Bermuda's Zeiko Lewis, Indy Eleven's Neveal Hackshaw and Phoenix Rising FC's Kevon Lambert are among the best players from the Caribbean in the Championship this season.
With the quality of talent available in the region, and the opportunity the USL Championship has offered to bring that talent to a wider audience, some of the best players in the Championship’s history have originated from countries like Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago and others in the Caribbean.
Three of the league’s first four Most Valuable Player award-winners were from the region, with Yordany Alvarez (Cuba) and Kevin Molino (Trinidad and Tobago) starring for Orlando City SC. On top of that, the league has also seen numerous players feature more recently on the international stage, with 22 players from 13 teams last year being selected to compete at the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup.
With the Championship now set to bring live action to the Caribbean through its first international broadcast agreement with Flow Sports, here are the 10 players that are currently shining brightest in the Championship this season, and a collection of 10 more to watch as this season develops.
The 30-year-old Haitian veteran has been a centerpiece for Les Grenadiers over the past decade since making his debut in 2008, and he’s been a crucial figure in the success of Orlando City SC, the Charlotte Independence and El Paso Locomotive FC in the times he spent at each club. What still might stand out most about the center back, though, is his cannon of a right leg, which has produced spectacular goals for both club and country over the years. As El Paso makes its drive to return to the playoffs for the second time this season, Jerome’s experience and technical ability will put him at the center of the action.
There’s so much you can say about the Championship’s all-time leading goalscorer, but what might be most notable is he appears to have found a new lease on life this season after joining the Charlotte Independence. With four goals in the club’s first seven games, Kelly is returning to the type of strike rate that saw him claim the Championship’s Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player award in the 2017 season at Reno 1868 FC. For an Independence side that’s looking for its first playoff appearance in three seasons, that’s made his arrival a welcome addition at the Sportsplex at Matthews and one that could put him back on the radar for the Jamaica National Team again.
Since arriving in the league with the Portland Timbers 2 in the 2016 season, Brett has quickly established himself as one of the Championship’s premier sharpshooters. With four goals so far for new club Birmingham Legion FC this season, he’s reached 43 goals overall in the regular season and playoffs in the league, giving him the seventh-highest goal total in the Championship over the past five seasons. The 28-year-old has yet to earn his first call-up for the Jamaica National Team, but he’s well worth watching as Legion FC continues to roll toward a postseason berth this season.
There’s nothing that Christiano Francois likes more than some space and a defender to run at, and that’s made him one of the most exciting players in the Championship over the past four seasons. Now at one of the most attacking teams in the Championship in Reno 1868 FC, he’s continued to add to his numbers with 16 goals and 21 assists in his Championship career so far. The 27-year-old has started to come into his own for Les Grenadiers as well in the past year, making his national team debut in the Concacaf Nations League against Curacao last September, but there’s something about the way Francois plays that can’t quite be summed up by numbers alone. All you need to feel is the buzz in the stands when he picks up possession with a chance to attack to know why.
There might have been no better story in Caribbean soccer than that of Bermuda’s arrival as a serious player in the past two years, with the side earning its first trip to the Concacaf Gold Cup a year ago and placement in League A of the inaugural edition of the Concacaf Nations League. One of the key figures in that story is Zeiko Lewis, who has become as indispensable for the Charleston Battery as he as for his national team in that span. The playmaking midfielder was central to the Battery continuing their streak of reaching the USL Championship Playoffs in every seasons of the league’s history with eight goals and five assists a season ago. Now he’s leading the club back on the same path with four goals and two assists in eight games this campaign. Lewis keeps the Battery charged in the attacking third, and Charleston is a playoff contender as a result.
