Orlando City B kicks off its United Soccer League (USL) season next weekend, and it will take place in a league that is very familiar, and yet quite different at the same time. It's like going to visit your old neighborhood only to find that the house you grew up in now has a new apartment over the garage and your tree house has been knocked down.
Well guess what? We're moving back on the block, and we're looking to take back our throne as king of the cul-de-sac. Before we go knocking door-to-door, however, let's look at some old photo albums and review what we know about the league. So, now that I've beaten that analogy to death, let's launch into a one-man USL Q&A.
So, tell me about this USL.
Well, let me just say this isn't your father's USL. No, seriously. That one, which included such teams as the Jacksonville Tea Men and the Houston Dynamo, folded in 1985. That league was a revival of the American Soccer League, which can trace its roots all the way back to 1922 (and which included some amazing team names, such as Brookhattan and the Uhrik Truckers).
No, this USL started play in 2011, after a merger of the previous USL First and Second divisions, which were in turn founded in 2005 and 1995, respectively. After neither was sanctioned in 2010, they joined forces to become the USL Pro league, and were sanctioned a Division III league by the USSF.
In 2013, the league reached an agreement with MLS to integrate with the MLS Reserve League. After the Reserve League ended play in 2014, MLS teams had to either affiliate with a USL team or create one of their own. More on that later.
On Feb 10, 2015, the league dropped "Pro" from its moniker and was rebranded the USL.
How does any of this play into Orlando City's history?
Well, the most successful team in USL history is...wait for it...your Orlando City Soccer Club! The Lions are the owners of two USL championships, including the inaugural season of 2011 and the 2013 season. They also set a USL attendance record when 20,886 attended the 2013 final in the Citrus Bowl. OCSC won that match, 7-4, in what was clearly a defensive battle for the ages.
Then Orlando City moved on to MLS to give other teams a chance, right?
Yes, but the spirit carried on with Orlando City's affiliate, Louisville FC.
They won the title last year?
Last year's champions were the Rochester Rhinos. They dominated the regular season with 61 points on the backs of a defense that gave up a measly 0.54 goals per game (next best was at 1.08). Their leading scorers were Christian Volesky and Steevan Dos Santos, with eight goals each.
It should be noted that since the end of last season, the league terminated the team's ownership agreement. They have since resolved the issue by finding a new ownership team.
What does that have to do with Louisville?
Nothing. Except that Louisville was the second best team, with 48 points, and had the league MVP in Matt Fondy, who scored a league record 22 goals (breaking Kevin Molino's record). They also had the Defensive Player of the Year in former Lion Bryan Burke, though both he and Fondy have moved on to the Jacksonville Armada of the NASL. The team also led the league with 1.96 goals scored per game, and ultimately lost to the Rhinos in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Is any of this relevant to OCB?
Well, you're not very helpful, are you?
You realize we're the same person, right? Actually, there is some relevance, as OCB will be in the Eastern Conference with both teams, with a natural rivalry possibly forming against Louisville. Also in the east are Bethlehem Steel FC, Charleston Battery (remember the epic U.S. Open Cup match from last year?), Charlotte Independence, FC Cincinnati, FC Montreal, Harrisburg City Islanders, New York Red Bulls II, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Richmond Kickers, Toronto FC II, and Wilmington Hammerheads FC.
Wait, I don't recognize some of those names. What's new this year?
More like, "what isn't?" Including OCB, there are six new teams for the 2016 season. B is joined by FC Cincinnati, Bethlehem Steel FC, Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, Swope Park Rangers (who win the early name and logo contest), and San Antonio FC.
Gone from last year are the Austin Aztex, who are on a one-year hiatus due to the unavailability of their stadium. They will presumably return in 2017, along with Reno 1868 FC.
Affiliations and MLS operated franchises can be found here.
Aren't you going to say anything about the Western Conference?
No. Because of the league's split schedule, Orlando City B would only play a team from the opposite conference if it reaches the USL championship game. If that happens, we can talk more about it then.
How does player movement work?
