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2023 USL Championship Eastern Conference Season Preview

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/03/23, 5:00PM EST


Here are the players to watch, tactical insights, theme songs, and projected finishes for every team

Louisville City FC claimed the USL Championship's Eastern Conference title a season ago, and are the projected favorite to win it all this year according to | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

The 2023 USL Championship season is here.

The stage is set for a new era for the clubs and players across the league.

Returning talent, new faces, rising youngsters, bright coaches?

They’re all here aiming to make an impact.

In advance of the big kickoff on Saturday, March 11, the USL’s Nicholas Murray and Backheeld’s John Morrisey have everything you need to know.

Here’s a look at every team in the Eastern Conference. You can find the capsules for the Western Conference’s clubs here.

Once you’re done, you can also take your chance to tell us how you think the standings will look at the end of the regular season here.

Now, dig in. The season’s arrived.

Birmingham Legion FC
Birmingham Legion FC

Head Coach: Tom Soehn
Venue: Protective Stadium Playoff Odds: 85% Title Odds: 5% 

2023 Theme Tune: Mr. Highway’s Thinking About the End – A Day to Remember (@MCBrigade14)

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After last postseason’s dramatic elimination in a penalty shootout in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Birmingham Legion FC reloaded its attack to make it potentially one of the most potent in the league. Between 2022 returnees Enzo Martinez, Juan Agudelo and Prosper Kasim, new arrival Tyler Pasher and the return of a familiar face in Neco Brett – still the club’s all-time goalscoring leader after his one-year spell in New Mexico – Legion FC is looking for its attack to power an assault on breaking Louisville City FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ hold on conference supremacy.

Key Returnee – Enzo Martinez, midfielder: The quickest way to win over the fans who considered you Public Enemy No. 1 previously? Put together an all-time best season in your first year at the club. Martinez’s combined 23 goals and assists in the regular season were the most a Legion FC player has recorded in its short history, and he’ll be looking for more of the same this year.

Key Arrival – Tyler Pasher, forward: The former Indy Eleven man signed this offseason with Birmingham and figures to slot into the left side of the 4-3-3 formation the club has favored of late. The speed the Canadian brings fits right into the direct build-up favored by Head Coach Tom Soehn and could prove devastating for opposing defenses.

Key Number – 23: Enzo Martinez’s 23 combined goals and assists (15 goals, 8 assists) was the most in a single regular season in Legion FC’s history, and the highest individual single-season total in Martinez’s Championship career.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Birmingham might have the most star-studded attack in the USL Championship, but there’s a question of fit. Legion FC’s best moments in 2022 came from a spirited 4-2-4 high press which can’t accommodate this roster. Head Coach Tommy Soehn and assistant Khano Smith will find the balance, but a lot of pressure is going to fall on Anderson Asiedu to clean up in the midfield.

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK – Matt VanOekel; D – Gabriel Alves, Alex Crognale, Phanuel Kavita, Mikey Lopez; M – Anderson Asiedu, Enzo Martinez, Prosper Kasim; F – Tyler Pasher, Juan Agudelo, Neco Brett Prediction: 3rd, Eastern Conference

Charleston Battery
Charleston Battery

Head Coach: Ben Pirmann
Venue: Patriots Point Playoff Odds: 51% Title Odds: <1%

2023 Theme Tune: Mr. Brightside – The Killers

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After suffering the worst season of their 30-year history, the Battery set out on a mission. They began by hiring the 2022 USL Championship Coach of the Year, Ben Pirmann, who over the past two-plus seasons engineered the sort of turnaround the Battery are looking for. Then they added free agents including goalkeeper Trey Muse, defenders Deklan Wynne and Juan Sebastian Palma, midfielders Chris Allan and Emilio Ycaza, and forwards Tristan Trager and Handwalla Bwana. The Battery might be back, and quicker than you’d think.

Key Returnee – Augustine Williams, forward: The Sierra Leone international was voted to the Championship’s All-League Team for a second time in his career with 16 goals amid the club’s overall struggles. If Williams maintains that level with a better supporting cast, he could be a Golden Boot candidate this season.

