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2023 USL Championship Western 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

San Antonio FC will be aiming to replicate one of the best seasons in the USL Championship's history as they defend their title in the 2023 campaign. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio 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 Western Conference. You can find the capsules for the Eastern 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.

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

Head Coach: Stephen Hogan
Venue: Weidner Field Playoff Odds: 79% Title Odds: 5%

2023 Theme Tune: Can You Stand the Rain – New Edition

What’s Happened This Offseason?

The late-season transfer of 2021 Championship MVP Hadji Barry proved a portent of things to come. Additional transfers – including All-League selection Cam Lindley to Indy Eleven – and offseason departures – most notably 2022 Championship Young Player of the Year Michee Ngalina – arrived before the announcement that Switchbacks Head Coach Brendan Burke was also moving on to Houston Dynamo FC. In his place has stepped up former assistant Stephen Hogan, and while there’s a lot to replace from last year’s lineup the Switchbacks have got plenty done. In come former All-League selections James Musa, Speedy Williams and Romario Williams to lead the way. If it all comes together quickly, the Switchbacks should still be in the playoff mix.

Key Returnee – Jairo Henriquez, midfielder: The El Salvador international made a strong impact after his midseason arrival and will be essential to the Switchbacks’ continuing their entertaining brand of soccer this year. With the Concacaf Gold Cup coming up this soccer, Henriquez will also be looking to ensure his continued position in La Selecta’s squad and the chance to showcase his talents again on the international stage.

Key Arrival – Speedy Williams, midfielder: The Jamaican international is one of the Championship’s most decorated players and bringing the quality he’s been known for in the center of midfield is going to be a crucial part of Colorado Springs’ overhaul. Williams turns 31 this year and could also be gearing up for his last chance to play a major role for Jamaica on the international stage at the Gold Cup as well.

Key Number – 67.2: Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC will enter the new season without Hadji Barry, Michee Ngalina and Elvis Amoh, who accounted for 43 of the club’s 64 league goals in 2022, or 67.2 percent.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Last year, the Switchbacks pressed hard and countered at a breakneck pace. Their 2023 roster is built for a patient, cerebral style that runs through a highly technical midfield. I have my doubts as to whether Stephen Hogan can completely change this team’s identity, but if the veterans can control tempo in a transition-heavy Western Conference, Colorado Springs can compete.

Projected Starting XI (3-4-1-2): GK – Joe Kuzminsky; D – Matt Mahoney, Jimmy Ockford, James Musa; DM – Patrick Seagrist, Speedy Williams, Drew Skundrich, Macauley King; AM – Jairo Henriquez; F – Romario Williams, Maalique Foster Prediction: 9th, Western Conference

El Paso Locomotive FC
El Paso Locomotive FC

Head Coach: Brian Clarhaut
Venue: Southwest University Park Playoff Odds: 63% Title Odds: 2%

2023 Theme Tune: Locomotive Man – Johnny Cash (@xMrEoN)

What’s Happened This Offseason?

For the second time in as many offseasons, Locomotive FC saw a coaching change with John Hutchinson departing after one year to be replaced by Brian Clarhaut on the sidelines. The 36-year-old – who shares the same hometown of Medford, N.J. as Brenden Aaronson – returns to the United States after establishing his coaching career in Scandinavia, most recently in Sweden at GIF Sundsvall. There are numerous familiar faces for Clarhaut to work with, but the club has also added new blood in the form of ex-La Liga player Marc Navarro. Two players to watch, though, will be Diego Abarca and Joel Maldonado, who step into the squad as the first professional signings from Locomotive FC’s Academy after competing last season as USL Academy signings.

Key Returnee – Luis Solignac, forward: The Argentine has scored 26 goals and has averaged just better than a goal every other games across the regular season and playoffs for Locomotive FC since joining the club, and the veteran will be expected to continue that this season. If he does, he’ll likely overtake teammate Josue Aaron Gomez and become El Paso’s all-time goalscoring leader.

Key Arrival – Marc Navarro, defender: The Spanish right back has played in both La Liga (Espanyol) and the Premier League (Watford FC) but has been away from the field for more than a year as he looks to reboot his career. The 27-year-old’s resume says he should have plenty to add for his new club, but it will be interesting to see how quickly he can come up to speed.

