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2022 SEASON PREVIEW – Top 10 Championship Defenders

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/09/22, 6:00PM EST


Former All-League selections, and the previously unheralded are among those to watch this season

Look back at the recent editions of the USL Championship All-League Teams and you might see an established pattern in the back line, with some of the most consistent honorees being the defensive standouts that keyed success for their respective clubs.

The ties between a team’s defensive success and the individuals that have been honored are certainly clear, but for every Paco Craig – now a four-time Championship All-League selection and included in this list as he returns to Miami FC for a second season – there are also those whose performance were worthy of praise but found themselves in situations that in the past might have seen them go overlooked.

We have players from both categories in our list of the Top 10 Defenders in the USL Championship going into the 2022 season, all of whom should have key roles to play for their respective clubs this campaign.

Kyle Adams, San Diego Loyal SC

I can already feel some of you raising your eyebrows at Kyle Adams being included here, but the New Zealand native has been one of the more underrated defenders in the league, basically due to the teams he’s been part of. During Adams’ time with Rio Grande Valley FC and Real Monarchs SLC, neither club found much on-field success, but over his 90 regular-season appearances in the Championship, Adams’ individual metrics held up among the better center backs in the league. Last season, the 25-year-old earned a +4.03 Goals Added Above Replacement according to American Soccer Analysis, placing him seventh among center backs in the league. That added to a 2019 season with the Toros in which he graded at a +4.20 G+ Above Replacement mark, a positive sign as he enters his prime. Joining San Diego Loyal SC this offseason, Adams’ capabilities should get a bigger spotlight, and maybe a bit more appreciation, on a team that is aiming for silverware in its third campaign.

Leland Archer, Charleston Battery

The 2020 season served as a breakthrough of sorts for the Charleston Battery’s Leland Archer. The 6-foot-4 center back earned his first USL Championship All-League selection in his third campaign with the Battery, and that resulted in his senior international debut for Trinidad and Tobago the following January against the United States. Last year – as for the Battery as a whole – things didn’t go quite as smoothly for the 26-year-old center back, but despite that his individual numbers continued to impress. Over the past three campaigns, Archer ranks 10th in the Championship with 249 clearances while over the same span he’s recorded a 67.1 percent duel success rate, a 67.1 percent tackle success rate, and a 68.8 percent aerial duels success rate. Add in his consistency at the back – in 55 appearances, he has committed only two errors that have led to shots according to Opta data – and you have a player that should be a key figure as the Battery look to battle back into playoff contention under new Head Coach Conor Casey this season.

Dan Casey, Sacramento Republic FC

Sacramento Republic FC had a tough 2021 season, but center back Dan Casey was one of the top players at his position according to his underlying individual numbers. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC

As in the case of Kyle Adams, you could file Dan Casey’s first season with Sacramento Republic FC as a situation where individually he shone, even as nothing else seemed to go quite right elsewhere for his team. As Republic FC overhauled its roster this offseason, though, it was no surprise that the Irish center back was one of the few players retained for the 2022 campaign. Casey recorded 98 clearances and 21 blocked shots as well as 41 interceptions and a 62.6 percent duel success rate over the course of the regular season, but his cumulative performance saw him rank second among center backs in Goals Added Above Replacement at +5.17 according to American Soccer Analysis – more than double the rating of any of his fellow center backs at the club. Joined this offseason by another whose strong individual displays were offset by a team that struggled for results in former OKC Energy FC center back Conor Donovan, Casey will be a foundation point for Sacramento’s drive to return to title contention this year.

Paco Craig, Miami FC

A two-time Championship Final winner at Louisville City FC and three-time Championship All-League selection between 2017 and 2019, English center back Paco Craig returned to the league in 2021 with Miami FC after a stint in his home country and picked up right where he left off in placing himself among the league’s best defenders. Voted to his third Championship All-League First Team – previously accomplished in 2017 and 2018 – the 29-year-old earned the highest Goals Added Above Replacement mark among center backs in the 2021 campaign at +5.45 while ranking fourth in the league with 137 clearances, tying for 13th among outfield players with 205 recoveries, and posting a 63.3 duel success rate. Craig is set to be the centerpiece on the back line for Miami again this season as his partnership alongside Callum Chapman-Page looks set to continue. The South Florida side will certainly be hoping his qualities on the field and experience help maintain its upward ascent to title contention.

Jonny Dean, Birmingham Legion FC

If you followed Birmingham Legion FC’s supporters this offseason on social media channels, there was one player above all they were eager to see return to the club for the 2022 season – Jonny Dean. There’s good reason for that, too. Over the past two seasons the Georgia native has been one of the best two-way outside backs in the league, recording 64 chances created and 10 assists in the attacking third while notching 48 interceptions and 237 recoveries in 47 regular-season appearances. Among full backs last season, Dean ranked second in the league in Goals Added Above Replacement at +4.87, and truth be told the lone player that finished ahead of him – the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Leo Fernandes – would better be categorized as a wingback/attacking midfielder. As the 25-year-old prepares for his third campaign at Legion FC, both the club and its fans are very happy to welcome him back into the fold.

