Rio Grande Valley FC's Jose Francisco Torres, Memphis 901 FC's Aaron Molloy and Sacramento Republic FC's Luis Felipe Fernandes are all set to play key roles as their clubs pursue success in the 2023 USL Championship season.
At this point of the USL Championship’s history, the sheer variety of game styles across the league has made for a brilliant array of midfield talent.
You need creators who can cut out three defenders with a perfect through-ball? We’ve got those.
You need a metronome who can control the tempo and give your side control? Those as well.
How about the stopper that not only serves as the rock opposing attacks founder on, but finds the right next pass? Most certainly.
(There are even some at the top of the league pecking order who can do all three.)
As the new season arrives, here are 11 midfielders who will have major importance as to whether their club rises or falls this season.
A major homecoming storyline this season is the arrival of Sweetwater High School grad and former United States international Joe Corona at San Diego Loyal SC. The 32-year-old brings more than 400 games of experience at the senior level to his new club, and a fanbase that knows him well from his successes just across the border with Xolos de Tijuana last decade. Teaming up with fellow local product and former Xolos teammate Alejandro Guido, Corona joins a midfield that looks on paper to be one of the deepest in the league. After last year’s second-place finish in the West, can he help SD Loyal push on to its first silverware this season?
Even though he arrived in Tulsa before the club’s current branding came to pass, there’s no-one that has become more synonymous with FC Tulsa than Rodrigo Da Costa. With 115 appearances, 33 goals and 24 assists in the Championship in the club’s colors, the Brazilian has been the constant for the side, recording at least nine goals in the three full-length seasons he’s played since arriving in 2019. As the club looks to regroup under new Head Coach Blair Gavin, Da Costa’s influence is going to be as important as ever as Tulsa tries to rebound back into the playoff hunt this season. If he can be the centerpiece in the club’s reformed midfield, there should be a major opportunity for the 29-year-old to shine once again.
Here’s a fun stat for you – Luis Felipe Fernandes scored more goals in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (3) in 2022 than he did in the USL Championship (2). But for all the accolades rightly received by Rodrigo Lopez a season ago, the Brazilian might be the player that does the most for Sacramento across all phases of the game in the center of the park. A key re-signing this offseason, Fernandes led Republic FC in tackles (54) and interceptions (51), ranked third in recoveries (149), and held a ridiculous margin of 78 duels won more than his closest teammate with 195 across the regular season and playoffs. As much as the 27-year-old came through in clutch moments in last year’s Open Cup, he’s the engine that makes Sacramento tick game-in and game-out.
With more than 100 professional appearances under his belt at the age of 21, Azriel Gonzalez is in search of a breakthrough, and has returned home to try and find it. The Las Vegas native – who made his debut in the Championship in 2017 for the Tacoma Defiance – has spent the past two seasons north of the border in the Canadian Premier League, most recently competing for York United, but prior to that he notched 10 goals and 10 assists in 69 appearances for Tacoma. Promotion to Seattle Sounders FC didn’t arrive then, but in his new surroundings Gonzalez will be looking to prove he’s ready for top-flight action. If he can find that level, it will be a big plus for Lights FC’s chances of being competitive.
After earning USL Championship All-League honors for the first time in Colorado Springs, Cam Lindley returns home to Indy Eleven looking to lift the Boys in Blue back to playoff contention. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks
After ups and downs that showed promise but not the complete package in prior seasons, 2022 was the year that everything seemed to click into place for Cam Lindley. An essential part of the best season in Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC history, the 25-year-old notched career highs in assists (9), chances created (99, a league-high), big chances created (12), recoveries (228), interceptions (39), tackles won (35) and duels won (99). Now he’ll aim to deliver a follow-up to his first All-Championship selection back at Indy Eleven, which acquired the Carmel, Ind. native via transfer as part of its offseason overhaul. After failing to record a goal or assist in his prior season with the Boys in Blue in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, Lindley will be eager to show you can go home again.
