Ten storylines for USL Championship's 10th season

The USL Championship kicks off its 10th season on Friday night with 36 teams, triple the number it finished its first season with in 2011. The league is a far shadow of its modest beginnings.

1. 10th season. USL PRO launched with 15 teams, but it quickly suffered a setback when a trio of teams in Puerto Rico folded early in the first season. Antigua Barracuda dropped out at the end of the 2013 after losing each of its 26 games. From those shaky beginnings, the USL Championship has built solid foundations in recent years. In 2019, three teams -- New Mexico United, Indy Eleven and Sac Republic FC -- averaged more than 10,000 fans a game. The success of the USL Championship resulted in the launch of USL League One, which will open its second season with 12 teams.

2. Louisville's Butchertown showpiece.Nothing says how ambitious the USL has become more than Lynn Family Stadium, which Louisville City, the 2017 and 2018 champion and 2019 runner-up, will open on April 11. All single-game seats have been sold out for the game against Birmingham Legion FC. The 11,700-seat stadium, located in the Butchertown neighborhood, isn't the first soccer-specific stadium a USL team has built from scratch, but it is the biggest. It has already attracted a second tenant for 2021:  Proof Louisville FC, which will play in the NWSL.



3. Landon Donovan finds calling. Since first retiring from the LA Galaxy in 2014, Landon Donovan has attempted several comebacks -- with the Galaxy, in Mexico with Leon and indoors with indoor San Diego Sockers last spring. He won't be playing for the San Diego Loyal, which kicks off his first USL Championship season Saturday against the Las Vegas Lights at the University of San Diego, but he will be doing just about everything else. He is a co-owner, executive vice president of soccer operations and head coach. “I said to my wife probably a week ago, I feel like I found my calling," he told AP about his work to build the Loyal from scratch. "I think for athletes who retire who have been so involved in a sport their whole life, it’s really hard to find passion again, because it’s all I knew, and you weren’t practicing anything else. I was so singularly focused on playing. Now I feel like I‘ve found what I’m supposed to be doing, again, which is a really nice feeling.”



4. Miami FC arrives. After welcoming six new teams in 2018 and seven in 2019, only two new teams will play in the USL Championship this season. Besides the San Diego Loyal, Miami FC will kick off in 2020. Just a few years ago, the idea of Miami FC playing in the USL would have been scoffed at. Owned by Italian media entrepreneur Riccardo Silva, Miami FC won both halves of the NASL's final regular-season championship, in 2017, before the league's collapse. It won the 2018 and 2019 NPSL summer titles before moving in rapid succession from the NPSL Founders' Cup to NISA and finally the USL. Miami FC GM Paul Dalglish described the move to buy the Ottawa Fury's franchise rights as an effort to find a "stable platform" to build its academy program and community work.

5. Focus on youth. Probably the biggest change in the USL in recent years has been the move of clubs to ramp up their academy programs. MLS teams have been bringing academy players into their USL teams, where they don't lose college eligibility, but independent USL teams have been following suit. Three Sac Republic FC academy products moved to German clubs last summer: Travian Sousa (Hamburg), Roberto Hategan (Nuremberg) and Quincy Butler (Hoffenheim). Arguably the biggest offseason signing in the USL was that of Jose Gallegos, who turned pro for San Antonio FC after playing last season on a USL academy contract. Other players to watch: Caden Clark, signed by the New York Red Bulls II to a pro contract, Blake Malone, signed by Orange County SC after electing to forgo eligibility at the University of North Carolina to turn pro, and Jonathan Gomez, signed by Louisville City on Thursday after leaving the FC Dallas academy.

6. Tim Howard gets out gloves. Howard joins two other former U.S. national team stars, Las Vegas head coach Eric Wynalda and Donovan, in becoming the face of their USL Championship teams. Like Donovan in San Diego, Howard is a part-owner of Memphis 901 FC and heads up its soccer operations as sporting director, but he will also return to the playing field. On Wednesday, he announced that he will play for Memphis 901.

7. On the move. Besides Louisville City, the Charleston Battery (Patriots Point Soccer Complex) and Timbers II (Hillsboro Stadium) will begin the 2020 season in new homes. The Battery's move follows the sale of MUSC Health Stadium, its home since 1999. Timbers 2 moved to Hillsboro after playing at Merlo Field, the University of Portland's soccer stadium, and Providence Park, home of the Timbers and Thorns. Colorado Springs has plans to move into a 8,000-seat stadium in 2021.

8. Eight USL Championship teams will begin 2020 with new head coaches:

OKC Energy FC. John Pascarella.
Hartford Athletic. Radhi Jaidi.
San Antonio FC. Alen Marcina.
Sac Republic FC, Mark Briggs.
Real Monarchs. Jamison Olave.
Saint Louis FC. Steve Trittschuh.
LA Galaxy II. Junior Gonzalez.
Philadelphia Union II. Sven Gartung.

(Olave and Gonzalez finished the 2019 season as interim coaches.)

9. A selling league. The moves came with modest transfer fees, but USL Championship teams found a home for players in MLS. Among those on the move were trio of players from the 2019 regular-season champion Phoenix Rising. Amadou Dia (Sporting KC), Adam Jahn (Atlanta United 2) and James Musa (Minnesota United). In building its roster for its MLS launch, Inter Miami dipped into the USL ranks for three players: Haitian Denso Ulysse (Tacoma Defiance), former U.S. U-17 George Acosta (Austin Bold) and German-American Julian Kiesewetter (El Paso Locomotive).

10. TV Watch. The meeting between Donovan's San Diego Loyal  and Wynalda’s Las Vegas Lights on Saturday -- 10:30 pm. ET on ESPNews -- will be the first of 19 regular-season games to air on ESPN linear networks (ESPN2, ESPNews and ESPN Deportes) in 2020, up from eight in 2019. In addition, more than 590 USL Championship games will air on ESPN+.

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