The United Soccer League unveiled their full schedule for the 2016 season, and the ever-expanding league’s 29 teams will contest a total of 435 regular-season matches between March 25th and September 25th. Here are a few things that caught my attention from the Riverhounds schedule:

· The Hounds will play 30 regular season games this year: home-and-away against each of the other 13 teams in USL’s Eastern Conference, plus third matchups against Harrisburg and FC Cincinnati (at Highmark Stadium), and Bethlehem Steel FC and Rochester (on the road). I have no idea why they don’t just play a balanced, 26-game schedule. I understand that the Eastern Conference has 14 teams, and the Western has 15, and the Western teams would need to play 28 games to achieve full balance…..but how’d they settle on 30? More soccer for us, sure, but it feels “off.”


· Opening weekend (March 25th) in USL features 13 matches, but the Riverhounds won’t play in any of them. The Hounds kick off their campaign on Saturday, April 2nd at Highmark Stadium against the Rochester Rhinos, the defending USL champions. Hosting the defending champion (and their consistently stingy defense) in the first match of the year is a nice test to begin Mark Steffens’s second year in Pittsburgh, and a good opportunity to start the campaign off on a strong note.

· The Hounds will begin their defense of the Keystone Derby Cup (with fancy new branding sponsorship from the PA Lottery) against Harrisburg on the 2nd weekend of the year, also at Highmark Stadium. Harrisburg returns to Pittsburgh for the marquee Fourth of July home game. I hope USL has been smart enough (or the team has urged the league enough) to continue scheduling the Hounds at home on Independence Day. The final matchup between the in-state rivals takes place in Harrisburg on August 27th.

· The away game against New York Red Bulls II, who knocked the Riverhounds out of the playoffs in New York (well, New Jersey) last year, is scheduled for May 28th. The schedule says that game will be played at 10 PM. I can only assume that’s a typo or that the game time will be changed. Otherwise, that’s bizarre.

· Last year, the Hounds had to play 2 games in 3 nights on a trip to Canada, and while that was better than the matches on back-to-back nights that some USL clubs had to endure a few years back, it was less than ideal. As the schedule is currently constructed, all games are at least 3 full days apart, and there aren’t any absurdly lengthy road trip. From August 27th to September 10th, the Hounds travel to Harrisburg, then Orlando and Charlotte, and that’s the only instance of having to play more than two consecutive games away from Station Square.

· All home games will start at 7 PM. No more afternoon games at Highmark Stadium. That’s probably for the best, considering some of the scorching temperatures players had to deal with for a couple of summer afternoon kickoffs.

· There are a few more weekday games on the regular season schedule than there were last year, mostly in the second half of the season. Hopefully, the Hounds will fill those empty weekday slots in the first part of the year with another, preferably longer, run in the US Open Cup.

· The new expansion teams for 2016 are: Bethlehem Steel FC, Orlando City (B), Rio Grande Valley FC, Swope Park Rangers KC, San Antonio, and FC Cincinnati. The Riverhounds host Cincinnati in the final game of the regular season.

· As the size of the league increased, so did the size of the playoff field. Last year, six teams from each conference made the postseason, and the USL playoff structure was identical to the NFL’s playoff structure (top 2 seeds in each conference got byes, the highest remaining seed hosted the lowest). In 2016, eight teams from each conference will make the playoffs, no teams get byes, and a single-elimination knockout tournament decides the champion.

· The Hounds preseason training is well under way at their new indoor facility in Bethel Park. Several players under contract, players under trial, and players from last season’s squad who aren’t under contract for 2016 have been scrimmaging and conditioning in “unofficial workouts” as they get ready for the upcoming campaign. Formal practices start on February 15th, followed by several preseason exhibitions against college teams including Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Akron.

Posted in Riverhounds