As the USL Championship enters its 2022 season, there might never have been the consistent level of quality across the midfields that can be presented by numerous clubs as they vie for a place among the league’s contenders.
Still, as always, there are those that over recent seasons have risen to the top in terms of what they can offer a team year-in and year-out, as well as newly found roles and new arrivals that have quickly changed the landscape for what it means to be one of the best midfielders in the league.
Here are 10 that fulfill varying roles across the center and final third of the field who have excelled in the recent past and will now be looking to carry their teams to success in the upcoming campaign.
Five years after his first selection to the USL Championship’s All-League First Team, Danny Barrera returned to the forefront in 2021 as he claimed the Assists Champion award for the first time in his career with a single-season best 12 helpers while serving as the central point for Hartford Athletic’s creativity. One of the best dead-ball specialists and creators in the league – over the past four seasons, he’s notched 198 chances created, and has a 74.5 passing accuracy rate in the attacking half – you might not think about the other side of the ball for the playmaker, but the 32-year-old Colombian has proven effective at times there as well with a 66.2 tackle success rate and 470 recoveries, ranking in the Top 20 among midfielders in the latter categories since the start of 2018. As he vies for the all-time lead in regular season assists this campaign, one back of Kenardo Forbes as the season kicks off, Barrera will remain one to watch for fans and opponents alike.
Rodrigo da Costa is tied for the most goals in FC Tulsa's history, and leads the club all-time with 20 assists across the past three seasons. | Photo courtesy FC Tulsa
Since joining FC Tulsa in advance of the 2019 USL Championships season, Rodrigo da Costa has become one of the leading attacking midfielders in the league while also showing the versatility to play a deeper-lying role when required. One of only three players to cumulatively record both 20 goals and 20 assists across the past three regular seasons, the Brazilian has become Tulsa’s all-time assists leader while sitting tied with teammate Joaquin Rivas for the most goals in club history on 24 apiece. Da Costa’s influence has grown as the club has built around him, but da Costa himself has risen with the improving cast around him to remain a centerpiece for the club with his 137 chances created tied for eight in the league since the start of the 2019 regular season. After re-signing with the club again this offseason, the 28-year-old will continue to write his name into Tulsa’s history books this season while also aiming to take the club to another level overall in the Eastern Conference.
Louisville City FC moved captain Paolo DelPiccolo into a more advanced role during the 2021 season than his previous holding midfield duties, where he had thrived in the club’s two title-winning seasons in 2017 and 2018. In the process, the veteran delivered the most productive attacking season of his career with seven goals and a +6.97 Goals Added Above Replacement mark according to American Soccer Analysis, an individual high since the USL Championship partnered with Opta in 2017, and third-highest in the league overall among central and defensive midfielders in the 2021 season. A former University of Louisville standout, DelPiccolo has been a central figure to LouCity’s sustained success since joining the club before the 2016 season. The balance he brings to the field has seen him record 109 chances created and 125 interceptions over the past five seasons, offering flexibility to fulfill whatever role is required of him by Head Coach Danny Cruz.
As essential as he has been to the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ success over the past three seasons, it’s still somewhat surprising that a player as productive as Leo Fernandes hasn’t necessarily received the attention that some others in this group have. That could be in part a function of Fernandes’ ever-shifting roles in the Tampa Bay lineup – according to Transfermarkt.com, the native of Brazil has lined up everywhere from left back to defensive midfielder to center forward to right wing at differing points over the course of his career. What the 30-year-old should probably be viewed as, though, is a player who can deliver in all manner of circumstances. Over the past three seasons he’s recorded 14 goals, 17 assists and 138 chances created, one of only six players in that span who’ve surpassed the 10-15-125 marks across those three categories. That’s resulted in a cumulative +13.84 Goals Added Above Replacement mark, placing him on a par with the likes of Aodhan Quinn and Chris Wehan in fewer minutes of action. As Fernandes enters his sixth season in Tampa Bay, the spotlight should be shining a little more brightly in his direction.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC's Kenardo Forbes has been voted to the USL Championship All-League Team in each of the past four seasons. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
It speaks to the level of respect Kenardo Forbes is held in around the USL Championship that last year he became only the third player in league history to earn selection to four consecutive Championship All-League Teams, joining Richmond Kickers legend Henry Kalungi and former Tampa Bay Rowdies defender Forrest Lasso in the accomplishment. The Jamaican veteran has simply been the most versatile midfielder in the league for a while now, earning five selections to the All-League team overall in seven seasons in the league while putting up two-way numbers that very few can match. Since the start of the 2017 season, Forbes has recorded 36 assists and 268 chances created, posted an 82.6 passing accuracy rate overall and a 77.5 passing accuracy rate in opponent’s halves while defensively he’s notched 180 interceptions and a mind-boggling 1,164 recoveries. A Championship Final winner in the past, Forbes seems set to continue in that vein as Pittsburgh seeks its first Championship silverware this season.
