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MURRAY: 10 USL Championship Home Openers to Circle

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - [email protected], 03/23/21, 5:21PM EDT

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Regional rivalries, stadium openings highlight first set of contests revealed for 2021 season


After meeting in the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs, El Paso Locomotive FC and New Mexico United will square off in El Paso's Home Opener for the new campaign on May 8. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC

Hear that, off in the distance?

It’s the sound of a new USL Championship season approaching.

We’re now 32 days from now the 11th season in the league’s history, which will officially get underway on Saturday, April 24. Among the two games to kick the season off is one of the league’s best in-state rivalries as OKC Energy FC and FC Tulsa square off at Taft Stadium, and there’s plenty more where that came from in the 31 Home Openers that were announced on Tuesday.

Here’s a quick look at 10 games you should be circling now as we get ready for a massive season ahead.

OKC Energy
OKC Energy
APRIL 24
FC Tulsa
FC Tulsa

OKC Energy FC and FC Tulsa will renew acquaintances in the first Black Gold Derby of 2021 at Taft Stadium on the opening weekend of the campaign. | Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC

What’s better than welcoming your biggest rival for your home opener? How about getting to prove your offseason upgrades are going to make you a postseason contender again? For OKC Energy FC, the club’s absence from the USL Championship Playoffs for the past three campaigns has only been made worse by FC Tulsa’s ascendance last season.

All three meetings between the Black Gold Derby rivals were close last year, with Tulsa claiming the Victory Wrench with a thrilling 3-2 win at ONEOK Field in their final meeting of the season – a result that helped confirm Tulsa’s playoff spot. As Energy FC begins its second season under Head Coach John Pascarella, it will be looking to show the gap between the clubs has narrowed in what should be a hard-fought affair.  

Phoenix Rising FC
Phoenix Rising FC
APRIL 30
San Diego Loyal SC
San Diego Loyal SC

Phoenix Rising FC's new home at Wild Horse Pass in the Gila River Indian Community will bring increased capacity and new amenities to fans in the 2021 Championship season.

The first grand opening of the Championship season arrives at Wild Horse Pass at the Gila River Indian Community, where Phoenix Rising FC will be hoping to begin the defense of its second Western Conference Title in the Championship in style. The squad is still top-notch with the arrival of Aodhan Quinn accompanying the return of numerous key players led by two-time Championship MVP Solomon Asante.

San Diego Loyal SC, though, has big plans of its own for its second season, and could take inspiration from the last time Phoenix opened a new home four years ago. Back then, Ben Spencer was in the lineup for Toronto FC II as the visitors spoiled the party. Now he’s part of SD Loyal’s squad, which will be looking to put down its own marker to start the new season.

San Antonio FC
San Antonio FC
MAY 1
Colorado Springs
Switchbacks FC
Colorado

After returning to contender status during the 2020 season as it finished top of Group D, San Antonio FC goes into Alen Marcina’s second year as Head Coach looking for even more. With a balanced core led by Young Player of the Year finalist Jose Gallegos, veterans such as PC and Matt Cardone, and newcomers like Ollie Wright, Cam Lindley and Chris Lema, the prospects are looking good for more success.

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC is looking to find what San Antonio has as it enters its new era with the anticipation of a new stadium opening – more on that in a minute – a sharpened crest and a new Head Coach, the highly-regarded Brendan Burke. This is going to be a big early test for the Switchbacks and their new squad – which includes former USMNT midfielder Jose Francisco Torres – that should provide some well-played, entertaining action. 

 El Paso Locomotive FC
El Paso Locomotive FC
MAY 8
New Mexico United
New Mexico United

If you’ve seen any of the tilts between El Paso Locomotive FC and New Mexico United over their first two seasons in the Championship, you’ve got not only this showdown at Southwest University Park circled, but likely the other three this regular season as soon as the full schedule comes out. (Not long, we promise.)

Between possessing two of the brightest young coaches in the Championship, both El Paso’s Mark Lowry and New Mexico’s Troy Lesesne are both still under the age of 40, styles that make for tremendous fluctuations in fortune like the best prize fight, and two of the most passionate fanbases in the country, you’re going to want to tune in for the pregame bragging, the game itself, and the postgame fallout as United looks to take revenge for its penalty shootout elimination in last year’s Championship Playoffs at Locomotive FC’s home.

Indy Eleven
Indy Eleven
MAY 8
FC Tulsa
FC Tulsa

Indy Eleven fans made a memorable impression at Michael A. Carroll Stadium during the 2019 USL Championship Playoffs, and we can expect more as the club makes its return to the venue full-time this season. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville

For Indy Eleven, what’s old is new again in 2021, and this matchup – the first regular season contest to be held at Michael A. Carroll Stadium since the Boys in Blue joined the Championship before the 2018 season – should be a great day for the players and any fans that are able to be in attendance.

