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2020 Championship Preview – Western Conference

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 03/02/20, 11:00AM EST

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Rising FC is the favorite, but the list of challengers continues to grow

Phoenix Rising FC dominated the regular season in the Western Conference last year. Re-writing the record books at every turn, including a 20-game winning streak, 24 wins overall, 78 points, and a remarkable 89 goals in a single season.

But then, the side that broke that winning streak in October also broke the hearts of Rising FC’s fans in November. Real Monarchs SLC went on to lift the trophy at the USL Championship Final with victory against Louisville City FC, becoming the first road team to triumph in the Championship’s title game in its history.

As the 2020 season arrives, Rising FC is still the favorite to be the best the Championship has to offer, but the magic of 2019 is going to be hard to replicate, and the list of challengers grows deeper by the day. Orange County SC has restocked its squad looking to repeat its first-place finish in 2018, and while the Monarchs have undergone changes, Head Coach Jamison Olave’s side still has its talisman in midfielder Jack Blake at the center of the action.

Add in the potential for second-year sides El Paso Locomotive FC, Austin Bold FC and New Mexico United to take a step forward from their postseason berths in Year 1, and the arrival of a well-stocked squad at expansion side San Diego Loyal SC under Head Coach Landon Donovan, and there could be plenty of intrigue to go around.

Here’s our look at what to expect from the 2020 Western Conference.

Austin Bold FC
Head Coach: Marcelo Serrano
Venue: Bold Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 75 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 6th place, 53pts, +10 goal differential
MURRAY
Austin Bold FC produced consistency in its inaugural season, never too high – the club’s longest undefeated streak was five games, and it only won back-to-back games twice – but never too low – it also only suffered back-to-back losses on two occasions. Finding a way to expand the former should be the expectation for Year 2, and with all three of the club’s leading scorers in Andre Lima, Kleber and Kris Tyrpak and standout assist-man Sean McFarlane returning alongside a solid back line led by goalkeeper Diego Restrepo and defender Amobi Okugo there should be room for progression.
Player to Watch
Sean McFarlane – Defender
McFarlane ranked third in the Championship in assists as he was given license to attack down the right side of Bold FC’s lineup consistently throughout the 2019 season. The Jamaican’s total of 204 crosses from open play was 53 more than the second player on the list – new Bold FC signing Ish Jome, who could fulfill a similar role down the left this season – as he provided consistent service to Austin’s attackers. Will there be more of the same this season? Bold FC fans should certainly hope there will.
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Head Coach: Alan Koch
Venue: Weidner Field
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 28 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 14th place, 38pts, -15 goal differential
MURRAY
The only way is up for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC after the 2019 season, but with Head Coach Alan Koch now installed and a new set of faces arriving at Weidner Field the building process toward returning to the process should get underway. Koch has a history of maximizing the talent at his disposal in the Championship at both Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 and FC Cincinnati, and he can accomplish the same thing with the Switchbacks. It might not result in a playoff place immediately – although that’s certainly the goal – but putting the club on the right path before it moves into its 8,000-seat downtown stadium in 2021 is definitely in the cards.
Player to Watch
George Lebese – Midfielder
With more than 150 appearances in South Africa’s top-flight and six caps for the country’s national team, the 30-year-old Lebese brings a lot of experience with him to his first professional experience outside his native country. Twice a league champion with Kaizer Chiefs, the Switchbacks believe the new experience will reinvigorate Lebese’s career and provide skill and leadership that can help the side move back toward the playoff positions this season.
El Paso Locomotive FC
Head Coach: Mark Lowry
Venue: Southwest University Park
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 61 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 8th place, 48pts, +2 goal differential
MURRAY
By instilling a true identity from the opening day of training camp, Head Coach Mark Lowry led Locomotive FC to the best record of the Championship’s first-year sides in 2019 and eventually a place in the Western Conference Final. The side will need to address offseason departures, most notably those of leading scorer Jerome Kiesewetter and playmaker Sebastian Velasquez. That said, it feels certain that native son Omar Salgado will have a bigger year in 2020 to help fill that gap in the attack, and the identity that El Paso has forged will carry it forward to another successful season.