Key Number – 70.4: Locomotive FC forward Luis Solignac posted a shooting accuracy rate of 70.4 percent while notching 16 goals in the 2022 season, ranking third in the league among players with at least 10 goals behind 2022 MVP Leo Fernandes (73.4%) and Danny Trejo (70.6%)

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Brian Clarhaut proved to be a tactical chameleon in Sweden, changing formations and attacking styles with regularity. Meanwhile, El Paso is the leading proponent of ground-based, high-possession attacking in the USL. If Clarhaut can add extra pragmatism to Locomotive FC without stunting Luis Solignac up top, he can take this team to the playoffs. Still, there are a lot of new faces that must catch up to speed quickly.

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK – Javier Garcia; D – Eder Borelli, Yuma, Erik McCue, Marc Navarro; M – Eric Calvillo, Liam Rose, Petar Petrovic; F – Denys Kostyshyn, Luis Solignac, Emmanuel Sonupe Prediction: 11th, Western Conference

Las Vegas Lights FC
Las Vegas Lights FC

Head Coach: Isidro Sanchez
Venue: Cashman Field Playoff Odds: 18% Title Odds: <1%

2023 Theme Tune: Here I Go Again – Whitesnake

What’s Happened This Offseason?

It’s a big reset for Las Vegas Lights FC, again. Out goes the partnership with Los Angeles FC, in comes autonomy over then club’s roster, and there’s a familiar face to lead it all. Isidro Sanchez, who served as Lights FC’s first Head Coach in 2018, is back on the sidelines looking to try and find sustained success after an almost-complete overhaul of the club’s roster. Some of the new faces bring Championship pedigree, led by center back Zach Carroll, and there’s a chance for Andrew Carleton to re-establish himself after struggles to live up to his early promise. After the club’s best season in 2022, though, it feels like an uphill battle for contention.

Key Returnee – Tabort Etaka Preston, forward: Admittedly, this is a bit of a cheat given the full roster turnover Lights FC has seen this offseason. However, Preston put up his best season in the Championship in Las Vegas’ colors with eight goals and three assists in 31 appearances during the 2019 season. Sanchez will be hoping for at least a similar return this campaign from the Cameroonian.

Key Arrival – Zach Carroll, defender: After helping Memphis 901 FC rise to prominence in the Eastern Conference over the past three seasons, Carroll will be a central figure in providing stability for Lights FC in the new campaign. A Championship All-League selection when he helped the New York Red Bulls II claim the 2016 title, the veteran has made 170 appearances across the regular season and playoffs in his career in the league.

Key Number – 1.47: Las Vegas Lights FC’s cumulative goals-against average of 1.47 goals conceded per game in 2022 was the lowest in its history as the side allowed 27 fewer goals than in the 2021 campaign.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Forwards stole the show for last year’s Lights FC, but the squad’s compact, all-hands-on-deck defending was the unheralded key to their successes. By contrast, this team is built around pace and aggression on the flanks. I’m expecting Las Vegas to press high and never let their opponents settle down. Given the inexperience in this team, it might be messy, but the Lights are always fun.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Leonardo Diaz; D – Alejandro Mitrano, Jordan Ayimbila, Zach Carroll, Lucas Stuaffer; DM – Jacob Bushue, Justin Ingram; AM – Azriel Gonzalez, Andrew Carleton, Tabort Etaka Preston; F – Pato Botello Faz Prediction: 12th, Western Conference

Monterey Bay F.C.
Monterey Bay F.C.

Head Coach: Frank Yallop
Venue: Cardinale Stadium Playoff Odds: 28% Title Odds: <1%

2023 Theme Tune: Blue – Eiffel 65

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After a positive inaugural campaign, Monterey Bay had a steady first offseason as it retained the majority of its key players from the past season – in some cases signing them to new contracts – while also adding what on paper look like strong additions to the squad. Leading the latter group is veteran forward Alex Dixon, who is closing in on 50 regular season goals for his career, while the defensive core of Kai Greene and Hugh Roberts is back, as are attacking leaders Christian Volesky, Chase Boone and Sam Gleadle. The goal for MBFC this year will be consistency and a serious playoff drive. With a strongly growing fanbase this should be a team to watch in the upcoming campaign.

