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MURRAY: 10 Games to Watch in the Championship’s Eastern Conference in 2020

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 01/09/20, 2:29PM EST


From playoff rematches to renewed rivalries, there’s plenty to watch for on the road to the playoffs

Louisville City FC and North Carolina FC meet on the final day of the regular season where there could be plenty on the line for both clubs. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

TAMPA, Fla. – The complete 2020 schedule for the USL Championship was announced on Thursday afternoon with the 595-game slate set to provide plenty of action and thrills in the league’s 10th anniversary season.

As we move toward crowning a title-winner in the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs, though, there are certain games that stand out on the schedule more than others. From meetings between long-time rivals, rematches from last season’s postseason, and matchups between sides looking to make it to the playoffs after missing out in 2019, a memorable campaign is in store.

Here are 10 games from the Eastern Conference I’ve got my eye on, you can find 10 from the Western Conference right here. Let’s get the ball rolling.

March 14 – Memphis 901 FC vs. Saint Louis FC

Both Memphis 901 FC and Saint Louis FC were in contention for a place in the playoffs late in the 2019 season, but then four-game losing streaks to end the season for each put paid to those hopes. With changes coming to both squads – some announced as of writing, some yet to be revealed – and the introduction of Steve Trittschuh as Saint Louis’ new Head Coach this early-season contest should give us an idea as to whether things are turning in the right direction for either squad. 

May 23 – Hartford Athletic vs. Birmingham Legion FC

Hartford Athletic will be looking to prove itself as it welcomes fellow second-year club Birmingham Legion FC - which reached the postseason in 2019 - to Dillon Stadium on May 23. | Photo courtesy TJ Sallah / Hartford Athletic

Birmingham Legion FC was the lone expansion side in the Eastern Conference to reach the postseason in its inaugural season in 2019, while Hartford Athletic struggled out of the gate and said goodbye to Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen in the offseason. Enter Radhi Jaidi, a former Tunisian international and most recently Southampton FC’s U-23 Head Coach, who is looking to make his mark in his first senior coaching position in Hartford. Jaidi’s approach should pay dividends for the Athletic, but we’ll be able to mark their progress as Legion FC comes to visit with an upgraded squad of its own that includes new signings Bolu Akinyode (Nashville SC), Alex Crognale (Columbus Crew SC) and 2019 Championship All-League selection Neco Brett (Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC). 

June 12 – Charlotte Independence vs. North Carolina FC

Matchups between the Charlotte Independence and North Carolina FC in the Championship since NCFC joined the league in 2018 have been one-sided in favor of North Carolina, which has posted a 4-0-1 record in the regular season against its Tar Heel State rival. That includes a 3-0-0 record on the road at the Sportsplex at Mathews, where the travelling support led by the Oak City Supporters has made its presence felt to cheer the visitors on to victory. The Independence will be desperate to change the storyline this year and taking victory on home turf in midseason could also provide a boost to the club’s postseason chances, where Charlotte is looking to make its return for the first time since the 2017 season. 

June 20 – Louisville City FC vs. Indy Eleven

The Louisville Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest is one of the marquee rivalries in the USL Championship, which means the first meeting between the sides that contested the 2019 Eastern Conference Final at Lynn Family Stadium is a game that shouldn’t be missed. This is the second of three meetings between the clubs in the regular season, with LouCity set to host the season finale on September 12 as well, and with the bulk of both rosters returning it should make for a great occasion with matchups like Antoine Hoppenot vs. Karl Ouimette, Speedy Williams vs. Kenney Walker and Oscar Jimenez vs. Tyler Pasher sure to grab the headlines. Add in the repercussions these meetings will have on the Eastern Conference standings and it’s an occasion every fan should have circled. 

