Three teams will make their USL debuts this season, and all three have high hopes of success. The arrival of Ottawa Fury FC, Reno 1868 FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies has added three strong markets to the USL, with all three bringing the aspiration of following in the footsteps of Sacramento Republic FC, which claimed the USL Cup in its inaugural season three years ago.
For Ottawa and Tampa Bay, of course, this isn’t an ordinary expansion year. Both teams with strong histories on and off the field, Fury FC and the Rowdies entered the league this offseason with established cores of players and staff that further strengthened the USL’s growth as a whole. With the pedigree of players both teams have returning, immediate playoff contention would not be a surprise in the Eastern Conference.
The Rowdies, for example, bring the likes of goalkeeper Matt Pickens and Deshorn Brown, both former standouts in Major League Soccer, and the jewel in their crown of former England international Joe Cole to pull the strings in midfield. The addition of longtime VfL Wolfsburg standout Marcel Schäfer this offseason to an already strong veteran group, and the likes of younger players with high potential in Darwin Jones and Damion Lowe, make the Rowdies a team that, on paper, should be a challenger.
The same can be said for Fury FC, which brings Canadian internationals Carl Haworth and Jamar Dixon to lead the side into the USL this season. Ottawa has also bolstered its squad this offseason with names that have featured prominently in the USL in recent years, with the signings of former Rochester Rhinos forward Steevan Dos Santos and former Rio Grande Valley FC goalkeeper Callum Irving. Add the experience of defenders Eddie Edward, Kyle Venter and Onua Obasi – a USL Cup champion with Rochester in 2015 – and the potential for success is evident.
Reno didn’t have the same advantage as its fellow newcomers. As a true expansion side, General Manager Andy Smith and his team had to build a club from the ground up, but this preseason it definitely appears they have accomplished the task admirably. Entering into the second hybrid partnership in the USL with the San Jose Earthquakes – following the model of Rio Grande Valley FC and the Houston Dynamo – 1868 FC has pulled some high-profile talent into its roster, led by USL all-time leading scorer Dane Kelly. If Head Coach Ian Russell can pull the right strings – as he’s appeared more than capable of so far – then 1868 FC has a chance to replicate the quick success the Toros found a year ago.
With the achievements of the Toros and fellow expansion side the Swope Park Rangers last year, adding to those that have quickly found success in prior seasons, the path to success for Ottawa, Reno and Tampa Bay is a navigable one. With everything the three clubs bring to the USL, the spotlight will be trained on them closely this year.