Players can be called up from the USL squad for short-term contracts (up to four days) for CONCACAF Champions League games, U.S. Open Cup games, or exhibition matches. They can also be called up for MLS matches in "cases of extreme hardship" -- defined as having fewer than 15 players or fewer than two goalies available. Each player can be signed for up to four of these contracts per season.
Players can move in the other direction (i.e. MLS to USL), provided the transfer is free and the player is not paid more than their MLS budget charge without the excess being charged to the MLS budget. This prevents the MLS team from using the USL team for budget relief. There is one exception where a team can use the USL for roster or budget relief, provided the player is younger than 25 years old, is paid less than the MLS Senior Minimum Salary, and stays with the USL team for the full season (excluding goalkeeper hardship call-ups).
Our SBN sister site RSL Soapbox does a good job of summarizing it all here. Though tread gently over there. They may still be sore about that opening day thing.
What are some story lines to look forward to this season?
There are a few. Here's a quick breakdown
Homegrown Players: Orlando City has a number of Homegrown Players who should be developing in the USL. These include GK Mason Stajduhar, Harrison Heath, and Tyler Turner. Tommy Redding was expected to be on that list, but it appears now he's done plenty to stick with the senior side. One of the primary objectives of OCB will be to help these players mature on the pitch. I should mention that none are currently listed on the OCB roster, but the development of these players is key to the club's future, and isn't that what OCB is all about? Expect to see a few of them in the USL, though noting the limited player movement allowed between leagues, the club may decide to keep one or two in Orlando for depth.
Veteran leadership: Lewis Neal will be a key element to this team, as he will act as a de facto on-field coach. If you've watched any other sport where young players are learning to be professionals, you know it's key. As a Florida Panthers fan, I can tell you that without Jaromir Jagr or Willie Mitchell, this year's team would not be in first place right now (it still feels weird to say that).
2016 SuperDraft: Richie Laryea, Hadji Barry, and Antonio Matarazzo are all likely to play in Melbourne this year. In fact, Matarazzo signed a contract with OCB despite being drafted by the senior club. Laryea and Barry are currently with the senior Lions (which I would like to start referring to as The A-Team), but it wouldn't be surprising to see them get more playing time with B.
Mendoza's title run: Colombian midfielder Johnny Mendoza has quite the USL resume, as well as some history with Orlando City. He was on the 2013 championship winning club and spent last year with Rochester. Hopefully, it's not one of those odd-year things, and he can bring some of that winning magic down to Melbourne.
Forward youth movement: The team has some good experience on defense and in the midfield, but the forward ranks are all about youth and potential. While the definition of USL is pretty much youth, this group is the least experienced on the team. Canadian Michael Cox is the oldest (23) and most experienced player in that position group, having spent the last two years playing in Portugal and Sweden. Pierre da Silva was a member of the U.S. U-17 2015 World Cup team. Dembakwi Yomba just missed out on last year's U-20 World Cup team. So, the potential is there, but how quickly they mesh may define the early season success. Even if Barry joins the squad, it's not like he's a seasoned veteran, being just out of college.
Team chemistry: Just like last year's MLS team, this year's OCB squad is an expansion team and will have to quickly learn how to play together. Many other teams will be going through the same growing pains, but that also means there's an opportunity should Head Coach Anthony Pulis be able to pull the right strings. The team that gels the most quickly may find a bit of an advantage early in the season.
Fan support: The team's home field at Eastern Florida State College is a top notch pitch. But it remains to be seen just how well the team will be received by the community. I live approximately a mile from the stadium, and while I can tell you that coverage in the local paper has been decent, there has not been much of a media push. I assure you that if I ask the average Melbournian (Melbournite?) about the team, they would say that they've heard of the team, but they have no idea that they're starting play within a week. There is a pretty strong soccer community here, so hopefully that will be enough, but betting on "word of mouth" is always a bit dangerous.
What are some key games to look forward to?
Here's a link to The Mane Land's schedule preview, but here are a few key ones:
- First game: March 26 vs Wilmington at home.
- First road game and first Purple Battle Royale versus the old affiliate: Friday, April 1 @ Louisville.
- First game against the defending champions: Sunday, May 22 at home.
Thanks, anything else?
Well, that's enough for now. Stay tuned to The Mane Land for more information and all your OCB coverage.