Player to Watch
Omar Salgado – Forward
There were some standout moments for Salgado as he represented his hometown club in its first season, but overall the season was frustrating as he registered only three goals and a 4.5 percent shot conversion rate in 37 appearances. The law of averages says both those numbers rise, resulting in a welcome return to form for the former No. 1 selection in the MLS SuperDraft and U.S. U-20 international.
LA Galaxy II
Head Coach: Junior Gonzalez
Venue: Dignity Health Sports Park
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 32 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 13th place, 39pts, -14 goal differential
MURRAY
Los Dos produced an excellent midseason turnaround under Junior Gonzalez, who led the side to a 7-4-4 record as it returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2016 last campaign. With Gonzalez now the permanent leader on the sideline the question will be whether the Galaxy II can build on that progress and become a contender again. There’s no questioning the young talent here, and with Kai Koreniuk and Augustine Williams back after sitting as two of the club’s leading scorers last season there’s a solid group to build with. If the 22-year-old Williams can have a breakthrough season and reach double digits for the first time, it could mean another postseason trip for his side.
Player to Watch
Kai Koreniuk – Midfielder
Having previously made appearances for the Netherlands U-18 National Team, the Florida native’s upside saw him arrive at the Galaxy II with positive expectations. Koreniuk lived up to those with nine goals and four assists in the 2019 season, and got called up to the Galaxy’s squad for a Leagues Cup match against Liga MX’s Xolos de Tijuana as a result. If Koreniuk has the same impact for Los Dos this season, a chance to join the Galaxy on a permanent basis could arrive soon.
Las Vegas Lights FC
Head Coach: Eric Wynalda
Venue: Cashman Field
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 22 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 16th place, 35pts, -19 goal differential
MURRAY
It wasn’t quite enough to push the club into the playoff positions, but Head Coach Eric Wynalda’s first year on the sideline saw a 10-point improvement for Lights FC from Year 1 and gave some optimism the side could take the next step this season. To accomplish that it will need to address the departure of leading scorer Irvin Parra to San Diego Loyal SC, but a key focus in recruitment has been at the defensive end with the arrival of experienced Championship center backs Ramon Martin Del Campo and Jordan Murrell added to the squad. The projections might not make for happy reading right now for Lights FC fans, but Vegas loves an underdog. With this club, it has one of its own to root for.
Player to Watch
Yamikani Chester – Midfielder
Five goals might not seem like a big return for an attacking midfielder, but the underlying numbers for Yamikani Chester could make him a threat to do big things for Las Vegas this season after being used sparingly by North Carolina FC this past season. Chester’s scoring rate of a rate of a goal every 194 minutes and shot conversion rate of 20.8 percent, if duplicated for a full season, would provide some serious attacking threat.
New Mexico United
Head Coach: Troy Lesesne
Venue: Isotopes Park
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 55 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 11th place, 46pts -1 goal differential
MURRAY
From its exciting on-field play, deep run in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and groundswell of support that led the Championship in attendance, New Mexico United was one of the stories of the year in North American soccer in 2019. The club’s inaugural-season playoff place was arguably harder-earned than it had to be, however, and a key area of recruitment – led by 2019 title-winner Kalen Ryden – has been to shore up a defense that recorded only four shutouts in the regular season. If the defense is more watertight, there’s more than enough firepower here to do some damage.
Player to Watch
Amando Moreno – Midfielder
One of the notable departures for United this offseason was Santi Moar to Phoenix Rising FC, but in Amando Moreno the club might have an ideal replacement. Bringing experience from both Liga MX at Xolos de Tijuana and MLS with Chicago Fire FC, the 24-year-old had a stellar season for the New York Red Bulls II in his only previous Championship season, recording 11 goals and four assists. Moreno’s finishing ability and creativity should mesh well with the rest of United’s attacking options and keep the side among the most entertaining in the league.
