Members of El Paso Locomotive FC supporters group 8th Notch were part of a sellout crowd at Southwest University Park on Saturday night. | Photo courtesy Jorge Salgado / El Paso Locomotive FC
By now, you’ll almost certainly be aware of the historic attendance that populated venues across the league during Week 1 of the 2019 USL Championship season.
What you might not be aware of is what the 91,425 fans that attended games – the most in an opening weekend in the league’s history – represent in the bigger picture.
To get that context we’re going to go back five years. It’s 2014 and Sacramento Republic FC and OKC Energy FC have just joined the league, bringing new, vibrant fanbases to the Championship as part of its expansion class. So, how many games were there on that opening weekend of the season?
The Charleston Battery hosted Orlando City SC and the LA Galaxy II made their debut at home to Orange County SC on the first Saturday of the season. In all, just over 610,000 fans attended games in that regular season. By contrast, this past weekend’s action accounted for 15 percent of that total and there were more games played (17) over the past three days that there were teams in the Championship (14) in 2014. It’s a sign of how far this league has come in a relatively short space of time that those numbers stand out as strongly as they do.
For those of us that remember those days, 2014 was the catalyst that showed the way the league could be if it pursued the right course. Sacramento’s sellout crowds at what is now Papa Murphy’s Park and the experienced ownership groups at both Republic FC and Energy FC changed perceptions at other front offices within the league and gave potential investors a new vision of what the USL could bring to its city.
With sellout crowds welcoming new teams in El Paso, Memphis, and Albuquerque on Saturday night and in Birmingham on Sunday, the future that was promised is now here, with the work put in by the USL’s leadership of CEO Alec Papadakis and President Jake Edwards having shaped what is now a thriving league. There’s still farther to go – what’s that saying, the league’s best days remain ahead of us? – but at times like this it’s important to recognize how far the Championship has already come.
Onto this week’s 18.
1. As far as the league has come since 2014 – when Sacramento became the last side to win USL Cup as an expansion side – the point that being an expansion side is likely going to come with growing pains persisted. The Championship’s seven newcomers posted an 0-5-2 record with only New Mexico United and Austin Bold FC getting off the mark with draws in their inaugural contests.
2. What a show it was for New Mexico United, though. The highest attendance of the weekend saw 12,896 fans pack into Isotopes Park, and a goal that deserved to go down in history by first signing and Albuquerque native Devon Sandoval from all of 30 yards. Moments like that are exactly why this game is so great, and it’s one that everyone who saw it live in the stands will remember for a long time, as it will for Sandoval himself. “I’ve played in a lot of big games, this one was special,” Sandoval said. “Extremely proud to be a part of this.”
3. The other three teams to host their inaugural home openers weren’t as fortunate as New Mexico, but while the result might sting for those associated with Birmingham Legion FC, El Paso Locomotive FC and Memphis 901 FC, there was much to be pleased about as they each made their marks in their respective markets. These new clubs are taking the lessons they’ve learned elsewhere, combining them with the institutional knowledge they can acquire from other Championship clubs and their local leadership, which is leading to great fan experiences from opening night.
4. If you only get one chance to make a good first impression, Dave Sarachan whetted the appetites of North Carolina FC fans in what might have been the most eye-catching result on a busy Saturday. Putting four goals past defending USL Cup champion Louisville City FC adds to the idea that Sarachan’s hire might have been the biggest this offseason by a Championship club as he led a side with seven players from last season’s squad that missed the postseason and put together a solid plan for victory.
5. On the flipside, you really might not want to be in the shoes of ATL UTD 2, Louisville’s host in its next outing on Friday night, after this assessment of his side from LouCity captain Paolo DelPiccolo. “I think it was an extremely disappointing night from front to back. I thought we had chances to score early in the game and we didn’t take them. How we gave up four counter attacks and let them score four goals is super disappointing, super embarrassing for us to lose a game in this fashion. I think everyone has to step it up because this was completely unacceptable.”
6. That said, ATL UTD 2 put in their own solid display to pick up victory in its first game of the season for a second consecutive year. Adding to the symmetry? Jon Gallagher scored a brace for the side when it defeated the New York Red Bulls II in 2018 and bagged the opening goal against Hartford at Atlanta’s new home of Fifth Third Bank Stadium. Head Coach Stephen Glass will be hoping this year’s opening isn’t a false dawn as last year’s opening win proved, but with a group of players in the squad that’s a year older and wiser hope might be rising.
7. You know who’s getting pretty good at this home opener thing? Saint Louis FC. Saturday marked a third consecutive year the side had taken victory on home turf to start off the season. And what’s more, the 2-1 comeback victory came against an Indy Eleven lineup whose starting lineup has it projected among the East’s USL Cup contenders.
Over the course of his first season in charge, Saint Louis seemed to begin to take on the playing persona of Head Coach Anthony Pulis, who in his day was a fine central midfielder equally as adept at winning possession as distributing. It’s that willingness to put in the dirty work that was rewarded for Saint Louis on Saturday as it persisted to keep plays alive in the attacking end and got the payoff in goals by Phanuel Kavita and Russell Cicerone in its 2-1 victory.
