It has been another busy off-season for the USL organization and as San Antonio FC prepares to kick off season number four, let’s take a look at what has changed with their parent league for 2019.
First and foremost, the league did an entire re-brand, and they added a division. What used to be known simply as USL has now become USL Championship. The former USL D3 is now USL League One. The only Texas team in USL League One so far is the FC Dallas affiliated team North Texas SC. Finally, a new division has been added, USL League Two. Formerly the Premiere Development League (PDL) this division is described by USL as “the elite pre-professional tier in North American soccer and the established developmental platform for U-23 and collegiate players.” The Mid South Division features five Texas teams including Corpus Christi FC.
If any of these names sound familiar, it's b/c they share the name of the English Football League (EFL) divisions, Championship, League One and League Two. Unlike our English counterparts, there are no immediate plans of any promotion or regulation between these three USL divisions or with MLS. By contrast, the English Championship division promotes three teams to the English Premiere League annually.
Team Departures and New Expansion Teams
Four teams have left USL Championship since the end of the 2018 season – all from the East. FC Cincinnati departs the USL Championship this season for MLS. Penn FC, Richmond Kickers and Toronto FC II all voluntarily dropped into USL League One. Penn FC is further on hiatus for 2019 and plans to resume play in 2020.
USL Championship continues their robust expansion efforts by adding seven teams in 2019, four in the East and three in the West. Out East the new teams are Birmingham Legion FC, Hartford Athletic, Loudoun United FC, – DC United’s new affiliate – and Memphis 901 FC.
In the West, San Antonio FC finds themselves with three new regional rivalries. The Texas Derby has now become a Texas quartet as SAFC and RGV FC are joined by El Paso Locomotive and more interestingly for fan purposes – Austin Bold FC. And just like that the Lone Star State has doubled its footprint in USL Championship. It sets up very nicely for USL Championship if they ever want to create a Texas Cup between the teams, which could only generate more excitement and pride among the fanbases. Of course, maybe the fans of the Texas teams could just take a page from the Four Corners Cup and create it themselves.
The third team added into the West this season is one state away with New Mexico United.
That leaves each conference with 18 teams, with at least two more expansion teams in the plans; Chicago and Oakland East Bay.
Also, Seattle Sounders 2 has re-branded into the Tacoma Defiance. They remain the reserve team of Seattle Sounders of MLS. That leaves only LA Galaxy 2 and Portland Timbers 2 as Western Conference USL teams with the "2" designation of their MLS partners.
Alignment and New Playoff Format
As part of the updated Conference alignment, San Antonio FC says goodbye to two former opponents as they shift from the Western Conference into the East for 2019; St Louis FC and Swope Park Rangers. St Louis FC has been on a conference yo-yo lately as they will play in a new conference for the fourth straight season. SAFC will likely not miss Swope Park Rangers. Not only have they won the West in two of SAFC’s three seasons, but they have dominated SAFC on the field as well.
With each conference at 18 teams, it has allowed USL Championship to balance their season schedule. No more sets of multiple games with regional opponents. Each team will play everyone in their conference twice, once at home and once away, for a total of 34 regular season games.
Beyond the new opponents there are a couple notable firsts on the SAFC schedule, in particular. For the first time ever, San Antonio FC will begin their season at home. A welcome change for fans, no doubt. And the second change is the elimination of the Fiesta road trip. For the first time SAFC will go head to head with local Fiesta events as they play two games during the city wide celebration. San Antonio will host Los Angeles Galaxy II on Saturday April 13th and Tacoma Defiance on Friday April 26th. With Fiesta extended an extra week due to where Easter lands on the calendar, SAFC gets the double dip in 2019. Might this be the year we get a Fiesta Colors Third Kit? It’s the perfect opportunity.
USL Championship also announced an expanded playoff format. Ten teams will qualify from each Conference in 2019, up from eight. The teams seeded 7 through 10 in each Conference will face off during a single elimination play-in round on October 23. The survivors of those games will have a short turnaround as the Conference Quarterfinals will occur between Oct 25-27. And the winners will have to go up against the top two teams in each conference, with the lowest remaining seed getting paired with the top team in the Conference and the highest remaining seed with the number two seed in the Conference. The single elimination playoffs will continue with the Conference Semifinals Nov 1-3, and the Conference Finals Nov 8-10. USL Cup 2019 will be scheduled between Nov 14 – 18. Here’s a look at the new playoff bracket for 2019:
Hopefully come mid-November, San Antonio FC are raising the USL Championship trophy. San Antonio FC kicks off their 2019 season this Saturday night at Toyota Field against Phoenix Rising FC. Kickoff is at 7:30pm.
IMAGES: SAN ANTONIO FC TWITTER, USL CHAMPIONSHIP TWITTER