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Which stocks are up, and which are down going into the final quarter of the regular season?

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 08/22/23, 3:25PM EDT


San Antonio’s dynamic duo, Orange County’s surge among those that have made a mark in the third quarter of the campaign

Preston Tabort Etaka, Orange County SC's Milan Iloski and San Antonio FC's Rida Zouhir have all impressed over the course of the 2023 USL Championship season.

We’ve officially reached the final quarter of the 2023 USL Championship regular season, where the playoff races at the top of the Eastern and Western Conference standings and at the playoff line are poised for drama over the next eight weeks.

Before we kick the final segment of games off on Wednesday night, however, here’s a look at which clubs and players have raised their stock, and which sides are struggling to keep pace.

STOCK UP – San Antonio FC’s Tani Oluwaseyi and Rida Zouhir

San Antonio FC's Rida Zouhir has brought a new element to the side this season, and combined with Tani Oluwashi has pushed SAFC to becoming the league's leading scorers. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC

San Antonio FC still has many of the traits that saw it claim the USL Championship a season ago with the aggressive, fast-moving style at the forefront. But the two players that might embody this season’s success are players that were brought in from elsewhere and that, in the case of Rida Zouhir, have been integral to the side’s transformation into an attacking powerhouse.

On loan from Minnesota United FC, Oluwaseyi has fulfilled the prototype of the hard-charging and sharp finishing forward that last year was the domain of the now-returned Santiago Patiño and Samuel Adeniran. The 23-year-old leads the Championship with 14 goals this campaign and has equaled the single-season record for hat tricks with three already this campaign. His seamless move into the starting lineup and defensive workrate has made him one of the first names on the SAFC team sheet every time out. It bodes well for his future with the Loons.

What Club de Foot Montreal loanee Zouhir brings, though, is something different. He more than fits into the spirit and desire to push the tempo the side has – almost 40 percent of his overall passes are forward, per Opta’s data, but his passing accuracy rate of 73.2 percent ranks ahead of everyone on the side a season ago aside from defensive midfielders PC and Mohammed Abu.

Combining with Jorge Hernandez (73.8 percent passing accuracy), the two attacking midfielders have also made San Antonio more aggressive with the ball at their feet. Zouhir’s success rate of 65.7 percent on 23 of 35 dribbles completed is outstanding and could be the prelude for a big future ahead of the 19-year-old Canadian youth international.

STOCK DOWN – El Paso Locomotive FC

If you want to know just how bizarre El Paso Locomotive FC season has been, consider this – they are the first side in the Championship’s history to have both an undefeated streak of at least 10 games, and a winless run that has reached double digits.

It’s easy to forget that at one point this season, Locomotive FC was on top of the Western Conference standings during a 12-game undefeated run that spanned from April to June. Since the pivot point of a 1-1 draw with the Tampa Bay Rowdies on June 17, however, the side is 10 games without a win, and has sunk to eighth place in the standings, one point ahead of Rio Grande Valley FC.

With 10 games to go in the campaign, there’s still time and opportunity for Locomotive FC and Head Coach Brian Clarhaut to turn the ship around. The big question is whether they’ll be able to find the necessary solutions.

STOCK UP – Orange County SC

Orange County SC's surge up the standings has seen 12 players record either a goal or assist in the past 12 games, during which time the side has won 10 times. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC

When Orange County SC entered May with only one win, it wasn’t a major shock that the club elected to make a change at the helm, introducing Morten Karlsen as its new Head Coach after the departure of Richard Chaplow.

What has happened since then has been one of the most dramatic turnarounds we’ve seen in a campaign in the Championship’s history. Karlsen’s impact wasn’t immediate, to be sure – the side won only one of his first six games in charge – but with nine wins out of 10 and a current six-game winning streak, the 2021 title winners are back in the top three in the Western Conference standings with a good chance to stay there.

Orange County’s current winning streak has matched the club’s prior best in 2019, when its late-season surge pushed it into the postseason only to be eliminated in the Western Conference Quarterfinals by eventual title winners Real Monarchs SLC. With the positive direction and mood that seems to be among the squad now, though, this feels more like two years ago, when the side rode a five-game winning streak into the playoffs and parlayed it into the first silverware in club history.

“We just use that energy that we have in the group now,” said Karlsen, who was voted July’s Coach of the Month, this past weekend. “We have such a great energy, such great belief. Our mindset is always when we score, we want to score a second. We always want to stay positive.”

STOCK DOWN – Monterey Bay F.C.’s Attack

In fairness, most everyone saw this outcome as being likely. At the end of June, Monterey Bay F.C. was sitting on 26 goals in 16 games with a league-high 22.6 percent shot conversion rate.

