The 2021 USL Championship season was notable for many reasons, but one that stood out was also a piece of league history.
For the first time since the Championship had awarded a Young Player of the Year award – a change made in 2018 after seven seasons of honoring the top rookie in the league – the winner of the award was also voted to the USL Championship All-League First Team.
Louisville City FC’s Jonathan Gómez claimed the honor and went on to become the first active USL Championship player to play for the United States Men’s National Team in December against Bosnia and Herzegovina before his transfer to La Liga club Real Sociedad became official in January. His fellow finalists for the award in El Paso Locomotive FC’s Diego Luna and San Antonio FC’s Jose Gallegos also earned All-League honors, both voted to the Second Team, a measure of the impact they each had on their clubs’ success.
Gallegos also headed overseas this offseason, with the SAFC Academy product transferred to Danish SuperLiga club SønderjyskE. Luna returns to El Paso, however, and is one of the exiting young talents we get to watch this season in the Championship.
Here’s a list of 10 players who should be on your radar as we prepare for the season kickoff on Saturday.
There might not have been a player in the United States that achieved the ascent 17-year-old Kobi Henry accomplished in 2021. From playing at the USL Academy Cup in May for Orange County SC U-17s to then making 19 appearances for the club’s First Team as it claimed the 2021 USL Championship, being called up the United States U-20 Men’s National Team, and then this past December to the senior U.S. Men’s National Team squad for its exhibition with Bosnia and Herzegovina, the potential ceiling Henry possesses has come into full view. Turning 18 years old in April, the potential for Henry’s future path seems limitless as he gets ready to help OCSC defend its title this season.
2021 USL Championship All-League selection Diego Luna could feature prominently for club and country over the course of 2022. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC
Coming into the professional ranks from the Barça Residency Academy in Arizona, Diego Luna burst onto the USL Championship scene last year and in turn became the first player from El Paso Locomotive FC to earn Championship All-League honors after notching nine goals and five assists in just under 2,000 minutes of action. That play saw Luna called up alongside Henry for the United States U-20s, a position he has retained early this year as the side prepares for the Concacaf Men’s U-20 Championship in Honduras in June. After seeing fellow finalists for the 2021 USL Championship Young Player of the Year award Jonathan Gómez (Real Sociedad) and Jose Gallegos (SønderjyskE) make the move to Europe this past offseason, Luna will be looking to back up his outstanding first campaign with more of the same with the potential a similar move could be in the offing sooner rather than later.
It isn’t just the United States U-20 Men’s National Team that has prominent young players from the USL Championship potentially representing it this year. Thanks to the likes of Las Vegas Lights FC center back Tony Leone – previously a standout for the LAFC Academy – there may also be representation in Mexico’s U-20 squad as well when the countries convene for the Concacaf Men’s U-20 Championship in Honduras. Leone recorded just over 2,000 minutes of action for Lights FC in his first foray into the professional ranks last year, and the 17-year-old notched a duel success rate of 68 percent (100 of 147) while recording 31 interceptions and 69 recoveries. Leone’s individual performance graded him a +0.74 Goals Added Above Average for his position by American Soccer Analysis in the 2021 season, an impressive feat for a young defender. If he continues that progression this year, the opportunity to see action for LAFC in Major League Soccer as well as for El Tri in the youth ranks could present itself.
Miami FC's Lamar Walker notched six goals in his first season in the USL Championship while also earning minutes for Jamaica in FIFA 2022 World Cup Qualifying. | Photo courtesy Orovio Photography / Miami FC
Lamar Walker had already made his senior debut for the Jamaican Men’s National Team when he was acquired by Miami FC ahead of the 2021 USL Championship season, and the quality he showed in his first season in the league also saw him begin to take a more prominent role for the Reggae Boyz over the course of the year. Walker notched six goals for Miami in the regular season and could have been considered one of the more unfortunate players in the league when it came to assists. Walker’s 3.98 Expected Assists mark according to Opta was the highest of any player in the league who ended the season without a helper to his name. The 21-year-old should have a major role to play this season as Miami looks to continue its upward ascent in the Eastern Conference alongside his more experienced teammates. If he continues to shine, there could be major reward waiting at the end of the campaign.
