Venue: American Legion Memorial Stadium; Charlotte, N.C.
Kickoff: 5 p.m. ET
Weather: Mostly sunny, 57°
Series (First Meeting): 7-4-4 - CLT (2015)
The 16th all-time meeting between two of the league's oldest clubs in the Charlotte Independence (12-12-6, 6th - 2022) and Richmond Kickers (14-7-9, 1st - 2022) will pit two of the USL's greatest goalscorers against each other. The USL Championship's all-time leading scorer, Dane Kelly, has returned to Charlotte as League One's all-time scoring leader, Emiliano Terzaghi, fittingly welcomes the Jamaican attacker to the league.
The Richmond Kickers enjoyed a record-breaking 2022 in its 30th season of play to claim the 2022 League One Players’ Shield. Thrice-consecutive MVP Emiliano Terzaghi led the way with his 17 goals a season ago as the Argentine became the first player in American outdoor professional soccer history to be named MVP in three consecutive seasons. Richmond returns most of its productivity in 2023 but will certainly feel the departures of MVP candidate and Assists Champion Jonathan Bolanos along with Young Player of the Year Ethan Bryant. Returning Terzaghi and 2021 Goalkeeper of the Year and back-to-back All-League selection Akira Fitzgerald will help the Kickers push for postseason glory once more.
On the other hand, the Independence are set to retain 79% of their goalscoring production from a season ago, largely in the form of the returning tandem of Tresor Mbuyu and Khori Bennett who headline what looks to be one of the most potent attacking units in the league in 2023. Charlotte will also welcome back a pair of former Jacks from the club’s USL Championship days in Liberia international defender Joel Johnson and the Championship’s all-time leading scorer Dane Kelly. Goalkeeping and defending may be a concern for the Jacks in 2023 but that attacking unit will be hard for just about any team to handle.
CLT - Tresor Mbuyu: In the 26-year-old Congolese attacker’s fourth professional season and third in Charlotte, Mbuyu exploded for 11 goals and eight assists in 27 league appearances a season ago. The April 2022 Player of the Month served as a difference maker all season long, recording the second-best goals added mark (3.01) in the league according to American Soccer Analysis. Scoring may be tough on Saturday, though, as Mbuyu has failed to score on Kickers 'keeper Akira Fitzgerald in six previous meetings.
RIC - Akira Fitzgerald: Now just one appearance shy of becoming the first player in League One history to reach 100 regular season appearances, Akira Fitzgerald is back for his fifth season in RVA in what will be the Japanese-American goalkeeper’s 13th professional campaign. The 2021 Goalkeeper of the Year and back-to-back All-League selection faced the most shots and most shots on target in a single season in league history in 2023. In response, Fitzgerald recorded the most saves in a single season in league history with 105 with a save percentage of 75%. Richmond will need a big game from Fitzgerald on Sunday as the Kickers face Charlotte's triple-threat of attackers in Tresor Mbuyu, Khori Bennett and Dane Kelly.
CLT: D Héctor Acosta, D Carson Talboys
RIC: F David Olsen, F Ethan Vanacore-Decker
Venue: Regal Soccer Stadium; Knoxville, Tenn.
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET
Weather: Mostly cloudy, 46°
Series (First Meeting): 0-0-0 (2023)
In what’s expected to be a near-capacity crowd in downtown Knoxville on Saturday evening, the Week One slate wraps up with the debut of the country’s newest professional clubs as One Knoxville SC and Lexington SC start their respective professional journeys in a newly minted rivalry with a barrel and bottle on the line.
Joining League One after claiming USL League Two's South Central Division title in its debut 2022 season, the chemistry of Knoxville’s 2023 squad should already be relatively well-developed thanks to the numerous connections through Head Coach Mark McKeever’s time at the NCAA and League Two levels. Building from the back, Knoxville will welcome in All-League First Team defender Jalen Crisler from Richmond and ultra-productive defender Jordan Skelton from North Carolina. Knoxville will also pair USL Championship and League One veterans Angelo Kelly-Rosales, Jake Keegan and Jimmie Villalobos with former youth internationals Frank Ross and Ahinga Selemani who both played in Europe a season ago.
Lexington SC enters its first season with a young roster; more than half of LSC's roster is made up of players entering either their first or second seasons as professionals. Stockley’s side will rely on the leadership of its handful of veterans, namely NASL and USL League One veteran midfielder Don Smart, Jamaican international goalkeeper Amal Knight, and the former FC Tucson tandem of Kaelon Fox and Charlie Machell. With a youthful and diverse squad composed of players from North America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania, it will be interesting to see who steps up this season to etch their name into Lexington soccer history.
KNX - Jordan Skelton: Knoxville’s signing of former North Carolina defender Jordan Skelton could be huge in the expansion side’s inaugural professional campaign. Despite some lackluster goalkeeping in Cary skewing the defensive numbers a bit, the veteran USL defender enjoyed yet another productive season in 2022. Skelton led the league with 31 blocks and 164 clearances while also leading all defenders with 1,539 passes completed and 149 duels won. That individual productivity was apparent in American Soccer Analysis’ evaluations; Skelton led the league in goals added.
LEX - Don Smart: Easily the most experienced member of Lexington’s inaugural squad, Don Smart signed with LSC following a productive two-year stint in Greenville which saw the 35-year-old Jamaican midfielder score five times and dish out four assists across two seasons to lead Triumph SC to the 2021 League One Final. In 2022, Smart finished 15th in the league with his 38 chances created and ninth with 49 tackles. No stranger to first-year clubs, Smart has now been a part of five different clubs during their respective inaugural seasons.