In a game where the margin between success and failure can be narrow, there’s always been a premium placed on players that can deliver consistently in front of goal.
That was evident in the Championship’s 2019 season, where in order to be a serious playoff contender it certainly helped to have your leading scorer be among the league’s best. It’s not a guarantee, but 14 of the 17 players that recorded at least 13 goals in the regular season led their teams into the postseason last October.
So, who are the players that could take the spotlight this season and help push their clubs to new heights?
As with our previous lists this week covering goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders, this isn’t a list of the best forwards currently in the Championship, but these 10 strikers could be key to their club’s chances of success.
Having played for four teams over the past two seasons, the twists and turns that Brandon Allen’s career has seen has made it difficult to return to the heights of his 2016 season that saw him named the Championship’s Rookie of the Year and Championship Final MVP. As he returns to Memphis to start 2020, though, there’s a chance the 26-year-old could come close to regaining his mojo. After joining 901 FC from the Tampa Bay Rowdies midseason, Allen put home nine goals in 19 games to reach 50 goals in the Championship across the regular season and playoffs for his career. If he can match the 15-goal season he had for the Red Bulls II in their title-winning season in 2016, it could lay the tracks for Memphis to ride into the playoffs.
There’s been an element of feast or famine for Kharlton Belmar over his five seasons in the Championship. In three seasons – including his Rookie of the Yea campaign in 2015 – the striker has registered double-digit tallies at a strike rate under 200 minutes per goal. In the other two, he’s notched only three times, last season averaging 603.7 minutes per tally. To be blunt, nothing seemed to quite fall into place for Belmar in 2019 with Nashville SC as he recorded only two assists and 16 key passes alongside his three goals. But if things go right, and Belmar produces a similar bounce-back season that saw him score 14 regular-season goals for Sporting Kansas City II in 2017, Sacramento Republic FC could reap a very handsome reward from its new arrival.
There was no question that goals, or a lack thereof, were the main reason Saint Louis FC missed out on the playoffs last season. Shut out four times in a six-game winless streak to end the campaign left STLFC a point outside the postseason. But if there’s a reason for optimism going into 2020, it was the step forward Russell Cicerone took during the campaign. The 25-year-old’s single-season highs of five goals and 38 shots might not seem big immediately, but they marked an important uptick after two goals in two prior seasons. If Cicerone takes the next step this season – and with four preseason goals to his credit, it certainly seems possible – then he can become the additional scoring threat Saint Louis needs alongside the returning Tyler Blackwood, Kyle Greig and new arrival Mour Samb to make STLFC’s attack tick.
After a tough first season in all areas, Hartford Athletic went about upgrading its squad this offseason. In Mexican forward Ever Guzman, the Athletic may have their centerpiece for the 2020 season. Since joining San Antonio FC on August 4, 2017, Guzman ranks eighth in the USL Championship with 24 goals, setting a club record for SAFC while averaging a strike every 166.9 minutes on the field. The 31-year-old has also hit the ground running in his new surroundings, with a four-goal game against the New England Revolution II among his preseason performances this spring. The spotlight will be on Guzman as the regular season starts, but if he lives up to his reputation then success should arrive at Dillon Stadium.
Recording a fifth season in the Championship with double-digit goals could be regarded by many forwards as a positive campaign, but for Dane Kelly the 2019 season with Indy Eleven was remembered more for what went wrong than what went right. The Championship’s all-time leading scorer with 77 regular season goals led the league with 24 missed big chances, with a late season surge to reach 10 goals for the campaign little consolation. If there was a silver lining to the year, it was that Kelly was putting himself in consistently great positions to hit the back of the net. As he arrives at the Charlotte Independence for the 2020 season, though, Kelly will be looking to regain his sharpness and lead the Jacks back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
There are some players for whom goalscoring can seem simply instinctual. They know where to be to deliver the coup de grace to the opposition and execute consistently. In the Championship, Corey Hertzog has consistently been in that category since he first competed in the league for Wilmington Hammerheads FC in 2012. Last season, though, he brought things to an even higher level with a career-best 19 goals across the regular season and playoffs that moved him to fourth all-time in the Championship’s scoring ladder. Reno has consistently made it happen with 203 goals across its first three regular seasons. Hertzog’s presence is going to be a key element in maintaining those lofty standards at Greater Nevada Field this season.
You couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2019 campaign than Marios Lomis put in for North Carolina FC. By the end of April, he’d recorded six goals in seven games while averaging better than a goal every 80 minutes. Then, unfortunately, injury hobbled the Dutch striker, who wouldn’t find the net again in the remaining seven appearances for the side during the campaign. Now, though, the 25-year-old had headed west to link up with El Paso Locomotive FC, and while there are big shoes to fill after the departure of Jerome Kiesewetter to Inter Miami CF, a fully-healthy Lomis could be just want El Paso is looking for. Another fast start – and then better fortune as the season goes on – would be just the ticket for fans at Southwest University Park.
If you’ve followed the Championship closely for the past two seasons, it likely wouldn’t be a challenging Sporcle quiz to ask for the names of six of the seven players to register 25 regular season goals since March 1, 2019. Among the Daniel Rios’ of this world, however, there also stands Cuban forward Frank Lopez, whose 27 goals in 56 games for the LA Galaxy II and San Antonio FC have jumped the 25-year-old into the top tier of scorers in the Championship. That made him an attractive proposition in free agency for OKC Energy FC, which is looking to break a two-season absence from the playoffs this campaign. If Lopez can adequately fill the void left by Deshorn Brown this offseason, Energy FC should have the firepower it needs to succeed in 2020.
For the first time in Rio Grande Valley FC’s history in 2019, it had a double-digit scorer in the regular season. In fact, it had two as both Carlos Small (12) and Michael Salazar (10) found the mark with regularity. It wasn’t enough to help the Toros push back into the playoffs for the first time since 2016, however, and with Small back in his native Panama and Salazar pushing for time with the Houston Dynamo, the Toros are going to need someone else to step up. Enter Juan Carlos Obregon Jr., who notched a goal and assist in limited action late last season. The 22-year-old certainly has a solid pedigree; recently he was called into Honduras’ U-23 training camp for Olympic Qualifying. With the Toros likely to need a big season from someone else alongside Isidro Martinez to contend, Obregon might just fit the bill.
As he returned to his home state of Texas, Kris Tyrpak was used more often as an impact substitute than a starter in Austin Bold FC’s inaugural season. Six of Tyrpak’s nine goals on the campaign – including a hat trick against FC Tulsa – came during his 16 appearances as a substitute as he made a solid impact for the playoff-bound first-year squad. As the club enters Year 2, however, you get the feeling that more is going to be needed of the 27-year-old as he enters his sixth season in the Championship. Finding a way to not only make the starting lineup more consistently but also maintain his excellent strike rate of a goal every 172.2 minutes could easily result in a career year for Tyrpak and another strong campaign for Austin.
Tag(s): Features Preseason News OKC Energy FC Reno 1868 FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC Charlotte Independence Saint Louis FC Corey Hertzog Kharlton Belmar Kris Tyrpak Dane Kelly Russell Cicerone Brandon Allen Austin Bold FC Éver Guzmán Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC Marios Lomis Frank Lopez Hartford Athletic Juan Carlos Obregón Jr