Key Arrival – Deklan Wynne, defender: The 27-year-old played his way back into the squad for his native New Zealand with eye-catching performances for Detroit City FC a season ago, notching eight assists from then left flank. That sort of service and two-way play should be a great addition for a Battery side looking for upgrades at multiple positions.

Key Number – 6: The Charleston Battery recorded only six victories in the 2022 regular season, the club’s lowest total in a season in its history, dating back to the 1993 campaign.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Ben Pirmann teams press hard and dominate possession, and the new Battery manager has built a deep roster to do just that in Charleston. The defensive group and attacking options have taken a huge leap in terms of skill and versatility, but I have questions about central creation. Still, if Emilio Ycaza or Aidan Apodaca steps up, the Battery doesn’t have any real holes.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Trey Muse; D – Deklan Wynne, AJ Cochran, Leland Archer, Derek Dodson; DM – Robbie Crawford, Emilio Ycaza; AM – Fidel Barajas, Aidan Apodaca, Tristan Trager; F – Augustine Williams Prediction: 8th, Eastern Conference

Detroit City FC
Detroit City FC

Head Coach: Trevor James
Venue: Keyworth Stadium Playoff Odds: 55% Title Odds: <1%

2023 Theme Tune: Knockin’ Em Down (In the City) – Iggy Pop (@SpartanDE)

What’s Happened This Offseason?

First and foremost, Le Rouge retained a lot of the key defensive and midfield parts that helped it earn a playoff berth at the first attempt in the Championship in 2022. Goalkeeper Nathan Steinwascher is back after a tremendous campaign, as are stalwarts like Stephen Carroll, Maxi Rodriguez, Connor Rutz and Devon Amoo-Mensah. There were departures as well, though, and with Antoine Hoppenot, Pato Botello Faz and Deklan Wynne all joining new clubs the big question for Head Coach Trevor James is where the attacking firepower might come from to book another playoff berth.

Key Returnee – Nathan Steinwascher, goalkeeper: The local standout quickly grabbed a place as one of the Championship’s top shot-stoppers in his first season in the league. According to American Soccer Analysis, Steinwascher led the league in prevented goals with a -6.27 G-minus-xG mark. The 29-year-old could be a contender for All-League honors this year.

Key Arrival – Skage Simonsen, forward: The Norwegian headed to Detroit this offseason after notching two goals and seven assists for Loudoun United FC this past campaign. At 6-foot-3 it feels as though the 24-year-old is going to get deployed a little further up the field this season than the midfield role he took last year, which means he’ll be needed to deliver in the final third.

Key Number – 67: Detroit City FC received the fewest yellow cards in the Championship during the 2022 season. It was also one of two clubs alongside Miami FC to not receive a red card during the campaign and suffered no player suspensions for the duration of the campaign.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Detroit took a step back in attack, and there’s no two ways around it. Still, Trevor James’ team burst onto the scene last season on the back of a brilliant five-man defensive line and the heady play of midfielders like Maxi Rodriguez and Laye Diop in the pivot. Even if the goals are less plentiful in 2023, Le Rouge are going to be brutally difficult to break down, especially at Keyworth Stadium.

Projected Starting XI (3-4-3): GK – Nathan Steinwascher; D – Devon Amoo-Mensah, Stephen Carroll, Jalen Robinson; M – Richie Ballard, Maxi Rodriguez, Adrian Billhardt, Rhys Williams; F – Skage Simonsen, Ben Morris, Connor Rutz Prediction: 10th, Eastern Conference

Hartford Athletic
Hartford Athletic

Head Coach: Tab Ramos
Venue: Trinity Health Stadium Playoff Odds: 57% Title Odds: 1%

2023 Theme Tune: Brass Bonanza – Jack Say (@HAGreenMonster)

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After Athletic Head Coach Tab Ramos’ sojourn as an analyst for Telemundo during the World Cup, Hartford got to work aiming to build on the momentum it had built under the U.S Soccer Hall of Fame member late last season. To that end, in came 2022 Championship Assists Champion and longstanding attacking standout Antoine Hoppenot and forward Elvis Amoh as two major pieces for the club’s attack. There are other new arrivals, and that could result an opening day lineup that includes plenty of new faces.