Key Returnee – Kai Greene, defender: The presence of the veteran center back was one of the barometers for Monterey Bay in its first season, with the club’s defensive solidity far better when Greene was on the field than absent. The 29-year-old is within range of reaching 200 regular season appearances for his career this season. If he reaches that mark, success and a first playoff berth could follow for the club.

Key Arrival – Alex Dixon, forward: After two good seasons for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, Dixon heads west for the first time in his career looking to continue his consistent production as part of MBFC’s attacking corps. The 33-year-old has recorded 48 goals and 31 assists in 219 regular season appearances in the Championship for his career and has played with new teammates such as Hugh Roberts and Christian Volesky in the past, providing some good familiarity in his new surroundings.

Key Number – 0.9: Monterey Bay F.C. conceded an average of 0.9 goals per game across 16 contests when goalkeeper Antony Siaha and defenders Kai Greene and Hugh Roberts were in the starting lineup together, compared to 2.4 goals per game in the 18 contests in which one was absent.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Monterey Bay’s defense is a rock. They sit low in two banks of four, frustrate their foe, and break like lightning when they regain the ball. Adding Alex Dixon – capable anywhere from wingback to striker – to that mix is a marriage made in heaven. He diversifies the attack, and he should see the club into the playoffs if its defensive structure holds up.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Antony Siaha; D – Grant Robinson, Kai Greene, Hugh Roberts, Morey Doner; DM – Mobi Fehr, James Murphy; AM – Walmer Martinez, Sam Gleadle, Alex Dixon; F – Christian Volesky Prediction: 7th, Western Conference

New Mexico United
New Mexico United

Head Coach: Zach Prince
Venue: Isotopes Park Playoff Odds: 72% Title Odds: 3%

2023 Theme Tune: New Slang – The Shins

What’s Happened This Offseason?

Having earned a return to the postseason in Head Coach Zach Prince’s first season at the helm, New Mexico’s main offseason focus was on bolstering an attack that was in the middle of the pack during the past campaign. To that end, it acquired a pair of players from rival Phoenix Rising FC, with Spanish winger Santi Moar returning to the club where he became a cult hero in its inaugural season and Scottish forward Greg Hurst also making the move across. Much of the midfield and defense returns, meanwhile, and there could be a spotlight on Academy forward Alex Waggoner as he makes his first foray into the First Team after shining at the USL Academy level last year.

Key Returnee – Justin Portillo, midfielder: The veteran former Championship title winner made an immediate impact in his new surroundings both with his ball-winning and distribution in the center of midfield. With a solid cast around him, Portillo will again be a player who looks to pull the strings from deep while maintaining his position as one of the best dead ball specialists in the Championship.

Key Arrival – Santi Moar, forward: The Spaniard suffered his most difficult season in the Championship in Phoenix a season ago, recording only two goals and four assists after earning All-League honors in 2021 for a career-best campaign. New Mexico will be hoping a return to its ranks will rejuvenate Moar, who had 11 goals and five assists in the club’s inaugural season, as he looks to boost the club’s attack.

Key Number – 468: New Mexico United goalkeeper Alex Tambakis enters this season second in the league’s all-time rankings with 468 regular season saves across 163 appearances, 105 saves behind all-time leader Evan Newton.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Switching between narrow midfield diamonds and expansive back threes, New Mexico lacked a clear identity last season. Bringing Santi Moar home and getting a healthy season from Amando Moreno change that narrative, allowing Head Coach Zach Prince to build around dynamic wingers. Their midfield aggression and direct style fit naturally with that pair, and this team should have a sharper attacking edge as a result.

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK – Alex Tambakis; D – Austin Yearwood, Kalen Ryden, Timothie Zalie, Harry Swartz; M – Justin Portillo, Chris Wehan, Will Seymore; F – Santi Moar, Greg Hurst, Amando Moreno Prediction: 5th, Western Conference

Oakland Roots SC
Oakland Roots SC

Head Coach: Noah Delgado
Venue: Laney Stadium Playoff Odds: 55% Title Odds: 1%

 2023 Theme Tune: Me, Myself & I – G-Eazy

What’s Happened This Offseason?

