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All eyes on Jim McGuinness but plenty more Irish interest in US football's second tier

Dubliner Niall McCabe is aiming for a third straight championship while Richie Ryan and Paddy Barrett will also feature prominently.

Jim McGuinness was unveiled as Charlotte Independence manager back in December.
Jim McGuinness was unveiled as Charlotte Independence manager back in December.

CHARLOTTE INDEPENDENCE BOSS Jim McGuinness is the main attraction but he’s not the only Irish storyline as the 2019 United Soccer League (USL) gets underway this weekend in the United States.

Despite there being no promotion or relegation, the USL is effectively the second tier of the North American football landscape, sitting below Major League Soccer.

Hired for his first ever pro management role, McGuinness’ time with Celtic has long been trumpeted as a substantial calling card. And he was able to utilise the relationship in the off-season, stepping in and taking highly-rated American Andrew Gutman on loan while the left-back’s UK work permit is being sorted out. The 22-year-old was signed by the Glasgow giants at the end of January and explained that McGuinness was a substantial reason for his arrival in North Carolina.  

“For me it was an ideal situation,” Gutman said. 

“I had to go away from Celtic for a bit but at the same time, I still feel a part of it because the coach knows the Celtic way.”

Still, the process to bring players in has been a slow one. At the end of last month, the squad was made up of just 12 names so there has been a frantic push to get everything over the line in time for the start of the season. As many as five new additions are still waiting on their visas to come through while McGuinness is hopeful of adding another one or two signings. Circumstances aren’t ideal, especially with so many new faces on the pitch and in the dugout.  

The Independence don’t begin their new campaign until Friday 15 March and McGuinness will look to start his St. Patrick’s Day weekend with a flourish. But it won’t be easy against a solid Indy Eleven, whose squad now features Dundalk man Paddy Barrett.

Last season was an encouraging one for him at FC Cincinnati and he even took the captain’s armband for a number of games. But with the team bound for MLS this year, it was always going to be tough to do enough in just one season to persuade management to keep him on for such a big step up.

But, his immediate impact on the USL was substantial enough for Indy – who have a strong history with having Irish players on their books, including former captain Colin Falvey and Eamon Zayed – to swoop in and secure his services.     

“I’m glad I made the decision because I know a lot of Irish players want to go,” he told The42 last year about making the move. 

“It’s just actually doing it. They think America is a million miles away and they can never go back home.”

Another Irish player who has swapped Cincinnati for pastures new is Richie Ryan.

Richie-Ryan-FC-Cincinnati-1024x683 Richie Ryan had planned on being part of FC Cincinnati's debut MLS season but he's moved to Texas instead.

The Tipperary native had signed a two-year deal in 2018, with a clear objective of being a part of the MLS transition. A natural leader who has amassed a glowing reputation since arriving in the US in 2014, Ryan was a deeply respected figure in the Cincinnati squad and provided much-needed experience. But, despite pushing so hard to recruit him, manager Alan Koch failed to give the midfielder assurances in the off-season so Ryan, who has spent time in Ottawa, Jacksonville and Miami, joined expansion side El Paso Locomotive in January, his relationship with coach Mark Lowry crucial to the deal coming about.

The Texas outfit got underway with a sold-out home opener against OKC Energy last night.

Elsewhere, it will take something special for Niall McCabe to better last term. The Dubliner won his second successive USL championship with Louisville City and is one of only two players in the squad that’s been there since the club’s inaugural season back in 2015.

The midfielder’s seen many players come and go in that time and even watched the man that signed him – compatriot James O’Connor – move onto MLS side Orlando City SC. But, he’s happy with his lot and eyeing a third title in a row.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-New England Revolution vs Louisville City Niall McCabe is aiming for a third straight USL championship with Louisville City. Source: USA TODAY Network

“I’ve seen a lot of players come through,” he told the Louisville Courier Journal

“Some are still playing and some have moved on to the next level, which is great. I wish I was one of them, but until that day comes, I don’t think there’s a better team to be at then Louisville City.”

Dundalk’s Jon Gallagher, who was Atlanta’s first round pick in the 2018 SuperDraft after making his name at Notre Dame, featured heavily for the reserve side last term (which plies its trade in the USL) and has been re-signed to a new deal. Though he started out as a striker, he was later converted to a full-back and it remains uncertain how much he’ll figure in Frank de Boer’s plans for the MLS season ahead.

Sheffield United and Irish underage centre-back Jordan Doherty will spend the season at Tampa Bay Rowdies under boss and former Blade Neill Collins, who had been encouraged to take a look at the 18-year-old. 

“When we looked for someone with a skillset of great passing ability and passing range, Jordan ticked all the boxes,” Collins said.  

“Obviously, using my connections with Sheffield United, Jordan came to our attention and we heard very good things about him as a person and his attitude. When you’re bringing an 18-year old over to the United States, that’s something you have to consider and Jordan is a good fit. He’s keen to come and grow and this is a great opportunity for him as he carves out a career in the game.”

This year, the United Soccer League has rebranded so there’s also a USL 1 to contend with. Featuring 10 teams, there’s quite a few familiar faces.

Steven Beattie celebrates with The Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup Steven Beattie, seen here celebrating Cork City's 2017 FAI Cup victory, is preparing for his first USL 1 season with Chattanooga Red Wolves. Source: Ryan Byrne; ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Falvey and Zayed have both signed with Chattanooga Red Wolves, along with former Cork City midfielder Steven Beattie.

Beattie studied at Northern Kentucky University and remains the most decorated soccer player in their history. Though he was subsequently drafted by Toronto FC, he was released a month later and eventually returned to Europe. He was often linked with a return to the US and told The42 last October that if he did leave Leeside it wouldn’t be for another League of Ireland team.

Wexford’s Mikie Rowe gets his first taste of professional football with Tormenta FC after three years at Young Harris College in Georgia while goalkeeper Ryan Coulter has been rewarded for his patience with a player/coach role with Forward Madison in Wisconsin.  

The USL 1 season begins on 29 March.                      

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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