Sunday, April 14, 2024

What to watch for as USL season kicks off Saturday with doubleheader on CBS Sports Golazo Network

The USL Championship season begins on March 9 welcoming new team to the mix. You can catch a double header on CBS Sports Golazo Network, a home for USL all season long. 

As the league kicks off Rhode Island FC will join but there are new faces all around from coaches to players in the league. All eyes will be on Phoenix Rising to see if the can become repeat champions, but also it’s a year of opportunity as while the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has changed with only some MLS and MLS Next Pro clubs taking part it also means that it is now more likely for a USL side to win the tournament booking a spot in the Concacaf Champions Cup, something that hasn’t been done since the Rochester Rhinos in 1999.

The fact that not every team is taking part in the 2024 Open Cup is a disappointment, but there are silver linings that can be taken from it, especially as the financial changes for hosting teams are good for all participants. It provides something to strive for as USL continue to improve and become bigger players in the global market. Even the incoming players to USL are changing as they can recruit from college, MLS academies, and abroad as the path to Europe no longer only runs through the top flight of American soccer.

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New kids on the block

Rhode Island are coming into the league with a bang hiring Khano Smith as both the head coach and the general manager while also adding 2023’s Golden Boot winner Albert Dikwa. While it is tough to tell how long it will take for a new team to be good out of the gate, on paper, Rhode Island are doing a lot of things right ahead of their inaugural season. Co-founder Michael Parkhurst brings a wealth of experience in American soccer and the stage is set for Rhode Island to make the playoffs right out of the gate. While you can’t ask for much more in a teams first season, their aim is much higher than just making the playoffs though.

New coaches everywhere

Heading into the season there are nine new coaches around the league including a big name hire and two teams with ambition who will also have new men patrolling the sidelines. Hartford Athletic, Detroit City FC, Colorado Springs, Indy Eleven, Las Vegas Lights, Phoneix Rising, Rhode Island FC, Tampa Bay Rowdies and FC Tulsa make up the list with new bosses in charge. After a few years as an assistant at Phoenix, Danny Stone will now lead the club with big shoes to fill after Juan Guerra went to MLS to be an assistant with the Houston Dynamo — more on that shift incoming — but being familiar with the setup for a team that ran through the league during playoffs are why expectations are still quite high for Phoenix.

That Dynamo opening is because Brenden Burke is now back in USL as coach of Hartford Athletic. Burke and Ben Olsen had a great working relationship that helped lead Houston to a U.S. Open Cup title and now he’ll have a chance to reinvent Hartford’s soccer team. After an offseason where there has been much change around the club, expectations are high but for good reason as Burke is a highly regarded coach. 

Tampa Bay is probably the next most interesting coaching change as Robbie Neilson is replacing Neill Collins who is now in charge at Barnsley after five years in Tampa and expectations are still high. Always expected to be among the top teams in the Eastern Conference, seeing if Neilson can meet expectations like Stone in Phoenix will be interesting to watch because if either struggles, the league could be quite open from top to bottom.

Infrastructure improves

While the loose goal of all teams being in soccer-specific stadiums by 2026 won’t be accomplished, that doesn’t mean that USL isn’t on the right track when it comes to infrastructure. Indianapolis, New Mexico, Oakland, and Rhode Island are all at various stages of building or looking to build soccer specific stadiums, and alongside that, there are also more teams building out training and youth facilities. While teams like the Las Vegas Lights still need a plan to move out of a baseball stadium, this isn’t an issue that’s only present in USL as even New York City FC are just unveiling plans for their soccer specific stadium that is scheduled to open in 2027.

It’s an exciting time around the league and as more players come to the league with ambition the facilities have to match that. Creating an all around environment where athletes can reach their potential is important and the new builds and improvements aren’t only limited to the USL Championship as USL League One is building out more as well.

Week one broadcast schedule

All times Eastern, all matches are available for free on the CBS Sports Golazo network.

Saturday, March 9
North Carolina FC vs. Charleston Battery, 7 p.m. ET: Tune in for quite a kit matchup to kick off the season as the number six and 11 kits in our staff rankings square off. Both teams are also expected to finish near the top of the Eastern Conference so the soccer on the pitch will match the sharpness of their looks.
Sacramento Republic FC vs. Orange County FC, 10 p.m. ET: Closing out the night with a California derby is quite a treat. Orange County games are open affairs from start to finish and while the attack could be better this will be a wild and wacky soccer game that’s a great intro into how you should expect the unexpected in USL play.

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