What adds to the intrigue is the matchup, with FC Tulsa making the trip up to face their new Central Division rivals for the first time in either club’s history. With the ability in both squads and two top coaches in Indy’s Martin Rennie and Tulsa’s Michael Nsien, this matchup has all the ingredients for a fascinating contest.

Hartford Athletic
Hartford Athletic
MAY 15
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Hartford Athletic surprised many when they usurped Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC at the end of the 2021 Championship regular season to finish on top of Group F and earn the first home playoff game in the club’s history in just its second season. Now the two rivals – set to feature in the Atlantic Division this campaign – will get an early meeting at Dillon Stadium to start the new season.

There’s added intrigue to this one thanks to Hartford’s offseason comings and goings. Out is Radhi Jaidi, whose one year in charge brought a substantial change to the club’s on-field mentality and approach to building a club from the ground up. In comes former Chelsea FC and West Ham United Academy coach Harry Watling, who will lead a professional club for the first time. A matchup with Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley could be a baptism by fire and could give us an idea of what both these clubs have in store for 2021.

New Mexico United
New Mexico United
MAY 15
Austin Bold FC
Austin Bold FC

It may not be a capacity crowd on hand when New Mexico United makes its return to Isotopes Park this season, but it will be a home opener everyone at the club will embrace after competing on the road throughout 2020. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexic

It will have been 574 days since New Mexico United hosted an official game in its home state when Austin Bold FC comes to Isotopes Park for United’s Home Opener, with New Mexico’s run last season to the postseason made all the more impressive by the duress of travel it was earned under.

The reality remains that it may be a little while before we see The Lab rocking in the manner we came accustomed to throughout the 2019 regular season – when New Mexico claimed a playoff place on the final day of the campaign – but simply having that homefield advantage again should give captain Devon Sandoval and his teammates a serious boost as they host Bold FC.

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Colorado Springs
Switchbacks FC
MAY 21
New Mexico United
New Mexico United

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC will officially christen the new Weidner Field, its 8,000-seat downtown stadium, with a friendly against Orange County SC on April 24, but this night against New Mexico United is the one that everyone associated with the club has been looking toward since the deal was struck and shovels put in the ground late in 2019, and one fans won’t want to miss.

The Switchbacks’ new-look squad led by Head Coach Brendan Burke will want to rise to the occasion against a New Mexico United side that will be coming off the high of its own home opener the previous weekend. The attacking nature we can expect from the two sides, though, should mean the potential for in-game fireworks in addition to whatever else is planned for a historic night.

Charlotte Independence
Charlotte Independence
JUNE 5
Tampa Bay Rowdies
Tampa Bay Rowdies

It’s been years – and multiple other venues – in coming, but the Charlotte Independence will finally move into their newly renovated 10,000-seat downtown home at historic Legion Stadium to kick off June. And what’s more, they’ll get a headline attraction in the defending Eastern Conference Title holders the Tampa Bay Rowdies to open the new spot, too.

With a month of the season gone, we should already know a decent amount about where these two sides – both of whom reached the Championship Playoffs a season ago – stand when it comes to contention for the new campaign. The potential for the biggest crowd in the Independence’s history, though, could inspire the hosts and leaders Brandon Miller, Hugh Roberts and Enzo Martinez to the sort of performance that can make for a memorable debut.

Oakland Roots SC
Oakland Roots SC
JUNE 19
Sacramento Republic FC
Sacramento Republic FC

Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC

It’s the last home opener of the season, but it might be one of the best. The Championship’s newest on-field arrival Oakland Roots SC facing a new rival in Sacramento Republic FC at historic Laney Stadium. And on Juneteenth, no less? That’s a lot.

Roots SC’s home gameday atmosphere has already achieved a degree of notoriety, from the pregame to the postgame. Between that and the Championship-proven talent the club has brought in this offseason led by midfielders Wal Fall and Saalih Muhammad, himself an Oakland native, forwards Tyler Blackwood and Lindo Mfeka and Curacao international Zeus de la Paz in goal, this could be a great day in downtown Oakland. 

Others to Watch – Birmingham Legion FC vs. Indy Eleven (May 1); Rio Grande Valley FC vs. New Mexico United (May 1); Charleston Battery vs. Charlotte Independence (May 14); Orange County SC vs. Sacramento Republic FC (May 22); San Diego Loyal SC vs. Las Vegas Lights FC (May 29)

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