Everything You Need to Know About the USL Championship in 2021

By Ben Morris in Soccer
| March 9, 2021 9:51 am PDT

It’s safe to say that the USL Championship has undergone some drastic changes during the offseason.

The second tier of American soccer was decimated by the pandemic last year, causing a number of clubs to fold, while the 2020 USL Championship final was cancelled, denying the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Phoenix Rising the chance to win the title.

But this year, the new-look USL Championship promises to provide US soccer fans with stacks of action.

With four new divisions and a host of comings and goings to discuss, the USL Championship is going to look a whole lot different this year.

In this post, you will find everything you need to know about the 2021 USL Championship, with information on all the team changes, format alterations, conference and division alignments, and much more.

What Has Changed for the 2021 USL Championship

There are plenty of notable changes to get to grips with before the 2021 USL Championship gets underway. Let’s kick things off by checking out the high-profile alterations.

  • The 2021 USL Championship is the eleventh season of the competition
  • The start of the season is tentatively scheduled for May 1
  • 31 teams will compete across two conferences – Western and Eastern
  • The two conferences are made up of four divisions – Pacific, Mountain, Central, and Atlantic
  • Each team will play 32 games across the regular season
  • The Tampa Bay Rowdies are the defending Eastern Conference champions
  • Phoenix Rising is the reigning Western Conference title holder

Team Changes for the 2021 USL Championship

Following a series of offseason movements, the number of teams competing in the league has fallen from 35 to 31.

Despite clinching the regular season title last season, Reno 1868 FC folded in November 2020, ceasing operations due to the financial impacts of the pandemic. Saint Louis FC also folded for the same reason, although St. Louis City SC is aiming to join MLS as an expansion franchise in 2023.

Philadelphia Union II and Portland Timbers 2 have been withdrawn from the USL Championship by their respective MLS parents clubs, while North Carolina FC has moved to USL League One.

On the flip side, Oakland Roots SC has joined the USL Championship from NISA. The California outfit will play in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division.

Analyzing the New USL Championship Format in 2021

Last season, the 35 USL Championship participants were separated into eight groups of four or five teams. The two conferences were each made up of four groups, with the top eight from each conference qualifying for the playoffs.

However, the format for the 2021 USL Championship has changed dramatically.

The Western Conference will feature 15 teams this season – eight in the Pacific Division and seven in the Mountain Division. Meanwhile, the 16 Western Conference sides will be split evenly between the Central Division and the Atlantic Division.

Teams will play their division opponents four teams during the regular season, with two home games and two away games. The remaining four matches in the Atlantic, Central, and Pacific Divisions, as well as the eight remaining matches in the Mountain Division, will be played against regional or cross-conference opponents.

Let’s take a closer look at the new USL Championship divisions.

The 2021 USL Championship Western Conference

The Western Conference only has 15 participants this year, as opposed to 18 in 2020. Last season’s champion Reno 1868 is the obvious absentee in 2021, but the addition of Oakland Roots has given the West a new look.

Mountain Division

  • Austin Bold
  • Colorado Springs Switchbacks
  • El Paso Locomotive
  • New Mexico United
  • Real Monarchs
  • Rio Grande Valley
  • San Antonio

The Mountain Division stretches from Real Monarchs in northern Utah all the way down to Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas. Along with Rio Grande, there are three other Texas-based teams in the Mountain Division – Austin Bold, San Antonio, and El Paso Locomotive.

Elsewhere, Colorado Springs Switchbacks and New Mexico United complete the line-up.

San Antonio, El Paso, and New Mexico all qualified for the playoffs last season, with the former finishing just three points behind Reno at the top of the 2020 Western Conference. El Paso even managed to make it all the way to the conference finals last term.

At the other end of the standings, Rio Grande finished third from bottom in the 2020 Western Conference, while Real Monarchs, Colorado, and Austin all missed out on a playoff spot.

On the whole, it feels like the 2021 Mountain Division will be competitive league.

Pacific Division

  • LA Galaxy II
  • Las Vegas Lights
  • Oakland Roots
  • Orange County
  • Phoenix Rising
  • Sacramento Republic
  • San Diego Loyal
  • Tacoma Defiance

As you can see, the Pacific Division consists mainly of Californian clubs. La Galaxy II, Oakland Roots, Orange County, Sacramento Republic, and San Diego Loyal all represent the Golden State here.

Tacoma Defiance – formerly Seattle Sounders 2 – will be flying the flag for Washington in this division, while Las Vegas Lights and Phoenix Rising complete the eight-team league.

The Rising will be hoping for another successful campaign this year after ending up second in the Western Conference in 2020. The Phoenix outfit was due to play the Rowdies in the USL Championship final, before the season was cancelled.

Sacramento and the Galaxy also reached the playoffs last term, although they both feel in the conference quarter-finals.

Following a short period in the National Independent Soccer Association, Oakland Roots will be hoping to hit the ground running in the USL Championship.

The USL Championship Eastern Conference in 2021

The 16 Eastern Conference teams will be split evenly between the Atlantic Division and the Central Division this year, with OKC Energy and FC Tulsa moving over from the West. You can find the breakdown below.

Atlantic Division

  • Charleston Battery
  • Charlotte Independence
  • Hartford Athletic
  • Loudoun United
  • Miami FC
  • New York Red Bulls II
  • Pittsburgh Riverhounds
  • Tampa Bay Rowdies

The 2021 Atlantic Division comprises teams based across the east coast of the United States, as well as a couple of inland clubs.

Connecticut’s Hartford Athletic finished second in the Eastern Conference last season, while Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Charlotte, and Charleston also qualified for the playoffs. The Rowdies will be eager to go one better this year after their run to the 2020 USL Championship final ended in disappointment.

Having managed just one win in 13 games last year, it goes without saying that Loudoun will be desperate to improve in 2021. However, the Virginia club has been placed alongside some tough opponents in the Atlantic Division.

Due to the quirky nature of the Atlantic Division, Hartford and Miami will have to embark on an almost 3,000-mile round-trip when they face each other!

Central Division

  • Atlanta United 2
  • Birmingham Legion
  • FC Tulsa
  • Indy Eleven
  • Louisville City
  • Memphis 901
  • OKC Energy
  • Sporting Kansas City II

It could be argued that the Central Division is the most competitive of all the new divisions in the USL Championship.

Louisville clinched the Eastern Conference title in 2020 and went on to reach the conference finals, while Birmingham also qualified for last year’s playoffs. On top of that, Tulsa joins the East having clinched a playoff place in the West last term.

Atlanta 2, Indy, and SKC II will all be hoping for better luck in 2021 after missing out on the postseason last year.

With almost 400 EPL appearances and over 100 USMNT caps under his belt, Tim Howard is the player to watch in the Central Division. The legendary goalkeeper may be 42, but he looks set to play a key role for Memphis 901 this year, both on and off the field.

Closing Thoughts on the 2021 USL Championship

Following a turbulent year for the USL Championship in 2020, things are certainly looking promising for the second tier of American soccer in 2021.

The league has obviously made some big changes during the offseason, but given what happened in the previous campaign, the alterations to the structure and format are definitely for the best.

With the Atlantic, Central, Mountain, and Pacific Divisions being introduced, it feels as though teams will be able to enjoy a far more settled scheduled this year. Better still, teams will get to play more games against different opponents, which can only be a good thing for the league and its followers.

Personally, I can’t wait for the 2021 USL Championship to get underway. Hopefully, the tentative start date of May 1 is met and everything runs smoothly!

If US soccer is your thing, why not check out some of our other recent posts?

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