In a move likely intended to force CONCACAF’s hand when it comes to the Ottawa Fury, the United Soccer League Championship (the re-branded name for the highest USL level but second tier of the US Soccer pyramid) released their 2019 schedule this week. It had been rumored Ottawa were going to be forced to leave USL and head to the newly formed Canadian Premier League but instead the Fury have been granted the ability to remain in USL for another season.
Because of this battle the USL Championship schedule dropped early and along with it the news that the playoffs would be expanding. Instead of allowing in 16 of the leagues 36 teams they have pushed the total to 20. The league did grow in size, as it has every year, but the USL is spinning it as having four play-in games instead of putting more teams into the playoffs. The 7th through 10th seed in each conference will play an extra playoff game to decide who plays the #1 and #2 seed in each conference. In 2018, SPR was the 7th seed and would have been subject to this extra game.
The higher numbers should help the Swope Park Rangers have a chance to make it four straight years they’ve gone to the playoffs. The league now has 18 teams in each conference and SPR along wide their cross-state rivals, St. Louis FC, are both now in the Eastern Conference. Swope are coming off their “worst” season having only made it into the playoffs as a seven seed after being the four seed the prior two years and going all the way to the USL Cup title game. In 2018 they were eliminated in the Conference Semifinals by Phoenix Rising FC.
In 2019, the playoffs will still be single elimination and the teams will play a 34-game regular season. Those 34 games will be played over a 33-week season and as we reported previously, SPR will continue to play in Children’s Mercy Park for the 2019 season.
With the Rangers playing in a new conference they will meet many of their opponents for the very first time in 2019. Of the Eastern Conference teams, they’ve only ever played three of the clubs. First, St. Louis, who at times were in the West with them. They also played New York Red Bulls II and Louisville City, who they played in back-to-back USL Cup title games in 2016 and 2017.
The change of conference will give them the chance to face their former head coach Nikola Popovic who coaches the Ottawa Fury (ironically, their first coach, Marc dos Santos used to coach that club as well). They will also face their 2017 scoring leader, Kharlton Belmar, who signed with Nashville SC. Nashville are also run by Mike Jacobs, who used to work for Sporting Kansas City as the assistant technical director. Also, depending on who gets signed to new deals, they could potentially meet former Sporting KC players Tyler Pasher and Soony Saad who suited up for Indy Eleven in 2018.
The switch of conference also gives fans a chance to travel to some new venues. Nashville and Indianapolis are both about eight hour drives from KC. And expansion club Memphis 901 FC is a bit under eight hours.
One other interesting facet of the 2019 USL Championship season is the addition of USL League One (the third division in the US Soccer pyramid). With it’s addition a few Major League Soccer owned teams chose to move down a league. Just nine MLS clubs still have a MLS owned team in the USL Championship with D.C. United starting their new team, Loudon United FC and with Toronto FC II move down and Orlando City restarting OCB in the third division. In addition FC Dallas started a new third division club, North Texas SC. Nine other MLS teams have affiliates in the USL Championship and Minnesota United have an expansion affiliate in USL League One (the bizarrely named Forward Madison FC).
Here is the full 2019 Swope Park Rangers schedule.
2019 Swope Park Rangers Schedule
|9-Mar||at New York Red Bulls II|
|23-Mar||PITTSBURGH RIVERHOUNDS SC|
|6-Apr||BETHLEHEM STEEL FC|
|20-Apr||at Birmingham Legion FC|
|27-Apr||at Saint Louis FC|
|5-May||LOUISVILLE CITY FC|
|11-May||at Nashville SC|
|18-May||ATLANTA UNITED 2|
|22-May||MEMPHIS 901 FC|
|25-May||at Tampa Bay Rowdies|
|5-Jun||LOUDOUN UNITED FC|
|15-Jun||at North Carolina FC|
|22-Jun||at Charleston Battery|
|30-Jun||SAINT LOUIS FC|
|6-Jul||TAMPA BAY ROWDIES|
|20-Jul||at Ottawa Fury FC|
|10-Aug||at Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC|
|16-Aug||at Atlanta United 2|
|24-Aug||NEW YORK RED BULLS II|
|31-Aug||at Bethlehem Steel FC|
|7-Sep||at Memphis 901 FC|
|14-Sep||NORTH CAROLINA FC|
|21-Sep||at Charlotte Independence|
|25-Sep||at Loudoun United FC|
|28-Sep||BIRMINGHAM LEGION FC|
|5-Oct||at Hartford Athletic|
|8-Oct||OTTAWA FURY FC|
|12-Oct||at Louisville City FC|
|19-Oct||at Indy Eleven|