If there’s a truth that’s taken hold in the USL Championship, it’s this: if you want to take home silverware, you’d better have a top marksman in your side.
Since the start of the 2016 season, four of the last five teams to claim the USL Championship Final in a full season have had a player with at least 15 goals across the regular season and playoffs. On top of that, eight of the last 10 teams to win the Eastern or Western Conference title have had the same – and even in the shortened 2020 season both Phoenix Rising FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies had a double-digit scorer in their ranks.
As much as you might think defense wins championships, having a top striker who can create the decisive moment in the penalty area arguably means more.
Here are 10 of the best currently in the Championship as the new season begins.
2021 USL Championship Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot winner Hadji Barry notched 25 goals a season ago while leading Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC exciting attack. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
In earning the 2021 USL Championship Most Valuable Player award and Golden Boot, Hadji Barry delivered in a way few could have dreamed when he joined Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC prior to the season. Now, after recording 25 goals in the regular season to tie the league’s single-season record last year, we’re all waiting to see how the Guinean forward will follow it up at a club with high expectations for 2022. Barry’s tally last season might have been an outlier of sorts, but over his career he’s shown that when he gets into a groove it can be hard to break. His 63 regular-season goals have come at a strike rate of a goal every 155.6 minutes across 122 appearances. Now locked in for potentially three more seasons with the Switchbacks, the 29-year-old will be eager for continued individual success to drive Colorado Springs into the league’s elite.
As it looked for a centerpiece for its attack this offseason, New Mexico United might not have found anyone better than Jamaican forward Neco Brett to lead it into the 2022 season, with the 29-year-old having consistently progressed in his strike rate over three prior stops in the Championship. After recording 28 goals over two seasons with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in 2018-19 at a rate of a goal every 161.5 minutes, he upped the pace over the past two seasons with Birmingham Legion FC, recording 27 goals in 47 regular-season appearances at a rate of a goal every 128 minutes. Those 55 combined goals are the second-most in the Championship over the past four seasons – Louisville City FC’s Cameron Lancaster leads the way with 60 – and have almost sat parallel with his expected goals mark of 54.22xG. That’s a consistency in finishing any club would be glad to rely on, which should be a major boost for New Mexico this season.
2021 USL Championship Final MVP Ronaldo Damus notched 18 goals across the regular season and playoffs in his first season at Orange County SC. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Over two seasons in USL League One at North Texas SC, Ronaldo Damus shone, recording 21 goals in 33 appearances at a strike rate of a goal every 111.6 minutes. Given the opportunity to move up to the USL Championship last season by Orange County SC, the young Haitian could have hit a learning curve as he adapted to a new club and a higher level of competition. Instead, Damus continued to deliver with 18 goals across the regular season and playoffs as he led Orange County to its first USL Championship Final victory while earning MVP honors. While Damus’ strike rate rose, sitting at a goal every 153.6 minutes over the season, the quality the 22-year-old brought was undeniable, earning him selection by Haiti for the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup. As the new season beckons, Damus’ upward ascent is set to continue as his profile continues to grow.
Tampa Bay Rowdies captain Sebastian Guenzatti's 51 goals over the past three seasons are the most of any player in the USL Championship. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Installed as the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ new center forward at the start of the 2019 season having scored only seven times in 37 games over the prior two seasons, Sebastian Guenzatti might not have been on the radar for many as a Golden Boot contender. Fifty-one goals later across the Championship’s regular season and playoffs – the most by any player in the past three seasons – and Tampa Bay’s captain has become one of the must-see players in the league on a weekly basis. The Uruguay native posted a career-high 21 regular-season goals a season ago to earn his first Championship All-League First Team honors while posting a strike rate of a goal every 119.8 minutes, but on top of that he consistently provided energy on both sides of the ball, working to pressure opponents into errors he and his teammates could capitalize on. Now two goals away from tying the Rowdies’ all-time goalscoring record of 60 goals held by Georgi Hristov, Guenzatti will continue to be a must-see among forwards this campaign.
It speaks to the legacy that Dane Kelly has built in the USL Championship over the course of his career that recording three consecutive years of double-digit goals in the regular season could be considered a drop-off, but that’s what happens when you’re the league’s all-time leading scorer and sit more than 25 goals ahead of your closest competition for the crown. Kelly enters the 2022 season on 99 regular-season goals in the Championship as he joins Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, finding the net at an average of a goal every 150.7 minutes over the course of his career. The league’s all-time leader with four career hat tricks, as well as the Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player honoree in 2017, Kelly is still producing 12 seasons into his Championship career and certainly has more to bring.
