Chattanooga defender Jason Ramos prepares to take a throw-in in a matchup against North Texas SC last season at Globe Life Park, which ended 2-2. The two sides meet again on May 8 / Photo courtesy North Texas SC
The 2021 USL League One season kicks off on April 10, making it the first professional men’s soccer league in the United States to begin its regular season campaign this year. As the action gets underway, here are five early season contests to circle on your calendar before May 10.
Greenville and Richmond were the top two teams in League One for most of last season until the Kickers faltered down the stretch. Richmond was one of only three teams to beat Greenville in 2020, defeating Triumph SC 2-1 thanks to a pair of first-half goals from Emiliano Terzaghi and Ryley Kraft. The Kickers reloaded during the offseason, and look a force to be reckoned with in the 2021 League One title conversation. This matchup is the first game of the season for both sides, and will be an excellent chance for each to measure their quality against another top team.
As League One’s only independent expansion side in 2020, Union Omaha took the league by storm, starting and ending the season on unbeaten runs of eight and five games, respectively. The Owls finished in second under Jay Mims, and will return most of their key players from last season. It will be the first chance for fans to see Greg Hurst and Conor Doyle in Omaha colors, both of whom arrived from Chattanooga in the offseason. As los Búhos eye up another run at the League One title, their first test will be Tormenta FC, who are hungry to improve upon last season’s eighth-place finish. The addition of former FC Tucson striker Azaad Liadi will bring an exciting new element to the South Georgia side’s attack, while key figures like Pablo Jara, Marco Micaletto, and Luca Mayr are back for another season in Statesboro.
A rematch of the 2019 League One Final is on the cards as the calendar turns to May. The two sides met just once last season (a 1-0 win for Greenville at home), and went on to finish in first and third - the inverse of 2019, when North Texas topped the table with Triumph SC two places behind them. These two clubs have been models of success over their first two seasons, and were the two highest-scoring attacks in League One in 2020. Whether it’s a goal-fest or a chess match between head coaches John Harkes and Eric Quill, this is one matchup you definitely don’t want to miss between the clubs which claimed the first two League One titles.
North Carolina FC’s first match as a member of League One is a tough task, as the Cary club welcomes defending title-winners Greenville to Sahlen’s Stadium. But make no mistake about it: there are plenty of players on this NCFC squad who can give Triumph SC trouble, including club captain Nazmi Albadawi (who is entering his seventh season with NCFC), midfield marshal Pecka, and energetic young forward Josh Coan, who bagged one of his four goals for FC Tucson last season in a matchup with Greenville. Triumph SC will make the short trip north wary of the threat their opponents pose, with the matchup providing a first opportunity for NCFC fans to see their new-look squad against another regional rival from the Carolinas.
If there’s any fixture that promises goals in League One’s opening month, it’s this one. North Texas led the league with 27 goals in 2020, while Chattanooga ranked third in goals per game. Both of last season’s matchups between the sides produced four goals: a dramatic 2-2 draw at Globe Life Park in which each team scored after the 85th minute, and a 3-1 win for North Texas at CHI Memorial Stadium. The May 8 meeting is the first game of the season for the Red Wolves, who rebuilt with 11 new signings in the offseason. The aim for Chattanooga under Head Coach Jimmy Obleda is simple: close the gap to League One’s top teams, and reach the League One postseason for the first time. Beating North Texas early on would represent a big statement by the large contingent of arrivals.