year stint at a model MLS club. A young forward who lit up USL-Pro in 2012. A ball-playing defender who made 16 starts for Vancouver last year despite a number of serious injuries. A third year goalkeeper who could make a case to start anywhere else in the league.
Orlando City is also returning starting goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo, defenders Luke Boden and Rob Valentino, ball-winner Adama Mbengue, playmaker Kevin Molino, and forward Dennis Chin. While Jamie Watson’s move to Minnesota United FC of NASL is a loss, head coach Adrian Heath could not promise the midfielder the amount of playing time he wanted which suggests Orlando will be just fine.
Honestly, it’s hard to look past Orlando City based on the team’s track record and the impressive arsenal Heath has assembled for the Lions’ victory lap through USL-Pro in 2014 before joining MLS next year.
Orlando City: A+
As for the rest of the league…
Odeen Domingo clued us in that Phoenix FC has been unable to sign new players because of outstanding debt from 2013 player salaries. Not a good look, guys.
Phoenix FC: F
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds, after an off-season of discussing lofty ambitions, is returning at least 12 players including 2013 All League First Team-ers Jose Angulo and Matt Dallman. Add to that mix midfield bruiser Anthony Obodai, who played with Phoenix last year, and versatile forward Joseph Ngwenya, who played 6 years in MLS but most recently in Richmond. Considering that the ‘Hounds have yet to receive its 4 loanees from Houston Dynamo, the team has had quite the off-season. Pittsburgh is a club on the up and easily looks like a play-off team.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds: A
After a downright awful 2013 campaign, head coach Bob Lilley has the task of building a Rochester Rhinos squad that can once again challenge in the postseason. Indicative of the wholesale roster clearing, Rochester is only returning a handful of players from last year: Tyler Rosenlund, JC Banks, Mike Reidy, Lance Rozeboom, and Matt Luzunaris. Pierre Rudolph Mayard was penciled in for 2014 and goalkeeper Alex Horwath was signed for this campaign but both have since signed for other clubs. Rochester has brought in defender Kyle Hoffer, who played with VSI Tampa Bay FC Flames last year, and rookie goalkeeper John McCarthy but has so far lacked other notable acquisitions though hopes are high for this year’s loanees from New England.
Rochester Rhinos: D
The biggest news from Wilmington leading up to the 2014 season has not been related to player signings. Under a new majority owner, the club announced a rebranding, naming themselves Wilmington Hammerheads FC, and reached an affiliation partnership with Toronto FC. Wilmington is bringing back a handful of key players like Cody Arnoux and Tom Parratt while also acquiring defender Troy Cole and Maryland stand-out Sunny Jane. The team may be affected by Gareth Evans moving to expansion side Oklahoma City.but could very easily improve over last year.
Wilmington Hammerheads FC: C+
Richmond Kickers has not been very active so far, at least not publicly. The team generated some buzz when a number of players joined affiliate D.C. United on its off-season tour of Indonesia. On a technical side, the club consolidated its youth academy structure by combining operations with the Richmond Strikers youth club. On the player side, the Kickers have brought back veteran midfielder Luke Vercollone who has been with the club since 2008. Last year Richmond benefited considerably from the players that D.C. United sent on loan, expect the same this season. D.C. announced on Thursday that goalkeeper Joe Willis, homegrown signing Collin Martin, and Haitian forward Christiano Francois.
Richmond Kickers: B-
Orange County Blues FC, formerly Los Angeles Blues, have been quiet aside from its much-needed rebranding. It is important that the club has announced a single home venue for the upcoming season as the team has played at as many as four different locations in previous years. The club has so far announced the return of forward Chris Cortez and midfielder Gabriel Gonzalez. OC Blues FC may face some increased competition for players with LA Galaxy II setting up shop nearby, but the club finally has the west coast rivals that have been missing from its first three years in the league.
Orange County Blues FC: C
Harrisburg City Islanders was a surprise package last year but several key figures from that squad have moved on. Andrew Ribeiro, Sainey Touray, and Lucky Mkosana have all signed with teams in higher divisions. The players on loan from Philadelphia Union combined for 55 appearances in 2013 and as the relationship between the two clubs has only grown stronger, expect a similar or increased contribution this year. While two other clubs have unveiled a new look, Harrisburg still uses its monstrosity of a palm tree image.
Harrisburg City Islanders: C-
Dayton Dutch Lions has brought back several key figures from its 2013 playoff run and is well on its well to establishing a brand within the American soccer landscape. Joel DeLass, Shintaro Harada, Shane Smith, and Eric Kissinger will return to the field for Dayton in 2014. Rookie signing David Clemens comes from FC Tuscon, a top PDL club, winger Cameron Vickers moved from Phoenix FC, and midfielder Sebastien Thuriere was a regular for VSI Tampa Bay FC Flames last year. This year Dayton will also benefit from a group of loaned players from the Columbus Crew, as well.
Dayton Dutch Lions: B
Charlotte Eagles has lost a number of key players: goalkeeper Eric Reed to other career options, defender Fejiro Okiomah to Chivas USA, and forward Christian Ramirez to Minnesota United FC. Charlotte Eagles has returned a number of key players: midfielders Matt Gold, Ben Newnam, Jorge Herrera, and Drew Yates. Charlotte Eagles has brought in a number of key players: forward David Geno, goalkeeper Doug Herrick, and defenders Richard Dixon, Jonathan Leathers, and Bilal Duckett. As the Eagles enter its final season as a professional soccer club, the player transaction balance appears to be in the team’s favor.
Charlotte Eagles: B+
Charleston Battery has long been one of the model clubs of lower division American soccer. Without breaking the bank, head coach Michael Anhaeuser consistently puts quality teams on the field. Though attacking midfield talisman Nikki Paterson has moved to Ottawa Fury FC of NASL, the Battery has retained the services of most of the 2013 squad. Jamaican forward Dane Kelly, Cuban goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper, and captain defender Colin Falvey highlight the list of returning players for the upcoming season. Charleston is assured of an early preseason due to the Carolina Challenge Cup against MLS teams, which can smoothly translate into confident preparedness once the USL-Pro season rolls around.
Charleston Battery: A-