Key Returnee Danny Barrera, midfielder: As exciting as some of the new faces are, the fact that Danny Barrera is back at Trinity Health Stadium for a fourth season is just as important. Now sitting second in the Championship’s all-time regular season assists list, the 33-year-old still has magic in his feet going into the new season.

Key Arrival Elvis Amoh, forward: The Ghanaian striker gives Hartford the one thing it hasn’t truly had in its history – a consistent threat for double-digit goals. Amoh has scored 26 goals across the regular season and playoffs the past two years at Rio Grande Valley FC and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC – putting him in the Top 10 in the league in goals over that span – and he’ll be expected to deliver with Barrera and Hoppenot providing the service.

Key Number – 3: Hartford Athletic gained only three points from losing positions in the 2022 USL Championship season, tied for fewest in the league with Loudoun United FC, and failed to win a game in which it conceded the opening goal (0-13-3).

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Tab Ramos struck gold in 2022 by using Andre Lewis and Danny Barrera as dual No. 10s, but Hartford lacked defensive quality and a goalscoring forward to help them out. With Elvis Amoh up top and a reshaped back line, the club may have solved those problems. Hartford’s defense is a step slow to run Ramos’ press, but they’ve made a big leap over the winter.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Richard Sanchez; D – Triston Hodge, Tulu, Niall Logue, Matt Sheldon; DM – Beverly Makangila, Andre Lewis; AM – Antoine Hoppenot, Danny Barrera, Prince Saydee; F – Elvis Amoh Prediction: 9th, Eastern Conference

Indy Eleven
Indy Eleven

Head Coach: Mark Lowry
Venue: Michael A. Carroll Stadium Playoff Odds: 50% Title Odds: <1%

2023 Theme Tune: I’m Still Standing – Elton John (@SoccerWithBrian)

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After a late-season run of six wins in the last nine games – including one against eventual title winner San Antonio FC – provided some hope for the future in Head Coach Mark Lowry’s first season, Indy flexed its muscles this offseason and added some big names to its roster, both in free agency and the transfer market. Forward Sebastian Guenzatti and the midfield trio of Cam Lindley, Aodhan Quinn and Jack Blake are all Boys in Blue now. On paper that means the minimum expectation is for a first postseason trip since 2019, and the sights will be set much higher internally and externally.

Key Returnee – Solomon Asante, forward: The two-time Championship Most Valuable Player produced his lowest numbers in the league since his arrival in Phoenix in 2018 – yes, even in the shortened 2020 season he had eight goals and nine assists in 17 games. The spotlight will be firmly fixed on the Ghanaian as he aims to deliver the sort of performances we’ve seen in the past alongside his new teammates.

Key Arrival Cam Lindley, midfielder: The Carmel, Ind. native will return home after being acquired from Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC via transfer for a second stint in Indy’s colors. Lindley was superb in leading the Switchbacks to a Western Conference Final last season, leading the Championship with 99 chances created across the regular season and playoffs, and his two-way play will be crucial in Lowry’s system.

Key Number – 155: Solomon Asante and Sebastian Guenzatti have recorded 80 and 75 combined goals and assists across the regular season and playoffs since the start of the 2019 season, making them the top two players in that category in the league over that span.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Indy’s lineup is stacked from top to bottom, and it’s skillful enough to execute the Mark Lowry system with aplomb. Lowry presses with a front three and breaks you down with a diamond-shaped midfield flanked by aggressive fullbacks. The Eleven are built for that style. Age is the only question in a young and fast USL Championship, but this Indy team is here to play ball.

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK – Yannick Oettl; D – Younes Boudadi, Adrian Diz Pe, Jesus Vazquez, Robby Dambrot; M – Jack Blake, Cam Lindley, Aodhan Quinn; F – Solomon Asante, Sebastian Guenzatti, Jonas Fjeldberg Prediction: 6th, Eastern Conference

Loudoun United FC
Loudoun United FC

Head Coach: Ryan Martin
Venue: Segra Field Playoff Odds: 26% Title Odds: <1%

2023 Theme Tune: Changes – David Bowie

What’s Happened This Offseason?

