Forwards Danny Trejo (left) and Cal Jennings could be among the most sought after free agents for USL Championship clubs moving into the offseason. | Photo courtesy Las Vegas Lights FC
The USL Championship Final is in the rear-view mirror, Thanksgiving Weekend is done, so you know what time it is.
Welcome to free agency season.
In fairness, there have been numerous teams that have already made signing announcements this month, confirming who’s back and already a few new faces that will be part of the league next season.
But before we get into the full swing of things – including potential transfers and free agent moves – here’s a group of 13 players that could be attractive propositions for USL Championship teams as they build out their squads. All are currently available as we enter December, aged 25 years old or younger, and could provide an intriguing piece to the puzzle for current contenders and those looking to join them in 2023.
Robert Castellanos, defender (24) – The center back was on loan with the Tampa Bay Rowdies last season from Nashville SC and recovered from a serious opening-game injury to be a strong piece at the center of the club’s back line. Castellanos played every minute of the playoffs for the Rowdies, and in his career has made 66 appearances overall in the league. He would make a good option for numerous teams aiming for an upgrade.
Robert Castellanos overcame a serious early-season injury to play every minute of the postseason for the Tampa Bay Rowdies on loan from Nashville SC this past campaign. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Gilbert Fuentes, attacking midfielder (20) – The former United States U-17 international never quite turned into the player the San Jose Earthquakes were envisioning when he signed professionally with them as a 15-year-old, making only three top-flight appearances. He has notched two goals and two assists in 21 appearances in the Championship previously, however, and a change of scenery and the right environment could be the stage Fuentes needs to find his footing and live up to the potential everyone saw in him.
Nicky Hernandez, attacking midfielder (24) – There was no question of the qualities Hernandez brought to San Antonio FC on loan from FC Dallas this season. His combined seven goals and assists in 904 minutes provided some bright moments, including this highlight-reel goal. There is risk here, given Hernandez’s history with injuries so far in the pro ranks, but for the right team the reward of the returns he could provide in the attacking third should be enough to take those on.
Cal Jennings, forward (25) – Jennings is the oldest player on this list, but I can’t think of a more accomplished goalscorer at the Championship level available on a free for a team looking to boost its front line. Jennings has scored 31 goals in 59 games in the Championship at a strike rate of a goal every 143.3 minutes. Among players with at least 30 regular season goals in the league’s history, that strike rate is the fifth-best all-time. Impact player, right here.
Cal Jennings' strike rate of a goal every 143.3 minutes in the Championship is the fifth-best among players with at least 30 goals in the league's regular season. | Photo courtesy Las Vegas Lights FC
Edward Kizza, forward (23) – At first glance, you might look at this and think, “well, he only showed up in the playoffs.” You’d be kind of right – Kizza’s two-goal performance for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals was one of the most memorable by a substitute in USL Championship Playoffs history. But there’s a bit more to the Ugandan than that. He notched five goals in 12 games for the New England Revolution II in 2021 in USL League One and had 31 goals in 52 games for the University of Pittsburgh collegiately. That could be a nice pick-up for someone’s front line.
Philip Mayaka, midfielder (21) – It’s a pretty tough fall to go from being the No. 3 pick in the MLS SuperDraft to waived without making a top-flight appearance two seasons later, but that’s the fate that befell Mayaka after being selected by the Colorado Rapids in 2021. The Kenyan central midfielder did put up solid numbers for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on loan in 2021 and this season for the Rapids 2, however. With his pedigree – All-ACC First Team in 2020 for Clemson University – and age he could make for a good pick-up that has something to prove.
Ben Mines, attacking midfielder (22) – Think about this for a moment – if Ben Mines lands at a USL Championship club for 2023, he’ll be entering his eighth season in the league. (He was a substitute in the 2016 USL Championship Final won by the New York Red Bulls II). That’s a lot of experience for a 22-year-old, and while his numbers aren’t going to blow you away – six goals and three assists in 62 Championship appearances, and two goals and one assist in six MLS appearances – there still feels like there’s a lot to work with here for the right team.
