We’re nine weeks into the 2019 USL Championship season and we’re starting to get a better sense of who might be vying for recognition at the end of the campaign.
In the second edition of a season-long series, USLChampionship.com’s John Arlia and Nicholas Murray spotlight the players and coaches who have positioned themselves to be in contention for individual awards in November.
John McCarthy – Tampa Bay Rowdies
Diego Restrepo – Austin Bold FC
Alex Tambakis – North Carolina FC
ARLIA: I hate to admit it, but your preseason prediction of John McCarthy looks better and better by the game. The Rowdies’ goalkeeper has more clean sheets (5) than goals conceded (4) heading into Wednesday’s contest against Nashville SC and boasts an astounding 86.67 save percentage. Restrepo has been key to Bold FC’s impressive start defensively and Tambakis is having another strong season in North Carolina, but I’d be surprised if to see McCarthy lose his grip on this given his pedigree and Tampa Bay’s unbeaten start.
MURRAY: The interesting thing about McCarthy’s save percentage is that it has been trending upward over the past month. He was far busier in April than in March, but still came through with flying colors. He’s such a competitor, which is why he’s been so hard to beat. It has been nice to see Restrepo come back to the sort of form he had when he won this award two seasons ago in Austin, though, and as well as Tambakis is playing we might be talking about Evan Newton in this category soon enough as Indy’s defense appears to be going into a bit of a lockdown mode.
Pape Diakite, Tampa Bay Rowdies
Sam Fink, Saint Louis FC
Luca Lobo, Tulsa Roughnecks FC
MURRAY: With seven goals, Luca Lobo is going to stay on this list simply because he’s doing something we’ve rarely seen in the Championship on the attacking end for a defender. Even Forrest Lasso at his best didn’t have a season this prolific while he was with either Charleston or FC Cincinnati. If we’re looking at someone who’s putting in the work at the defensive end, though, it’s hard to look past Saint Louis FC’s Sam Fink. The guy just wins his battles, distributes well and is no slouch from set pieces himself. As well as STLFC is playing overall, Fink is going to stay in the picture here as one of its essential pieces.
ARLIA: While Lobo is on a record goalscoring pace for defenders, I think it’s fair to question how likely that can be sustained moving forward. Tulsa’s defensive record doesn’t match up to those of Tampa Bay or Saint Louis, so he’ll likely need to keep producing on the offensive end to stay on this list. Fink has been at the heart of everything for STLFC – as a captain should be – and has even taken on penalty kick duties for the side. But the true defensive pillar of the season so far for me has been Diakite, who sits tied atop the league lead in clearances (61) and anchors the league’s stingiest defense.
Eryk Williamson, Portland Timbers 2
Luca Lobo, Tulsa Roughnecks FC
David Ochoa, Real Monarchs SLC
ARLIA: No changes here from our initial update, although my preseason pick of Bethlehem’s Michee Ngalina is starting to heat up (three goals, one assist). However, Williamson continues to pull the strings in T2’s attack as he sits tied for the league lead with six assists and Lobo has continued his astonishing rate of goals from defense. Ochoa sits second in the league among goalkeepers with 30 saves but is probably the candidate in most danger of slipping off the list after conceding a few too many recently.
MURRAY: One thing I’ll stump up for with Ochoa a little bit here is that he’s having to take on a big workload in his seven games, where the Monarchs are giving up six shots on goal on average per outing. But even as good as he is – and that might be good enough to get him on the U.S. U-20 World Cup roster this week – the clear pick here as of now is Eryk Williamson. There are calls from Timbers fans for him to get a chance at MLS minutes with as well as he’s playing, and his ability to take over portions of games has been central to T2’s successful start.
Anthony Pulis, Saint Louis FC
Neill Collins, Tampa Bay Rowdies
Michael Nsien, Tulsa Roughnecks FC
MURRAY: You keep your team undefeated through the opening two months of the season? You get a spot on this shortlist. What Neill Collins has done in his first full season in charge has built a strong framework for the Rowdies to achieve success. I’d also throw in a mention here for the New York Red Bulls II’s John Wolyniec, who no matter what he’s dealt keeps that side rolling along, and New Mexico United’s Troy Lesesne, who has his side playing the most attractive soccer in the league. NMU has 17 assists on its 22 goals, both league-highs.
ARLIA: Well, apparently that opening statement isn’t entirely true because Fresno FC’s Adam Smith is just an honorable mention after leading his side to a seven-game unbeaten start. However, there’s no doubting that Collins and Pulis deserve their spots after guiding their teams towards the top of the Eastern Conference, which I would argue has proven to be the tougher of the two. But if I had to pick a winner right now, I’d vote for Nsien because Tulsa’s turnaround has been nothing short of fantastic. The Roughnecks have already surpassed their win total from 2018 and are just six points short of their final tally from last season with 24 games to go.
Kevaughn Frater, New Mexico United
Tom Barlow, New York Red Bulls II
Santi Moar, New Mexico United
ARLIA: The question it seems we have to address is: Who is the true key to New Mexico United’s early-season success? Moar claimed Championship Player of the Month honors in March but has taken a little bit of a back seat to Frater in recent weeks. Both players have scored seven goals for the expansion side and have a hat trick on their resume already this season. Frater has a slight edge in assists (3-2) and chances created (15-12) but that’s really splitting hairs. It’s going to be fascinating to see how this plays out moving forward.
MURRAY: It’s a real conundrum we have in New Mexico, somewhat similar to what we saw between Aodhan Quinn and Thomas Enevoldsen in Orange County last season when both players were finalists for this award. With the vote-splitting possibilities that brings, it may make Barlow the favorite as of now. He’s going to keep getting chances to add to his league-leading eight goals – the Red Bulls II lead the Eastern Conference with 112 key passes this season – and if he can maintain his 30 percent chance conversion rate then a very big season is in the offing here.