The Charleston Battery's Leland Archer and Augustine Williams get preseason underway this week as Head Coach Ben Pirmann takes the reins at Patriots Point. | Photo courtesy Charleston Battery
We’re just over five weeks away from the start of the 2023 USL Championship season, and all 24 teams across the league are underway with their training camp preparations.
As much has happened this offseason, though, there’s still a lot up in the air to varying degrees across the league. Whether its new coaches looking to make their mark or clubs aiming to complete their roster construction, we’ve got plenty to talk about.
Here’s a question we have for every squad in the Eastern Conference. You can find the equivalent questions for the Western Conference here.
Birmingham Legion FC – Who’s going to provide the defensive depth?
There’s an awful lot of potential firepower in Birmingham Legion FC’s squad right now. Bringing back Enzo Martinez – who set a club single-season record with 23 combined goals and assists in 2022 – and Juan Agudelo to go with the returning Neco Brett and new arrival Tyler Pasher means goals aplenty could be on the horizon.
At the other end of the field, though, things look a bit more uncertain. Yes, you’ve got veteran goalkeeper Matt VanOekel and center backs Phanuel Kavita and Alex Crognale to anchor the defense, but then things get a bit more uncertain. Finding the players who’ll join Gabriel Alves – the current projected replacement for Chicago Fire FC transfer Jonny Dean – and provide the depth Legion FC will need this season is the biggest task for Jay Heaps and Tom Soehn going into this month.
Charleston Battery – How quickly can Ben Pirmann pull this all together?
There’s an undeniable sense of optimism around the Charleston Battery thanks to the arrival of 2022 Championship Coach of the Year Ben Pirmann – I’m certainly on the bandwagon. How quickly the Battery can rebound from the worst season in its 30-year history could be determined by how quickly Pirmann’s ideas and methods take hold at Patriots Point.
It’s generally a fool’s errand to gauge too much from how a club is performing in preseasons scrimmages, but for a team looking to put together a big turnaround this is where that can start. As Franz Ferdinand once sang, right thoughts, right words, right action.
Detroit City FC – Where’s the attacking punch coming from?
Le Rouge did a tremendous job in reaching the USL Championship Playoffs in their first season in the league. Now, however, their second- and third-leading goalscorers and two assists leaders are all departed in Pato Botello Faz, Antoine Hoppenot and Deklan Wynne, and the new recruits don’t feel enough to match their production.
There certainly should be more signings to come, potentially from players unable to catch on with a top flight club. For example, Danny Trejo was in with D.C. United before heading to Phoenix Rising FC. As solid as the back line looks again, the caliber of attacking pieces DCFC can bring in could determine the direction of this campaign.
Hartford Athletic – Who’s your goalkeeper, Tab Ramos?
Goalkeeper Richard Sanchez currently looks like being the opening day starter for Hartford Athletic this season, but will have competition from Joe Rice for playing time this season. | Photo courtesy Hartford Athletic
Look over the current Hartford Athletic squad, and it feels like there’s a pretty good pecking order established for the back line, midfield and attacking trio that Head Coach Tab Ramos is expected to continue to implement. The question is going to be who’s going to be between the sticks in goal when the season starts – Richard Sanchez or Joe Rice?
On paper, you’d look at Sanchez as the favorite going in. He brings top flight experience at Chicago Fire FC and Sporting Kansas City from his career as well as some USL Championship experience. Rice isn’t as experienced, but he put up sterling numbers for the New England Revolution II in USL League One in 2021 and could surprise here in the position battle to watch at Trinity Health Stadium.
Indy Eleven – Where’s the roster depth coming from?
The Boys in Blue have undergone one of the bigger transformations this offseason with big-name new arrivals led by Sebastian Guenzatti, Aodhan Quinn, Jack Blake and Cam Lindley. Now the question for Indy is where the depth to back up those leading men is going to arrive from, and whether it’s going to be good enough to weather potential storms during a campaign.
The departure of longtime Indy stalwarts Karl Ouimette and Neveal Hackshaw were notable at the start of the offseason, and as of yet their replacements aren’t apparent. As good as the club’s best lineup looks right now, there’s a lot of work to be done to get the sort of squad that will get this side where it expects to be.
Loudoun United FC – What will the club’s new ownership mean here and now?
Loudoun United FC was already undergoing a pretty significant makeover this offseason, but this week’s news that a purchase agreement had been reached to bring the club under the control of Attain Sports & Entertainment is a significant step forward for the club as it looks to the future.
In the short-term, though, there could be some additional investment in the on-field product. The most pressing need is going to be a starting-caliber goalkeeper. With all due apologies to Dane Jacomen, signing a current free agent like former D.C. United goalkeeper Jon Kempin should be high on the priorities list, and make a statement that the club is here to win.