The biggest offseason news for Loudoun United came off the field with the club’s acquisition by Attain Sports and Entertainment. Hello to independence, hello to a berth in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup this season, hello to the playoffs? That is going to be the goal for a retooled squad led by Ryan Martin that has added a lot of new faces to reach that goal. As Loudoun sets out on its new pathway, the climb to the playoffs might be too much to ask this year, but the foundation could well be set for where this team heads in the next five seasons.

Key Returnee – Houssou Landry, midfielder: You could flip a coin as to who this would be for United – 17-year-old Isaac Espinal is the only other returning player as of now from 2022 – but Landry could have a solid impact after making 30 appearances for the side a season ago. He ranked third in interceptions with 38, won 32 of 41 tackles and had an 81.3 percent passing accuracy rate, and figures to continue to contribute for United in the center of midfield.

Key Arrival – Tommy Williamson, forward: The biggest step forward Loudoun is going to need to show to become a playoff contender is in the final third. Williamson is going to need to be central to that after scoring 15 goals in his first two professional seasons. At a strike rate of a goal every 152 minutes, there’s the potential there, but the 23-year-old is going to be aiming for a breakout season.

Key Number – 38: Loudoun United FC conceded 38 goals in the final 30 minutes of games in the 2022 season, the most in the league, and more than the club conceded in the opening hour of contests (36).

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Ryan Martin always runs an organized high press and oversees a positive offensive style whether or not the results come for Loudoun at the end of the day. This year’s team is built to do much the same. Koa Santos and Kwame Awuah are going to wreak havoc and drive counterattacks from the fullback spots, but there are too many questions about goalscoring and midfield steel to fully buy in on this Loudoun squad.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Hugo Fauroux; D – Kwame Awuah, Bryce Washington, Yanis Leerman, Koa Santos; DM – Cole Turner, Houssou Landry; AM – Kalil ElMedkhar, Panos Amenakas, Zach Ryan; F – Tommy Williamson Prediction: 12th, Eastern Conference

Louisville City FC
Louisville City FC

Head Coach: Danny Cruz
Venue: Lynn Family Stadium Playoff Odds: 99% Title Odds: 22%

2023 Theme Tune: Steady as She Goes – The Raconteurs

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After reaching the USL Championship Final for a fourth time in club history, LouCity went about securing almost all the players that got it there. Twenty-two players return, either previously under contract, having had options exercised, or on new deals, an unprecedented number in USL Championship history. Among the new deals was one handed to 2022 U.S. Soccer Young Male Player of the Year and 2022 USL Championship Young Player of the Year finalist Joshua Wynder, who may be following Jonathan Gomez to Europe sooner rather than later, but there are also a couple of new faces that can freshen up a deep squad.

Key Returnee – Joshua Wynder, defender: There’s no question whom the biggest spotlight will be on this season as LouCity’s season starts. The 17-year-old Wynder might be the most prodigious talent produced by a USL Academy program thus far, and the intrigue over a potential mid-season move after the FIFA U-20 World Cup in May is a storyline that will be followed closely. There are no sure things, but Wynder’s got the temperament and game to live up to the expectations being placed on him.

Key Arrival – Dylan Mares, midfielder: The former El Paso Locomotive FC playmaker is an example of the rich getting richer, if ever there was one. Mares has recorded 21 goals and 19 assists in the past four seasons and his passing accuracy rate (84.8%) and chances created per 90 rate (1.96) seem like another great cog to drop into Cruz’s passing heavy system.

Key Number – 22: Louisville City FC has retained 22 players from its Eastern Conference title-winning squad from a season ago, accounting for 30,471 minutes of action across the regular season and playoffs in 2022.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Danny Cruz compresses space with a high defensive line and sharp front-line press, pinning opponents back to keep Louisville on the front foot. That formula will continue to bear fruit in 2023, and Dylan Mares – a veteran of a similar style in El Paso – will supercharge its efficacy. Throw in growth from the Elijah and Joshua Wynder and healthy starts for Cameron Lancaster and Jorge Gonzalez, and you’ve got a terrifying Louisville team to contend with.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Kyle Morton; D – Amadou Dia, Joshua Wynder, Sean Totsch, Manny Perez; DM – Tyler Gibson, Niall McCabe; AM – Jorge Gonzalez, Dylan Mares, Brian Ownby; F – Wilson Harris Prediction: 1st, Eastern Conference

Memphis 901 FC
Memphis 901 FC

Head Coach: Stephen Glass
Venue: AutoZone Park Playoff Odds: 84% Title Odds: 4% 2023

Theme Tune: Roll with it– Three6Mafia (@ChrisFilmTakes)

What’s Happened This Offseason?

