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2019 USL Championship Season Preview – Western Conference, Part 2

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 03/06/19, 4:10PM EST

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Rounding out the West with its defending champion and some challengers to its throne


Phoenix Rising FC claimed the Western Conference title a season ago, but will have to hold off the threat from Sacramento Republic FC and others to get another crack at USL Cup this year. | Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC

We complete our look ahead at the 2019 USL Championship season with the remaining nine teams in the Western Conference, which includes defending conference champion Phoenix Rising FC and some of the top contenders to claim that crown and advance to USL Cup this season.


 Phoenix Rising FC

Head Coach: Rick Schantz (2nd season)
Home Venue: Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex
2018 Record: 19-9-6 – Western Conference Champion
Projected 2019 Finish: First, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

The most successful season in Phoenix Rising FC’s history saw the club lift its first silverware in the form of the Western Conference Championship, and while the side was unable to wrestle the USL Cup away from Louisville City FC in a tense final, the continued upward trajectory of the club since the arrival of its new ownership group – led by Berke Bakay – has put Rising FC into the league’s elite in just two seasons.

After a busy offseason, the goal for Phoenix this year is now to maintain its position at the top of the Western Conference and again put itself in contention for silverware. It will have to do so without now-retired legend Didier Drogba and fellow forward Chris Cortez, whose career season helped carry Rising FC’s attack before an offseason move to Chonburi F.C. in Thailand. The arrival of strikers Adam Jahn (Columbus Crew SC) and Ben Spencer (Toronto FC) will certainly help mitigate those departures, though, with Jahn in particular having had success at Sacramento Republic FC and OKC Energy FC in previous loan stints in the Championship.

What’s more important, however, is the core of players that will return under Head Coach Rick Schantz, whose leadership over the second half of the 2018 season saw the club remove his interim tag in the offseason. All-League First Team selection Solomon Asante was one of the best newcomers to the Championship in 2018, and the spine of the side that includes goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski, defenders Joe Farrell and Amadou Dia, midfielders Kevon Lambert and James Musa and forward Jason Johnson is likely to put Rising FC among the contenders for both the regular season title and USL Cup.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

M - Solomon Asante
After signing with Phoenix Rising FC ahead of the 2018 season, Solomon Asante proved one of the league’s top newcomers as he led the side to both its first postseason victory and the Western Conference Championship. Asante led Rising FC with 36 appearances and posted the best single-season offensive performance in Rising FC history,  having had a hand in 23 combined goals with 14 tallies and nine assists. The Ghanaian earned Championship All-League First Team honors in the process and could be among the players vying for the league’s Most Valuable Player award at the end of this season as Phoenix takes aim at the USL Cup.

F - Adam Jahn
A former USL Cup-winner while on loan with Sacramento Republic FC, Adam Jahn joined Rising FC this offseason from Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew SC with a good record of success during his prior stints on loan in the Championship. Jahn has scored 12 goals in 41 appearances all time in the league, including three goals in 10 appearances with OKC Energy FC a season ago. Likely the man tasked with replacing the departed Chris Cortez – who led Phoenix with 19 goals a season ago – the 6-foot-3 Jahn should get plenty of opportunity to finish with the creative talent around him in Arizona.


 Portland Timbers 2

Head Coach: Cameron Knowles (2nd season)
Home Venue: Providence Park
2018 Record: 17-13-5, 55pts – Western Conference Quarterfinals
Projected 2019 Finish: 14th, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

After being denied on goal differential two years earlier, the Portland Timbers 2 earned their first trip to the USL Cup Playoffs in 2018 after recording a massive turnaround that saw the side more than quintuple its win total and post a club-record 55 points in the regular season. The club’s postseason trip came to an early end at the hands of the eventual Western Conference champion Phoenix Rising FC, but there were clear lessons learned from the disappointment of 2017.

Building on that progression in Head Coach Cameron Knowles’ second season will be the goal this season, but the side will have to deal with the regular roster turnover the offseason brings. Gone are players like Jack Barmby (San Antonio FC) and Andre Lewis, both of whom logged major minutes in helping the club’s success. Both Renzo Zambrano and Marvin Loria could still be available to T2 after moving up to the Timbers’ MLS squad, but it could be incumbent on the newcomers to the side to help provide that extra momentum.

