With kickoff a little over a month away, we’ve decided to take a deeper look into this year’s USL schedule. The league’s structure has each club playing an unbalanced schedule, facing every in-conference opponent twice with a few additional matches against mostly regional opponents. There are a few exceptions – looking at you, Phoenix Rising vs Toronto FC II and Galaxy II vs Red Bulls 2. Due to the unbalanced nature of the schedule, some clubs may face an easier route to playoffs than others.
To calculate the relative ease of each club’s schedule, we referred to our 2016 Indomitable City Soccer Elo ratings. Saint Louis FC’s rating from the Western Conference will carry over to the Eastern Conference and expansion clubs, Ottawa Fury FC and Tampa Bay Rowdies, will have their ratings set to 1100, the same as an average club in the league.
Then, the 32 match season was broken down into four quarters, of eight matches each. The clubs are ranked based on the easiest to hardest schedule this season.
1). Bethlehem Steel FC: (+5.66)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 3 (+12.79)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 2 (-9.21)
Boasting the league’s easiest schedule, Bethlehem will look for the club’s first playoff appearance in their sophomore year of USL play. Out of the club’s regional opponents — Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Toronto FC II and FC Cincinnati — only FCC were a playoff team last year.
2). Saint Louis FC: (+4.16)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 4 (+34.88)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 1 (-25.00)
The season gets off to a rough start for Saint Louis FC, with Preki and Co. facing the hardest opening quarter in the league. Six of their first eight opponents were playoff clubs last year. However, things may be easier from there, as the final quarter of the season is the easiest eight match stretch for any team in the East. In fact, Saint Louis has the East’s hardest first half, and the easiest second half of the season.
3). Toronto FC II (+2.22)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 2 (+24.54)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 4 (-20.21)
Toronto FC II will try to emulate the first team’s success and find their way into the playoffs for the first time in club history. An odd fixture to open the year sees the Ontario club making the cross-conference trek to the much warmer Arizona to face newly rebranded, Phoenix Rising FC. With a tough final quarter that features six 2016 playoff teams, it will be important that TFC II make a lot of progress in the table before other strong Eastern clubs build momentum.
4). Richmond Kickers (+1.78)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 3 (+32.34)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 4 (-10.41)
Richmond’s third quarter of the season is the second easiest stretch of eight matches, only slightly behind Saint Louis’ final quarter. If history is any indication, the Kickers will find themselves postseason bound in a seventh consecutive season.
5). Tampa Bay Rowdies (+1.65)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 3 (+17.30)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 4 (-5.32)
Playoffs are the expectation for the Rowdies’ first season in the USL, and they are paired with the schedule to make it happen. Tampa’s hardest quarter of the season is the lowest in the East.
6). Rochester Rhinos (+1.06)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 3 (+13.88)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 4 (-15.38)
Only a season removed from their 2015 USL title, Rochester will look to make a fourth appearance in the postseason. Coupled with a new regional opponent in Ottawa, and another series against the reigning champions, NYRBII, the Rhinos will be in the heart of another playoff chase if everything goes right this season.
7). Harrisburg City Islanders (+0.81)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 2 (+16.75)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 3 (-10.88)
After finishing last season with only two losses in their final ten matches, the City Islanders have shown promise when stringing together results in good form. If others within Eastern Conference take a step back this season, Harrisburg may be the club to benefit, with a postseason berth as that reward.
8). FC Cincinnati (+0.71)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 2 (+17.27)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 3 (-33.11)
An easier first half of the season could see FCC building up points early in the year in preparation for a difficult third quarter, in which Harrisburg and Tampa are the only teams on the docket that did not make the playoffs last year.
9). Pittsburgh Riverhounds (-0.15)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 3 (+22.20)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 4 (-24.30)
The Riverhounds follow up a rather disappointing 2016 with the East’s most average schedule.
10). New York Red Bulls II (-0.65)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 1 (+14.29)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 3 (-14.34)
The defending champs’ 2017 reveals a slightly harder fixture list than expected. Helped along by an easy first quarter, the Baby Bulls could get off to a good start this year.
11). Louisville City FC (-1.80)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 1 (+18.07)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 2 (-19.05)
Armed with the East’s easiest opening quarter, Louisville will look to get off to a good start and try to make a third straight appearance in the Eastern Conference final.
12). Orlando City B (-2.06)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 3 (+9.25)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 4 (-14.25)
Orlando City B will join their parent club in kick starting the year off in a new stadium. With a new in-state competitor just down Interstate-4, the little Lions will look to do better than just squeak into the playoffs this year.
T13). Charlotte Independence (-2.20)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 3 (+24.77)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 2 (-22.11)
Last year, the Independence were one of the more consistent clubs in the league, and it resulted in the first playoff appearance in the team’s history. Charlotte’s second quarter of the season is the hardest eight match streak for any eastern club this year. If the team can avoid any serious pitfalls in the middle of the season, expect Charlotte to make another appearance in the playoffs.
T13). Ottawa Fury FC (-2.20)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 2 (+8.68)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 4 (-10.45)
With regional matches against Toronto FC II, Rochester, Tampa Bay, and the defending champs, New York Red Bulls II, Fury have a tough draw in their inaugural USL campaign. Ottawa should take advantage of an easier first half before gearing up for what might be a tough second half.
15). Charleston Battery (-4.01)
Easiest Quarter: Quarter 1 (+3.39)
Hardest Quarter: Quarter 2 (-8.48)
With three of their four geographic matches — Charlotte, Louisville, and Richmond — having played in the playoffs last year, Charleston have been drawn the hardest schedule of the Eastern Conference.
With eyes turned towards kick-off, clubs across the league have entered preseason play, each one with the hopes of lifting the cup at the end of the season. While not every club has the same path to the playoffs, it is a long season and anything can happen in any given match.
What are your thoughts on your clubs’ Strength of Schedule? Is their a club you think will eithr outperform or under-perform their predicted schedule? Let us know in the comments below!