By NICHOLAS MURRAY – firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, March 21, 2016
TAMPA, Fla. – The 2016 USL Kickoff Weekend opens the new season this Friday and Saturday with a host of major storylines across the league’s landscape. A 13-game slate will see five expansion teams in action for the first time, as the league’s continued growth brings new cities and fans to the largest professional soccer league in the United States and Canada.
With 29 teams spanning 19 American states and three Canadian provinces, the USL saw outstanding competition on the field in 2015. That was no more evident than in the USL Playoffs, where five of the 11 games needed at least overtime to produce a result.
A rematch of one of those contests is one of the highlights for the opening weekend of the 2016 season, as OKC Energy FC and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC meet at Taft Stadium on Saturday night. Energy FC took a dramatic victory in a penalty shootout to advance to the Western Conference Final last October, and the Switchbacks will be out for revenge as both sides return most of the key figures from the contest.
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The new season kicks off with a Friday night doubleheader, as the opening game of the season features expansion side Bethlehem Steel FC as it visits FC Montreal at Olympic Stadium. Then, in a rematch from last season’s opening weekend, 2015 playoff sides Seattle Sounders FC 2 and Sacramento Republic FC meet at Starfire Stadium.
Saturday’s games see a head coaching debut for U.S. Soccer legend John Harkes, who leads FC Cincinnati into action against perennial playoff contender the Charleston Battery at MUSC Health Stadium. Fellow expansion sides the Swope Park Rangers and Orlando City B will both open their inaugural seasons at home, hosting the Portland Timbers 2 and Wilmington Hammerheads FC respectively, while Rio Grande Valley FC visits Tulsa Roughnecks FC at ONEOK Field in its debut contest.
Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the Charlotte Independence host Louisville City FC in what will be an early barometer for the Independence after City’s outstanding inaugural season. A longtime rivalry will be renewed at City Stadium as the Richmond Kickers host the Harrisburg City Islanders, while some outstanding young talent will be on display as the New York Red Bulls II host Toronto FC II.
Out west, the LA Galaxy II begin the defense of their conference championship by hosting Arizona United SC and new Head Coach Frank Yallop, while Orange County Blues FC welcomes Vancouver Whitecaps FC as it aims to replicate the remarkable consistency that took it to the top of the Western Conference’s regular-season standings a season ago. Real Monarchs SLC, meanwhile, will look to build on the momentum it concluded the 2015 season with as it welcomes Saint Louis FC to the Western Conference.
HOW TO FOLLOWEvery game of the 2015 USL season can be seen live, free and in HD on YouTube (www.Youtube.com/USL), with updates from across the league also available via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.