One of the positives brought by the new faces in the squad is their prior experience with the Timbers organization. Both former Rio Grande Valley FC midfielder Todd Wharton and New York Red Bulls II defender Niko De Vera played for the Timbers U-23s in USL League Two prior to their professional careers, and both have a solid track record in the Championship. The side has also added two intriguing young talents in Venezuela U-20 international Brayan Hurtado and Argentine U-20 international Cristian Ojeda on loan, both of whom should be worth keeping a close eye on.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

M - Todd Wharton
After three seasons in the Championship with Rio Grande Valley FC to start his career, Todd Wharton moved to the Portland Timbers 2 for the upcoming campaign with some familiarity with his new surroundings. A former member of the Timbers FC U-23s in USL League Two when he was a collegiate standout at the University of Virginia, Wharton was named to League Two’s All-League Team in the 2015 season and will be hopeful of similar success with T2 after performing well for the Toros over the past three years. Wharton’s 2018 output of five goals and five assists would be welcome secondary scoring for Portland, but it’s the 25-year-old’s passing ability in the middle of the field that will make him most valuable for his new club.

D - Niko De Vera
Another player that featured for the Timbers U-23s in League Two during his college career, Niko De Vera arrives back in Portland after a rookie season in the Championship with the New York Red Bulls II that saw him log more than 2,000 minutes of action in 27 appearances for the side. A native of Washington state, De Vera played for three seasons with the Timbers U-23s while attending the University of Akron and earned All-Western Conference honors in the 2016 League Two season. Heading back to the west coast, De Vera should be a good addition to T2’s back line for the upcoming campaign.


 Real Monarchs SLC

Head Coach: Martin Vasquez (1st season)
Home Venue: Zions Bank Stadium
2018 Record: 19-12-6, 60pts – Western Conference Quarterfinals
Projected 2019 Record: Seventh, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

Real Monarchs SLC earned a home contest in the USL Cup Playoffs for a second consecutive season, but for a second straight year the club’s successful year ended abruptly when Reno 1868 FC scored a stoppage-time winner to eliminate the Monarchs in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. That loss marked the end of the line at the club for numerous key players that led the way in its upswing over the past two seasons, and how the club deals with those changes will hold the key to how it fares in 2019.

At the top of the departures list was forward Chandler Hoffman, whose return to his native Alabama and expansion club Birmingham Legion FC was known midway through the year. The offseason also saw attacking midfielder Sebastian Velasquez and Charlie Adams (Orange County SC) move on, while the moves of goalkeepers Connor Sparrow (Nashville SC) and Jake Leeker (Portland Timbers 2) left the side without two players who shone well between the sticks over the past two years.

Charged with navigating the new season is a new figure on the sidelines, with former U.S. Men’s National Team assistant Martin Vasquez taking the reins after Jamison Olave served as interim Head Coach to conclude 2018. He’ll have some good returning pieces to work with led by Cuban playmaker Maikel Chang, defender Kalen Ryden and midfielders Jack Blake and Andrew Brody. How new arrivals to the club’s attack like Douglas Martinez and Lionel Etoundi fit in with their new teammates is going to be crucial for Real to remain among the West’s leading contenders.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

M - Maikel Chang
Cuban playmaker Maikel Chang moved into second place all-time on the league’s assists charts with a strong first season in Utah, recording nine helpers as well as four goals to lead Real Monarchs SLC to a second consecutive trip to the postseason. Chang has recorded 31 assists since joining the Charleston Battery before the 2014 Championship season, one behind Charlotte Independence legend Jorge Herrera. With numerous departures from the club this offseason, there will be added burden on Chang to keep the Monarchs among the conference’s top clubs, but it’s one that he’s more than prepared to take on as he looks to put his name at the top of the record book.