When it comes to picking out top players, the flash of attackers can tend to take over. But with Kevon Lambert, the strength and solidity he’s brought to the center of the Phoenix Rising FC midfield for the past three seasons cannot go overlooked. The 6-foot-2 defensive midfielder has chipped in a goal or two as well, to be fair, but his ever-present standing in the Rising FC lineup when not on international duty is a testament to the standing he holds in the eyes of the club’s coaching staff led by Head Coach Rick Schantz. Lambert covers a lot of ground every game, winning possession back for his side and distributing confidently – in 2020 he’s completed 83.3 percent of his passes at a rate of 45.7 passes per 90 minutes, notching 15 interceptions and 71 recoveries in nine games. That’s what makes him a prized asset for Phoenix as it takes aim at its first title.
There are few players who have been part of so much success in the Championship as Speedy Williams, and given the numerous facets to his game it’s not hard to see why. You need someone who can make the right pass at the right time and get your team moving? Williams has average 62.3 passes per 90 minutes in eight appearances this season, completing 81.8 percent of his passes overall. You need someone who can win possession for you in the center of midfield? Williams has made 71 recoveries, eight interceptions and is averaging better than 60 percent success in tackles, duels and aerial duels. He can even chip in a goal or two for you as well, with seven goals for LouCity since joining for the 2017 season, but its his place in the engine room for the three-time USL Championship Final-winner that has elevated him among the best midfielders in the Championship.
When Neveal Hackshaw first arrived in the Championship at the Charleston Battery in 2016, there was a lot of raw potential for the club to work with. In the years since, the left-sided defender has become one of the best in the Championship both for the Battery and at his new home of Indy Eleven, where last year he earned Championship All-League First Team honors for the first time in his career. Hackshaw’s strength is certainly a great asset, but what has stood out beyond his defensive abilities is his passing technique and tactical awareness that has allowed him to become a strong two-way force even as part of a three center back scheme. For the 24-year-old Soca Warrior, the only question may be when he gets the bigger spotlight his talent and resume have earned.
Admittedly, it took the Championship a little time to catch up to the way Kenardo Forbes can influence a game. His role on the 2015 Rochester Rhinos side that claimed the USL Championship Final after losing only once all season went somewhat overlooked, and that’s a shame because it likely cost him a serious look from the Jamaica National Team. Now aged 32 years old, however, the recognition for what the all-around midfielder and playmaker brings to a side is getting the spotlight it deserves. Forbes recently became the Championship’s all-time leader in assists with 38 and is off to a blazing start this season with seven assists in eight games for the Hounds as they look to make an even deeper postseason run this season. Forbes’ ability to win possession, distribute and even find the net from range have been on full display, and everyone should be paying full attention when he’s on the field.
The Jamaican international – who started all five of the country’s games at the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup – was already a highly-regarded player in the league prior to this season. Now he’s found a whole other level, with 10 goals in nine games to start the new campaign for the USL Championship Final favorites. Flemmings’ speed and technical control have made for some spectacular finishes already this year – he’s twice won the Championship’s Fans’ Choice Goal of the Week award – and is one of the leading contenders to claim the Most Valuable Player award at the end of the season as we near the midway point of the season.
Honorable Mention: Nicque Daley (Charleston Battery & Jamaica), Billy Forbes (Austin Bold FC & Turks and Caicos Islands), Dre Fortune (North Carolina FC & Trinidad and Tobago), Keanu Marsh-Brown (Memphis 901 FC & Guyana), Ariel Martinez (FC Tulsa & Cuba), Sean McFarlane (Austin Bold FC & Jamaica), A.J. Paterson (Charleston Battery & Grenada), Dario Suarez (FC Tulsa & Cuba), Thomas Vancaeyezeele (Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC & French Guiana), Romario Williams (Miami FC & Jamaica)
Tag(s): Phoenix Rising FC Reno 1868 FC FC Tulsa Charleston Battery Charlotte Independence Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Sean McFarlane Neveal Hackshaw Kenardo Forbes Speedy Williams Billy Forbes Neco Brett Dane Kelly Junior Flemmings Zeiko Lewis Romario Williams Christiano François Birmingham Legion FC Austin Bold FC Kevon Lambert North Carolina FC Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC Dre Fortune AJ Paterson Thomas Vancaeyezeele Editorial Mechack Jérôme Nicque Daley The Miami FC Keanu Marsh-Brown Ariel Martinez