By MIKE GRAMAJO
After a busy offseason, USL Pro is back this weekend with more teams and more Major League Soccer influence.
Three new expansion franchises will make their debut, including Oklahoma City Energy FC and Sacramento Republic FC, but all eyes should be on LA Galaxy II, the first MLS-owned team in USL Pro. MLS clubs will likely be watching Galaxy II to see whether the model provides a better solution for developing talent – the roster includes mostly homegrown and reserve talent from the Galaxy.
After having just four USL Pro teams partnered with MLS clubs last year, that number jumps to 11 for this season as USL Pro looks to have all of its clubs affiliated with an MLS franchise by next year.
Other clubs will see re-branding this year with the LA Blues becoming Orange County Blues FC and Phoenix FC becoming Arizona United. Despite seeing two clubs fold during the offseason, Antigua Barracuda and VSI Tampa Bay, USL Pro expands to 14 clubs this season.
For reigning champions Orlando City SC, this season will be their last in the lower division after they were awarded a 2015 MLS expansion franchise late last year.
Here’s at look at USL Pro’s opening matches:
CHARLESTON BATTERY VS. ORLANDO CITY (Saturday, March 22 at 7:30 p.m. ET)
Orlando City likely has high hopes for a strong final USL Pro season before joining MLS next year and they’ll have their chance to get off to a strong start Saturday when they visit Charleston Battery at Blackbaud Stadium.
The two sides last met in last year’s semifinals, which resulted into a victory for the Lions but saw the ejections of Orlando forward Long Tan and Charleston defender Colin Falvey after tensions flared.
Charleston’s squad depth is bolstered by five players who were loaned from the Vancouver Whitecaps, per the MLS-USL agreement, which includes forwards Mamadou Diouf and Marlon Ramirez. Meanwhile, Orlando City only received midfielder Mikey Lopez on-loan from Sporting Kansas City despite having been able to acquire four Kansas City players during the 2013 season.
The Battery finished in third place with 45 points in the 2013 USL PRO standings, nine points away from second-place Orlando City who finished with 54 points.
LA GALAXY II VS. ORANGE COUNTY BLUES (Saturday, March 22 at 10:30 p.m. ET)
The Southern California derby makes its debut when the Orange County Blues FC pay a visit to the StubHub Center on Saturday afternoon.
After going through several front office changes, the Blues saw key players from the 2013 season leave during the offseason, some of which include midfielder Rodrigo Lopez, who went on to sign with Sacramento Republic FC and goalkeeper Carl Woszcynski, who joined Orlando City.
However, the Blues were able to acquire former Chivas USA goalkeeper Patrick McLean, while also bolstering their midfield with the addition of William Prado and forward Gibson, which may help the team bounce back from finishing in sixth place with 40 points in 2013.
What do you think of opening weekend in the USL PRO? Do you think Orlando City can repeat as champions? Can both California clubs become worthy contenders? What matches are you waiting for?
Share your thoughts below.