Roots SC began its offseason with a moment of continuation as Noah Delgado had his interim tag removed to become the new official Head Coach of the club after his late-season success in guiding Oakland to a second consecutive Western Conference Semifinals berth. From there, however, there were changes afoot, including the transfer of influential midfielder Charlie Dennis to the Tampa Bay Rowdies and departure of defender Alejandro Fuenmayor to Phoenix Rising FC. Roots SC has brought in new faces as it aims to replace 2022 leading scorer Ottar Magnus Karlsson after his season-long loan from Venezia F.C., and veteran Colombian forward Anuar Pelaez and former Nashville SC winger Irakoze Donasiyano look like they’ll have important roles to play sustaining the club’s success.

Key Returnee – Edgardo Rito, defender: The Venezuelan wingback earned Championship All-League honors for the first time in a breakout season, and figures to be crucial as Oakland looks to maintain its success this season. Rito had five goals and seven assists last season, providing a dynamic presence on the right side, and he’ll need to be a player opponents account for again.

Key Arrival – Bryan Tamacas, defender: The latest arrival from the El Salvador Men’s National Team to the Championship, Tamacas brings extensive experience to Roots SC. Having played at the last three editions of the Concacaf Gold Cup for La Selecta, as well as more recently in World Cup Qualifying and Concacaf Nations League, his presence defensively should be a major asset.

Key Number – 327: Oakland Roots SC led the Championship in completed dribbles with 327 in the 2022 regular season as Juan Carlos Azocar (60) and Edgardo Rito (48) both finished in the top 10 individually in the category. John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: No team in the USL Championship depends on offense from their wingbacks and pressure from their central players quite like Oakland, and Roots SC did a lot this winter to fill the gaps in those positional areas. You’ve got service and a hard-edged spine, but Anuar Peleaz must recreate Ottar Karlsson’s poaching and hold-up for the Roots to earn a third-straight postseason berth.

Projected Starting XI (5-3-2): GK – Paul Blanchette; D – Kevin Wright, Emrah Klimenta, Danny Barbir, Bryan Tamacas, Edgardo Rito; M – Napo Matsoso, Joseph Nane, Lindo Mfeka; F – Anuar Pelaez, Irakoze Donasiyano Prediction: 10th, Western Conference

Orange County SC
Orange County SC

Head Coach: Richard Chaplow
Venue: Championship Soccer Stadium Playoff Odds: 81% Title Odds: 5%

2023 Theme Tune: Bounce Back – Big Sean

What’s Happened This Offseason?

It’s not been a complete changeover for the 2021 title winners, but the starting lineup for the upcoming season is likely to look much different to the squad that began its title defense a season ago. Notable departures include former United States international Michael Orozco, former Mexico international Erick “Cubo” Torres and goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky, and while there are important names back in the fold led by 2022 Championship Golden Boot winner Milan Iloski and new captain Daniel Pedersen, it’s the newcomers that are going to need to carry the team back to prominence. Among those is Norwegian center back Marcus Nakkim and former El Paso Locomotive FC defender Andrew Fox, while in attack the side has added Scottish veteran Marc McNulty and another Norwegian in Emil Nielsen. OC hasn’t missed consecutive postseasons in its history and will want to avoid a repeat of 2022.

Key Returnee – Korede Osundina, forward: The United States U-20 international has shown flashes of what he’s capable of for Orange County so far, but this is poised to be Osundina’s potential breakout campaign. Possessing a great combination of speed and guile, the winger will be aiming for a strong start to the campaign to make a case for inclusion in May’s FIFA Men’s U-20 World Cup while also bolstering the potential to be OCSC’s next big European export.

Key Arrival – Markus Nakkim, defender: The Norwegian center back arrives having made almost 100 appearances in his home country’s top flight and will be looked at as the centerpiece for a defense that is looking to rebound this season. Adapting quickly to his new surroundings will be important for the 26-year-old, and for Orange County’s chances of rebounding back into the playoffs.

Key Number – 8: 2022 Championship Golden Boot winner Milan Iloski recorded eight goals from outside the penalty area, equaling the league’s single season record, as he notched 22 goals in the campaign overall.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Orange County’s downturn in the back spoiled 2022, but Richard Chaplow’s rebuilt defense should lead to major improvements. Owen Lambe, Andrew Fox, and Markus Nakkim are strong defenders, but they’re also good with the ball at their feet. OCSC is going to show more control in possession and self-inflict less danger. If Milan Iloski keeps up his excellent 2022 form, this team is due for a return to contention.