As Rio Grande Valley FC entered a new era last season with Head Coach and Sporting Director Wilmer Cabrera having full technical oversight of the Toros as he returned, bringing in an experienced midfield centerpiece was essential. As it happened, one of the best in the USL Championship’s history was available, and Rodrigo Lopez’s quality on the field and leadership helped the Toros earn a first postseason berth since their inaugural season and then spring an upset of Phoenix Rising FC in the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs. Lopez’s influence was visible in both traditional and non-traditional numbers – he notched six goals and six assists for the side and led the team with a +6.25 Goals Added mark over the regular season according to American Soccer Analysis. After being reacquired by Sacramento Republic FC this offseason via transfer, the 34-year-old will be looking for more of the same to drive Republic FC’s pursuit of its second league title.
You could argue that with just one season in the professional ranks under his belt, it’s too early to put Diego Luna among the best attacking midfielders in the Championship at present, but that would go against everything we saw the 18-year-old deliver a season ago for El Paso Locomotive FC. A finalist for the Championship’s Young Player of the Year award – for which he enters the 2022 campaign as arguably the favorite – as well as a Championship All-League Second Team selection, Luna’s ability to run at defenders and deliver in the attacking third proved key to El Paso recording its highest point total in a campaign and posting an undefeated home record at Southwest University Park over the regular season. There is now major expectation to live up to both at the club and youth national team level for the United States U-20s, but Luna seems eager to take those challenges on and make the next step in his career.
A two-time Championship All-League selection, Aodhan Quinn was a driving force for Phoenix Rising FC in his first season at the club in 2021. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orellana / Phoenix Rising FC
Set to surpass 200 regular season appearances in the USL Championship this season, Aodhan Quinn’s first season at Phoenix Rising FC didn’t quite match his MVP Finalist season in 2018 for Orange County SC, but it affirmed his position as one of the league’s best all-time players regardless of position. Quinn finished tied for second in the league with 11 assists while also notching six goals to earn All-League First Team honors for the second time in his career and is now closing in on the race for the most assists with 41 in his career, four back of Kenardo Forbes and three behind Danny Barrera as the regular season begins. The San Diego native has also notched 36 regular season goals in his career, putting him currently alongside only now-former teammate Solomon Asante as the two players to have registered 35 goals and 40 assists in the Championship’s regular season. As great as those individual accomplishments are, claiming the Championship title for the first time in his career – and helping Phoenix do the same – might be the biggest motivation for the 29-year-old going into this campaign.
Chris Wehan's 30 goals over the past three regular seasons are the most by a midfielder in that span in the USL Championship. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
Since being voted the Championship’s Rookie of the Year in 2017 alongside the Assists Champion award with 12 helpers, Chris Wehan has established himself as one of the dynamic attacking midfielders in the league. That was in evidence last season after his return from a short stint at Orange County SC to New Mexico United, where the California native recorded 10 goals in 1,209 minutes of action to try and pull the side into the playoffs while passing 40 regular season goals in his career overall. The 28-year-old will have additional help in attack this season after New Mexico’s big offseason in the free agency and trade market, but it’s likely that Wehan himself continue to be a central figure in the club’s overall success. As that happens, he’ll also continue to rise the ranks in terms of overall individual numbers that have seen him record 30 goals over the past three seasons, the most of any midfielder in the league.
Reaching 150 regular season appearances in the USL Championship a season ago, Speedy Williams has been one of the most consistent central midfielders in the league since he helped the New York Red Bulls II win the league title in 2016 before solidifying his reputation at Louisville City FC over four successful campaigns. A regular in the Jamaica Men’s National Team in FIFA 2022 World Cup Qualifying over the past six months – Williams has appeared in every game of the octagonal to this point – his ability to close space and make life difficult for opponents alongside fellow standout central midfielder Bolu Akinyode while also continuing to consistently find the right passes through the midfield is going to be a key this season to Miami building on its first postseason appearance in the Championship a season ago. At a club with major aspirations for success, the three-time league title-winner is going to be a major piece of the puzzle.
Tag(s): Features Phoenix Rising FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Leo Fernandes Kenardo Forbes Danny Barrera Speedy Williams Paolo Del Piccolo Aodhan Quinn Chris Wehan El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United Hartford Athletic Rodrigo Da Costa The Miami FC Rodrigo Lopez Diego Luna