D - Noah Powder
It seems strange to say about a 20-year-old, but Noah Powder seemed to get back into gear in the 2018 Championship season with Orange County SC as he recorded three goals and two assists in 22 appearances to help the side finish top of the Western Conference. The Trinidad & Tobago youngster, who helped the New York Red Bulls II win the 2016 USL Cup, parlayed his bright performances with OCSC into a move to the Monarchs, where his continued growth will be monitored by both club and country.


 Reno 1868 FC

Head Coach: Ian Russell (3rd season)
Home Venue: Greater Nevada Field
2018 Record: 16-7-11, 59pts – Western Conference Semifinals
Projected 2019 Finish: Sixth, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

A second consecutive trip to the USL Cup Playoffs and a first victory in the postseason meant another strong year for Reno 1868 FC, which still matched its point total from 2017 despite finishing two positions lower in the Western Conference standings.  1868 FC’s 16-game undefeated streak, which righted the ship after a winless four-game start to the season, put the team in prime position as Head Coach Ian Russell again maximized his players’ strengths to earn success.

There will be changes at Greater Nevada Field this season, though, as Antoine Hoppenot found a new home with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. That may be the only major absence that Russell has to deal with, however, as the club returned leading scorer Brian Brown, key defensive pieces in Zach Carroll and Brent Richards and two important midfielders in Seth Casiple and Lindo Mfeka. That core, which will likely be supplemented by San Jose Earthquakes goalkeepers Matt Bersano and JT Marcinkowski for a second season, will place Reno in good standing for another postseason trip.

What could push the side over the top to challenge for a Western Conference title are the newcomers that have come on board this offseason. Corey Hertzog will be highly motivated to rebound from a down season with Saint Louis FC as he closes in on 50 career Championship goals, while Raul Mendiola’s arrival from Silver State rivals Las Vegas Lights FC gives Reno a playmaker that could fill Hoppenot’s shoes. As 1868 FC enters Year 3, there’s little reason to expect a letdown from Russell’s well-drilled squad.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

F - Brian Brown
Going into the 2018 Championship season, the biggest question for Reno 1868 FC was who would replace Dane Kelly, who had been the previous year’s Golden Boot-winner and Most Valuable Player. Fellow Jamaican Brian Brown proved the answer as he posted 17 goals and four assists to lead 1868 FC back to the postseason for a second consecutive year. Some of the names around Brown have changed, most notably the departure of Antoine Hoppenot to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, but the 26-year-old forward should be in a position again to be part of the league’s Golden Boot conversation.

M - Raul Mendiola
A former Homegrown signing with the LA Galaxy, Mendiola made the move to Reno after starring for 1868 FC’s Silver State Cup rival Las Vegas Lights FC a season ago. A USL Championship Western Conference champion with the LA Galaxy II in 2015, Mendiola’s 10 goals and three assists were a bright spot for Las Vegas in its inaugural campaign, but it’s the playmaking ability the Los Angeles native brings that should have Reno fans excited for his arrival. Mendiola has notched 22 assists in his Championship career and will have some serious weapons in Brian Brown, Danny Musovski and Corey Hertzog to work with this season.


 Rio Grande Valley FC

Head Coach: Gerson Echeverry (2nd season)
Home Venue: H-E-B Park
2018 Record: 8-12-14, 38pts
Projected 2019 Finish: 13th, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

It’s been a difficult two seasons for Rio Grande Valley FC since the high of finishing second in the Western Conference as an expansion side in 2016, but the club’s first year under Gerson Echeverry showed the side become a tougher proposition – especially on home turf at H-E-B Park – as the 2018 campaign progressed. The Toros lost only three times at home last season, but their inability to string together wins ended up leaving the side in 13th place, well off the playoff pace.

No team in the league played to a draw more often than the Toros, whose 14 single-point outcomes tied the Championship’s regular-season record. In Echeverry’s second season in charge, turning more of those results into victories – of which RGVFC had only eight – is going to be the biggest key to making a second postseason trip. The player who might be the biggest key in that regard is Panamanian forward Carlos Small, who averaged a goal every other game after arriving midseason on loan. The Toros other two leading scorers from a season ago are also back with Jesus Enriquez and Aldo Quintanilla remaining under contract as they look to find more consistency in front of goal.