The most successful season in 901 FC’s history brought accolades, and awards. What followed was an offseason that saw plenty of continuity on the field, but a major change on the sideline. The appointment of former Atlanta United FC and Aberdeen FC manager Stephen Glass to replace the departed Ben Pirmann – who claimed the Championship’s Coach of the Year award before heading to the Charleston Battery – was the biggest move of the offseason in Memphis, with Glass now tasked with keeping the club among the Eastern Conference’s elite.

Key Returnee – Aaron Molloy, midfielder: The 2022 Championship MVP finalist and All-League First Team selection is back for his second season and will be aiming to add to an already stellar resume that is almost certainly getting attention in bigger circles. Molloy’s all-around game made him central to Memphis’ success last season and he’ll retain that role this season in the heart of the club’s midfield.

Key Arrival Bruno Lapa, midfielder: The Brazilian traversed the Southern Harm divide after his departure from Birmingham Legion FC and if at his best will add plenty to an already-strong 901 FC attacking contingent. Lapa has seen ups and downs since his brilliant first campaign in 2020, but he feels like a great fit for his new surroundings and will make one of the league’s best rivalries even more of a must-see.

Key Number – 17: Memphis 901 FC led the Championship with 17 headed goals in the 2022 season, four more than its closest rival, with returning leading scorer Phillip Goodrum leading the team with seven headed tallies among his 22 goals in the regular season and playoffs.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Stephen Glass has been a pragmatist at past coaching stops, but his Memphis lineup can beat you in a million ways. From Jeremy Kelly’s inverted dribbling to Aaron Molloy’s set pieces to Phillip Goodrum’s poaching, this offense is lethal. Replacing a few key names in the back line will be the difference-maker, and I do expect this team to play with more conservatism in the Glass era.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Drew Romig; D – Akeem Ward, Graham Smith, Jelani Peters, Rece Buckmaster; DM – Aaron Molloy, Leston Paul; AM – Laurent Kissiedou, Bruno Lapa, Nighte Pickering; F – Phillip Goodrum Prediction: 5th, Eastern Conference

The Miami FC
The Miami FC

Head Coach: Anthony Pulis
Venue: Riccardo Silva Stadium Playoff Odds: 83% Title Odds: 4%

2023 Theme Tune: Moving on Up – M People

What’s Happened This Offseason?

It was a pretty low-key offseason in Miami, with a lot of key faces from last year’s playoff team set to return for the new season. The side secured All-Championship selection Paco Craig to a new deal, and also brings back the likes of forward Kyle Murphy, attacking midfielder Florian Valot and midfielder Bolu Akinyode. There are gaps to be filled – goalkeeper Connor Sparrow departed to the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Jamaican international Speedy Williams to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC – but Miami should be a solid playoff contender again and could take a big step forward if it can find the same consistency at home this season as it did on the road in 2022.

Key Returnee – Paco Craig, defender: One of the most-decorated defenders in the Championship’s history, Paco Craig signing a new multi-year deal to lead the club’s back line was important business for the club to get done. Craig helped marshal a defense that quietly matched the Championship’s single-season shutout record last season alongside San Antonio FC and will be key again as the side looks to take a step forward this season.

Key Arrival – Adrian Zendejas, goalkeeper: Losing a goalkeeper of Connor Sparrow’s quality hurt, more so when it was to your biggest rival in Tampa Bay. Getting a player with Adrian Zendejas’ pedigree – even if it’s on loan from Major League Soccer’s Charlotte FC – to fill that spot is certainly a good replacement. A former USL Championship Final starter from his days at Sporting Kansas City II, the veteran will look to fill some big gloves here.