Those numbers had come down from a ridiculously hot start to the season that saw Alex Dixon emerge as an early frontrunner for the Golden Boot, but even four months into the campaign the side was drastically outperforming its Expected Goals mark, which at that point sat at 19.6xG, below the league average.

Since July 1 – and the 3-1 defeat to Orange County SC that began a current nine-game winless run – Monterey Bay has found the net only three times. Its shot conversion rate has been just 5.36 percent, the lowest in the league, and its shooting accuracy rate of 35.7 percent is second-lowest in the league behind a team we’ll get to in a moment.

This is almost exactly the way course correction can look over the course of a season. In Monterey Bay’s case, it might have sunk playoff aspirations that not long ago were still looking positive.

STOCK UP – Tabort Etaka Preston

Tabort Etaka Preston leads the Championship in dribbles completed this season (58) and has been one of the most dangerous players in the attacking third this season. | Photo courtesy Jordan Anders / Las Vegas Lights FC

The way we evaluate a player’s value has changed dramatically over the years as more individual metrics and models arrive that can quantify what an individual is bringing to the table over the course of a season.

So, while there hasn’t been a ton of success in Las Vegas Lights FC’s current campaign in terms of results, what we’ve seen in the play of winger Preston Tabort Etaka has been one of the breakout campaigns of the year. The Cameroonian’s speed on the right flank has helped make him Las Vegas’ leading scorer with five goals, but it’s his ability to take on players one-on-one that has provided his biggest value, completing a league-high 58 of 105 dribbles for a Las Vegas attack that arguably should have been more prolific over the campaign.

According to American Soccer Analysis’ data, Preston’s Goals Added value above the average player at his position is +3.69 this season. On one hand, no other Lights FC player has cracked the +1.00 mark – Lucas Stauffer at full back is closest at +0.96 – and on another there is only one player whose value has exceeded Preston’s – that’s current Golden Boot leader Tani Oluwaseyi of San Antonio FC at +3.78.

Preston isn’t going to be in consideration for the Championship’s MVP award, but his play made him an asset that Birmingham Legion FC snapped up via a transfer announced on Tuesday. The skillset Preston brings should fit well with his new team and add impetus to Legion FC’s drive to the playoffs.

STOCK DOWN – Louisville City FC

The history is known. In every season of its history, Louisville City FC has reached the Eastern Conference Final in the USL Championship Playoffs. It has also hosted a game in its opening round of the playoffs in every season, having never finished outside the top four in the Eastern Conference.

With nine games to go in this campaign, you’d have to say those streaks are both under threat.

Now, in fairness, LouCity is still theoretically in a tie for fourth place on points with Memphis 901 FC, although the Tennessee club has two games in hand and holds the head-to-head tiebreaker after going 1-0-1 in their two meetings this season. But this side feels different to the one that has been the model others have based themselves on in terms of continuity and sustained success.

Most worrying of all has been Louisville’s attack, which ranks 22nd in the league with only 26 goals this season. There have been injuries that have broken up the potential for chemistry, for sure, but even then, there’s only one Louisville player in the Top 50 in the league in chances created, and that’s Brian Ownby in a tie for 28th.

We’ve all learned to never bet against Louisville when it comes to the postseason, and there shouldn’t be any doubt that the side will be there for a ninth consecutive time. As it stands, though, how far can this side be expected to go in its current state?

STOCK UP – Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s defense

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC's defense has the lowest Expected Goals Against mark in the league this season with center back Arturo Ordonez a central part of that success. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

If you know Bob Lilley’s career as a Head Coach, you know how much organization, structure and defensive solidity are at the core of what he’s aiming his side to deliver.

Times have changed of course, and the increasing levels of talent available to clubs has meant Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are not the Rochester Rhinos that ground out results during Lilley’s time there. There’s speed and entertaining soccer that has consistently put players like Neco Brett, Russell Cicerone and now Albert Dikwa in positions to thrive in the attacking third.

But, by their underlying numbers, these Hounds are the latest embodiment of the traits that could bring the club to the top of the Eastern Conference, and potentially a deep postseason run for the first time in the USL Championship era. Pittsburgh’s Expected Goals Against mark of 17.82xGA is the lowest in the league, with San Antonio FC sitting well above at 23.4xGA in second place.

After the experience of the club’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup run to the Quarterfinals earlier this year, the Hounds have shown the ability to produce in do-or-die situations. Goalkeeper Jahmali Waite and defenders Arturo Ordonez, Dani Rovira and the rotating cast around them are the biggest reason why this might be the Hounds’ postseason.

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