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK – Colin Shutler; D – Alex Villanueva, Markus Nakkim, Robbie Kiernan, Owen Lambe; M – Dillon Powers, Daniel Pedersen, Seth Casiple; F – Korede Osundina, Marc McNulty, Milan Iloski Prediction: 8th, Western Conference

Phoenix Rising FC
Phoenix Rising FC

Head Coach: Juan Guerra
Venue: Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex Playoff Odds: 91% Title Odds: 9%

2023 Theme Tune: Ambition – Wale ft. Meek Mill & Rick Ross

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After his arrival during the 2022 season, Rising FC Head Coach Juan Guerra and his staff began a major renovation of the club’s squad. That meant some major departures, including veteran playmaker Aodhan Quinn to Indy Eleven and attacking duo Santi Moar and Greg Hurst to New Mexico United, all via transfers. In their place is a group that will look to put Guerra’s possession-oriented style into place, including players like Alejandro Fuenmayor from his former stop at Oakland Roots SC, Venezuelan talents Manuel Arteaga, Erickson Gallardo and Renzo Zambrano, and attacking threat Danny Trejo. That new-look squad will have a new downtown home to call its own, with Rising FC set to play inside the city limits for the first time in its history as it pursues a return to the postseason.

Key Returnee – Kevon Lambert, midfielder: The Jamaican international returns for a seventh season at Rising FC and will likely remain in the heart of the club’s lineup. As a ball-winner and distributor, Lambert has been a top-level player in the Championship for many years and alongside newcomers Renzo Zambrano and Carlos Harvey he should continue to have an important impact.

Key Arrival – Danny Trejo, forward: The former Las Vegas Lights FC striker was one of the top targets this offseason for Championship clubs aiming to boost their prowess in the attacking third, and Rising FC landed him after Trejo had gotten looks from MLS clubs. Trejo had 14 goals and five assists a season ago and could be a serious contender for the Golden Boot if all goes to plan.

Key Number – 546: Phoenix Rising FC led the Championship with 546 total shots in the 2022 season but ranked only 10th in Expected Goals at 48.06xG, an average of 0.09xG per shot.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Juan Guerra’s specialty as a Head Coach is building a system to highlight his most talented players. In Phoenix’s case for 2023, this will lead to a patient offense and fierce counter-pressing defense. Those characteristics will maximize Federico Varela’s time on the ball in the final third and liberate Danny Trejo to go wild in transition, and they may earn home-field advantage for Phoenix come October.

Projected Starting XI (3-4-1-2): GK – Rocco Rios Novo; D – John Stenberg, Alejandro Fuenmayor, Daniel Krutzen; M – Gabriel Torres, Kevon Lambert, Renzo Zambrano, Eddie Munjoma; AM – Federico Varela; F – Danny Trejo, Erickson Gallardo Prediction: 4th, Western Conference

Rio Grande Valley FC
Rio Grande Valley FC

Head Coach: Wilmer Cabrera
Venue: H-E-B Park Playoff Odds: 60% Title Odds: 2%

2023 Theme Tune: Bulls on Parade – Rage Against The Machine

What’s Happened This Offseason?

Coming off a second consecutive postseason berth, the Toros kept a good portion of their key players in the fold and added some intriguing new pieces that will fit into Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera’s tactical plan. Championship All-League selection Wahab Ackwei is back, as is former United States international Jose Francisco Torres to marshal the midfield and mid-season arrival Christian Pinzon. Supplementing those are some younger prospects – former Tacoma Defiance defender Eric Kinzner has come aboard, as has LA Galaxy II central midfielder Taylor Davila – while veterans like Haiti international Christiano François and forward Juan Galindrez will look to boost the club’s attack.

Key Returnee – Christian Pinzon, forward: There weren’t many players who made an impact in the way Christian Pinzon did for the Toros after joining the club on July 6. His seven goals led the side over the remainder of the regular season and he ranked in the Top 20 overall in the league with a strike rate of 153.1 minutes/goal among strikers with at least five goals. The big question will be if the California native can deliver that over a full season. If he can, it will be massive for the Toros’ overall chances.