August 8 – Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC vs. New York Red Bulls II

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and the New York Red Bulls II will both expect to be in postseason contention when they square off at Highmark Stadium on August 8. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC was transformed into a title-contender in two seasons by Head Coach Bob Lilley as it finished top of the Eastern Conference in 2019, but the new season is going to see big changes to the side’s lineup after some key departures led by 2019 Championship Defender of the Year Joe Greenspan (San Diego Loyal SC) and fellow All-League selection Neco Brett (Birmingham Legion FC). The good news for the Hounds is their other two All-League selections will be back to lead the new group in Kenardo Forbes and Thomas Vancaeyezeele, and they’ll take on a Red Bulls II side that will also have new faces ready to lead the way in 2020 as it looks to remain among the Eastern Conference’s contenders for a sixth consecutive season when Head Coach John Wolyniec’s side visits Highmark Stadium.

September 9 – Saint Louis FC vs. Louisville City FC

The sharp end of the regular season brings with it the final of three meetings in the regular season between Kings’ Cup rivals Saint Louis FC and Louisville City FC, who will square off at West Community Stadium with the chance the season series will be on the line. LouCity has held the upper hand since the clubs joined the league in the 2015 season with a 5-1-4 record against its Missouri rival and could be in position for another strong finish in the Eastern Conference as it enters the final two months of the campaign. For Saint Louis, the hope will be that it is in playoff contention and in a position to claim the rivalry series for the first time after prior meetings at West Community Stadium (June 13) and Lynn Family Stadium (August 8).

September 27 – Indy Eleven vs. New York Red Bulls II

Contests between Indy Eleven and the New York Red Bulls II have typically been tight affairs, with Indy gaining the upper hand in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs as it took a 1-0 victory behind a goal from former Red Bulls defender Karl Ouimette. Homefield advantage has been big in the series, too, with each team taking two victories on home turf over the past two seasons. With four weeks to go in the regular season the chances are this matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium will be an important one when it comes to playoff position for both squads as they look to continue their streaks of postseason participation.

October 2 – North Carolina FC vs. Charleston Battery – ESPNews

The Charleston Battery claimed the Southern Derby in 2019 on their way to a postseason berth, and will be looking to maintain the upper hand on North Carolina FC this year. | Photo courtesy Rob Kinnan / North Carolina FC

As successful as North Carolina FC has been against its in-state rival the Charlotte Independence, the inverse has been the case in its series with the Charleston Battery, where Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser’s side are undefeated (2-0-3) in five regular season meetings against NCFC. That’s the backdrop for what should be a compelling contest at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park on ESPNews in the buildup to the postseason. Both teams return numerous key figures from the past season, with North Carolina boasting midfielders Nazmi Albadawi and Ben Speas and goalkeeper Alex Tambakis in its ranks, while the Battery have already announced the return of leading scorer Zeiko Lewis and defender Jarad van Schaik for the new season. The Southern Derby – currently held by the Battery – should be in play, which will add a little extra to this nationally-televised contest.

October 9 – Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC vs. Miami FC – ESPN Deportes

The Miami FC’s arrival in the USL Championship was one of the biggest storylines of the offseason, and after four seasons in which it has found success wherever it has played there are no diminished expectations as the club enters the new decade. With the retention of numerous familiar faces from the 2019 season, the addition of former Championship All-League selection Romario Williams to open the club’s offseason acquisitions, Miami expects to be a contender this year. When Head Coach Nelson Vargas’ side arrives at Highmark Stadium to face Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on ESPN Deportes in the penultimate weekend of the season, we’ll know whether those aspirations have been achieved in what may be a clash between two postseason contenders.

October 17 – Louisville City FC vs. North Carolina FC

There’s a symmetry between the two meetings between Louisville City FC and North Carolina FC this season. After meeting at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park on the opening weekend of the regular season, the two sides then conclude the regular season as part of a 17-game slate scheduled for the final Saturday of the campaign. The preseason expectation will be that both sides are in solid playoff contention by the time they square off at Lynn Family Stadium, which means this matchup between coaches Dave Sarachan (NCFC) and John Hackworth (LouCity) could be a prelude to what’s to come in the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs. Having lost in its previous two visits to Louisville, North Carolina would certainly be hoping to come away with a win that would prove a confidence-booster to close the regular season.

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