Oakland Roots SC's Bryan Tamacas, Detroit City FC's Ben Morris and Phoenix Rising FC's Erickson Gallardo will all be aiming to have a major impact as they compete in the USL Championship for the first time this season.
The USL Championship’s growth has seen the league attract ever-increasing levels of overseas talent in recent years.
Last season, players from more than 80 countries suited up in the league, with 11 overseas nations represented in the All-Championship First and Second Teams.
This offseason has seen another influx of overseas talent looking for success on American shores. Here’s a look at some of the players who could play a leading role this season, as well as one of the top players from last year’s League One season who’ll also be getting his first opportunity at this level in 2023.
It wasn’t so long ago that United States-born and Australian-raised Panos Armenakas looked to be on the verge of a battle for which country he’d represent at the senior national team level. Of Greek heritage, which saw him play for that country’s U-17 national team as well as Australia’s, the attacking midfielder came through the systems of Italy’s Udinese and England’s Watford FC before opportunities at historic Greek club Panathinaikos and elsewhere. Now the 24-year-old arrives at Loudoun United FC in search of a reset, and a potential path back up the ranks. As one of the notable arrivals as Loudoun enters a new era under the ownership of Attain Sports & Entertainment, Armenakas will be aiming to make a splash in his new surroundings.
If it feels as though there’s a been a run on Venezuelan talent among clubs in the USL Championship this offseason, you’re not far wrong. This campaign is currently set to see 10 players from the country competing in the league, with Gabriel Benitez one of the newcomers as he arrives at Rio Grande Valley FC. The 29-year-old left back has made more than 175 professional appearances in his home country – including in the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana – and has earned one senior national team cap in 2019. As he arrives in South Texas, he could have a solid impact on RGVFC’s back line this year.
New Miami FC signing Gabriel Cabral made the step up from League Two to captain South Georgia Tormenta FC to victory in the 2022 USL League One Final, and will be aiming to have a similar impact in South Florida. | Photo courtesy South Georgia Tormenta FC
Gabriel Cabral’s ascent is one of the best current examples of how a player can make the most of the USL ecosystem. After competing in USL League Two for South Georgia Tormenta FC 2 in 2021, last year he stepped into Tormenta FC’s League One squad to join the professional ranks, earned All-League honors after appearing in every game of the season, and captained the side as it claimed victory in the League One Final. Now the 25-year-old Brazilian steps into the Championship for the first time at Miami FC, where he’ll be looking to continue his upward ascent and deliver more club success.
There probably aren’t many players who can say their senior debut came in one of the most fiercely contested rivalries in world soccer, but that’s exactly what happened to Leonardo Diaz two years ago when he was thrust into the starting lineup for River Plate as it squared off with eternal rival Boca Juniors in the Argentine league’s playoffs on May 16, 2021. The fairytale didn’t have a happy ending – Boca claimed victory 5-3 in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw, but that’s the sort of pedigree Diaz brings as he arrives on loan with Las Vegas Lights FC on loan from River this season. Las Vegas is going to have a new-look squad this season, but you can be sure Diaz won’t be overawed by any situation he faces.
One of the Venezuelan recruits brought in by fellow countryman and Phoenix Rising FC Head Coach Juan Guerra, Erickson Gallardo will make his first bow in the USL Championship this season but isn’t a complete stranger to North American soccer. The right winger had a previous stint with Toronto FC across the 2020 and 2021 seasons that was hindered by injury, but last year he showed a notable return to form back in his home country. The 26-year-old notched nine goals and six assists for Zamora FC, averaging a goal contribution every 137.4 minutes in the regular season, earning a recall to La Vinotinto for a pair of appearances last September in international friendlies with Iceland and the United Arab Emirates.
New Orange County SC brings senior Scotland Men's National Team experience as well as almost 400 games in the professional ranks to his new club this season.
It’s probably fair to say Marc McNulty has seen a lot in his career. With almost 400 professional appearances to his credit across all levels of English and Scottish soccer – including 54 appearances in the Scottish Premiership – the 30-year-old arrives at Orange County SC aiming to continue his impressive scoring record as a center forward. McNulty has notched 127 goals and 61 assists in his career so far and will be a key addition as the 2021 Championship title winners look to bounce back from last year’s disappointing campaign.
Detroit City FC Head Coach Trevor James went back to one of the clubs from his playing days to find a new striker, with Ipswich Town FC product Ben Morris making the jump across the Atlantic to join Le Rouge for the new season. A former England U-19 international, Morris most recently competed for Swedish club GAIS on loan from Ipswich and scored four goals as the club earned promotion to the second division. Now 23 years old, he could become a centerpiece at Keyworth Stadium in the new season.
Numerous pieces were already in place for new El Paso Locomotive FC Head Coach Brian Clarhaut, but the addition of Swedish midfielder Petar Petrovic gave the new manager someone whose qualities he’s already familiar with from his recent coaching history. The 27-year-old has made more than 125 appearances in his home country’s second tier, and has shown the ability to be creative in the final third with 21 goals and 24 assists at that level. With Locomotive FC aiming to bounce back after a tough 2022, Petrovic will need to get up to speed quickly, but could provide a solid presence.
A native of the Catalan city of Valls, Ruxi is no stranger to competing slightly off the more familiar path. The 27-year-old center back has spent the past three-and-a-half years in Scandinavia, first going to Norway before competing in Finland before heading to FC Tulsa this offseason. With the departure of Adrian Diz Pe to Indy Eleven late this preseason, Ruxi could be needed to step into a major role for his new club as they try to find a way back to playoff contention.
The USL Championship has been the home to numerous El Salvador internationals in recent years, and this offseason Bryan Tamacas became the latest to arrive in the league as he signed with Oakland Roots SC. The 28-year-old has almost exclusively played in his home country so far in his career, winning three league titles, but with 58 caps for La Selecta to his credit the right back should bring a strong level of quality and competitiveness to Roots SC’s back line this campaign.
There have been some memorable players from Denmark that have graced the USL Championship in its history, a group that Rasmus Thellufsen will be aiming to join as he arrives at Louisville City FC this year. The 26-year-old brings more than 170 senior appearances with him across the Atlantic Ocean, including almost 70 in Denmark’s top flight. If he can follow in the successful footsteps of former LouCity standout Magnus Rasmussen, the left-sided midfielder could be a very valuable addition for the defending Eastern Conference title holders.