Key Arrival – Christiano François, winger: François never quite got going during the past season with El Paso Locomotive FC, but his speed and ability to threaten back lines remains a serious threat. The Haiti winger should fit nicely into Cabrera’s hard-driving attack as the potential replacement for 2022 loanee Jonas Fjeldberg, now back with Indy Eleven.

Key Number – 41: Rio Grande Valley FC has won 41 regular season games in three seasons with Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera at the helm, reaching the playoffs in each campaign.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: The Toros are at their best when they’re wreaking havoc with a five-man high press with the comfort of Wahab Ackwei and Jose Francisco Torres as central backstops. Wilmer Cabrera spent the offseason deepening his team with pace up top and grit down the middle towards this end. Rio Grande Valley always grinds their way to success, and this season shouldn’t play out differently.

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK – Tyler Deric; D – Robert Coronado, Wahab Ackwei, Erik Pimentel, Jonathan Ricketts; M – Jose Francisco Torres, Taylor Davila, Juan David Cabezas; F – Christian Pinzon, Frank Lopez, Christiano Francois Prediction: 6th, Western Conference

Sacramento Republic FC
Sacramento Republic FC

Head Coach: Mark Briggs
Venue: Heart Health Park Playoff Odds: 77% Title Odds: 4%

2023 Theme Tune: Hey Brother – Avicii

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After the major turnover in the squad prior to the 2022 campaign, this offseason wasn’t nearly as eventful for Republic FC. Almost all the key pieces are set to return to the squad from its historic Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup run, including 2022 Championship All-League selection Rodrigo Lopez, while a new contract for Head Coach Mark Briggs makes him the longest-tenured manager in club history. There was one major splash for the side, however, in the arrival of former Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC forward Russell Cicerone. He’ll be aiming to deliver his third consecutive season with double-digit goals as he arrives to lead the attack at Heart Health Park, and with it a chance at a title to celebrate the club’s 10th anniversary season.

Key Returnee – Luis Felipe Fernandes, midfielder: The Brazilian workhorse signed a new deal to remain with Republic FC this offseason, and while his goals grabbed some headlines during the club’s Open Cup run last season it’s his durability and reliability that makes him essential to the squad. Fernandes led the team in minutes played, and in interceptions (52), tackles won (56), duels won (215) and aerial duels won (71) in the center of midfield as one of the key pieces in the club’s defensive solidity.

Key Arrival – Russell Cicerone, forward: Sacramento’s main flaw in the past season was the lack of a consistent goalscorer, with no player recording double-digit goals across the regular season and playoffs. Enter Cicerone, whose 29 goals across the regular season and playoffs over the past two seasons rank fourth in the league. The 28-year-old isn’t just a finisher – he also bagged 14 assists over that span, putting him second to Hadji Barry in goal contributions in the league – but Sacramento will be hoping Cicerone can push them over the top after last year’s Western Conference Semifinal berth.

Key Number – 12: Sacramento Republic FC tied for the league-lead with Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC with 12 goals from outside the penalty area across the regular season and playoffs. The side had nine different players score from long range.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Impeccable organization and communication in the back five defined Sacramento last year, and they improved in defense by adding Shane Wiedt, Jared Timmer, and Johnny Fenwick. Their offense was too reliant on Rodrigo Lopez pulling rabbits out of his hat in 2022, but Russell Cicerone has that same penchant for magic. A title should be the aim.

Projected Starting XI (3-4-2-1): GK – Danny Vitiello; D – Connor Donovan, Lee Desmond, Shane Wiedt; M – Damia Viader, Luis Felipe Fernandes, Matt LaGrassa, Jack Gurr; AM – Rodrigo Lopez, Keko; F – Russell Cicerone Prediction: 2nd, Western Conference

San Antonio FC
San Antonio FC

Head Coach: Alen Marcina
Venue: Toyota Field Playoff Odds: 92% Title Odds: 11%

2023 Theme Tune: Savage – Megan Thee Stallion ft. Beyonce (via @toeswiggle)

What’s Happened This Offseason?

Jordan Farr shot a commercial for Old Trapper Beef Jerky. Aside from that? San Antonio ensured the core of the defensive unit that powered the club to its first USL Championship title remained intact with new contracts for 2022 Championship Goalkeeper of the Year Jordan Farr and Defender of the Year Mitchell Taintor. Also back are Connor Maloney and Fabien Garcia, and the club also signed 2019 Championship Young Player of the Year Cristian Parano, ensuring a permanent return after last year’s loan stint. There’s some new blood as well, with Juan Carlos Azocar coming in on loan after success a year ago in Oakland.

