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2021 PREVIEW: Top Five Attacking Midfielders in the Championship

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 04/16/21, 3:25PM EDT


Our picks for the playmakers that will make their teams tick in the upcoming season

For every contender, there is always that player that can pick open a defense like a safe-cracker, providing the right pass at the right moment for a teammate, or calling their own number to find the back of the net themselves. One can at least partly attribute the exponential increase in quality on the field in the USL Championship to the creativity ofa great number of players both currently still in the league, or those who have moved up to top-flight competition both in Major League Soccer and elsewhere.

Finding that player – or players – who can fill that role in a team has become an essential part of earning success in the Championship, where nowadays it is a regular occurrence to see multiple players with double-digit assists in the league on an annual basis. Those players are also the ones that can bring fans to their feet with a moment of genius on the ball that might not end up on the scoresheet, but will end up on the highlight reels that fly across the internet.

With that said, here are our Top Five Attacking Midfielders in the Championship as we enter the 2021 season.

Christiano Francois

Miami FC
Age: 27
Professional Seasons: 7
2020 Numbers: 16 GP, 6 Goals, 7 Assists, 33 Key Passes, 31 Completed Dribbles

After turning pro at the age of 20 years old, it took a little time for Christiano Francois to realize the potential he had shown as a freshman at the University of Maryland. Over the past two seasons, however, the Haitian international has blossomed into one of the most exciting players in the Championship with the ball at his feet.

Francois’ performance with Reno 1868 FC a season ago, which saw him notch six goals and seven assists for the regular season title-winner, earned him a first selection to the Championship All-League Team. He’s now recorded 14 goals and 13 assists over the past two seasons, with his 13 assists the fourth-most in the Championship over that span.

Key to that has been Francois’ willingness to take on opposing defenders in the attacking third. With 89 completed dribbles over the past two years, Francois has created opportunities for himself and for others. According to American Soccer Analysis, he’s added 1.77 goals for his teams through his play off the dribble, ranking second in the league. As Francois arrives at Miami FC, he’s ready to build on the standard he has now set for himself.

Zeiko Lewis

Charleston Battery
Age: 26
Professional Seasons: 4
2020 Numbers: 15 GP, 6 Goals, 2 Assists, 30 Key Passes, 60% Shooting Accuracy Rate

There have been numerous key performers for the Charleston Battery over the past two seasons, but the influence Zeiko Lewis has had on the team in the attacking third while driving to the USL Championship Playoffs is undeniable. The Bermuda international  led the Battery in goals each of the past two seasons, while also helping unlock opposing defenses with his passing ability.

Lewis’ 73 Key Passes in the past two seasons may put him just outside the top 20 in the Championship over that span, but the quality of the chances he’s created tell an important story. According to American Soccer Analysis, Lewis’ passing has had a value add of 0.81 goals to his side’s performance, tied for eighth-best in the league in that span. Add in his decisive finishing and ability to control and deliver in tight spaces, and his overall added contribution to the Battery has been 2.13 goals, tied for seventh in the league.

The 26-year-old returns to Charleston for his third season as a centerpiece for an attacking group that also includes the talents of Mauro Cichero and emerging Jamaican forward Nique Daley. But Lewis maintaining – or improving on – the performances he’s produced so far is going to be a key element in the Battery’s sustained attacking success.

Dylan Mares

El Paso Locomotive FC
Age: 29
Professional Seasons: 7
2020 Numbers: 16 GP, 4 Goals, 4 Assists, 38 Key Passes, 9 Big Chances Created

When it came to creating chances for teammates in the 2020 USL Championship Season, new El Paso Locomotive FC addition Dylan Mares was by most measures among the elite. His 38 Key Passes in the regular season ranked him third in the Championship behind Most Valuable Player Solomon Asante at Phoenix Rising FC and Orange County SC’s Brian Iloski, while his nine Big Chances Created ranked tied for first with Asante.

That level of production had a key impact on Locomotive FC’s attacking performance in the 2020 season. The former Indy Eleven and Miami FC man accounted for 27 percent of the club’s Key Passes in the regular season, and almost one-third of its Big Chances Created. In fact, the only thing keeping Mares from bigger individual numbers in terms of assists was Locomotive FC’s hit-and-miss consistency in front of goals. El Paso converted only 31.7 percent of its Big Chances in the 2020 season, and its 14.8 percent Shot Conversion Rate was below league average.

Locomotive FC has some new additions in attack this season, though, most notably Argentine forward Luis Solignac as the club looks to go at least one step further than its Western Conference Final appearances in its first two seasons. If Mares’ production levels on the creative side remain at the same level, there could be plenty of excitement at Southwest University Park this season.