Key Number – 10: Miami FC won 10 road games during the 2022 regular season, compared to five home victories. The club’s road success placed it tied for second in away wins in the Championship overall and tied for first with Memphis 901 FC in the Eastern Conference.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: At times in 2022, Miami was caught between a slower, defense-first system defined by Speedy Williams and a rip-roaring offense built around Joaquin Rivas and Mark Segbers. This offseason moved Miami towards the latter style. Gabriel Cabral, signed after captaining a USL League One title-winning club at South Georgia Tormenta FC, adds tremendous skill in the midfield, and Michael Salazar’s movement will open up the attack. These improvements around the edges could let Anthony Pulis’ team make the leap.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Adrian Zendejas; D – Moises Hernandez, Paco Craig, Callum Chapman-Page, Mark Segbers; DM – Bolu Akinyode, Gabriel Cabral; AM – Joaquin Rivas, Florian Valot, Joshua Perez; F – Kyle Murphy Prediction: 4th, Eastern Conference

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Head Coach: Bob Lilley
Venue: Highmark Stadium Playoff Odds: 67% Title Odds: 2%

2023 Theme Tune: Two Year Plan – Such Gold

What’s Happened This Offseason?

In what’s becoming somewhat familiar for Hounds fans, the two-year cycle of a standout forward departing for another club continued. Russell Cicerone – who scored 31 goals in 67 games across the regular season and playoffs – followed the path of the only player who’s scored more than him for Pittsburgh in the USL Championship era in Neco Brett and signed with Sacramento Republic FC. There is a solid core of returnees to build around, though, with all-time Championship assists leader Kenardo Forbes re-signed and forward Albert Dikwa coming off his best season in the league so far. There’s also, of course, Head Coach Bob Lilley, who always seems to find the right pieces to keep the Hounds in playoff contention.

Key Returnee – Robbie Mertz, midfielder: The Pittsburgh native returned to the Hounds after a season-and-a-half with Atlanta United 2 midway through the 2022 campaign and quickly slipped back into his midfield role. Mertz recorded five assists in 16 appearances while also notching one goal and will need to be at his best throughout the upcoming campaign to continue Pittsburgh’s postseason streak.

Key Arrival – Joe Farrell, defender: Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley is calling on a familiar face to help stiffen the spine of his team with Farrell arriving via transfer from Phoenix Rising FC this offseason. The veteran center back worked with Lilley at the start of his career with the Rochester Rhinos and will play an important role in front of emerging goalkeeper Jahmaili Waite this season.

Key Number – 36: Since the start of Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley’s tenure in 2018, the Hounds are tied for the league-lead with 36 road victories in the regular season alongside Louisville City FC.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Bob Lilley teams are always well-drilled in defense and patiently lethal with the ball. That ought to hold true in 2023, but the Riverhounds lost a lot of talent this winter. They lack a defensive midfielder that can serve as a linchpin, and they aren’t deep enough to accommodate Lilley’s trademark experimentation with formations. Pittsburgh isn’t bad, but they feel stagnant in an Eastern Conference that got a lot better in the offseason.

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK – Jahmaili Waite; D – Dani Rovira, Joe Farrell, Arturo Ordonez, Nathan Dossantos; M – Marc Ybarra, Kenardo Forbes, Robbie Mertz; F – Edward Kizza, Albert Dikwa, Tola Showunmi Prediction: 7th, Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay Rowdies
Tampa Bay Rowdies

Head Coach: Neill Collins
Venue: Al Lang Stadium Playoff Odds: 94% Title Odds: 10%

2023 Theme Tune: Going for Gold – Shed Seven

What’s Happened This Offseason?

It’s been an offseason of changes at Tampa Bay, with the potential that only five players who started the 2022 Eastern Conference Final against Louisville City FC could be in the starting lineup for its season-opener against Indy Eleven on March 11. The new arrivals include some familiar faces, however, with three-time Defender of the Year Forrest Lasso and midfielder Jordan Doherty back for second stints with the club. What may be most interesting to watch, however, is the new attacking group featuring Cal Jennings and JJ Williams, who will need to step up to the mark after the season-ending injury suffered by 2022 Championship Most Valuable Player Leo Fernandes this preseason, particularly after the departure of all-time leading goalscorer Sebastian Guenzatti to Indy.