OKC Energy FC
Head Coach: John Pascarella
Venue: Taft Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 58 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 10th place, 47pts, Even goal differential
MURRAY
A second consecutive season without a trip to the playoffs saw changes for Energy FC with John Pascarella joining the club to take on his first Head Coaching position in the professional ranks from Major League Soccer’s Minnesota United FC. The challenge for Pascarella will be to reinvigorate the club’s confidence, and there are reinforcements to help this along, notably veteran forward Jaime Chavez, who arrives after a stellar 2019 season for Fresno FC, and Cuban forward Frank Lopez, who has racked up 27 goals over the past two seasons for the LA Galaxy II. Maybe the biggest key, though, is going to be reducing the number of shots the side concedes after opponents averaged 15.8 shots per game in 2019.
Player to Watch
Atiba Harris – Defender
The biggest issue Energy FC faced in 2019 was its defensive frailty, where the side allowed the most shots and conceded the most goals in a regular season in its history. OKC was regularly punished for its midstakes with six of the 10 shots the side allowed due to defensive errors turning into goals for the opposition. To avoid a similar outcome this season, experienced center back Atiba Harris will have to marshal his troops far better. If he can, it would be a major step back toward playoff contention.
Orange County SC
Head Coach: Braeden Cloutier
Venue: Championship Soccer Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 87 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 2nd place, 58pts, +18 goal differential
MURRAY
Orange County couldn’t hit the same heights of the 2018 season last campaign, but a late surge of nine wins in its last 11 games guaranteed a place in the playoffs before elimination at the hands of eventual title-winner Real Monarchs SLC. The good news for Head Coach Braeden Cloutier’s side, however, is one of the essential pieces from two years ago is back in the fold for 2020 as forward Thomas Enevoldsen returns after an eventful campaign split between Indy Eleven and Sacramento Republic FC. There are other intriguing new additions, too, including 2016 Championship MVP Sean Okoli, which means OCSC is looking ready for a bounce-back year.
Player to Watch
Michael Orozco – Defender
The former United States Men’s National Team defender’s arrival midway through the 2019 season was a major coup for Orange County, bringing Orozco home after spending much of the decade in Liga MX. Now 34 years old, Orozco may be on the tail-end of his career, but the experience he can provide to Orange County’s youngsters – not only the club’s homegrown players but those that arrived on loan from Rangers FC under the new partnership between the clubs – will be invaluable on top of the minutes he’ll provide in the center of defense.
Phoenix Rising FC
Head Coach: Rick Schantz
Venue: Casino Arizona Field
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 98 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 1st place, 70pts, +38 goal differential
MURRAY
After FC Cincinnati’s exploits in the 2018 season, we thought we might be waiting a while to see a side as dominant in the Championship’s regular season. It turned out we only had to wait a year as Rising FC took almost all the records FCC set, including the big two of most wins (24) and points (78). That dominance – powered by a record 20-game winning streak – leaves little room for improvement in 2020 during the regular season, but while they enter as favorites to claim a second consecutive Regular Season Title, Phoenix’s primary aim this year is going to be lifting the trophy after the USL Championship Final in November. With 2019 MVP Solomon Asante leading the way and a stellar supporting cast, there’s no question Rising FC is the favorite to accomplish that, all that’s left now is to achieve it.
Player to Watch
Solomon Asante – Forward
If the biggest question for Rising FC is how it improves on a record-setting season, the same could be asked individually of Solomon Asante, who became only the second player to lead the Championship in goals and assists in a single season to sweep to the league’s Most Valuable Player award. Given the high standards the Ghanaian playmaker has set over his first two seasons, it’s hard to imagine that big a drop-off for the 29-year-old, especially given the quality of his surrounding teammates.