8. I wonder if Cicerone scoring the winner against three of his more heralded former FC Cincinnati teammates on Indy’s squad – Evan Newton, Paddy Barrett & Kenney Walker – added to the pleasure of grabbing a goal on his debut for STLFC?
9. Speaking of debut performances, Juan Tejada’s for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in their 1-0 win against Memphis 901 FC was eye-catching for more than just the Panamanian’s hair. Signed after going on trial this preseason by the Rowdies, Tejada was a two-time All-Sunshine State Conference selection for local Division II school Eckerd College where he scored 23 goals and 12 assists in four seasons. Tejada didn’t open his Rowdies’ account on Saturday, but he did win the penalty kick that allowed Sebastian Guenzatti to convert from the spot early to get Tampa Bay a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
10. When it comes to winning home openers, Reno 1868 FC hasn’t quite got it figured out as well as Saint Louis. Saturday should have been 1868 FC’s first season-opening victory at Greater Nevada Field after Brian Brown’s goal and assist put the hosts up by two against Orange County SC with 20 minutes to go, but last season’s Western Conference Finalist got handed a lifeline in stoppage time by on-loan San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper J.T. Marcinkowski.
Marcinkowsi must be better here, either punching or claiming the cross outright because there’s absolutely no-one in the USL Championship you would give a penalty kick to with your life on the line other than Aodhan Quinn. The 2018 Championship MVP candidate went 7-of-7 from the spot last season and stepped up to earn his side a point to kick off its new campaign.
11. Apologies to Nashville SC’s Lebo Moloto, but it’s going to take a lot to top this as the miss of the season this year.
On the plus side for the hosts, getting both Cameron Lancaster and Daniel Ríos off the mark against Loudoun United FC should get things going nicely for the team overall.
12. If we’re honest about it, the New York Red Bulls II’s Tom Barlow should have challenged the Championship’s single-game record of five goals with the chances he had against the Swope Park Rangers, instead settling for just two tallies to open his 2019 season.
What should be setting off alarm bells elsewhere around the Eastern Conference, though, was the ease with which NYRB II fell right back into its attacking groove. A 15-1 shots on goal advantage in a 3-1 win against Swope Park could have led to a far wider margin of victory, and likely will as New York’s finishing sharpens up.
13. With Barlow missing out on his chances, it instead fell to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC’s Shane Malcolm to score the first hat trick of the season, which was also the first in the Switchbacks’ history. Yes, the LA Galaxy II defense didn’t look good, but the Switchbacks built off an undefeated preseason in ideal fashion on the road before their first big test at home to Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday.
14. Another person who built off a great preseason? Deshorn Brown, whose goal after just 12 seconds against El Paso Locomotive FC checked in as the second-fastest in league history.
Brown scored seven goals in seven preseason contests for OKC and added a second tally to what was the fastest goal in Energy FC’s history to set up a 3-1 win. Energy FC brought in the Jamaican international late last season to become its frontline scorer. The early returns in 2019 are certainly positive.
15. After making only 11 starts in his season with Phoenix Rising FC, yes, Billy Forbes wanted to put in a big performance as they visited San Antonio FC on Saturday night. “I wanted to score because that’s my former team and I wanted to make a statement,” Forbes said after his blistering finish late in the first half.
Unfortunately for Forbes and his teammates, Jason Johnson’s stoppage-time equalizer for Phoenix meant the hosts couldn’t give the sellout crowd of 8,058 fans at Toyota Field, but Saturday saw the side slip back into the sort of attacking groove that saw it score three-or-more goals four times after mid-July at home last season.
16. By the way, I don’t think I’m the only one who would be up for a repeat of that San Antonio-Phoenix matchup in the first weekend in November. The tremendous atmosphere from SAFC’s fans and the intensity brought by both sides was something special. “It was electric tonight,” said San Antonio newcomer Kai Greene. “The fans gave it all for us. It was disappointing to end that game with a draw.”
17. The spotlight for the Tacoma Defiance on Friday night was brightly on 15-year-old midfielder Danny Leyva, but in snagging the winning goal in a 1-0 win against Rio Grande Valley FC it was Alec Diaz that again showed why he’s also one to watch this year. The 17-year-old has now bagged three goals and two assists in six games after making his debut last season, contributing to a goal every 80.4 minutes.
The impression Diaz made late last year earned him a professional deal with the Defiance for this season and his penchant for being in the right place at the right time is a knack that good strikers possess. “He’s got this poacher’s instinct in front of goal,” said Defiance Head Coach Chris Little. “It was a rebound and the next thing you know he’s tucking it into the goal. That’s a big quality to have for a striker.”
18. We’ll leave you with what was probably the best piece of escapology this weekend, courtesy of Bethlehem Steel FC.
It’s good to be back.