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2019 USL Championship Season Preview – Western Conference, Part 1

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 03/05/19, 3:30PM EST

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Our first look at the West includes the side that topped the standings last season


Orange County SC's Christian Duke and Aodhan Quinn helped lead their side to the top of the Western Conference in the 2018 season, and are looking for more in 2019. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC

After scanning over half of the Eastern Conference in the first section this year’s season preview, we now cast our eye to the West and a collection of squads that includes the side that finished on top of the conference standings a season ago in Orange County SC, and a side that’s looking for a big bounce-back year in OKC Energy FC.

Also included in this group of club previews? All three of the West’s expansion clubs for the 2019 season, which all have hopes of a postseason berth right out of the chute.


 Austin Bold FC

Head Coach: Marcelo Serrano (1st season)
Home Venue: Bold FC Stadium
2018 Record: N/A
Projected 2019 Finish: 15th, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

Austin Bold FC brings professional soccer back to Texas’ capital this season and does so with a new home stadium at the Circuit of The Americas and a squad that has both a lot of experience outside the United States and some familiar faces for Austin’s local fanbase. Utilizing the experience of General Manager Roberto Silva and Head Coach Marcelo Serrano to bring in some high-level talent, Austin wants to be a playoff contender from the off and may have the parts to do it.

At the center of it all may be Xavier Baez, who arrives from Liga MX’s Necaxa as one of Silva’s splashy overseas imports. He’s joined by Brazilians Andre Lima and Kleber and Argentine Dario Conca – formerly of River Plate and Fluminense – among Bold FC’s international contingent. They’re bolstered by a strong group of players with MLS and USL Championship experience, including former Portland Timbers defender Amobi Okugo, 2017 Championship Goalkeeper of the Year Diego Restrepo, and the local duo of Kris Tyrpak and Sonny Guadarrama.

Led by Serrano, who has experience both in his native Brazil and as a coach within U.S. Soccer’s youth national team set-up, there’s going to be plenty of intrigue as to how all of this comes together in Bold FC’s first season. Whatever happens, it’s going to be very interesting to watch.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

M – Kris Tyrpak
A native of Austin, Kris Tyrpak returns home after spending time with both San Antonio FC and Nashville SC in the 2018 USL Championship season. A former Most Valuable Player in USL League Two in 2013, Tyrpak has recorded 27 goals and 10 assists in 93 appearances in the Championship. The 26-year-old winger became the second local signing for Austin Bold FC and will be hoping to lead the side to a successful inaugural season alongside fellow local standout Sonny Guadarrama.

M – Xavier Baez
A longtime fixture in Liga MX, Xavier Baez joined Austin as one of the club’s marquee signings for its inaugural season. Having played previously for Chivas de Guadalajara and Necaxa, the 31-year-old has made more than 250 appearances in Mexico’s top flight and helped Cruz Azul claim the Concacaf Champions League in 2014. A central midfielder, Baez looks set to be a key member of the club’s central spine alongside the other experienced veterans brought in by General Manager Roberto Silva and Head Coach Marcelo Serrano. 


 Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

Head Coach: Steve Trittschuh (5th season)
Home Venue: Weidner Field
2018 Record: 11-17-6, 39pts
Projected 2019 Finish: 10th, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC had its moments in 2018, but they were too few and far between and resulted in a second consecutive absence from the USL Cup Playoffs. Only able to string together back-to-back victories twice, the Switchbacks finished well off the pace with their lowest regular-season points total in the club’s four-year history.

There could be room for optimism as the Switchbacks enter 2019, however. Off the field, the club’s plans for a new soccer-specific home in downtown Colorado Springs are coming together, and the team has a new partnership with Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids that should help provide additional talent to Head Coach Steve Trittschuh. The club itself has gone out and added some new pieces like former Nashville SC winger Ish Jome and has welcomed back Rony Argueta (Fresno FC) and Mike Seth (San Antonio FC) after stints away from the club.

There are key figures to be replaced, with Josh Suggs having moved on to expansion side New Mexico United and veteran midfielder Luke Vercollone having announced his retirement after reaching 200 regular-season appearances in his final game for the club. Those absences will be mitigated by the return of defenders Jordan Burt and Jamal Jack, and forwards Shane Malcolm and Saeed Robinson, with Robinson’s penchant for the spectacular having provided some of the brightest moments of the past campaign.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

M – Rony Argueta
After spending a season with Fresno FC in 2018, Rony Argueta returns to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC for the 2019 USL Championship season looking to help restore the club to the postseason after a two-year absence. Argueta is no stranger to the Switchbacks having been a central figure in the club’s first three seasons while serving as captain in the 2017 campaign. Argueta made 86 appearances for Colorado Springs and logged more than 7,000 minutes in that first stint with the club and will be a key figure for Head Coach Steve Trittschuh again this season.

