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10 Defenders to Watch in the 2020 Championship Season

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 03/03/20, 2:00PM EST

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From rugged stalwarts to two-way standouts, these players can make a big mark this season

Defense might not be as essential to winning a title in the USL Championship as you might think – last season’s finalists Louisville City FC and Real Monarchs SLC combined to average a 1.38 goals-against average in the regular season – but there’s no denying the contributions an impact player defensively will bring a side.

They can come in the form of a shutdown center back or fullback, or a player that can stretch the field down the flanks in a two-way role. We’ve got both categories covered in this group as we build up to a 2020 USL Championship season.

As with Monday’s list of goalkeepers, this shouldn’t be considered a definitive list of the top defenders in the Championship.

These players, though, may need to make a significant impact for their respective squads this campaign to earn the on-field success they crave.

FC Tulsa
Bradley Bourgeois

He might be a native of Texas, but 2020 could feel like a homecoming for Bradley Bourgeois. After all, the former Houston Dynamo Academy product was a standout at the University of Tulsa collegiately, and previously helped FC Tulsa – then the Roughnecks – to its lone postseason appearance in 2017. There have been plenty of strong additions to Head Coach Michael Nsien’s squad this offseason, but as he returns following two strong campaigns for Nashville SC, Bourgeois might represent the heartbeat of the club on the field as he returns to Oklahoma.

Memphis 901 FC
Liam Doyle

Joining the club in early August last season, Liam Doyle was part of a midseason retooling of Memphis 901 FC’s squad that could provide a strong platform for Year 2. Certainly, the former Nashville SC center back brings plenty of Championship experience with more than 100 appearances over the past four seasons in the league. He also brings a no-nonsense approach to his work with 407 clearances and a 76.8 tackle success rate over the past three seasons. That should make him a key figure if 901 FC is to push into playoff contention this season.

San Diego Loyal SC
Joe Greenspan

Since his first loan stint with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in 2017, Joe Greenspan installed himself as one of the top center backs in the USL Championship. Last season, it resulted in leading the Hounds to a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference for the first time and the Championship’s Defender of the Year award. This season, he’s going to be one of the cornerstones for expansion side San Diego Loyal SC, bringing his ability to a side that is looking to arrive with a bang. SD Loyal has other seasoned campaigners in its ranks, but Greenspan is the centerpiece that could make Head Coach Landon Donovan’s side one of the toughest sides to take on this year.

Austin Bold FC
Ish Jome

There was a method to the way Austin Bold FC wanted to play in its inaugural season, most clearly indicated through fullback Sean McFarlane’s 12 assists as he regularly bombed forward down the flanks to deliver for a talented attacking corps. Now, McFarlane is joined in Austin’s ranks by Ish Jome, who sat second to McFarlane in crosses delivered from open play last season with Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. The Gambia native – who registered four goals and seven assists of his own last season – seems likely to give Bold FC great attacking options on either flank this season, which bodes well for the supply lines for Kleber, Andre Lima and Kris Tyrpak.

Tacoma Defiance
Duke Lacroix

Over the past two seasons with Reno 1868 FC, Duke Lacroix came into his own as a dynamic two-way player for one of the most entertaining sides in the Championship. Now he’s bringing his talents to the Independence, who are looking to return to the playoffs after an absence of two seasons. Lacroix’s defensive abilities are solid – he registered 82 interceptions and won 79 of 112 tackles for Reno – but his ability to get forward and join the attack makes him a big potential upgrade for Charlotte on the back line.

Charlotte Independence
Ramon Martin Del Campo

Las Vegas Lights FC knew it needed to improve defensively to take the next step in Head Coach Eric Wynalda’s second season. Bringing in the experience of Ramon Martin Del Campo was a big step toward accomplishing that. The 26-year-old, who when coming out of college was part of the United States U-23 National Team set-up, was stellar on the back line last season for Fresno FC, recording 117 clearances and winning 135 of 206 aerial duels. If the 6-foot-3 center back puts up similar numbers this season, Las Vegas is going to become a far tougher proposition.

San Antonio FC
Jimmy Ockford

As much continuity as Louisville City FC has achieved in its squad over its history, the side went into this past offseason knowing there may be gaps that needed to be filled on its back line. So, who better to bring into the squad than someone who not only has thrived in the Championship previously, but whose previous year in the Derby City brought individual and team success? In his final collegiate season, Jimmy Ockford helped the University of Louisville to an AAC Regular Season title and was named the conference’s Defender of the Year. For LouCity fans hoping to add to the club’s trophy case as it moves into Lynn Family Stadium, Ockford achieving the same this season in the Championship would be music to their ears.

Charleston Battery
AJ Paterson

Last year was a memorable one for AJ Paterson. The Florida native both helped the Charleston Battery keep their streak of reaching the Championship’s postseason alive, but he also captained Grenada as it won its Concacaf Nations League group and secured a spot at the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup. For the 24-year-old, the next step is now beckoning. After 20 appearances for Charleston a season ago, the departure of Taylor Mueller to Tacoma Defiance means the opportunity for an even bigger role should present itself, and with it a chance to star for club and country over the new campaign.

Real Monarchs SLC
Noah Powder

We had seen glimpses of the potential Noah Powder possessed previously in the Championship, but last season felt like a breakthrough for the 21-year-old fullback. Not only did Powder register career-highs in appearances (34) and minutes (2,930), but he became an indispensable part of the Real Monarchs SLC side that was crowned at the 2019 USL Championship Final, scoring the third goal in its 3-1 victory against Louisville City FC. If Powder can build on that success this year with the Monarchs, his future could open wide, not only at the club level, but also on the international stage where Trinidad & Tobago will embark on the road to World Cup Qualifying this fall.

New Mexico United
Kalen Ryden

There was plenty to like about New Mexico United’s inaugural season. From the exuberant embrace of fans across the state to the exciting manner that Head Coach Troy Lesesne set his side up to play brought plenty of thrills to Isotopes Park. But defensively, the side had its issues, allowing the second-most goals of any team to reach the playoffs. Enter offseason addition Kalen Ryden, who in addition to coming off the high of claiming the Championship title with Real Monarchs SLC brings with him 115 games of experience in the league to try and boost NMU’s backline. Now in his prime at 28 years old, Ryden can provide plenty to aid what ailed United as it enters Year 2.

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