There are two major departures the side will need to account for, though, with defender Kai Greene (San Antonio FC) and midfielder Todd Wharton (Portland Timbers 2) both moving on this offseason. The addition of Jamaican Maalique Foster on loan from Costa Rican powerhouse Alajualense could provide a nice boost to the side, as youngsters like Wilmer Cabrera Jr. look to come into their own.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

D - Conor Donovan
A former United States U-20 international, Conor Donovan’s experience earned him a mid-season promotion to the Houston Dynamo’s squad in 2018, but the center back returns to the Toros for the 2019 season looking to be the centerpiece for a defense that conceded 42 goals in 34 regular-season contests a year ago. That figure equaled the defensive units of both first-place Orange County SC and third-place Phoenix Rising FC, and if the Toros can make minor improvements to their defensive record it could go a long way to securing a second trip to the USL Cup Playoffs at the end of the regular season.

F - Carlos Small
A Panamanian international, Carlos Small provided a nice boost to Rio Grande Valley FC’s attack after arriving on loan from Arabe Unido last July as he recorded five goals in 15 appearances for the side. Back with the Toros for a full season in 2019, Small will be maybe the biggest key to RGVFC improving its attack after finishing tied for 29th in the league with only 36 regular-season goals last year. Small averaged a goal every 182 minutes last season, the equivalent of a goal every other game. If he can stay healthy throughout the campaign and maintain the same strike rate, it would provide a major return for the Toros’ attack.


 Sacramento Republic FC

Head Coach: Simon Elliott (2nd season)
Home Venue: Papa Murphy’s Park
2018 Record: 19-7-8, 65pts – Western Conference Quarterfinals
Projected 2019 Finish: Second, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

The timing of Head Coach Simon Elliott’s appointment at the start of preseason might have caught some by surprise, but the former New Zealand international quietly restored Sacramento Republic FC to the ranks of the Western Conference’s elite in 2018.  The club’s defense proved the best in the West and forward Cameron Iwasa came to the fore in his return from a season in Kansas City to lead the side into the top half of the conference.

Now the leading scorer in Republic FC’s history, Sacramento native Iwasa earned All-League honors for his strong season, and in 2019 he’s going to have added help up front as the club looks to boost its attacking potency. Among the newcomers are former USL Cup champion Stefano Bonomo, who returns to northern California looking to replicate his collegiate exploits at Cal-Berkeley, while Tyler Blackwood starts his second stint with the club after a good campaign with the Swope Park Rangers.

Republic FC also bolstered its defense with Israeli veteran Dekel Keinan making the move from FC Cincinnati and Matt Mahoney from fellow playoff side Bethlehem Steel FC. Mahoney’s Steel FC teammate Drew Skundrich also made the move west to add to Sacramento’s midfield contingent. The continuity within Elliott’s squad from the 2018 season could be its biggest strength, however, with goalkeeper Josh Cohen, defenders Mitchell Taintor and Elliot Hord, midfielders Villyan Bijev and Jaime Villarreal and Iwasa providing a strong foundation for Sacramento’s run at a second USL Cup.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

GK - Josh Cohen
Making the move to Sacramento Republic FC last offseason, Josh Cohen was one of the busiest goalkeepers in the USL Championship in 2018 as he finished second to only Tulsa Roughnecks FC’s Fabian Cerda with 120 saves as he appeared in every minute of the regular season for the side. That shot-stopping ability helped keep Sacramento’s defense among the best in the league as it conceded only 32 goals in 34 regular-season contests, and saw Cohen earn Championship All-League Second Team honors. Returning for his second season with the club, Cohen will be key in Sacramento’s bid for a second USL Cup.