Boasting a career strike rate of 109.4 minutes for 71 regular-season tallies, Louisville City FC's Cameron Lancaster is on the verge of taking second all-time in the league's scoring list. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Cameron Lancaster’s first season in the USL Championship was not an auspicious one, as an early-season injury began his campaign before it properly got underway. Since then, however, it’s been nigh-on impossible for opposing defenses to contain the former Tottenham Hotspur product consistently. Lancaster’s 71 goals have come at a rate of a goal every 109.4 minutes over his 138 regular-season appearances, and his prolificacy came to the fore when he set the single-season scoring mark equaled by Barry in 2018 as he scored a goal every 80.2 minutes over the campaign. Last season brought another outstanding strike rate, with his second 20-goal regular season seeing him average a goal every 92.6 minutes. While the 29-year-old will miss the start of this campaign due to injury, it’s not hard to imagine even more success lies around the corner upon his return.
At 24 years old, Douglas Martinez Jr. only passed 20 regular-season goals in the USL Championship a season ago, but it’s the manner in which the Honduran international has accumulated his finishes over prior stints in the league that should bode well for Sacramento Republic FC and its fans this season. A centerpiece for Real Monarchs SLC in its drive to claiming the 2019 Championship title, Martinez has averaged a goal every 161.8 minutes so far in his career, a scoring rate that puts him in the middle of his company on this list, and ahead of other notables such as Republic FC’s all-time goalscoring leader Cameron Iwasa (206.1 mins/goal) or offseason Sacramento departure Dariusz Formella (198.7 mins/goal). With a supporting cast that can provide Martinez the chances he’ll need consistently to deliver, the potential for an even bigger 2022 campaign than the one he produced three years ago is on the cards.
Phoenix Rising FC's Santi Moar surpassed 40 regular-season goals for his career in 2021 while earning his first USL Championship All-League First Team honor. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orellana / Phoenix Rising FC
Of all the players in this list, Santi Moar’s profile as a player is different from the rest, but as the left prong on Phoenix Rising FC’s three-man forward line, he’s come to the fore over the past two seasons as a consistent – and spectacular – finisher. With 41 regular-season goals to his credit overall, Moar bagged a career-high 16 in the regular season last year to earn his first Championship All-League First Team selection while leading Rising FC to the best record in the Western Conference. He’s also recorded 28 regular-season assists, putting him among the best in the league when it comes to chance creation as well as finishing. That might be the greatest beauty of Moar’s game – whether it’s creating chances for others, chances for himself, or putting himself in the right place at the right time to deliver a telling blow in front of goal, his well-rounded game makes him compelling viewing any time he’s on the field.
There have been ups and downs in Kyle Murphy’s career in the Championship, from difficult seasons at San Antonio FC in 2018 and with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2020 to thriving with Loudoun United FC in 2019 and then last year with Memphis 901 FC. After his first 20-goal season in the league for 901 FC, though, there is a sense that the 2021 Championship All-League selection can sustain that performance as he makes the move to Miami FC this year. Murphy’s finishing was polished a season ago, and he’ll begin the season as the No. 9 for a Head Coach in Anthony Pulis who helped Kyle Greig – a similar style of forward – thrive at Saint Louis FC in 2018. That combination – plus the service Murphy can hope for from a talented cast around him – will hopefully lead to continued success this campaign.
On the face of it, Augustine Williams’ 2021 season, which saw him record only six goals after notching a career-high 13 in the shortened 2020 campaign, was a bit of a let-down. Taken with more consideration, though, the 24-year-old Sierra Leone international still proved himself a valuable commodity, so much so that his acquisition was a high priority for new Charleston Battery Head Coach Conor Casey. While Williams notched only six goals, they came at a strike rate of a goal every 150.3 minutes, a perfectly good rate in terms of production. As he gets ready for a full season in the Eastern Conference with a former United States Men’s National Team forward to guide him, Williams could once again flourish as he did for the Galaxy II two seasons ago and surpass the 50-goal mark for his career.
Tag(s): Features CO Spring Switchbacks Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Sacramento Republic FC Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tampa Bay Rowdies Cameron Lancaster Santi Moar Augustine Williams Neco Brett Dane Kelly Kyle Murphy Hadji Barry Douglas Martinez Sebastián Guenzatti New Mexico United The Miami FC Ronaldo Damus