Week 1 Preview: all you need to know

The waiting is over. Sort of.


Come Saturday it will have been 133 days since the Legion last played a competitive match. Far too long, but the interminable offseason is nearly over. Of course, thanks to the schedulers, we will have to wait an additional 29 days to actually see the Three Sparks play at home. Great. TV’s better than nothing, I guess.

Of course over the offseason a lot has changed. The 2024 edition of the Legion is going to look a lot different, with several familiar names gone and several new ones coming in. That is also true of the rest of the USL Championship as players do their annual shuffling between teams. The league itself will also look different, with two teams now gone (San Diego Loyal and Rio Grande Valley Toros), an old one coming back (North Carolina FC) and a new one starting up (Rhode Island FC). That also means some shifting in the conferences, with Memphis 901 and FC Tulsa both moving over to the West to keep things in balance.

On top of that, the USL has a new TV contract, with CBS stepping in, such that we will have to check between providers as to where to actually watch games. ESPN+ will still be carrying a bunch of games, but the CBS portfolio of outlets will also carrying a fair number, including numerous national broadcasts. But if you have shelled out for a Paramount+ subscription, you’ll get all the CBS games. So Star Trek nerds will have no problem.

The most important part

The Legion kick off 2024 with a doozy, heading to Arizona to face the reigning champions Phoenix Rising (Saturday, 8:30pm, ESPN+ and my68). In the USL’s preseason Power Rankings, Rising is ranked #8 and the Legion #9, so on that basis this should be a close one.

The Legion will likely play  a 3-4-3, which could morph into a 4-3-3 or a 5-2-3 as need dictates. Here is the Forge’s projected starting lineup:

The back line is about the most definite part of this. Adding AJ Paterson (from the Charleston Battery) is what has made this really feasible, and has created far more strength than we have had at the back in a while. The roster also includes Jake Rufe and Moses Mensah, and wingback Dawson McCartney is also well equipped to play on the back line. The further addition of Mujeeb Murana (announced as we are writing this) adds even more defensive depth.

Matthew Corcoran and Enzo Martinez holding down the pivot positions in midfield is more or less a done deal. Buya Turay up top is also pretty much baked in, as is Preston Tabort Etaka at right wing. But Tyler Pasher, Diba Nwegbo and Prosper Kasim are fungible guesses. If McCartney starts at left wingback, then Tyler Pasher would probably move up to left wing. Prosper Kasim at right wingback is perhaps not the best use of the left footer but the Legion have deployed him on the right plenty of times before. And with Preston’s crossing ability, that is not as much an issue now. But we also have Miguel Perez on the bench now. And officially announced this morning was Kobe Hernandez-Foster. As with the backfield, we have midfield depth.

So the only potential weakness is the attack. Mohamed Buya Turay will certainly take some time to adjust to the Championship. Preston is a massive strength, and we also have Diba and Tyler as obvious performers. On the bench is Stefano Pinho, but he is getting up there at 33 years of age, and scored precisely 1 goal last season (with Paysandu of the Brazilian Serie B before rejoining Indy Eleven, for whom he had scored 13 goals in 32 games in 2022).

For possibly the first time, the Legion has some meaningful choices at various positions. Moreover, players in various slots are capable of playing in multiple roles. That’s especially true of Enzo, of course, but he’s hardly the only one. The Legion is in a position to play a very real form of Total Football this year.

As for the Rising, well, they are going to look different as well. Significantly, forward Danny Trejo is in Poland’s top flight with Korona Kielce. His strike mate Manuel Arteaga went to the Tampa Bay Rowdies and defensive mid Carlos Harvey moved up to Minnesota United of MLS. But the biggest loss is head coach Juan Guerra, who is now an assistant coach at the Houston Dynamo. His replacement is Englishman Danny Stone in his first head coaching position; he was previously an assistant at the Colorado Rapids and OKC Energy before assisting at Phoenix the past three years. As such he is something of an unknown quantity.