Pittsburgh native Robbie Mertz’s return to Riverhounds SC midway through the 2022 campaign proved a key move for the Hounds, with Mertz producing five of his single-season best 11 assists for his hometown club across 16 appearances in the regular season and playoffs. Now the 26-year-old figures to be one of the central pieces as the Hounds seek to maintain their playoff streak under Head Coach Bob Lilley despite the departure of some key pieces in the attacking half. Mertz proved an attacking threat at the start of his career with 12 goals in two seasons for the Hounds before departing for Atlanta United 2 before the 2021 campaign. A return to that level of production would be very welcome indeed.
It says something about the quality Aaron Molloy brings to the field that as a central midfielder went from being a finalist for 2021 USL League One Most Valuable Player to being a finalist for 2022 USL Championship Most Valuable Player over the course of 12 months. Now back for his second season at 901 FC, the 26-year-old did it all during the best season in the club’s short history, notching eight goals and 10 assists in the regular season offensively and 258 recoveries and 206 duels won defensively. There’s been a change at the helm at AutoZone Park with Stephen Glass’ arrival as Head Coach, but Molloy should continue to steer the ship on the field for Memphis with the potential for even bigger opportunities to come.
Detroit City FC’s first season in the USL Championship was filled with impressive individual displays, but you could make a case that the heart of the team was Maxi Rodriguez, whose two-way play in the center of midfield and clinical finishing from the penalty spot helped deliver a playoff berth for Le Rouge. Rodriguez led DCFC with 56 interceptions, 228 duels won and 1,074 successful passes in addition to bagging nine goals and three assists, and he could have been considered a little unfortunate on that latter number considering his Expected Assists mark sat at 4.5xA according to Opta. With both Deklan Wynne and Antoine Hoppenot elsewhere this season, Rodriguez is going to need to keep driving Detroit forward, a task he proved more than capable of last year.
As much change has occurred at Weidner Field this offseason – Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC’s first starting lineup in 2023 is guaranteed to look vastly different to the one that took the field last November in the Western Conference Final in San Antonio – the newcomers to the squad are going to need to bed in quickly if the standard the club has set the past two seasons is to be maintained. Central midfielder Drew Skundrich could be a key piece to that chemistry, with the veteran’s consistency on the ball – boasting an 81.1% passing accuracy rate in his prior seasons in the Championship – and solidity in the tackle a good foil for fellow central midfielder Speedy Williams. The 27-year-old’s prior experience working with new Switchbacks Head Coach Stephen Hogan during his first professional season at the Philadelphia Union II should make the former D.C. United man a piece Colorado Springs will rely on over the campaign.
Former United States international Jose Francisco Torres proved a key part of Rio Grande Valley FC's midfield in 2022, and will look to continue to be influential this season. | Photo courtesy Christian Inoferio / Rio Grande Valley FC
Going by the numbers, Rio Grande Valley FC was a better team when Jose Francisco Torres was on the field during the 2022 season. The side averaged more points per game, more goals per game, and conceded fewer goals per game in contests Torres appeared in, and his absence for much of the side’s meek 3-0 playoff exit against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC was arguably key to the side’s creative struggles at Weidner Field. The former United States international is now 35 years old, of course, but for the Toros he still holds valuable qualities. A return to full fitness and more consistent presence over the new season could provide the impetus RGVFC needs to challenge more consistently this campaign after consecutive postseason berths.
When it comes to offseason overhauls, there haven’t been many bigger than the one at Phoenix Rising FC. New Head Coach Juan Guerra has a very new-look squad at his disposal, and in fellow Venezuelan Renzo Zambrano he has a vital piece to Phoenix’s resurgence to contention this campaign. Zambrano has experience in the Championship previously – he was part of the Portland Timbers 2’s most successful season in 2018, making 31 appearances and notching 58 tackles, 48 interceptions and 281 recoveries while chipping in three goals and four assists before moving into Major League Soccer. Slated to slot into one of the deep-lying midfield roles for Rising FC this season, the 28-year-old might not attract headlines, but the work he does behind those that do will be essential to the club’s success.
Tag(s): Features CO Spring Switchbacks Phoenix Rising FC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Pittsburgh Riverhounds Azriel Gonzalez Maxi Rodríguez Luis Felipe Fernandes Las Vegas Lights FC Renzo Zambrano Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC Cameron Lindley Rodrigo Da Costa Robbie Mertz San Diego Loyal SC Aaron Molloy Jose Torres Detroit City FC