USL Championship ... New in 2021: Oakland Roots, Steve Cherundolo, three stadiums, academy launch

The USL Championship kicks off its 11th season this weekend with two games.

To accommodate the needs of its 31 teams around the country to be able to open with fans in the stands, the season will ramp up over the course of the next month. It won't be until the weekend of May 21-23 that there will be a full slate of 15 games.

Here's a look at 10 storylines in 2021:

1. Soccer takes root in Oakland. After years of sustained growth -- as recently as 2019 the USL Championship added seven new teams -- expansion has slowed. It added one team in 2020, the San Diego Loyola, and will welcome just one new team again in 2021, the Oakland Roots.

The Roots joined the USL from NISA, where they began play in 2019, drawing sell-out crowds at Laney College, the Oakland community college. The instant success they had was born out of their activism in the local community.



2. From 35 to 31 teams. The USL Championship suffered its biggest contraction since its launch a decade ago, losing a net four teams. These five teams (with first year in parentheses) aren't back:

Reno 1868 (2017). Finished with the best record in the shortened 2020 regular season.
Saint Louis FC (2016). Folded a year after MLS approved expansion into St. Louis.
North Carolina FC (2007). The former RailHawks have moved to League One.
Philadelphia Union II (2016). Operating this spring with an independent schedule.
Portland Timbers 2 (2015). Stated aim is to return in 2022 in a MLS U-23 league.

COVID-19 might not have been the primary reason each team left, but it was definitely a contributing factor.

3. Three new stadiums. MLS isn't the only league that will open three new stadiums in 2021. As part of the push to upgrade operating standards, the USL has pressed clubs to move into bigger stadiums and out of baseball stadiums. Three teams will play in new stadiums in 2021, in addition to Indy Eleven, which will return to Carroll Stadium after three seasons at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL Indianapolis Colts.

Charlotte Independence (American Legion Memorial Stadium). The city-owned stadium, opened in 1936, was renovated at a cost of $40.5 million. The Independence signed a 10-year lease to play at Legend Stadium, where it will open on July 7 against New York Red Bulls II. Early in Charlotte's effort to secure an MLS team, Legion Stadium was considered as a possible home. But the owner of Charlotte FC, David Tepper, is also the owner of the Carolina Panthers, and the MLS team will begin play in their NFL stadium, Bank of America Stadium, in 2023.

Colorado Springs Switchbacks (Weidner Field). The Switchbacks will open their new 8,000-seat downtown stadium with a friendly against Orange County SC on April 24. The stadium is a part of larger city development project. Its name is the same as that of the Switchbacks' former stadium. Weidner Apartment Homes is a club sponsor and minority owner.

Phoenix Rising (Wild Horse Pass). The Rising has relocated from Casino Arizona Field, which was built in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community near Scottsdale, to Wild Horse Pass at the Gila River Indian Community, near Chandler. It will open its new stadium (rendering) at 50 percent capacity against San Diego on April 30.



4. New alignment. Since it exploded from 14 teams in 2014 to 24 in 2015, the USL Championship has operated with two giant conferences. In 2021, it will divide each conference into two divisions.

Eastern Conference:
Atlantic Division: Charleston, Charlotte, Hartford, Loudoun United, Miami FC, NY Red Bulls II, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay.
Central Division: Atlanta United 2, Birmingham, Indy Eleven, Louisville City, Memphis 901, OKC Energy FC, Sporting Kansas City II, FC Tulsa.
Western Conference:
Mountain Division: Austin, Colorado Springs, El Paso, New Mexico United, Real Monarchs, Rio Grande Valley FC, San Antonio FC.
Pacific Division: LA Galaxy II, Las Vegas, Oakland, Orange County SC, Phoenix, Sac Republic FC, San Diego, Tacoma.

5. Mostly divisional play. In 2020, the USL cut down the Championship's regular-season schedule to 16 games. The fewest any team played was 13 (Loudoun United). In 2021, teams will play 32 games, two less than they did in 2019. To cut down on travel, teams will play the other teams in their division four times (two home and two away). Most teams will only play dour non-divisional rivals.

6. Latest playoff final. The top four teams in each division -- 16 in all -- will advance to the playoffs. The highest number of playoffs teams was 20 in 2019. The playoffs will again be a single-elimination tournament. The final will be played on Nov. 28, the latest it has ever been played.

7. Most extensive ESPN schedule. ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes will carry 19 USL Championship and USL League One games in 2021. The Rising opener at Wild Horse Pass on April 30 will kick off the 2021 national television schedule, airing on ESPN2. The final will air on ESPN or ESPN 2 and ESPN Deportes. Games not on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPN Deportes will stream live on ESPN+. “This is the biggest and brightest platform we’ve ever had for our league,” said USL executive vice president Court Jeske.

8. Cherundolo moves to Vegas. The Mayor of Hanover is now boss in Las Vegas. Former U.S. national team star Steve Cherundolo, who spent his entire 16-season pro career (1999-2014) with German club Hannover 96, will coach the Las Vegas Lights. Since retiring, he has been working as a coach and doing TV work in Germany. Also new in Vegas: the Lights will serve as LAFC's second team.

New USL Championship coaches:
Hartford Athletic. Harry Watling.
Rio Grande Valley FC. Wilmer Cabrera.
Colorado Springs Switchbacks. Brendan Burke.
Tacoma Defiance. Wade Webber.
Las Vegas Lights. Steve Cherundolo.
Memphis 901 FC. *Ben Pirmann.
ATL UTD 2. Tony Annan (interim coach).
*Interim coach at end of 2020.

9. MLS connection. Almost all independent USL Championship teams have signed MLS players for the 2021 season, many on loan. No team has signed more MLS players than San Antonio FC, which has signed eight.

San Antonio FC's MLS signings:
Emil Cuello (LA Galaxy)
Mathieu Deplagne (FC Cincinnati)
Justin Dhillon (Seattle Sounders)
Shandon Hopeau (Seattle Sounders, on loan)
Jasser Khmiri (Vancouver Whitecaps, on loan)
Chris Lema (NY Red Bulls)
Santiago Patino (Orlando City)
Axel Sjoberg (D.C. United).



10. Accent on youth. As a whole, the USL Championship is not a young league -- of the 22 picks on the two 2020 all-league teams, only four were under 25 -- but the USL is trying to change that. The new USL Academy League (map) will feature single youth teams from clubs in the USL Championship, League One and League Two playing in three-month windows over a 10-month period. The goal will be to have academy players starting to train and then playing alongside older players and finally becoming pros. A couple of clubs have had head starts. San Antonio FC’s Jose Gallegos just returned from tryouts at Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Sac Republic FC defender Hayden Sargis, 18, was a finalist for the USL Championship's 2020 Young Player of the Year.

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