D – Jordan Burt
With the retirement of Luke Vercollone this offseason, Jordan Burt will become the lone member of the Switchbacks’ squad to have played a part in every season in the club’s history. The 28-year-old sits at the top of the club’s all-time list with 113 appearances and 8,980 minutes of Championship action in Switchbacks’ colors, including a single-season high 33 appearances a year ago. Set to be part of a reconfigured back line this year, Burt’s experience will once again be valuable to the squad.


 El Paso Locomotive FC

Head Coach: Mark Lowry (1st season)
Home Venue: Southwest University Park
2018 Record: N/A
Projected 2019 Finish: 11th, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

El Paso Locomotive FC scored a coup in bringing El Paso native Omar Salgado on as the club’s first signing, and there are other additions the club has made in the build up to its first year in the USL Championship that would indicate this is a side that could be in the playoff mix in the Western Conference. Head Coach Mark Lowry enters with a sterling reputation from his previous stop at Jacksonville Armada FC, too, which only adds to the belief this side should get out of the blocks well.

Salgado’s presence at the top of the club’s spine is supplemented by the addition of former Armada FC players Richie Ryan – who showed well when not sidelined for FC Cincinnati a season ago – and former Championship All-League selection Mechack Jerome, whose experience with the Haitian national team will be invaluable along the back line. There’s also Championship experience in the form of full back James Kiffe, himself an All-League selection with Sacramento Republic FC in 2017.

As with all expansion clubs, how all the pieces fit together will be the biggest thing to watch for early in the season. Lowry’s sides in the past have valued possession and tempo, and as a result could be one of the more attractive sides to watch in the league this season. Whether that results in a postseason berth, though, remains to be seen.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

F – Omar Salgado
A native of El Paso, former United States U-23 international Omar Salgado was unveiled as the first signing in Locomotive FC’s history last June. The first selection in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft by Vancouver Whitecaps FC when he was a member of the United States U-20 National team, the 25-year-old Salgado has since competed in Major League Soccer and Liga MX. He will be hoping to break out in a big way as he returns to his hometown to lead its inaugural season after recording three goals in 14 appearances on loan with Las Vegas Lights FC last year. 

D – Mechack Jérôme
A former USL Championship All-League honoree, Mechack Jérôme will bring both extensive experience on the club and international level to Locomotive FC, but also a familiarity with Head Coach Mark Lowry after previously competing for him with Jacksonville Armada FC. A Haitian international, Jérôme was named to the Championship’s All-League Second Team in 2015 after a standout season with the Charlotte Independence. With more than 200 games of experience across his professional and international career, the 28-year-old is going to be a key figure for his new club as he also looks to lead Haiti to the Concacaf Gold Cup this summer.


 Fresno FC

Head Coach: Adam Smith (2nd season)
Home Venue: Chukchansi Park
2018 Record: 9-13-12, 39pts
Projected 2019 Finish: 12th, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

There was no playoff place waiting for Fresno FC at the end of its inaugural season last year as it claimed only nine victories on its way to an 11th-place finish in the Western Conference, but the Foxes went into the offseason with what looked like a good foundation in place for the coming year with numerous notable returnees set to suit up for Head Coach Adam Smith.

Fresno’s win total was the second-lowest among the top 14 teams in the West, and while the side proved difficult to defeat with only 13 losses, its 12 draws were tied for second behind only Rio Grande Valley FC (14). The side’s performance away from home, where it claimed only two victories, was the biggest obstacle between the Foxes and the postseason as they posted a relatively respectable 7-4-6 record at Chukchanski Park.

Getting more secondary production in front of goal should help the Foxes’ cause, and to that end they’ve brought in former Miami FC and Tampa Bay Rowdies forward Jaime Chavez to add to the returning trio of Juan Pablo Caffa, Christian Chaney and Jemal Johnson that finished with a combined 25 goals a season ago. Qudus Lawal could also be one to watch, as will former FC Dallas and Montreal Impact forward Jackson. If Fresno’s efforts to boost its firepower pay off, it should mean a first visit to the postseason in the club’s second year.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

M – Juan Pablo Caffa
Argentine playmaker Juan Pablo Caffa put up positive numbers in Fresno FC’s inaugural season as he finished tied for the team-lead in both goals (9) and assists (5), but unlike his first season in the USL Championship at Tulsa Roughnecks FC there was no playoff place waiting for the Foxes at the end of the campaign. Caffa was again among the leading chance creators in the league, however, and sits third in the Championship over the past two seasons with 155 key passes. With new arrivals joining the Foxes’ attack in 2019, the 34-year-old will be looking to dish out more opportunities and help Fresnofind more consistency in the club’s second season.