Portland Timbers 2
Head Coach: Cameron Knowles
Venue: Hillsboro Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 59 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 9th place, 47pts, Even goal differential
MURRAY
If you wanted entertainment in the 2019 season, a Portland Timbers 2 game was usually a good decision. The side’s contests averaged four goals per game during the regular season, with T2 sitting fifth in the league with 65 goals. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate to on-field success as Portland also conceded 71 times, leaving T2 eight points out of the playoff positions. As the club moves to its new home at Hillsboro Stadium, finding a way to maintain that attacking power while shoring up the back line would lead to a second postseason appearance in three seasons for Head Coach Cameron Knowles’ squad.
Player to Watch
Carlos Anguiano – Midfielder
An Oregon native, Anguiano has seen his appearances more than double each of his first three seasons for T2 as last season he surpassed 20 games and 1,500 minutes for the side while putting up solid numbers in the center of midfield. Named to the 2019 USL 20 Under 20, Anguiano posted two goals, five assists and 22 key passes last season, and should the 20-year-old take the next step in terms of final-third productivity this campaign, it would not only provide a boost to T2’s playoff chances, but also Anguiano’s chance of becoming a new local hero for the Timbers Army in the top flight.
Real Monarchs SLC
Head Coach: Jamison Olave
Venue: Zions Bank Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 70 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 7th place, 51pts, +7 goal differential
MURRAY
The Monarchs produced their best when it mattered most in the 2019 season, coalescing into an impressive attacking force down the stretch before scoring 13 goals in four postseason games to claim the first league title in the club’s history. Now the question will be whether Head Coach Jamison Olave’s side can replicate its success in 2020 with some key figures potentially moving up to Real Salt Lake (Maikel Chang, Douglas Martinez, David Ochoa) or moving on to other Championship sides (Kalen Ryden). Those that have arrived – including 2019 League One Most Valuable Player Arturo Rodriguez on loan from North Texas SC – will have to step up to the mark to make the Monarchs’ title defense a successful one.
Player to Watch
Jack Blake – Midfielder
After lifting the trophy last November as the Monarchs’ captain, the big question for Blake was whether he would remain part of the club for its title defense. On December 18, his return was officially announced, giving the side the fulcrum of its midfield to build around again in 2020. Blake’s impact was substantial for Real last season, most notably in the playoffs where he recorded three of his 11 goals. With a new crop of talent to work with, the Englishman’s experience is going to make sure the standards don’t slip, keeping Real in the middle of the postseason contenders.
Reno 1868 FC
Head Coach: Ian Russell
Venue: Greater Nevada Field
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 75 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 5th place, 53pts, +9 goal differential
MURRAY
Reno produced its best regular-season finish in club history in 2019 with 60 points and a second-place finish in the Western Conference. Postseason success, however, still eluded Head Coach Ian Russell’s side as it was upset by rival Sacramento Republic FC in the Conference Quarterfinals to end another promising campaign. If there’s any consolation for 1868 FC fans, however, it seems unlikely that there will be a drop in the entertainment value or success the side has provided over its first three seasons in 2020. Leading scorer Corey Hertzog returns to lead an attack that has added Foster Langsdorf (21 goals in two seasons for Portland Timbers 2) and Christiano Francois, who had a stellar season on the wing for Ottawa Fury FC last year. If they click, it could mean not only a fourth consecutive postseason appearance, but a run at a first piece of silverware.
Player to Watch
Brent Richards – Defender
No-one has spent more time on the field for Reno 1868 FC than Brent Richards, whose 91 appearances and 7,744 minutes played across the regular season and playoffs are both club records. The veteran fullback returns for the club’s fourth season having been instrumental in the positive play Reno has produced, recording 13 assists and 91 chances created while foraging forward down the flank. The 29-year-old will have some new teammates on the back line this season, but should be expected to maintain his high level of play as one of Head Coach Ian Russell’s club cornerstones.
