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USL review: NCFC stuns Louisville City, Shane Malcolm gets hat trick and more

ATL UTD 2 forward Dion Pereira sprints past Hartford Athletic defender Raymond Lee on Saturday, March 9, 2019 at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Ga. (Photo: Atlanta United, Eric Rossitch)

The 2019 USL Championship season kicked off with a bang last weekend, drawing more than 90,000 fans to games across the country.

Unlike some other teams in the league, two-time defending champion Louisville City FC, did not begin the season with a strong performance Saturday and lost 4-1 to North Carolina FC.

In Cary, N.C., the Boys in Purple looked like a Corvette driving in the dark without headlights. Potential for a successful attack was there, but it lacked precision, crispness and combinations. 

Louisville, coached by John Hackworth, had chances and fired off six shots before North Carolina FC got on the board and 21 shots in all — but only one slipped by NCFC goalkeeper Alex Tambakis, and that didn’t come until the 94th minute. Louisville also controlled nearly 60 percent of possession and also had five corner kicks.

This team is a bit different from the one that won two USL titles. Goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh and defender Kyle Smith moved on to Major League Soccer, Golden Boot winner Cameron Lancaster went to Nashville SC and precise passer Ilija Ilić signed with Indy Eleven. Louisville has some work to do to build cohesion.

Perhaps the gap has closed between Louisville and other squads during the offseason. North Carolina FC missed the playoffs last year and outplayed the reigning champ four months later.

In his first league match as NCFC’s manager, former interim USMNT coach Dave Sarachan employed a 4-4-1-1 that saw four different players score goals. Ulrich Ewolo, Tommy McCabe, Marios Lomis and Robert Kristo all beat the Louisville defense. But perhaps more impressive than NCFC’s scoring total was how stout its defense was, tallying 18 tackles and 36 clearances. Time and time again, the defenders denied Louisville good looks at goal. Of Louisville’s 21 shots, only one forced a save.

Coming off coaching the U.S., Sarachan’s hire was arguably the most attention-grabbing of the offseason. And blasting the reigning champ is a good way to start.

These two teams won’t meet again until Aug. 24.

Things to know

  • A story on the league’s website pointed out how teams are trading and using international roster spots. The Championship made these spots tradable assets prior to the start of the 2018 season. Some teams feel they have strong prospects in their academy to fill their rosters, making them more likely to trade those spots. Just a little more than a year of the rule going into effect, Bethlehem Steel FC has the most international roster spots with 12, while Saint Louis FC has the least with just three. In all, 16 spots have been traded.
  • Four of the top six crowds in the league’s opening weekend hailed from stadiums in the Southwest. New Mexico United and El Paso Locomotive each drew sellout crowds, while Las Vegas and San Antonio each drew more than 8,000 fans. Phil West of Pro Soccer USA talked to supporters of some of those teams about the rise of soccer in the southwestern corridors of the country.
  • According to the Hartford Courant, expansion side Hartford Athletic will begin playing home games at Rentschler Field — the home of UConn’s football team — on an interim basis, beginning in May. The Athletic hope to begin playing at Dillon Stadium, an 80-year-old site undergoing renovations, in mid-June.
  • Seven players ages 20 or younger played for ATL UTD 2 in its season-opening win over Hartford Athletic. One of those players was 17-year-old Will Vint, a former Manchester United academy member. Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra and Frank de Boer were all in attendance to watch the kids kick it around.
  • The seven USL Championship expansion sides posted an 0-5-2 record over the weekend, with New Mexico and Austin getting draws.

Player of the Week

Easy. Shane Malcolm, a Guam international for the Colorado Springs Switchbacks, notched the first hat trick of the 2019 USL season in his side’s 4-1 victory over LA Galaxy II.

Malcolm, 27, is competing in his third USL season, all of which have been with the Switchbacks. Typically saddled up high on the right side, he’s scored 11 goals and assisted on nine more the past two seasons with the Switchbacks.