Louisville City FC – Who fits in where in the club’s Best XI?
Unlike most of their Eastern Conference contemporaries, Louisville City FC has the sort of continuity any club would be jealous of going into the new season. With 22 returning players, the four-time Eastern Conference title winners shouldn’t have many chemistry problems as they look to maintain their place as a title frontrunner.
That makes preseason a chance to experiment for Head Coach Danny Cruz, who has a couple of new pieces to incorporate into the mix, notably midfielder Dylan Mares. Figuring out what the side’s best starting lineup looks like – and how pieces can be mixed and matched within the squad rotation – is likely the big priority alongside keeping everyone healthy.
Memphis 901 FC – Is this Nighte Pickering’s moment to step forward?
United States U-19 international Nighte Pickering enters his first full season at Memphis 901 FC with a chance for a breakout campaign in a talented attacking group. | Photo courtesy Memphis 901 FC
There’s an obvious other question here for new Memphis 901 FC Head Coach Stephen Glass given the departures of Trey Muse and John Berner from the club’s goalkeeping ranks as to who’ll pick up the mantle as No. 1 shot-stopper, but the more intriguing storyline may be that of talented prospect Nighte Pickering. The United States U-19 international – who is coming off camp with the squad in January – should have a spotlight on him as he looks to become a regular starter this year.
Preseason is the ideal moment to stake that case. As seen previously for young players – most visibly with Jose Gallegos in the 2020 season at San Antonio FC – this is a moment to get people talking. Pickering should be aiming to put in some eye-catching performances as his individual progression continues.
Miami FC – Who’s going to deliver in the center of the park?
It’s felt like a pretty steady as she goes offseason in Miami, which has retained most, if not all, of its key players from last year’s playoff side. One of the significant outgoing players, though, was Jamaican international Speedy Williams, and that’s left the South Florida club with a what looks like a thin group in the middle of the park.
Make no mistake, Bolu Akinyode is a tremendous workhorse to have there, while Florian Valot provided plenty of creativity in leading the side with eight assists and 55 chances created. Beyond that, though, there’s not much present so far, something that Head Coach Anthony Pulis and the club’s leadership will need to sort out in the upcoming weeks.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC – Who’s providing the attacking width?
As with all solid teams, the spine of Head Coach Bob Lilley’s lineup for the Hounds this season looks a good one. The arrival of center back Joe Farrell from Phoenix Rising FC provides a replacement for the departed Shane Wiedt alongside Arturo Ordoñez, while midfielders Robbie Mertz and Kenardo Forbes, and forward Albert Dikwa are all strong starters.
The main question for Lilley and the Hounds now is which players can they unearth to provide the wide attacking threat the side has featured in recent seasons. With Russell Cicerone and Alex Dixon both heading to northern California – Cicerone to Sacramento Republic FC and Dixon to Monterey Bay F.C. – finding the right new faces to provide Dikwa and now signed Edward Kizza is the top priority.
Tampa Bay Rowdies – What does the midfield configuration look like?
Offseason Tampa Bay Rowdies acquisition Charlie Dennis is part of a new contingent of midfielders that will try to keep the Eastern Conference power near the top of the standings this season. | Photo courtesy Tampa Bay Rowdies
The Rowdies are set to have a pretty new look this season after the comings and goings from their squad, but the most interesting area for the side entering preseason might be the midfield and how the side might line up. With stalwarts Lewis Hilton and Yann Ekra set to return alongside newcomers Zach Herivaux and Charlie Dennis, there could be a chance for some experimentation for Head Coach Neill Collins, especially in terms of the sort of tactical shape he could employ.
In the right situation, it could also offer the Rowdies a chance to move into a different configuration than the three-center back lineup we’ve become accustomed to. The combination of ball-winning ability and creativity the quartet above possess should give Collins some nice problems to solve.
FC Tulsa – What’s the plan, Blair Gavin?
In the case of almost all the coaching changes that have happened in the USL Championship going into 2023, the incoming boss has at least a little bit of a track record for us as a Head Coach to look at from their career. The exception to that is FC Tulsa’s new manager Blair Gavin, who arrives with experience as an assistant coach at both Phoenix Rising FC and Columbus Crew SC over the past five years.
The 34-year-old now gets the chance to implement his tactical ideas with a Tulsa squad that has undergone a major overhaul this offseason, likely with Gavin’s ideal system in mind. Bringing that many pieces together in a short space of time to create a cohesive unit is going to be a challenge, but it’s one we’re intrigued to see come together.