Key Returnee – Lewis Hilton, midfielder: Since he came into the USL Championship in 2016, no-one has made more appearances across the regular season and playoffs than Lewis Hilton. Now entering his fourth season with the Rowdies, the midfield general has been a crucial player for the side in its run of three consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference Final, both as a distributor in open play and one of the best dead ball takers in the league.

Key Arrival – Connor Sparrow, goalkeeper: After a rotating cast last season due to form and injury, the Rowdies napped Sparrow from Florida rival Miami FC to ostensibly serve as its new No. 1 this season. Sparrow brings plenty of experience with 30 shutouts in 94 appearances across the regular season and playoffs and at 28 years old could be entering his prime years in Rowdies colors.

Key Number – 3: Returning Tampa Bay Rowdies defender Forrest Lasso is the only player in Championship history to have won the league’s Defender of the Year award multiple times, claiming the honor in 2018, 2020 and 2021.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: The Rowdies are known for a fiendishly strong back three, and that won’t change with Forrest Lasso returning at center back. Neill Collins’ offense is the real area to watch. At times, Tampa Bay was the Leo Fernandes or Jake LaCava show and lacked variety with the ball. With JJ Williams’ hold-up play, Cal Jennings guile in transition, and a miles-deep attacking midfield, this team can beat you in a million ways, even with Fernandes’ absence due to injury.

Projected Starting XI (3-4-3): GK – Connor Sparrow; D – Aaron Guillen, Forrest Lasso, Freddie Kleeman; M – Sebastian Dalgaard, Lewis Hilton, Charlie Dennis, Conner Antley; F – Dayonn Harris, JJ Williams, Cal Jennings Prediction: 2nd, Eastern Conference

FC Tulsa
FC Tulsa

Head Coach: Blair Gavin
Venue: ONEOK Field Playoff Odds: 51% Title Odds: <1%

2023 Theme Tune: No Easy Way Out – Robert Tepper

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After concluding the season under interim Head Coach Donovan Ricketts, the Blair Gavin era officially arrived in Tulsa with the former Phoenix Rising FC and Columbus Crew SC assistant taking the reins. The second-youngest Head Coach in the league behind only Louisville City FC’s Danny Cruz, Gavin will take control of a side that has looked to reinforce at all levels, with experienced heads like defender Brett Levis and midfielder Collin Fernandez joining a solid core including Bradley Bourgeois, Rodrigo da Costa and Dario Suarez. After missing out on the playoffs last season, Tulsa will be hoping it’s enough for a turnaround this campaign.

Key Returnee – Rodrigo da Costa, midfielder: Coming into his fifth season in Tulsa, the Brazilian playmaker remains an essential piece for Tulsa in the attacking third. Now the club’s all-time leader in both goals (33) and assists (24) across the regular season and playoffs, da Costa is going to need to be at his best to help drive Tulsa back up the standings this season.

Key Arrival – Siad Haji, forward: There was plenty of expectation around Haji when he was selected by the San Jose Earthquakes with the No. 2 pick of the 2019 Major League Soccer SuperDraft. Four years and 14 top-flight appearances later, the 23-year-old gets a chance at a career reset in Tulsa. Haji should get plenty of opportunity to show why he was such a hyped prospect coming out of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Key Number – 19: FC Tulsa tied for the league-lead with 19 goals in the final 15 minutes of games in the 2022 season, accounting for 40 percent of their overall goals total, but didn’t score more than 10 goals in any of the other five 15-minute segments of games.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: FC Tulsa has built Blair Gavin a young and hungry roster with pace and aggression for days on the flanks. This team will be pesky at a bare minimum, and they can challenge for the playoffs if Rodrigo Da Costa and Dario Suarez can convert in front of goal. Christopher Pearson is a potential breakout in the pivot, and he’ll be the backstop that allows for aggression in the press.

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK – Austin Wormell; D – Brett Levis, Bradley Bourgeois, Ruxi, Justin Malou; M – Collin Fernandez, Christopher Pearson, Rodrigo da Costa; F – Dario Suarez, Moses Dyer, Siad Haji Prediction: 11th, Eastern Conference

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