Born in Jamaica and raised in Florida, Malcolm is able to play with the Guam national team through his grandmother. He’s made 24 appearance and scored twice for Guam, last playing in a friendly against Mongolia on Sept. 6, 2018.

Malcolm scored two goals with his right foot and one with his head, all from inside the box.

Other performances of note include:

  • Brendan Moore saved six shots and got a clean sheet in a 2-0 win for ATL UTD 2 against Hartford Athletic.
  • Deshorn Brown notched a brace in a 3-1 win for OKC Energy FC against El Paso Locomotive FC. His first goal, just 22 seconds in, was the fastest in USL Championship history.
  • Tom Barlow scored twice for Red Bulls II in a 3-1 win over fellow MLS affiliate Swope Park Rangers.

Watch this

An easy candidate for goal of the week. In his USL Championship debut, 29-year-old Honduran midfielder Christian Altamirano dances around one defender, cuts through another and lofts a shot into the high far corner of the net. The Tulsa Roughnecks wound up drawing 1-1 with Timbers 2.

Congolese footballer Phanuel Kavita put this one in the roof of the goal for Saint Louis FC. His celebration was fun, too.

Billy. Forbes. Y’all.

It’s pretty cool that Devon Sandoval gets to play for his hometown club. Here, he rips a right-footed shot from just outside the box for the first goal in club history.

Okay, this isn’t a goal, but Bethlehem Steel FC’s Anthony Fontana (21) and James Chambers (45) made Birmingham Legion defenders look pretty silly here.

And this was just very, very, very unfortunate.

They said it

Pittsburgh Riverhounds midfielder Kevin Kerr to USLChampionship.com: “The first game, you can feel the tension. You can feel everybody a little more tuned in this week. We’re finally playing for some points, and we’re confident that we can go down there and get a result.”

USL President Jake Edwards in the Memphis Commercial Appeal: “Soccer belongs in Memphis. It’s not a wine-and-cheese sport, just as Memphis is not a wine-and-cheese town. This is a tribal game – blue collar. It brings communities and individuals from all walks of life together and unites them in a common cause. Across the world – from Madrid, to Manchester, to Melbourne – entire cities rally around their local soccer clubs. They cheer, sing songs and wave smoke in pursuit of shared glory. It’s what makes this game special.”

Loudoun United head coach Richie Williams to the Washington Post: “We want to win, but we want to do it in the right way because we are trying to develop young professionals. There is a bit of a balance.”

North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik to gathered media at a luncheon last week: “I believe (MLS) will go beyond 28 (teams) just like every other major sports league in our country. And so, whether we get this last (expansion) slot or not, it’s been a great experience to go through the process, we’ve improved our positioning for the slots that (MLS) will be opening up, and ultimately, of course we want to play at the highest level. I’ve said that from Day One. But I believe that we should build (a downtown Raleigh stadium) regardless. And we are going to build it regardless. Our community needs it and we’ve got two great soccer teams to play in it as anchor tenants and they are many, many other opportunities to bring in great events.”

Hartford Athletic coach Jimmy Nielson to media after the loss to ATL UTD 2: “I think it was a well-deserved loss. Atlanta wanted tonight’s match more than we did. If you combine that will with the quality that we brought into tonight’s game, you can’t expect to win. Too many of our guys didn’t perform on our team tonight. When you have seven or eight guys not performing, it’s very very hard to win a game.”

Game of the Week

Friday, 7 p.m. ET – Indy Eleven at Charlotte Independence

Indy lost its season opener 2-1 to Saint Louis FC. After bringing in players, such as Thomas Enevoldsen, Ilija Ilić and Dane Kelly this offseason, they’ll look to score more often. Meanwhile, Charlotte has playoff ambitions and hopes to start the 2019 season off on the right foot. They brought in head coach Jim McGuinness, who previously coached at Celtic and in China, among other stops. Charlotte also brought back 2017 Golden Boot runner-up Enzo Martinez and landed Hermann Trophy winner Andrew Gutman on loan from Celtic.

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