Photo: Courtesy of Harrisburg City Islanders
Hitting their stride in the USL PRO season, the Harrisburg City Islanders will look to maintain their strong start (5-2-1, 16 points, 5th place in USL PRO) heading into a difficult and unusual nine day stretch with four league matches.
Though the Islanders have not recorded a win against any of the current league front runners—they tied 2–2 with current leaders Orlando City, lost 2–1 to second place Charleston, and lost 2–0 to third place Richmond—they will have another opportunity on Friday to match up away to the second place Charleston Battery. That game kicks off a blistering stretch with the Islanders traveling the following night to match up with the Charlotte Eagles, before playing host to the Wilmington Hammerheads and Colorado Rapids Reserve squad in the following week. A quick look at this part of the Islanders schedule may reveal the challenge of four matches in nine days, but may easily miss the idiosyncrasies of USL PRO competition this season.
Two unusual aspects of USL PRO are highlighted in this four game stretch. For those who have kept an eye on lower division professional soccer, or lower division professional sports, the “weekend swing” is not an unusual scheduling model. Teams, even in some top level professional sports, will play a series of games on a road trip that saves on expenses, though in few sports with such an endurance based competition will games come on successive nights. The Friday matchup at Charleston followed by the tilt at mid-table Charlotte Saturday will test the depth and fitness of the recently injury-plagued Islanders.
Additionally, the Islanders will match up for the second time this season against the Colorado Rapids Reserve side. Results against non-USL PRO clubs, i.e. MLS reserve sides, do count in the USL PRO table, despite the lack of scheduling balance. For example, not all USL PRO clubs will play the same MLS reserve sides, thus creating an unfair advantage for some teams if a particular squad is weak, or a disadvantage is a reserve team is quite good. This inter-league play is a new feature to USL PRO this season, spelled out by the development agreement the two leagues signed in March.
One bit of fairness in the unbalanced or congested schedule is that all teams in USL PRO this season are facing the same scheduling challenges. Neither of these aspects are particularly appealing to fans of the traditional single table format. But USL seeking, and perhaps finding, ways to make the finances of lower division soccer more sustainable have to be seen as a benefit to the overall soccer culture and player development opportunities within the US soccer pyramid.