M – Jemal Johnson
While the Foxes missed out on the postseason in their first year, the club got its fair share of highlight moments. Leading the way was Jemal Johnson, whose ability to strike from long-range twice landed him on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 over the course of the campaign. The New Jersey native also notched nine goals a season ago to finish tied with Caffa for the team lead. If he can improve on that figure and get into double digits this season, it would provide a significant boost to Fresno’s postseason chances.


 LA Galaxy II

Head Coach: Mike Munoz (3rd season)
Home Venue: Dignity Health Sports Park
2018 Record: 10-17-7, 37pts
Projected 2019 Finish: 17th, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

For neutrals, there might have been no better team to tune into for entertainment in 2018 than the LA Galaxy II, whose games averaged 3.7 goals per game. The Galaxy II scored the third-most goals in the Western Conference as one of four teams to have at least three double-digit goalscorers in the regular season with Frankie Lopez, Ethan Zubak and 2018 USL Championship 20 Under 20 No. 1 selection Efrain Alvarez leading a potent attack.

Where it fell apart for Los Dos was defensively, as the side also conceded the fourth-most goals in the Western Conference to end with a -7 goal differential as it ended the year in 14th place in the standings. The side was able to string together back-to-back victories on four different occasions throughout the year, but too often slid backwards each time to leave it 16 points out of the playoff positions.

Finding a way to maintain the side’s prodigious attack while solidifying the defense is going to be the biggest challenge facing Head Coach Mike Munoz as he looks to break a two-year absence from the playoffs, and the side has made some interesting additions this offseason with that in mind. At the top of the list is goalkeeper Abraham Romero, a former Galaxy Academy player who turned professional with Xolos in 2016 before joining the Galaxy II this offseason. Experienced defender Michael Gallagher should also add to the side after success with Real Monarchs SLC.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

F – Ethan Zubak
Reaching double-digit goals for the first time in his young career in 2018, Ethan Zubak took a big step forward for the Galaxy II and helped the side become one of the most entertaining sides in the Championship a season ago. Zubak has been a mainstay for Los Dos since making his debut for the club in 2015, and currently sits with the second-most appearances in the club’s history with 83. After his 11-goal campaign a season ago – and being selected as the No. 2 player in the 2018 USL Championship 20 Under 20 – finding a way to get among the league’s leading scorers this season would continue his promising trajectory.

GK – Abraham Romero
There’s a feeling of the story of the prodigal son in Romero’s signing with the Galaxy II, with the goalkeeper having left the Galaxy’s Academy in 2016 to join Liga MX’s Pachuca before joining the professional ranks with the same side the following year. Romero isn’t guaranteed of the starting place with fellow young standout Eric Lopez returning, making that one of the more interesting positional competitions in the league. Romero’s experience with the Mexico U-20 National Team is a plus, though, and after his return to the Galaxy fold, he’ll be one to watch this year. 


 Las Vegas Lights FC

Head Coach: Eric Wynalda (1st season)
Home Venue: Cashman Field
2018 Record: 8-19-7, 31pts
Projected 2019 Finish: Eighth, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

They promised it wouldn’t be boring, and it rarely was, but Las Vegas Lights FC’s first season in the USL Championship ended up with the side losing more games than it won and drew combined, which led to a rapid regime change before the end of the offseason. The appointment of former United States international Eric Wynalda as Head Coach, though, means there should be no shortage of entertainment this year as Cashman Field becomes a fully soccer-specific venue after the departure of the Las Vegas Aviators to its new venue in Summerlin, Nev.

While the appointment of Wynalda might look to be from the same playbook as when Lights FC launched, there’s reason to believe this is going to be an improved Vegas side. Wynalda has been looking for an opportunity like this to lead a side his way for a while, and he’s bringing in some names that have had success in the Championship before. Among them is Cristhian Hernandez, who helped Penn FC reach USL Cup in 2014 on loan from the Philadelphia Union, while Irvin Parra was the first player to register double-digit goals and assists in the same season in 2017.