Aodhan Quinn

Phoenix Rising FC
Age: 29
Professional Seasons: 7
2020 Numbers: 16 GP, 4 Goals, 2 Assists, 18 Key Passes, 21.1% Shot Conversion Rate

There can certainly be a discussion as to whether Aodhan Quinn is a more central midfielder than an attacking one, but what’s undeniable is the level of production the San Diego native has delivered in attacking areas over the past three seasons at Orange County SC. Over that span, only Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC maestro Kenardo Forbes has recorded more assists as a midfielder than Quinn’s 23, and he’s also matched that number with 23 goals, the most among conventional midfielders in that span.

That’s a testament to Quinn’s ability to not only create, but support teammates with well-timed runs into attacking areas. Quinn’s 167 Key Passes while at Orange County married with his 1,733 passes into the attacking third, showing a progressiveness to his passing that was consistently looking to get his team on the front foot. It shows in his underlying numbers, too, where Quinn’s 1.42 Goals Added through passing in the 2020 season was the most among all players according to American Soccer Analysis.

Joining a team with as potent a collection of attacking talent as Phoenix Rising FC should offer Quinn more opportunities to find success in attacking spaces, with a likely front three of Santi Moar, Rufat Dadashov and the Championship’s two-time reigning MVP Solomon Asante to work with. With his ability to pick the right pass at the right moment, Quinn could have another big season ahead of him.

Chris Wehan

Orange County SC
Age: 27
Professional Seasons: 4
2020 Numbers: 13 GP, 6 Goals, 4 Assists, 21 Key Passes, 25% Shot Conversion Rate

Since bursting onto the scene with a then-record tying 12 assists for Reno 1868 FC in the 2017 season – a feat which landed him the Championship’s Rookie of the Year award – Chris Wehan has been one of the most consistent threats in the attacking third both in Reno and more recently at New Mexico United. With 28 goals, 25 assists and 170 Key Passes in the Championship in 83 regular-season appearances Wehan has shown both the ability to create and a sharp eye for goal in his first four seasons.

The California native’s consistency in chance creation is maybe illustrated best by his rate of Key Passes per 90 minutes, which sits at an average of 2.21. That compares favorable to some of the other leading playmakers in the Championship – past and present – including placing him ahead of the all-time assists leader in Kenardo Forbes (2.10) and only slightly behind the player Forbes overtook for that title, Maikel Chang (2.26). Wehan’s goals mark puts him at an average of 0.69 goals+assists per 90 minutes for his career, too, and his underlying numbers put him as a consistent overachiever when it comes to his Expected Goals and Expected Assists.

As Wehan returns home to Orange County this season, he will be aiming to maintain that same strong production for his new club. If he does alongside the other top talent brought in this offseason for Head Coach Braeden Cloutier to work with, it will likely set up a serious challenge in the Pacific Division.

Five More Players to Watch

Aidan Daniels, OKC Energy FC – A season ago in Colorado Springs, the breaks just didn’t seem to go Aidan Daniels’ way. While he led the Switchbacks with 27 Key Passes, he tallied only one assist to go with his three goals in the regular season. According to American Soccer Analysis, the -1.82 different between his assists total and his Expected Assists was the second-lowest in the league behind only Sacramento’s Sam Werner. If his new teammates at OKC Energy FC can provide the end product, the Canadian U-23 international’s main numbers could look a lot brighter in 2021.

Jose Gallegos, San Antonio FC – There was some real hype surrounding Jose Gallegos’ first full season in the professional ranks, and boy did he deliver. The 19-year-old was not only a Finalist for the Championship’s Young Player of the Year award, but the potential for a move to Europe was also put firmly on the map. If Gallegos continues to shine early this season for San Antonio, the potential offers to make the move to the next level could start flooding in.

Brian Iloski, Orange County SC – Brian Iloski wasn’t quite as unfortunate as Aidan Daniels according to his underlying numbers from American Soccer Analysis, but you could forgive the  UCLA product for feeling he might have been snakebit in 2020. Ranking second in the league with 39 Key Passes and third in the league with 8 Big Chances Created, all Iloski had to show for his efforts was one assist in 15 games last season. If he keeps producing opportunities at the same rate this season, that assists total could rapidly improve.

Bruno Lapa, Birmingham Legion FC – Bruno Lapa’s rookie season with Legion FC started with a bang with two goals and an assist in the club’s season opener, and then barely slowed down after that. The Brazilian ended the campaign with seven goals, five assists and 34 Key Passes in the regular season, and then bagged his first postseason goal for good measure. Signed to a new contract this offseason, Lapa’s progression among Legion FC’s new and returning attacking pieces is going to be fascinating to watch.

Amando Moreno, New Mexico United – With another offseason bringing another departed playmaker from New Mexico’s ranks, the spotlight is going to fall firmly on Amando Moreno this season as he looks to build in his initial success in United’s lineup. With six goals and four assists in his first campaign at the club, the 25-year-old New Jersey native showed plenty to endear himself to New Mexico’s fans in 2020, and they’ll be eager for him to continue to thrive in United’s high-pressure attack.

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