F - Stefano Bonomo
Sacramento Republic FC’s Cameron Iwasa had a career season with 17 goals in 2018, but his Republic FC teammates were unable to provide much support as the side finished with only 47 goals in the regular season. Enter offseason acquisition Stefano Bonomo, who has scored 27 goals in 72 career appearances for the New York Red Bulls II and Tampa Bay Rowdies and should help take some of the weight of carrying Sacramento’s attack off Iwasa’s shoulders. Joined by returning Republic FC striker Tyler Blackwood after his season with the Swope Park Rangers, Bonomo should help liven up an attack that posted the fewest goals of any side in the Western Conference playoff field a season ago. 


 San Antonio FC

Head Coach: Darren Powell (4th season)
Home Venue: Toyota Field
2018 Record: 14-12-8, 50pts
Projected 2019 Finish: Fifth, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

After standing as the best defensive side in the league in 2017, San Antonio FC slid back to the middle of the pack a season ago in a year that saw a rollercoaster ride end with the side sitting on the wrong side of the postseason line. San Antonio put together winning streaks of four and three games in the second half of the season as it pushed to reach the USL Cup Playoffs for a second consecutive year, but followed each with a losing streak to match that put paid to the club’s postseason aspirations.

That inconsistency resulted in a major turnover of SAFC’s squad this offseason, with only six players that ended the 2018 campaign back with the side this year. Among those is attacking midfielder Lance Laing, who joined the club on a permanent deal after impressing on loan from FC Cincinnati last year, while goalkeeper Matt Cardone and midfielders Pecka and Rafa Castillo also returned to the club after signing new contracts.

Cardone will have a retooled defensive line in front of him this year,  with former All-League selection Amer Didic (Sporting Kansas City) and fellow defenders Joshua Yaro (Philadelphia Union) and Kai Greene (Rio Grande Valley FC) heading to the Alamo City. Other newcomers include midfielders Michael Lahoud (FC Cincinnati) and Jack Barmby (Portland Timbers), while Bradford Jamieson IV arrives on loan from the LA Galaxy. The cherry on top is the return of Billy Forbes after a season with Phoenix Rising FC, with the San Antonio icon aiming to repeat his previous successes at Toyota Field.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

D - Amer Didic
A 2016 Championship All-League First Team selection for the Swope Park Rangers in the club’s inaugural season, Amer Didic arrives in San Antonio as an experienced defensive piece that will be charged with improving the club’s defensive record from a season ago. The Canadian U-23 international couldn’t quite find a breakthrough into Sporting Kansas City’s lineup after signing an MLS deal with the club after his standout displays for the Rangers. But the experience Didic brings from two Western Conference championships with Swope Park will bring a lot to SAFC’s overhauled squad, as will his ability to distribute out of the back as well as win possession defensively.

M - Lance Laing
Struggling for minutes with FC Cincinnati a season ago, Lance Laing found a new lease on life after arriving on loan with San Antonio FC midway through the 2018 campaign as he recorded five goals and six assists to end the season. Now signed to a permanent deal, the Jamaican winger will have a chance to add to those numbers and contribute to a resurgence for San Antonio after it missed out on the postseason a year ago. Joined by SAFC returnee Billy Forbes and new loan arrival Bradford Jamieson IV, Laing could be a serious contributor to an attack that should be far more explosive than a season ago.


 Tacoma Defiance

Head Coach: Chris Little (1st season)
Home Venue: Cheney Stadium
2018 Record: 6-21-7, 25pts
Projected 2019 Finish: 18th, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

It’s unquestionable that Year 1 at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma was a clear success for the club off the field as attendance rose more than 200 percent to average more than 3,300 fans per game in 2018. Now rebranded as the Tacoma Defiance, the hope is the team’s performance on the field will match the improved environment in the stands. The goal will be to make a run at a first postseason berth since its inaugural season in 2015 after finishing second-from-bottom in the Western Conference last fall.

Tasked with leading that improvement is new Head Coach Chris Little, who brings with him a record of success in the Seattle Sounders FC Academy to his new position. The Sounders FC U-17s claimed the U.S. Soccer Development Academy national championship last year as Little was named the USSDA U-17 Coach of the Year for the Western Conference. With numerous Sounders Academy graduates within the Defiance’s squad, the expertise Little brings should help raise the club’s six-win total of a season ago.