Aaron Guillen, Tampa Bay Rowdies

Tampa Bay Rowdies defender Aaron Guillen has been a fixture in the club's back line as it claimed consecutive Eastern Conference titles in the past two seasons. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

In his first two seasons in the USL Championship, former FC Dallas Homegrown signing Aaron Guillen proved a solid addition at fullback for North Carolina FC across the 2018-19 seasons. Over the past two seasons, after making the move to the Tampa Bay Rowdies and slotting in as the left side of the club’s three-man back line, the El Paso, Texas native has found his ideal fit in the professional ranks, with the numbers and accolades to prove it. Voted to the Championship’s All-League Team for the first time in his career a season ago, Guillen has been as well-rounded as any defender in the league when it comes to high-level numbers. Missing only one game across the regular season and playoffs since the start of the 2020 season, the 28-year-old has recorded 88 interceptions in 47 regular-season contests, won 69 percent of duels and 72.4 percent of aerial duels and posted a 73.6 percent tackle success rate. He’s also completed 84.6 percent of his passes in the regular season, last season ranking second only to Louisville City FC’s Sean Totsch in passes attempted in the league. As the Rowdies look for a third consecutive Eastern Conference title, and their first Championship Final victory, this season, Guillen figures to be at the forefront once again.

Neveal Hackshaw, Indy Eleven

Having earned consecutive USL Championship All-League selections in 2019 and 2020, the past campaign saw Neveal Hackshaw’s numbers drop marginally as he missed almost 1,000 minutes of the season due to injury and international duty. While that was the case, the consistency the Trinidad and Tobago international has brought to Indy Eleven over his three seasons at the club is hard to overlook going into the 2022 campaign. Hackshaw has recorded 492 recoveries over that span, the most of any defender in the league, while also notching 96 interceptions and 170 clearances. His duel success mark of 61.4 percent is solid, as is his tackle success rate of 73.1 percent. Put it all together and since the start of the 2019 campaign Hackshaw’s Goals Added Above Replacement mark sits at +9.45, the third highest among center backs in the Championship over that span. As new Head Coach Mark Lowry arrives, Hackshaw figures to play a main role in Indy’s turnaround this season.

James Musa, Phoenix Rising FC

Having previously been employed as a defensive midfielder earlier in his career, James Musa took a step back into the Phoenix Rising FC defense as he returned to the club for the 2021 season. The result? Arguably the best season the New Zealand international has produced in the Championship over his career, and his first Championship All-League selection. Musa’s consistency saw him miss only 90 minutes of the regular season and record 56 interceptions, 98 clearances and 155 recoveries while posting a 68.8 duel success rate and 67 percent aerial duel success rate defensively. His passing qualities remained prominent as well with an 83.7 passing accuracy rate, and he also notched two goals, one assist and 11 chances created over the regular season. After finding his feet quickly in his new role, there could be even more to come this season for the 29-year-old.

Michael Orozco, Orange County SC

Former United States international Michael Orozco was a key figure in leading Orange County SC to its first league title in 2021. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC

Going purely off high-level numbers and analytics, you could argue that Michael Orozco wasn’t the best defender in Orange County SC’s squad a season ago – that would go to fellow center back Rob Kiernan, who notched a +4.96 Goals Added Above Replacement mark in the 2021 season. While that’s the case, Orozco wasn’t that far off at +3.71 while individually recording 43 interceptions, 65 clearances and winning 31 of 45 tackles and notching a pair of goals as well. What the former United States international brings to the table overall, though, are the intangibles that helped drive Orange County to its first league title a season ago. At 36 years old, Orozco missed only three minutes of action across the regular season and playoffs, serving as a figurehead as the club’s captain while marshalling his teammates to success. As he returns for another campaign, expect more of the same at Championship Soccer Stadium.

Sean Totsch, Louisville City FC

Louisville City FC's Sean Totsch has earned consecutive Championship All-League First Team selections over the past two seasons. | Photo courtesy Eric Glemser / Memphis 901 FC

You could make a very fair argument that for the first three seasons he played at Louisville City FC, Sean Tosch’s performances in the center of defense were overshadowed by former teammate Paco Craig, who garnered Championship All-League selections every season between 2017-19 even while Totsch accumulated a cumulative +9.78 Goals Added Above Replacement mark, 10th-highest in the league among center backs and full backs over those campaigns. After back-to-back Championship All-League First Team honors of his own, though, Totsch has stepped into the spotlight as one of the most consistent members of the perennial title contender’s squad. The North Dakota native ranks third in the Championship among defenders over the past three seasons with 430 duels won at a 62 percent success rate while also notching 213 clearances, 108 interceptions and 87 tackles won at a 72.5 percent success rate. As notable, the fact that across 75 regular season appearances he has not once recorded an error that has led to a shot for an opponent, let alone a goal. A three-time Championship title winner in his career, Totsch will be central again to LouCity’s drive for its third league title this season.

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