The 2012 USL PRO season kicks off this weekend with a classic rivalry for a pair of clubs celebrating their 20thanniversary seasons and Orlando City opening its championship defense on the road.
A large crowd is expected at City Stadium in Richmond, Va. as the Kickers host the Charleston Battery in one of the longest continuous rivalries in North American soccer on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET, with both teams kicking off their 20th Anniversary seasons. The Kickers, who advanced to the USL PRO semifinals and the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup a year ago, return a strong core from their 2011 team, with goalkeeper Ronnie Pascale opening his final season before retirement and top scorer Matt Delicâte back to lead the attack.
The Battery see a number of faces return, including defender Colin Falvey, striker Dane Kelly and last season’s leading scorer Nicki Paterson. Both teams will be eager to take victory in the first game of the Pioneer Cup series, a rivalry trophy inaugurated this season.
Defending USL PRO Champion Orlando City opens its title defense on the road as it faces the Charlotte Eagles on Saturday night at 7 p.m. ET at Charlotte Christian Stadium. Despite the loss of 2011 USL PRO MVP Yordany Alvarez, one of three Lions to make the jump to MLS this offseason, Orlando appears set for a strong title defense. John Rooney is among the players added to the squad that still contains 2011 Goalkeeper of the Year Miguel Gallardo and Defender of the Year Rob Valentino.
Despite missing the playoffs a season ago, Charlotte is set for a strong season thanks to the return of a number of key players, and the addition of 2011 PDL Most Valuable Player Milton Blanco to its squad. The Eagles made things difficult for the Lions in their two 2011 meetings, and should provide a stern test to open the season.
The 2012 USL PRO season opens on Friday night as Antigua Barracuda FC and captain George Dublin host the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and standout goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap at 7 p.m. ET. Peter Byers will likely make his return to the Antigua lineup after re-joining the club this offseason, but he and the Barracuda FC attack will face a well-disciplined defense led by new Riverhounds captain Louis Rolko.
Antigua and Pittsburgh will also close the opening weekend on Sunday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. ET.
USL PRO is the strongest, best operated and most experience North American men’s professional soccer league below MLS, both on and off the field. Focused on franchise stability and longevity, USL PRO features 11 teams in 2012 and an unprecedented six teams with more than a decade of operational experience. The league is focused on aggressive but deliberate growth by adding teams fully capable of meeting USL and USSF standars, which are located in markets that further promote regional league play. In addition o league pay, USL PRO teams will compete in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup as well as various domestic and international exhibitions. USL PRO is affiliated with the USSF.