USL: 2015 Eastern Conference Preview

The old and the new meet on Saturday in the 2015 USL Eastern Conference opener as the Charleston Battery, champion in three different leagues in its 22 years in the USL, hosts Toronto FC II, one of seven new teams operated by MLS clubs. For a preview of the 12 teams in the Eastern Conference.

CHARLESTON BATTERY (MLS affiliation: Houston Dynamo)
Its Story: The Battery represents the old USL, a member since 1993 and champion in three different leagues: A-League (1996 and 2003), USL Second Division (2010) and USL PRO (2012). It touts Blackbaud Stadium, opened shortly before Columbus Crew Stadium in 1999, as the first soccer-specific stadium of the modern era in American soccer. The stadium on Daniel Island seats 5,100 and is the model for USL stadiums of the future.

Names To Know: Top scorers Dane Kelly (first-team all-USL PRO) and Haviel Cordoves (one of three Cubans returning for the Battery) will again lead the attack. Houston has sent Homegrown signing Memo Rodriguez and draft pick Oumar Ballo on loan.

CHARLOTTE INDEPENDENCE (MLS affiliation: Colorado Rapids)
Its Story: The Eagles, Charlotte's longtime USL standard bearers, have moved down to the PDL and made room for the Independence. It plans on playing at a temporary facility, 4,300-seat Ramblewood Soccer Complex, in south Charlotte while Memorial Stadium renovated. But before that, the Independence will open at Transamerica Field, the UNC Charlotte soccer field. Former MLS head coach Mike Jeffries (FC Dallas) has been brought in as head coach.

Names To Know: Former youth stars from across the border in South Carolina, Enzo Martinez and Alex Martinez, have signed with the Independence. Like the Martinez brothers -- Enzo at North Carolina and Alex at N.C. State -- goalkeeper Diego Restrepo starred in the ACC, leading Virginia to a national title in 2009. Jorge Herrera was a second-team all-USL PRO pick with the Eagles in 2014.

HARRISBURG CITY ISLANDERS (MLS affiliation: Philadelphia Union)
Its Story: The City Islanders have been overachievers, advancing to the playoffs in nine of 11 seasons, winning the USL Second Division in 2007 and finishing second in USL PRO in 2011 and 2014. But their future in Harrisburg is in doubt as the 2,200-seat facility at Skyline Sports Complex won't cut it much longer. Plan A: Build a new stadium on the north end of City Island as part of a redevelopment plan. Plan B: Move the club -- one possibility is Nashville -- if the stadium project doesn't move forward quickly enough.

Names To Know
: Back from the team that lost to Sacramento in the 2014 final are goalkeeper Nick Noble, midfielder Yann Ekra and forward Garret Pettis. Recent signings include a pair of midfielders, Brazilian Erick (who had a cup of tea in MLS with FC Dallas) and Jamaican U-20 Cardel Benbow.

What They're Saying:
"The [USL] minimum standard requirements have been pushed up faster than we thought they would be. But we have to look at opportunities if things don't work out in Harrisburg."
-- Harrisburg majority owner Eric Pettis on exploring possibilities in Nashville. (Patriot-News)

LOUISVILLE CITY (MLS affiliation: Orlando City)
Its Story: The franchise rights owned by Orlando City were transferred to a group of Louisville investors led by architect Wayne Estopinal when the Lions moved to MLS. The success of the University of Louisville soccer program in a town known for basketball gives hope that the USL can break through in Louisville. Louisville City will play at Louisville Slugger Field, home of the Louisville Bats baseball team. General manager Amanda Duffy formerly worked at the USL league office in Tampa and head coach James O'Connor played at Orlando City.

Names To Know: Bryan Burke played with O'Connor at Orlando City. Conor Shanosky played 17 games for Richmond last summer on loan from D.C. United, where he spent five seasons. Matt Fondy spent two seasons in MLS with Chivas USA and Chicago after bouncing around USL PRO.

FC MONTREAL (MLS owner: Montreal Impact)
Its Story: The Impact is one of three Canadian MLS clubs to launch second teams in 2015.  It named academy director Philippe Eullaffroy as the head coach of FC Montreal, which replaces the Impact U23 team he coached and which played in the PDL in 2014. FC Montreal, who recently returned from preseason training in Florida, will debut at home on March 28 as the part of a doubleheader with the Impact, which hosts Orlando City. It will then split its home games between the main field and the synthetic field at Stade Saputo.

Names To Know
: The Impact will be very young with 20 players from Quebec, five from Ontario and Fabio Morelli from Switzerland. Morelli is one of several players with experience in the PDL and MLS Reserve League. Alessandro Riggi, Charles Joly, Kevin Luarca and Zakaria Messoud have played for Canada's U-20s.

NEW YORK RED BULLS II (MLS affiliate: New York Red Bulls)
Its Story: The Red Bulls were the last MLS club to announce plans to add a second team in the USL for the 2015 season. The move to add a second team and expand its training facility in Whippany is offered as evidence of Red Bull's continuing commitment to the MLS club in face of cutbacks in player spending. Former MetroStars forward John Wolyniec, who has worked for the Red Bulls in player development, is head coach of New York Red Bulls II and will be assisted by recently retired Ibrahim Sekagya and former Columbus Crew goalkeeping coach Vadim Kirillov.

