It will be another season marked by expansion when USL kicks off its 2016 season with a full slate of games this weekend.
The third-tier league, which has made known its ambitions to jump up a rung, will welcome six new clubs for the upcoming season: MLS-operated outfits Bethlehem Steel FC (Philadelphia Union), Orlando City B (Orlando) and Swope Park Rangers KC (Sporting KC) in addition to FC Cincinnati, Rio Grande Valley FC Toros and San Antonio FC. The Rochester Rhinos, meanwhile, return with new ownership to defend their 2015 title.
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the upcoming 2016 USL season.
Stars of the Future
You don’t have to go back too far in USL’s history to pick out big-time success stories. It was only 2013 when current Sporting Kansas City star striker Dom Dwyer was starring for then-USL side Orlando City SC on loan, scoring a then-record 15 goals and leading the Lions to the USL championship with a four-goal performance in the championship game. Current Orlando midfielder Kevin Molino broke Dwyer’s record with 16 goals the following season ahead of the Lions’ move to MLS. Over the winter, 15 USL players were inked to MLS deals, the largest number in the league’s five-year history, and plenty more are pushing to make the jump.
With the addition of Bethlehem Steel, Orlando City B and Swope Park Rangers to USL, there are now 11 clubs in the league owned and operated by MLS teams for player development purposes. Nine more clubs have partnerships with the remaining MLS teams that haven’t started their own team. LA Galaxy II have been the most successful of the MLS-operated sides*, advancing to the semifinals of the 2014 playoffs and the finals last year.
- Chicago Fire – Saint Louis FC
- Colorado Rapids – Charlotte Independence
- Columbus Crew SC – Pittsburgh Riverhounds
- D.C. United – Richmond Kickers
- FC Dallas – Oklahoma Energy FC
- Houston Dynamo – Rio Grande Valley Toros FC
- LA Galaxy – LA Galaxy II*
- Montreal Impact – FC Montreal*
- New England Revolution – Rochester Rhinos
- New York City FC – Wilmington Hammerheads FC
- New York Red Bulls – New York Red Bulls II*
- Orlando City SC – Orlando City B*
- Philadelphia Union – Bethlehelm FC*
- Portland Timbers – Timbers 2*
- Real Salt Lake – Real Monarchs SLC*
- San Jose Earthquakes – Sacramento Republic FC
- Seattle Sounders – Sounders 2*
- Sporting Kansas City – Swope Park Rangers*
- Toronto FC – Toronto FC II*
- Vancouver Whitecaps – Whitecaps 2*
- Atlanta United FC – Charleston Battery
MLS coaching tree
Several coaches who should be familiar to MLS fans are joining the USL ranks this year. Two-time MLS Coach of the Year Frank Yallop, best known for his time at the helm of the LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes and Chicago Fire, joined Arizona United SC. Wilmer Cabrera, who led Chivas USA in their final MLS season and was a member of Oscar Pareja's staff with the Colorado Rapids following posts in the US national team youth ranks, took over at expansion side RGVFC Toros. And John Harkes, a former New York Red Bulls assistant and US national team player, will lead Cincinnati in their inaugural season.
Other head coaches with MLS experience include Jimmy Nielsen (Oklahoma City Energy), Ezra Hendrickson (S2), John Wolyniec (Red Bulls II), Curt Onalfo (Galaxy II), Jason Bent (TFC II), Andrew Gregor (T2), and Steve Trittschuh (Colorado Switchbacks).
Nuts and bolts
The 2016 regular season schedule will feature a 435-game slate, staged over 27 weeks, kicking off on Friday. USL’s 29 teams are divided into two conferences – Eastern and Western – with each team playing 30 games.
The top eight teams from each 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.