There are also some intriguing prospects in the side, led by former U.S. youth internationals Bryan de la Fuente and Javan Torre, while returning goalkeepers Thomas Olsen and Angel Alvarez will battle for the starting position. Lights FC should rarely be boring again, but this time there’s a chance it’s going to end up with a playoff place waiting for them at the end.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

M – Irvin Parra
In 2017, Irvin Parra became the first player in the USL Championship’s history to record double-digit goals and assists in the same season by scoring 11 goals and recording 10 assists in 30 matches between his time with Seattle and Orange County SC. After spending a season overseas, Parra returns as part of Las Vegas Lights FC’s roster overhaul under new Head Coach Eric Wynalda, where his ability to create as well as finish chances will be critical if Las Vegas is to improve its prospects of reaching the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time.

D - Javan Torre
A former United States U-20 international, Javan Torre joins Lights FC looking to return to the spotlight that saw him star for UCLA collegiately and be selected by the Colorado Rapids in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft. The 25-year-old most recently played for FSV Frankfurt in Germany’s Regionalliga Südwest, where he made 24 appearances, and will be looked at as one of the keys to Lights FC making the necessary improvements to contend for the postseason after giving up 74 goals in 34 games in its inaugural season.


 New Mexico United

Head Coach: Troy Lesesne (1st season)
Home Venue: Isotopes Park
2018 Record: N/A
Projected 2019 Finish: Ninth, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

New Mexico United arrives in the USL Championship with innovative branding, what on paper looks like a good squad and a young head coach in Troy Lesesne who is looking to make his mark after serving as an assistant elsewhere in the league. What it adds up to in the end remains to be seen, but there’s a feeling that New Mexico has the highest ceiling of any of the seven expansion clubs entering the Championship this year, and that has raised expectations for as successful a launch on the field as the club has experienced in its community.

With more than 2,000 season-ticket holders and counting, New Mexico’s mission of becoming a team not just for its home city of Albuquerque is starting to take hold. It grabbed attention thanks to its partnership with art collective Meow Wolf for its home uniforms, and strong visual branding that has resonated with the state’s soccer fans.

Now it will be up to Lesesne to make sure the product on the field lives up to expectations. There’s a strong New Mexico flavor to the squad with players like Devon Sandoval (ATL UTD 2) and Josh Suggs (Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC) returning to play in their home state, while 2017 Championship Rookie of the Year Chris Wehan – an alum of the University of New Mexico's men’s soccer program – is also on board to help lead the side. If everything falls into place, there should be a playoff place waiting for NMU at the end of the season, and potentially more.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

GK – Cody Mizell
One of the early additions to New Mexico United’s first squad, goalkeeper Cody Mizell will look for a bounce-back season after falling out of favor with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the 2018 campaign. A former standout at Clemson University where he earned ACC All-Freshman Team and ACC All-Conference honors in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Mizell posted a 70.2 save percentage over two seasons with the Charlotte Independence prior to his arrival in Tampa Bay. Reunited with former Independence and new NMU Head Coach Troy Lesesne, the 27-year-old will be key at the back for the expansion side.

D – Josh Suggs
A native New Mexican, Josh Suggs brings more than 150 appearances in the USL Championship to his new club. The veteran defender most recently played for fellow Championship side Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, where he earned selection to the 2016 All-League Second Team and helped the Switchbacks reach the USL Cup Playoffs that year. Prior to joining the Switchbacks, Suggs played for two seasons with Orange County SC, where he helped the side finish top of the Western Conference in 2015. He has recorded eight goals and 19 assists in his USL Championship career, which has seen him log more than 13,000 minutes of action and sit in the Top 10 in the league in both appearances and minutes played over his career.


 OKC Energy FC

Head Coach: Steve Cooke (2nd season)
Home Venue: Taft Stadium
2018 Record: 12-15-7, 43pts
Projected 2019 Finish: Fourth, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

For a second consecutive year, OKC Energy FC’s start to the season was among the slowest in the league, but unlike the 2017 campaign it proved too big a hole to emerge from, ending the club’s postseason streak at three seasons. Finding a way to build on a good run of results later in the campaign is going to be imperative for Head Coach Steve Cooke’s squad this year, and with numerous changes to the team there will be added pressure to get on track early in the season.

