Week 1 Preview: what you need to know
No more offseason!
Come Sunday, it will have been exactly 4 months since the Birmingham Legion last played a meaningful game. Seems like forever. But the wait is over, and the 2022 USL Championship season is about to start.
Well, that is, for everyone except Hartford Athletic, who are this week’s odd man out in a league of 27 teams. In fact, by the time they play their first game, Atlanta United 2, Loudoun United FC, Detroit City FC and the Charleston Battery will have played two games each, and New York Red Bulls II will have played three games (yes, even this early in the season we are getting a double-game week).
The most important part
The Legion have to wait until fairly late in the weekend too, as the game against the Tampa Bay Rowdies was selected as the showcase game for ESPN2 (4:00pm). Both teams ended last season with a loss, the Legion to Tampa, of course, and the Rowdies to Orange County in the championship game. For the Legion, then, this will be back-to-back games against the Floridians and an early chance at revenge and to make a statement about their 2022 ambitions.
It will be a new look Legion, at least in the attack, with Neco Brett, Junior Flemmings and JJ Williams all gone. With only the one preseason game against Atlanta United having been aired, scouting this team will have been difficult, especially with Marlon and Macky Diop making only limited appearances in that game. The rest of the team is more or less intact, the most significant addition being Enzo Martinez. Have the Three Sparks had enough time to gel? We will know the answer pretty soon.
The Rowdies, in contrast have their major changes at the back, so we will have a newish defense against a new attack. That should be interesting. Having lost 6’5″ centerback Forrest Lasso (a future USL Hall of Famer, if there will be such a thing) to Sweden’s GIF Sundvall the team found itself with a major hole that it doesn’t seem to have done much to fill. The only real addition to the defense in the offseason was Loudoun United’s Timmy Mehl, who is hardly a like-for-like replacement. They also dropped 2021 Golden Glove winner Evan Louro who suffered a freak injury celebrating the Eastern Conference title and missed the championship game. He was replaced by Raiko Arozarena who had one prior appearance all season. He will now compete with CJ Cochran (on loan from OKC Energy) for the starting spot.
Prediction: the Rowdies should have the advantage despite being on the road, but the Legion will want to start their title chase off right, especially at home in a new stadium and on national TV. This one will be a draw.
Best of the rest
With two expansion teams this year, the games in San Antonio (v. Detroit City, Saturday, 7:30pm) and Phoenix (v. Monterey Bay, Saturday, 8:30pm) could be worth checking out to see how the newcomers fare. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds head to Memphis (Saturday, 6:00pm) in a game that will be of definite interest to Legion fans, who will probably in the unusual position of rooting for Area Code FC, as the Hounds are projected to challenge the Three Sparks for a high playoff spot. And there’s always that non-existent playoff game to consider…
Out West, the Colorado Springs Switchbacks host Orange County (Saturday, 7:00pm) in what should be a good matchup and in a nightcap El Paso Locomotive hit the (rail?) road to Sacramento Republic (Saturday, 9:00pm), also an attractive game.
Most of the remaining games in the Championship this week look potentially one-sided affairs, but that should be enough to sate your USL soccer appetites for the week.
The Old Country
Over in England, Birmingham City take on Hull City (Saturday, 9:00am, no US TV). Hull are 2 spots in the table and three points behind the Blues so this is pretty much a must-win game as the EFL Championship enters the last 10 weeks. But City look to be repeating their late-season surge of last year and are buoyed by having all their young talent available. Most importantly, Tahith Chong is back from a long injury rehab and in his first start last week scored within 2 minutes.