The Rising’s on-field strengths are its wingbacks, Juan Azocar and Edgardo Rito. Their goalkeeper, Rocco Rios Novo, will be hard to beat and has a good back line in front of him anyway. Forward is a question mark; the presumptive starter is Frenchman Rémi Cabral. He’s 24 and put up 19 goals in 24 games last season for Colorado Rapids 2 in MLS Next Pro. Expect to see them play a 3-4-3, which will match up tightly with the Legion.

Prediction: Season openers with new squads are always a crapshoot. Phoenix has the home field advantage, of course, but at least the Legion will not be battling the high summer desert heat. But the Rising will want to perform in front of their home crowd. Note that they won the title last year playing every playoff game on the road. Their last regular season game was also on the road. Their three final home games generated just 2 points. They have not won at home since September 16th, a 5-0 thrashing of Detroit City. A narrow home win is a distinct possibility, but I think the Legon will be a tough challenge for a rebuilt team under a new manager. I’m calling for a draw.

Best of the rest

The rest of the Championship has also seen a lot of changes and, generally speaking, upgrades. That includes the Las Vegas Lights, who got a late start under their new owner José Bautista (yes, that José Bautista, aka Joey Bats), but have quickly put together a solid roster under new head coach Dennis Sanchez. The East in particular has gotten materially stringer and the competition this season is going to be a bloodbath.

Oddly, though, the league has opted to give six teams a bye in week one (the Legion get one next week, by the way). So there are just 9 games total this week. All of them are on Saturday and all but two are hosted by Western teams. Here are our viewing recommendations:

Area Code FC v. Las Vegas Lights (2:00pm, ESPN+)

Memphis have moved over to the West and are actually looking like a real soccer team now. Their new kits for 2024 are decidedly cool with an excellent front sponsor to boot. However, the players inside those kits are another matter. Stephen Glass added the traitorous Neco Brett and goalkeeper Tyler Deric, but lost several key players, notably Aaron Molloy, Jeremy Kelly, Graham Smith, and Rodrigo Da Costa. The upgraded Lights team could have a positive start to the season.

North Carolina FC v. Charleston Battery (5:00pm, CBS Sports Golazo)

North Carolina’s return to the Championship couldn’t get off to a tougher start as they face the Eastern champions in a restart of the Southern Derby (possibly the least original rivalry name ever). The Battery are just as good as last year despite losing striker Augustine Williams and goalkeeper Trey Muse. The replacements are arguably just as good. NCFC were last years League 1 champions and were not far off a Championship quality squad already. They’ve picked up Rodrigo da Costa and Paco Craig and will not be an easy out.

El Paso Locomotive v. Hartford Athletic (8:00pm, ESPN+)

Possibly no existing team improved their roster more than Hartford Athletic. The Tab Ramos experiment was a total disaster and interim head coach Omid Namazi didn’t have much room to clean things up. He’s still an assistant but new head coach Brendan Burke brings a solid record to the job. He went about upgrading the team in a hurry. Well-known names Michee Ngalina, Marcus Epps and Romario Williams are now all in Connecticut, as is the much-missed Anderson Asiedu. But El Paso also had a good offseason. Brian Clarhaut’s team had a roughish 2023 and are looking to improve this year with additions such as Bolu Akinyode and Amando Moreno. This one will overlap the Legion game, but a replay viewing some time before March 23rd will be educational, the Athletic being the Legion’s next opponent.

Back in the Old Country

Birmingham City has been having a very tough season. Wayne Rooney’s disastrous but mercifully brief stint put the Blues in a hole and they have struggled to get out of it ever since. It didn’t help that his replacement Tony Mowbray (who was definitely getting better results) was absent about two months due to surgery for an undisclosed issue. They are currently 20th on 39 points, just a point out of the relegation zone, albeit with a game in hand. They face Millwall away this weekend (Saturday, 9:00am) in a chance to gain some breathing room. Millwall are 18th on 40 points. Sandwiched in between is QPR, also on 39 points, who face the rather better Middlesbrough this week.

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