With four players heading to join ex-Energy FC Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen at expansion side Hartford Athletic, though, there has been a bigger chance for Cooke to put his imprint on the squad. Among the new arrivals are the French duo of Nicolas Taravel and Alexy Bosetti, whose Ligue 1 experience makes him one of the most interesting new arrivals to the Championship this season. There are some other bright attacking options on board as well, including Trinidad & Tobago international Cordell Cato and Jamaican international Omar Gordon joining his fellow countryman Deshorn Brown in the attacking corps.

With goalkeeper Cody Laurendi and defender Atiba Harris – both nominated for Concacaf awards this offseason for their national team performances – back defensively alongside Drew Beckie, Christian Ibeagha and Kyle Hyland, there is a measure of consistency that should help as the side moves forward. Energy FC may not enter the regular season as one of the favorites in the Western Conference, but they have the look of a side that can work itself into that conversation by the time the USL Cup Playoffs arrive.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

F – Deshorn Brown
Deshorn Brown joined OKC Energy FC late last season, linking up with the club’s Head Coach Steve Cooke for a second time after the two worked together at the Colorado Rapids early in the Jamaican’s career. Brown scored 20 goals in 62 appearances for the Rapids across the 2013 and 2014 seasons after starring in USL League Two for the Des Moines Menace and Reading United SC, but since then he has struggled to find consistent form, or a consistent home. After competing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, D.C. United and Spanish club Lorca since the start of 2017, the hope is Brown can regain his form from the Rapids in Oklahoma City, help lead Energy FC back to the USL Cup Playoffs and maybe even put himself back in the picture for the Jamaica National Team.

F – Alexy Bosetti
The 25-year-old French forward was one of the most intriguing signings of the Championship this offseason, bringing with him to Oklahoma City experience in France’s top flight and at the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup, where he was part of the tournament-winning squad alongside Paul Pogba and Samuel Umtiti. Joined by fellow countryman Nicolas Taravel in joining Energy FC this offseason, Bosetti will be hoping to have a major impact at his new club and looking to turn the page after an uneven period of his career over the past couple of years.


 Orange County SC

Head Coach: Braeden Cloutier (2nd season)
Home Venue: Championship Soccer Stadium
2018 Record: 20-8-6, 66pts – Western Conference Final
Projected 2019 Finish: Third, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

Orange County SC produced one of the best turnarounds in the Championship’s history in 2018, going from a 10th-place finish the year before to finishing top of the Western Conference standings under first-year Head Coach Braeden Cloutier. OCSC’s USL Cup Playoffs run may have come to an end at the hands of Phoenix Rising FC in the Western Conference Final, but the season overall was a resounding success that helped reset expectations for the club moving forward.

The club got to work before the conclusion of its playoff run to make sure some key figures would be back for the 2019 campaign, with Championship MVP finalist Aodhan Quinn and forward Michael Seaton both signed to new contracts. The club did see the departure of leading scorer Thomas Enevoldsen to Indy Eleven, but went out and signed former Rangers FC forward Harry Forrester as his presumptive replacement while also bringing Jerry van Ewijk back to the club after his 2018 season with Reno 1868 FC.

Another new arrival is Charlie Adams, who makes the move from Real Monarchs SLC to add another creative piece to the midfield, but the best indicator of Orange County’s new direction is the number of key players that will be back. Experienced players like midfielder Christian Duke – who is approaching 150 regular-season appearances in the Championship – and defender Kevin Alston will help the side remain a strong playoff contender with hopes of going one step further than a season ago.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

M – Aodhan Quinn
One of Orange County SC’s big offseason arrivals prior to the 2018 season, Aodhan Quinn more than lived up to expectations in his return to California as he put up career-best numbers to earn nomination as a finalist for the USL Championship’s Most Valuable Player award. The San Diego native played in every minute of the regular season and notched 12 goals and 15 assists to help Orange County top the Western Conference before reaching the Western Conference Final of the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time. Maintaining that level in the new season alongside returning forward Michael Seaton and new midfield arrival Charlie Adams – who was teammates with Quinn in Louisville City FC’s inaugural season – could help OCSC go one step further and claim the first silverware in club history.

F – Harry Forrester
Orange County struck it big with the signing of Thomas Enevoldsen last offseason and will be hoping for similar returns from former Rangers FC forward Harry Forrester as he joins the club after Enevoldsen’s departure to Indy Eleven. Forrester came up through the youth teams of Watford and Aston Villa, but achieved his most notable success in Glasgow with Rangers before leaving the historic Scottish club after disagreements with then Manager Pedro Caixinha. Forrester’s arrival at Orange County offers an effective reset for the 28-year-old’s career and could pay big dividends for Orange County if he can mesh with his new teammates. 

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