Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and Head Coach Stephen Hogan have been among the more impressive stories so far this season. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
We’re one quarter of the way through the USL Championship’s 2023 regular season, so it’s time to take stock of what we’ve seen so far. Here’s our look at which clubs and players have raised their stock, and whose performance hasn’t met the mark so far.
There was little question Sacramento Republic FC was going to be among the contenders for the USL Championship title this season, but we’ve been very impressed with how strong that candidacy looks eight games into the season. Republic FC is the last remaining undefeated side in the league, has bagged impressive victories against fellow contenders Louisville City FC and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, and went toe to toe with San Antonio FC on the road.
There are some key reasons for the side’s success – including a back line that has bent at times but rarely broken – but Russell Cicerone has proven the missing piece in the club’s attack to help take Republic FC to the next level. With four goals and two assists, he’s already more than halfway to surpassing Sacramento’s regular season goalscoring leaders a season ago, and there seems to be much more to come here.
With the club’s big offseason arrivals, it felt certain that Indy Eleven would be back among the playoff contenders – if not building toward mounting a serious challenge later in the season. Instead, the side has stumbled out of the gates, winning only one of its first seven games as its attacking veterans have struggled to find the net.
Indy has scored only five goals in seven league games, and that’s underperforming an Expected Goals mark (7.08xG) that ranks 20th in the league so far this season. There’s time for a turnaround, but there are a lot more question marks here than we expected to see at this point of the campaign.
There were different challenges facing Charleston Battery Head Coach Ben Pirmann and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC Head Coach Stephen Hogan going into the season, but both have delivered impressively so far.
In Charleston, Pirmann arrived at a club that had come off its worst season in its 30-year history with the Championship’s Coach of the Year award in his back pocket and promptly got to work. The Battery were the last undefeated side in the Eastern Conference and sit in second place in the standings one-quarter of the way through the season. They’re also only 10 points behind their full-season points total from a season ago, which might be the best measure of how far they’ve come.
In Colorado Springs, Hogan received a promotion to Head Coach after Brendan Burke’s departure in preseason, and with a squad that underwent major turnover from last year’s third-place finisher has guided the Switchbacks to second place in the West so far. Hogan deserves a good amount of the credit alongside his squad for that success, keeping Colorado Springs in contention when it could easily have gone differently.
Last season Rio Grande Valley FC’s underlying numbers said they were a side that had the potential to be good, but that was underperforming. This year, the Toros underlying numbers – and position in the Western Conference standings – say they’re just not of playoff standard.
Only Detroit City FC has scored fewer goals than the Toros this season, with their four goals coming on an Expected Goals mark of 5.72xG – also second-fewest in the league. The reality is the side currently just isn’t aggressive enough, some of which falls on the tactical approach Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera has installed. His side ranks above average in possession (52.2 percent) but below league average in total shots (76 / 10.9 per game) and shot on target (25 / 3.57 per game) this season.
After three games this season, you wouldn’t have imagined this scenario, but since then Locomotive FC has become one of the best stories – and most interesting teams – in the Western Conference. The side has proven adaptable to different situations but has also been eager to get on the front foot and attack. Locomotive FC ranks third in the Championship with 105 shots overall, with Denys Kostyshyn leading individual players with 23 shots so far.
What’s more, this level of performance feels as though it should be sustainable. The club’s shot conversion rate on unblocked shots of 14.6 percent is right at league average, and while it’s currently outperforming its Expected Goals mark, there’s also room for improvement defensively, where the side is marginally underperforming. After last year’s disappointment in missing the playoffs, El Paso looks to be back on solid ground again.
There were some teams that looked like they could potentially struggle in attack in preseason – Detroit City FC’s attack felt a bit flimsy, and that’s proven to be the case – but what’s going in Miami has been majorly disappointing for a side that seemed to have the makings of a contender this season.
Miami’s four-goal outburst against Las Vegas Lights FC surpassed its three goals in its prior six games in the regular season, and then it reverted to form against Oakland Roots SC in being held scoreless for a fourth time this season. None of Miami’s strikers currently rate as a plus-player over league average according to American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added metric, a sign of the lack of quality all-around play the side has produced so far in the attacking half of the field.
You might not know it because of their club’s respective positions in the Eastern and Western Conference, but Detroit City FC goalkeeper Nathan Steinwascher and Oakland Roots SC’s Paul Blanchette have both been superb individually to start this season and should be getting early Goalkeeper of the Year attention.
The duo ranks 1-2 in saves in the Championship so far – Blanchette with 30, and Steinwascher with 28 – but their underlying numbers are even more impressive. Steinwascher leads the Championship with a minus-3.99 Goals Prevented mark so far this season, while Blanchette ranks second at minus-3.37. This isn’t a surprise – both players were hitting these sorts of levels last year as well – but if either of their clubs is going to reach the postseason at the end of the season, they’ll have had a lot to do with it.