Rio Grande Valley FC
Head Coach: Gerson Echeverry
Venue: H-E-B Park
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 18 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 18th place, 33pts, -22 goal differential
MURRAY
The Toros made a late push up the standings with four wins in their last five outings in 2019, including home victories against Real Monarchs SLC and Orange County SC. In some quarters that could provide optimism going into the new season, but there should be some caution as the same happened at the end of 2018 only for RGVFC to come out flat to start 2019. There will be some continuity within the squad as Isidro Martinez returns after logging eight assists and one goal in 2019, and there are new faces in the form of fellow former UTRGV player Kyle Edwards, selected by the Houston Dynamo in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. Maybe the most important new arrival, however, is in the front office with Ron Patel installed as President after playing a key role in New Mexico United’s launch. Reestablishing the Toros in the region after three seasons without postseason action – and making H-E-B Park a tougher place to play – is going to be the biggest task the club takes on this season.
Player to Watch
Isidro Martinez – Midfielder
A native of Brownsville, Texas, located about an hour’s drive from the Toros’ home in Edinburg, Isidro Martinez could be considered one of the first homegrown players to emerge from the club’s local area. A collegiate standout at UTRGV, Martinez’s rookie season saw him notch eight assists and 68 key passes, good for fifth and seventh respectively in the Western Conference. The 22-year-old should look to add more goals this season – he found the net just once in 2019 – but if those arrive a chance to step up to a higher level of competition could be around the corner, and could get RGVFC into playoff contention.
Sacramento Republic FC
Head Coach: Mark Briggs
Venue: Papa Murphy's Park
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 79 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 4th place, 54pts, +12 goal differential
MURRAY
Republic FC advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals after an up-and-down regular season left them seventh in the standings, surprising rival Reno 1868 FC before falling to El Paso Locomotive FC, but the offseason still saw a change at Head Coach with Mark Briggs taking over from Simon Elliott this offseason. Briggs – who managed Real Monarchs SLC to the Championship’s Regular Season Title in 2017 – will be hoping to produce more from a squad that has the talent to contend. With Cameron Iwasa leading the attack and the return of Rodrigo Lopez from Liga MX, there should be plenty of optimism around Papa Murphy’s Park to start the new season.
Player to Watch
Rodrigo Lopez – Midfielder
There was no-one more beloved by Sacramento Republic FC’s fans over the club’s first two seasons than Rodrigo Lopez. The playmaker provided the club’s first scrapbook moment via the Miracle at Bonney comeback victory in the 2014 USL Championship Playoffs and recorded 24 goals and 15 assists overall in his first spell at the club. Now 32 years old, Lopez is likely to find a deeper-lying role in the midfield awaiting him, but his experiences playing in Liga MX and the leadership he aims to bring can provide a major boost to the squad around him as he returns to Papa Murphy’s Park.
San Antonio FC
Head Coach: Alen Marcina
Venue: Toyota Field
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 83 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 3rd place, 56pts, +16 goal differential
MURRAY
San Antonio FC saw a playoff place slip away on the final weekend of the regular season in 2019, leaving the club with only won postseason berth in its first four seasons. For a club of SAFC’s side, the focus for incoming Head Coach Alen Marcina, a familiar face to most local fans, will be to fashion a team that can content after going big in recruitment this offseason. Led by the arrival of former Chicago Fire FC forward Luis Solignac to its ranks, and talented homegrown attacker Jose Gallegos to his first pro deal, the side needs to match up to the tremendous venue and stellar supporter base and put SAFC among the league’s marquee clubs.
Player to Watch
Cristian Parano – Midfielder
Arriving in a new country as a 19-year-old, Parano quickly adapted to his new surroundings in San Antonio and may have found a launching pad for a career that had seen him compete in the Academies of both Boca Juniors and River Plate during his upbringing in Argentina. Parano claimed the Championship’s Young Player of the Year award as he recorded seven goals and six assists in 32 appearances. He should be aiming to break into double digits in at least one, if not both, of those categories this season.