Key Returnee – Connor Maloney, defender: Given San Antonio is bringing back the reigning Goalkeeper and Defender of the Year, this might on the face of it be slightly out there, but Maloney’s position as the heartbeat of the club last year – say nothing of his versatility, fulfilling multiple roles at a high level across the field – makes him as essential as anyone to SAFC’s success this season. San Antonio is eager to repeat, and Maloney’s play and leadership will be central to that effort.

Key Arrival – Juan Carlos Azocar, winger: The Venezuelan produced one of the greatest goals at Toyota Field in 2021 with a bicycle kick for visiting Rio Grande Valley FC that grabbed a result in second stoppage time. San Antonio will be very happy to have Azocar on their side this season with his dynamism out wide a seemingly ideal fit for the club’s identity.

Key Number – 46: San Antonio FC has not suffered a defeat when scoring the opening goal in a game in the past two seasons, a run of 46 consecutive contests.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Alen Marcina’s “mentality monsters” are still the best defensive unit in the USL Championship, but enhanced skill in attack has made San Antonio that much better-rounded. Niko Hansen and Juan Carlos Azocar can play last year’s dump-and-run counter game, but Cristian Parano can make the champs lethal in settled, low-tempo moments where they faltered at times. Expect a repeat bid.

Projected Starting XI (3-4-2-1): GK – Jordan Farr; D – Connor Maloney, Mitchell Taintor, Fabien Garcia; M – Shannon Gomez, PC, Mohammed Abu, Juan Carlos Azocar; AM – Cristian Parano, Kimarni Smith; F – Justin Dhillon Prediction: 1st, Western Conference

San Diego Loyal SC
San Diego Loyal SC

Head Coach: Nate Miller
Venue: Torero Stadium Playoff Odds: 86% Title Odds: 7%

2023 Theme Tune: Tijuana Lady – Gomez

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After three seasons at the helm, National Soccer Hall of Fame member Landon Donovan stepped aside to focus on his position as Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations, and Nate Miller stepped up to become the second Head Coach in SD Loyal’s history. Now, Miller and a large returning cast will take aim at continuing an upward ascent that resulted in a second-place finish in the Western Conference only for the side to be eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs for a second consecutive year. SD Loyal has added to a solid core local product and former United States international Joe Corona joining then midfield and New Zealand international Elliot Collier coming aboard in attack. With Miller leading the way, SD Loyal will be hoping this is the year for a playoff breakthrough.

Key Returnee – Alejandro Guido, midfielder: Voted to the Championship All-League team for the first time last year, Guido brings a combination of creativity and distribution that makes SD Loyal go. The local talent has scored 13 goals and nine assists across the club’s first three seasons, which understates his importance. As he reunites with former Club Tijuana teammate Joe Corona, Guido will be hoping to lead a big season at Torero Stadium.

Key Arrival – Joe Corona, midfielder: With more than 400 professional appearances to his credit, and two Gold Cup titles, the Sweetwater High School alum returns home for what could be the final chapter of an illustrious career. The 32-year-old, though, will likely be keen to show he’s here to win, and with a deep midfield roster at Miller’s disposal it will be fascinating to see how Corona is deployed in SD Loyal’s lineup.

Key Number – 9: Over the past two seasons, Tumi Moshobane has recorded nine combined goals and assists for San Diego Loyal SC as a substitute, second-most for an individual club in the Championship.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: San Diego has evolved every season, turning from a team that was reliant on massive amounts of possession into a varied offensive threat. Elliot Collier brings technique and power in a way that continues that evolution. Still, offense was never the issue: throw Joe Corona’s box-to-box presence and a full season of Ebenezer Ackon into the mix, and Nate Miller may create a defensive juggernaut to pair with the attacking wonder.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Koke Vegas; D – Elijah Martin, Ebenezer Ackon, Kyle Adams, Camden Riley; DM – Charlie Adams, Joe Corona; AM – Tumi Moshobane, Alejandro Guido, Nick Moon; F – Elliot Collier Prediction: 3rd, Western Conference

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