The experience gained by the club’s young players should also help push the side forward this year as well, with U.S. U-20 international Sam Rogers and fellow 2018 USL Championship 20 Under 20 selection Denso Ulysse among those returning to the squad. But the biggest spotlight of all may fall on Danny Leyva, with the 15-year-old drawing strong reviews in Sounders preseason after making his professional debut late last year in Tacoma. A U.S. U-17 international, Leyva could be on the fast-track to the top if he can perform at a high level for the Defiance this year.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

D - Sam Rogers
Twice selected for the Championship 20 Under 20 in the past two years, Rogers has a big year ahead for both the Defiance and potentially the United States U-20 National Team after helping the side claim the Concacaf U-20 Championship this past November to qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. A regular for the Defiance over the past two seasons, Rogers has become a highly-regarded center back within the Seattle Sounders FC organization. Another good year in Tacoma could lead to bigger things ahead for the 6-foot-3 Washington native.

D - Nick Hinds
Having previously appeared for the Defiance as an Academy signing before heading to the University of Akron in 2016, Hinds joined the professional ranks in Tacoma last season and showed flashes of the potential he has with a goal and two assists in 26 appearances for the side. A former U.S. U-20 international, Hinds is going to be key alongside Rogers for a young Defiance squad that conceded 71 goals a season ago – sixth-most in the league – as it looks to buckle down at the back and push its way back up the Western Conference this year.


 Tulsa Roughnecks FC

Head Coach: Michael Nsien (2nd season)
Home Venue: ONEOK Field
2018 Record: 3-19-12, 21pts
Projected 2019 Finish: 16th, Western Conference

TEAM OUTLOOK

After the euphoria of the club’s first trip to the USL Cup Playoffs in 2017, last year provided a hangover that Tulsa Roughnecks FC simply couldn’t shake as it finished with the fewest points in the league. A 15-game winless streak to start the season saw the side move on from Head Coach David Vaudreuil and introduce Michael Nsien as its interim manager, but despite a standout year from Joaquin Rivas with 12 goals there was little to celebrate for the Roughnecks in 2018.

Nsien is back to lead the side this season after being appointed as the third Head Coach in the club’s modern history. Tulsa also has new leadership in the front office with local businessman Barry Williams joining the ownership group and becoming club President. While the club was unable to retain the services of Rivas, who made the move to Saint Louis FC this offseason, the Roughnecks have been aggressive in looking to rebound from a very disappointing season.

Among those new arrivals are defender Cyprian Hedrick (San Antonio FC) and AJ Ajeakwa (Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC), both of whom bring extensive Championship experience. Nsien has also brought in Canadian defender Mallan Roberts (Richmond Kickers) and another former Switchback in Tobenna Uzo, who shone for USL League Two’s Myrtle Beach Mutiny two seasons ago before joining the professional ranks. It’s going to be a steep hill to climb for Nsien and his squad, but anything positive to come of this year will be big simply to put 2018 in the rear-view mirror.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

D - Cyprian Hedrick
Finishing with the worst record and most goals conceded in the Western Conference a season ago, Tulsa Roughnecks FC fans knew plenty of changes were coming this offseason. While the club’s new ownership is going to be a big factor for the side moving forward, the Roughnecks are also hoping the retooled squad that includes Championship veterans like Cyprian Hedrick will also help the side be far more competitive on the field in 2019. Hedrick has made 133 regular-season appearances in the Championship, putting him in the Top 30 all-time, and that experience is going to help try and pull the club’s back line together for the new season.

F - AJ Ajeakwa
If the defense wasn’t good, the Roughnecks’ attack wasn’t much better as it recorded only 36 goals in 34 regular-season contests in 2018. To try and help turn that around, the Roughnecks went out and added former Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC forward AJ Ajeakwa, whose speed should help Tulsa stretch defenses more than in the past season. Ajeakwa’s record in front of goal hasn’t always been stellar – he finished with four goals and one assist in 30 appearances for the Switchbacks a season ago – but he could help provide a spark for his attacking colleagues in Head Coach Michael Nsien’s new-look squad.

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