Jake LaCava’s performances over the past two seasons for the New York Red Bulls II in the USL Championship – recording 11 goals, seven assists and 46 chances created in 46 appearances – made it no surprise that the club signed the 21-year-old to a Major League Soccer contract this offseason. What the Red Bulls did next was interesting, though, sending LaCava on a season-long loan to two-time USL Championship Eastern Conference title-holder the Tampa Bay Rowdies. LaCava presents an intriguing option for a Rowdies attack laden with veteran experience – the group of Sebastian Guenzatti, Kyle Greig, Steevan Dos Santos and Lucky Mkosana have all recorded at least 50 goals across the regular season and playoffs in the Championship – but if he can find consistent playing time in Tampa Bay it could add some key seasoning before he makes a run at MLS minutes a season from now.
After recording eight goals and eight assists a season ago, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC's Michee Ngalina could have even more to celebrate this season. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
The three finalists for the 2021 USL Championship Young Player of the Year all had standout seasons, and when you add in the campaign put together by former LA Galaxy II playmaker Jorge Hernandez to earn All-League First Team honors there was no question the league’s youngsters made a major impression. The one player who likely should have been included in that group, though, was Michee Ngalina, who recorded eight goals and eight assists for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC before being loaned late in the season to Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles FC. That move didn’t quite work out for the 21-year-old Congolese winger – he made two appearances as a substitute – which resulted in his return to Colorado Springs at the end of the season. In the long run, though, that could benefit Ngalina, whose attacking prowess is going to be a major asset for the Switchbacks this season that will continue to draw attention.
It’s quite a thing to think that 19-year-old Ray Serrano has seen action in the past four USL Championship seasons, but his move to Louisville City FC from the Tacoma Defiance as the latter departed the league for MLS NEXT Pro this year gives the perennial title contender another bright young talent looking to build on a breakout season in the league. Serrano recorded four goals and six assists for the Defiance in just over 1,800 minutes last year while also notching a career high 38 chances created. As part of LouCity’s contingent of new young arrivals, Serrano will likely have to battle for minutes in the lineup in the way Jorge Gonzalez – now signed to a permanent deal after his loan stint in 2021 – did a season ago, but that competition could be exactly what Serrano needs to continue his upward ascent in the ranks as he seeks to fulfill his clear potential.
If the progression of Nicque Daley is to be believed, 2022 could be the year that the young Jamaican makes a bigger breakthrough and establishes his name more fully in the ranks of the Championship’s notable forwards. The 21-year-old native of Kingston, Jamaica has added three goals to his scoring total each season so far, notching eight goals in 1,654 minutes last season to bring his overall totals in the Championship to 15 goals and five assists at a strike rate of a goal every 199.3 minutes. With the guidance of former United States international forward Conor Casey as his new Head Coach, and the direction the Battery are aiming to take as a direct, fast-moving side, Daley’s speed and sharp eye for goal should be an ideal fit for Charleston’s attacking plan this campaign.
2021 saw New Mexico United's Cristian Nava make his USL Championship debut, and win the Golden Ball at the 2021 USL Academy Playoffs. | Photo courtesy Clay Benjamin / United Soccer League
Cristian Nava’s debut last July in the professional ranks for New Mexico United was a landmark moment for the club, making him the first Academy product to see action in the USL Championship. The promise the 18-year-old has shown since then – most notably winning the Golden Ball at the 2021 USL Academy Playoffs in December – could lead to even more opportunity this season for the Albuquerque native for his hometown club. Nava has found the scoresheet this preseason, scoring in New Mexico’s 3-1 win against rival El Paso Locomotive FC on February 26, and while it might take time for him to be a consistent part of the starting lineup in a strong-looking United squad, it won’t be a surprise if new Head Coach Zach Prince offers Nava the chance to see regular action as the campaign progresses. If that happens, expect him to turn heads.
The lone newcomer to the USL Championship this season in the list, Jesse Williams appears to have the characteristics that could make him a solid addition to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC back line this year. The 20-year-old arrives in the Steel City having already made four appearances for the Trinidad and Tobago Men’s National Team, including a pair of appearances against Mexico and Guatemala at the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup last summer. Williams will have good company to learn from, including Soca Warriors teammates Mekeil Williams and Jelani Peters, and the opportunity to compete and learn from one of the Championship’s top coaches in Bob Lilley should be a major plus to his development.