San Diego Loyal SC
Head Coach: Landon Donovan
Venue: Torero Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 55 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 12th place, 46pts, -1 goal differential
MURRAY
The lone first-year club in the USL Championship in 2020 arrives in America’s Finest City and offers not only compelling storylines on and off the field, but the potential to produce a highly attractive on-field product. SD Loyal went after premium Championship quality to build its inaugural squad around including 2019 Defender of the Year Joe Greenspan, playmaker Raul Mendiola and forward Irvin Parra – who logged 15 goals last season for Las Vegas Lights FC. Added to that mix are players that shone for assistant coach Nate Miller in League One last season with midfielder Tumi Moshobane and defender Grant Stoneman names to watch as they make the move up a level this year. The biggest storyline of the season, though, will be how U.S soccer legend Landon Donovan fares in his transition to the coaching ranks in a city that appears ready for a club to call its own.
Player to Watch
Irvin Parra – Forward
It may be forgotten after the exploits of some players the past two seasons, but Parra was the first player in the Championship’s history to record double-digit goals and assists in a season in 2017, and his record in the league has been impressive since returning to the United States from Germany in 2016. Parra has recorded 27 goals and 19 assists in 67 appearances in the Championship and could be a key figure in SD Loyal’s attack as the club looks for inaugural season success.
Tacoma Defiance
Head Coach: Chris Little
Venue: Cheney Stadium
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 19 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 17th place, 34pts, -22 goal differential
MURRAY
There’s no question that there is talent coming through the Sounders FC Academy, but in the 2019 season the lack of experience within the squad regularly shone through, resulting in the side conceding a league-high 82 goals in 34 games. While there were bright moments among the defeats, including impressive home wins against Las Vegas Lights FC, San Antonio FC and Austin Bold FC, the Defiance have looked to add a stronger spine to its side this offseason, led by the return to his home state of center back Taylor Mueller. The former Charleston Battery defender has logged more regular season minutes than any player in the Championship’s history (16,556), and in 2018 earned All-League honors. His experience – and that of fellow new arrival Collin Fernandez – will be crucial if Tacoma is going to make a dent in the playoff race this season.
Player to Watch
Collin Fernandez – Midfielder
Fernandez may be 23 years old – making him not that much older than some of his new teammates, but 2020 will mark this sixth season in the professional ranks after signing with Chicago Fire FC for the 2015 season. Fernandez’s has achieved success in the Championship previously, leading FC Tulsa to the lone playoff berth in its history in 2017 before helping Phoenix Rising FC reach the 2018 USL Championship Final the following year. Those experiences – and Fernandez’s ability to win and distribute in midfield – will be invaluable for Head Coach Chris Little as he looks to push his side to a higher level.
FC Tulsa
Head Coach: Michael Nsien
Venue: ONEOK Field
FiveThirtyEight.com Playoff Odds: 24 percent
FiveThirtyEight.com Projection: 15th place, 36pts, -18 goal differential
MURRAY
This offseason brought about a seismic shift for professional soccer in Tulsa, with new ownership led by J.W. Craft, a new name and a new brand arriving for the sixth-year club. Now – after a busy offseason of recruitment – the club will look to produce a winning product on the field as it looks for its second postseason berth all-time and first since the 2017 season. The new arrivals certainly have the pedigree to make a big impact. Former University of Tulsa standout Bradley Bourgeois and Lebo Moloto were both central figures in Nashville SC’s success last season, while the side also boasts three players in Mfon Udoh, Solomon Kwabe and Raphael Ayagwa that have competed at the senior international level for Nigeria. How the group comes together is going to dictate how quickly the on-field product will mirror the transformation the club has achieved off the field.
Player to Watch
Rodrigo Da Costa – Midfielder
The story of Rodrigo Da Costa, who almost gave up the game before arriving in Florida from his native Brazil to play collegiately, then moved from the Florida Soccer Soldiers to the professional ranks in Tulsa, is a remarkable one. So was his first professional season, which saw him record nine goals and 13 assists to become the lone player voted to the 2019 Championship All-League Team from a non-playoff team. The 26-year-old will look to add to his impressive start with a bigger backing ensemble in 2020, and hopefully a place in the postseason.

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