Noble Okello, midfielder (22) – The potential ceiling for Noble Okello was so high he was included in Canada’s 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup squad, so it’s been disappointing to say the least that he hasn’t quite seemed to take the next step since then. That said, if you’re looking for a 6-foot-5, box-to-box midfielder who has that potential, here’s your man. I don’t like to make player-to-player comparisons, but it feels like there could be a similar payoff to when Mark-Anthony Kaye left Toronto as a 21-year-old to join Louisville City FC in 2016. Kaye’s now at the 2022 Men’s World Cup. Okello’s path to 2026 could start somewhere similar.
Central midfielder Noble Okello was part of Canada's 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup squad as a 19-year-old and has major potential for growth in his game. | Photo courtesy Union Omaha
Marcelo Palomino, attacking midfielder (21) – After signing as a Homegrown Player in 2020, Palomino didn’t quite make the breakthrough for Houston Dynamo FC, but he has proven productive in the lower divisions over the past two seasons. In the USL Championship he notched six goals and one assist for the Charlotte Independence in 2021, and this year he had seven goals and two assists for the Dynamo 2 in 18 appearances. Add in two seasons with passing accuracy rates of greater than 82 percent and you could have an attractive proposition in the attacking third.
Omar Sowe, forward (22) – At the start of 2022, the New York Red Bulls sent out two of their young forwards on loan. Jake LaCava went to the USL Championship, scored 12 goals and five assists, earned nomination for the league’s Young Player of the Year award, and saw his contract option exercised by New York. Omar Sowe went to Iceland, had three goals and two assists for top-flight club Breidablik, and didn’t. Now, that belies that Sowe outscored LaCava with 15 goals over their two seasons together with the Red Bulls II. Does that make Sowe a potential double-digit goalscorer for someone in the Championship in 2023? I think it does, and you know how important those players are.
Omar Sowe has bagged 15 goals in his past two USL Championship campaigns and spent the past year on loan in Iceland's top flight, where he competed in the UEFA Conference League. | Photo courtesy New York Red Bulls II
Thomas Roberts, midfielder (21) – When it comes to central midfielders, the underlying numbers for a young player like Thomas Roberts seem positive. While he had three goals for North Texas SC as it won USL League One in 2019, he also had an Expected Assists mark of 2.98xA on 35 chances created – of course, he ended up without an assist that season, but so it goes. Add in a 55 percent duel success rate, an 79.7 passing accuracy rate and experience from the Austrian Bundesliga this past year where he headed on loan from FC Dallas, and this is a player who could bring a lot to the table.
Tomas Romero, goalkeeper (21) – If you go purely off Romero’s numbers, this wouldn’t seem like an obvious signing. In 35 career Championship appearances across the Philadelphia Union II and Las Vegas Lights FC, he’s posted a 2.03 goals-against average, allowed 70 goals on an Expected Goals Against mark of 49.8xGA, made five errors that led to goals, and has posted a cumulative save percentage of 61.3 percent. All that said, he’s still only 21 and those sorts of growing pains are part of being a young goalkeeper. Now part of El Salvador’s Men’s National Team set-up, the right club could provide the platform for Romero to find the next level in his career.
Danny Trejo, forward (24) – We talked about Cal Jennings earlier, and now we’re going to talk about his partner up front for Las Vegas Lights FC this past season. Trejo broke out of the gates fast after injury curtailed much of his first pro season in 2021, and while he cooled off a little, the former Cal State Northridge standout delivered a season that showed off what he was capable of. Trejo’s underlying numbers also show his performance is sustainable – his 18 goals in the Championship have come on a 17.5xG, while his six assists were on a 5.25xA mark. Most teams would love a player who averages a goal contribution every 135.4 minutes, which means Trejo should have plenty of options.
Danny Trejo has recorded 18 goals and six assists in 44 appearances in the USL Championship in his career. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC