The Tampa Bay Rowdies' Forrest Lasso, San Antonio FC's Mitchell Taintor and Miami FC's Paco Craig will all be aiming to lead their clubs to success in the 2023 USL Championship season.
Of the sides in the USL Championship’s history that lived up to the mantra that defense wins championships, San Antonio FC produced a season last year only rivaled by the 2015 Rochester Rhinos in its defensive prowess.
Nowadays, though, locking down the back line isn’t the only way a defender can influence a game. That’s reflected in our 11 players below, some of whom have proven to be among the best two-way performers in the league.
As always, this isn’t a definitive list of the best defenders currently in the league, but it is a group that will likely be essential to their clubs and their potential for success in 2023.
As Memphis 901 FC’s 2022 campaign grew, it became apparent veteran defender Zach Carroll was likely to be looking for a new home this season. In his seventh season in the league, Carroll logged the fewest minutes he’d played in a campaign, mostly used as defensive reinforcement across his 29 appearances. For Las Vegas and its almost completely reconstituted squad, though, Carroll looks like a player the side will need to build around with his 170 appearances across the regular season and playoffs in his career by far the most in the Championship of any player in the squad. If Lights FC is going to contend for a first postseason berth, the 28-year-old is going to need to be at his best this year.
A lot of what Miami FC has done this offseason has felt a little bit under the radar, but signing center back Paco Craig to a new contract was a move that felt essential to the side finding success this year. Craig returned to the Championship All-League First Team in 2022 as he led the side with 111 clearances and 82 aerial duels won, with Miami posting a 0.85 goals-against average in games he appeared in during the regular season. With the South Florida squad looking for a postseason breakthrough in Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ second season at the helm, Craig’s consistency should be at the forefront.
Louisville City FC defender Amadou Dia was one of the best all-around wide defenders in the USL Championship last season, recording eight assists and a 74.4 percent tackle success rate. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
If you were to argue the biggest snub from the 2022 USL Championship All-League Team was Louisville City FC’s Amadou Dia, you’d likely have a very good case. The left-sided defender logged eight assists and 40 chances created in the regular season while also posting a 74.4 percent tackle success rate, 60.1 percent duel success rate, 37 interceptions and 147 recoveries for the best team in the Eastern Conference. It’s unlikely that will have weighed too much on Dia’s mind this offseason, but the consistency he brings up and down the left flank is likely to be a key ingredient for the defending Eastern Conference title holders this season. A first career All-League selection could be on the way as well.
It’s hard to pin the absence of one player to a club’s struggles, but in Monterey Bay F.C.’s inaugural season the presence of Kai Greene was a major determinant as to how the side might fare defensively. In the 31 games that Greene played, the side allowed an average of 1.4 goals per game but did post 10 shutouts and had only a -3 goal differential. In the three games he was absent, the side conceded 15 times, and failed to pick up a point. It speaks to the presence Greene brings as a veteran in the league not only in his individual qualities but also in his ability to organize alongside fellow veteran Hugh Roberts that is going to make that duo essential to Monterey Bay’s upcoming campaign. After the bumps in the road of an expansion season, the expectations will be of a playoff berth at Cardinale Stadium in Year 2. Greene needs to be central to that.
No player in the USL Championship’s history has racked up individual awards like Forrest Lasso. The only three-time Defender of the Year winner and only five-time Championship All-League First Team selection, the center back has been a pillar for some of the league’s top squads. His return to the Tampa Bay Rowdies after a year in Sweden might have been one of the biggest moves of the offseason and should positively impact a Tampa Bay defense that expects to be among the best in the league every year. If that happens, more silverware – both individual and for the club – could quickly follow.
The biggest reason for Orange County SC’s precipitous drop from 2021 USL Championship title winner to a last-place finish in the Western Conference a season ago was its defensive frailty. OCSC recorded only three shutouts, and tied for the second-most goals conceded in the conference (59) behind the LA Galaxy II. Norwegian center back Markus Nakkim figures to be central to the rebuild of the Orange County back line, having made 150 appearances in the top two divisions in his native country, including 93 in the top flight. If he settles in quickly, it could be foundational to OCSC’s resurgence.
How you look at Marc Navarro’s arrival at El Paso Locomotive FC could depend on your perspective. On one hand, you have a player who has competed in both La Liga and the Premier League in his career, and who at 27 years old is still in his prime. On the other, you have a player who will be entering his first season since departing Watford FC in August 2021 this spring, and the unknown that can bring. If Navarro is close to the player that competed for Espanyol over three seasons, then El Paso has a gem on its hands. We’ll have to wait and see.
By the numbers, among defenders in the 2022 USL Championship regular season Mitchell Taintor didn’t lead one major category individually. In some cases, he didn’t lead his own club in a category like interceptions or clearances. That belied both the consistency across all elements of his game, and the manner in which he marshaled his teammates, which led to the 28-year-old claiming his first Defender of the Year award and All-League selection. The 6-foot-1 center back was one of the embodiments of the qualities that led San Antonio to its first league title. As he returns for the new season, Taintor will look to maintain a consistently high level.
For those that remembered Edgardo Rito’s attacking forays for the New York Red Bulls II in the 2019 USL Championship season, the explosive campaign the Venezuelan delivered in his first campaign for Oakland Roots SC last year probably didn’t come as a surprise. With five goals and seven assists, Rito was voted to his first USL Championship All-League Team and helped drive Oakland into the playoffs for a second consecutive year. If there was a weak spot for the 27-year-old, though, it was in his man-to-man numbers. Rito only won 42.2 percent of duels and 52.5 percent of tackles a season ago. Improving those numbers could elevate his profile still further given the attacking qualities he can bring.
There were numerous contributors to the best campaign in Memphis 901 FC’s history last year, but the contributions of Patrick Seagrist might have gone a little overlooked in comparison to some of his teammates. As it was, the 25-year-old ranked tied for second in the league among defenders with 72 interceptions, and also notched one goal, four assists and 32 chances created on the left flank. An early offseason arrival at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, the Illinois native now looks set to be a key part of the rebuild for the Western Conference Finalist a season ago, and with the attacking set-up the side aims to employ unlikely to change under Head Coach Stephen Hogan it could offer an opportunity for Seagrist to continue to thrive.
The 2022 campaign was transformative for Deklan Wynne. At Detroit City FC he put up a career-best campaign in the Championship with three goals and seven assists – both individual single-season highs – and helped Le Rouge reach the playoffs in their first season in the league. That earned a recall to the New Zealand Men’s National Team and his first appearance for his country since 2017 in an exhibition against Australia last November. It also opened up an offseason move to the Charleston Battery, who will be hoping for more of the same from the left-sided wingback as they try to return to postseason contention this year. If the 27-year-old can prove last year wasn’t a flash in the pan, it could be big for club and country.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Orange County SC Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Forrest Lasso Paco Craig Zach Carroll Mitchell Taintor Kai Greene Deklan Wynne Amadou Dia Las Vegas Lights FC El Paso Locomotive FC Edgardo Rito Miami FC Patrick Seagrist Oakland Roots SC Monterey Bay F.C.