Names To Know: Tyler Adams, who started for the USA at the recent Concacaf Under-17 Championship, was announced Thursday the Red Bulls II's first signing. He was first introduced to the organization through the Red Bulls regional development school program at the age of 10.

Its Story: The Pittsburgh Riverhounds have one of the best small soccer stadiums in the country with views of downtown Pittsburgh and the Monongahela River, but the construction of Highmark Stadium drove the club's owners into chapter 11 bankruptcy. The good news is that the club's reorganization plan was approved, and it hired a new president, former Nike and Umbro executive Richard Nightingale, and head coach, Mark Steffens, formerly with the Charlotte Eagles, in December.

Names To Know: Brazilian striker Vini Dantas, who played college soccer at Azusa Pacific, joins the Riverhounds after stints in Norway, Finland, the NASL and now the indoor MASL. Midfielders Rob Vincent, Danny Earls, Kevin Kerr, Matt Dallman and Michael Greenall return after playing in 20 or more games in 2014.

RICHMOND KICKERS (MLS affiliation: D.C. United)
Its Story: Along with the Battery, the Kickers are the oldest team in the USL. They were founded 1993 as an amateur team and have won titles in the USL Second Division (2006 and 2009) and USISL Premier League (1995) in addition to the Open Cup (1995). The Kickers have been one of the most consistent clubs in USL PRO, reaching the playoffs in all four seasons.

Names To Know
: Matthew Delicate, George Davis IV and Yomby William were all-USL PRO first-team selections in 2014. The Kickers signed Richmond native Brian Ownby, who previously played for Kickers in 2013 while on loan from the Houston Dynamo.

ROCHESTER RHINOS (MLS affiliation: New England Revolution)

Its Story: Celebrating their 20th season in 2015, the Rhinos hold a place in modern American soccer history as the only non-MLS team to win the Open Cup since MLS's launch in 1996. They won the Open Cup in 1999, the same year they won their second of three A-League titles. Bob Lilley returned for his second stint as Rochester head coach in 2014 and led the Rhinos to sixth place and a playoff berth.

Names To Know: The Rhinos return a nucleus of players with Babacar Diallo, Onua Obasi, Pat McMahon and Tony Walls back on defense, Mike Garzi and Johnny Mendoza back in midfield and Alex Dixon and Colin Rolfe up front.

SAINT LOUIS FC (MLS affiliation: Chicago Fire)
Its Story: Pro soccer is back in St. Louis, the original American soccer city. There's talk of St. Louis as an MLS expansion candidate, but Saint Louis FC will first have to fill Soccer Park, one of the original -- well -- soccer parks and home to numerous U.S. international matches before national team support outgrew the tiny Fenton, Mo., facility. Early signs are encouraging. Saint Louis FC limited ticket sales for a recent friendly against Tulsa to 3,500, and it sold all of them.

Names To Know
: Early signings included Bryan Gaul, who played two seasons for the LA Galaxy, former youth prodigy Charles Renken and a pair of Jamaicans, Jamiel Hardware and Jermie Lynch.

What They're Saying:
“It’s tough being a first-year team. I’ve been around. I’ve seen some bad situations and some really good situations. I think this is up there with some of the best I’ve seen.”
-- Mike Ambersley, who returned to his hometown, St. Louis, to play for Saint Louis FC after playing for five clubs in the USL and NASL. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

TORONTO FC II (MLS owner: Toronto FC)
Its Story: Another of the big-spending MLS clubs, Toronto FC has put down roots for its second team in Vaughan, where TFC II will play at Vaughan Grove Sports Park. The Ontario Soccer Association leases the Ontario Soccer Centre and will pay for the construction of the 3,500-seat stadium. Like the first team, which is away until BMO Field's expansion work is complete, TFC II will begin the season on the road. It will have played eight matches before the home opener on May 23. Toronto FC assistant coach Jason Bent was named to run the developmental squad.

Names To Know
: TFC II's first signings included five 2015 TFC SuperDraft picks, including first-rounders Clement Simonin, a Frenchman out of N.C. State, and Skylar Thomas, an Ontario product out of Syracuse. Toronto is also high on a trio of Academy players, Molham Babouli, the 2014 League1 Ontario MVP and the Golden Boot, 20-year-old Mark-Anthony Kaye and 17-year-old Luca Uccello.

WILMINGTON HAMMERHEADS (MLS affiliation: New York City FC)
Its Story: Like Rochester, Wilmington is celebrating its 20th season in 2015. Fifteen of those seasons were spent with David Irving in charge, but that changed in the middle of the 2014 season when the former NASL player stepped down. Irving, now at Tulsa, was replaced by former Wake Forest assistant Carson Porter on an interim basis, but a late-season run landed the Hammerheads in the playoffs and resulted in Porter getting the head coaching job on a full-time basis.

Names To Know: The Hammerheads signed Aaron Wheeler, who played up front and on the backline for the Philadelphia Union, and Corben Bone, who played five seasons in MLS with Chicago and Philadelphia. All-USL PRO pick Ashani Fairclough returns to lead the Wilmington defense.

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