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13 free agents USL Championship clubs could target this offseason

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 12/23/23, 12:30PM EST


Former loanees, youth internationals among potential additions with upside this January

Brazilian forward Nathan Fogaça has averaged a goal contribution every 132.1 minutes in the USL Championship so far in his career. | Photo courtest Darren Abate

The USL Championship offseason is already in full swing.

In addition to the retained lists released by clubs, some big names have already been confirmed as having new homes for the 2024 Championship campaign.

This week, more potential names landed on the market after the completion of Major League Soccer’s re-entry and draft and waivers. This time last year, players like Danny Trejo and Cal Jennings hit the market, and went on to deliver standout campaigns for Phoenix Rising FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies that earned Championship All-League honors.

This year, some USL Championship clubs have already been active in securing similar types of signings. This week, Orange County SC has signed 21-year-old forward Cameron Dunbar, the Charleston Battery added 22-year-old forward Jake LaCava, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies brought on midfielder Danny Crisostomo.

Here are 13 more free agents aged 25 and younger coming out of deals in Major League Soccer that could be targets for USL Championship clubs as they continue to build their squads for the new season.

Oskar Ågren, Center Back (25)

The Swedish center back is one of two current 25-year-olds in this year’s group, but the 6-foot-2 center back showed he had the tools to succeed in the Championship during his loan stint with Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC this past season. Ågren recorded 70 clearances and 17 interceptions in 21 appearances while posting a duel success rate of 58.8 percent, a tackle success rate of 68.8 percent, and an aerial duel success rate of 60.4 percent. That added up to a +3.20 Goals Added above Replacement mark in just over half-a-season of action per American Soccer Analysis. A former national champion and All-America selection at Clemson University, Ågren could be a good fit in the center of defense for a number of clubs.

Adam Armour, Full Back (21)

21-year-old defender Adam Armour is coming off a season-ending injury while on loan at FC Tulsa, but remains a potential prospect that should draw interest. | Photo courtesy Victor Schwanke / FC Tulsa

It’s easy to forget what a strong prospect Adam Armour was coming out of the United States U-17s Men’s National Team, where he made 19 appearances through the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup. A torn ACL in 2022 after scoring the first goal in Charlotte FC’s history brought that season to a premature end, and the same misfortune befell Armour this season after joining FC Tulsa on loan in May. That was a shame, because in his appearances directly before the injury occurred, he was clearly starting to come into his own, recording an assist in a stellar all-around display against Rio Grande Valley FC on July 21. There’s risk here due to the injury history, but Armour’s known talent and potential upside is worth taking a chance on.

Beto Avila, Forward (23)

Beto Avila didn’t put up big numbers on loan with the Charleston Battery from Houston Dynamo FC this past season with three goals and one assist, but he proved a valuable part of the club’s attacking rotation through his energy and defensive work-rate that fit well with the Battery’s pressing moments. Avila won 1.38 tackles/90 minutes at a 65.6 percent success rate and was in the 87th percentile in defensive actions among wingers and attacking midfielders over the course of the season. Avila’s big area for potential improvement is in his finishing – his seven goals across the Battery and Austin Bold FC in the Championship have come on an Expected Goals mark of 10.74xG with a shooting accuracy rate of 38.6 percent. If Avila can tighten up that area, there’s real upside here.

AB Cissoko, Center Back (23)

There’s a lot to admire about AB Cissoko’s rise from USL League Two with San Diego Zest FC in 2019 to being part of Seattle Sounders FC’s squad that won the Concacaf Champions League in 2022 and to the edges of the club’s starting lineup. Now, the center back is looking for the next pathway after splitting time between the Sounders and Tacoma Defiance, where he previously competed as well in the USL Championship. Cissoko was a consistent part of Tacoma’s lineup in 2021 and recorded 38 clearances in 21 appearances. In MLS NEXT Pro, he’s recorded a Goals Added above Replacement mark of +3.64 in 27 appearances and has also proven a dead-eye from the penalty spot with 14 goals overall.

Jackson Conway, Forward (22)

The former Atlanta United FC homegrown signing’s loan stint with Phoenix Rising FC didn’t work out as hoped for early this season, but his scoring record in the Championship with Atlanta United 2 should catch the eye of clubs looking for a true No. 9 who could find new heights as he enters his prime. Conway’s 23 goals in 74 appearances for ATL UTD 2 came at a strike rate of 222.4 minutes per goal, and his shooting accuracy rate of 49.6 percent can be worked on and potentially approved. It’s not a given that Conway will follow the path of fellow Atlanta alum Phillip Goodrum, but the potential upside is there.

Nathan Fogaça, Forward (24)

Just as with Danny Trejo and Cal Jennings a season ago, Nathan Fogaça should have no shortage of suitors this offseason after showing what he’s capable of in two stints with San Antonio FC, including on loan from the Portland Timbers a season ago. The Brazilian has recorded 15 goals and six assists in 41 appearances – an average of a scoring action every 132.1 minutes – and could arguably have been more prolific in front of goal with an Expected Goals mark of 18.06xG. Raising a shooting accuracy rate of 48.3 percent would help that but add in Fogaça’s defensive energy – including a 53.8 percent aerial duel success rate this past season – and you have a player that could have a big 2024 for someone.

Julian Gaines, Full Back (21)

Former Las Vegas Lights FC defender Julian Gaines has put up consistent numbers in the lower divisions the past two seasons. | Photo courtesy Lucas Peltier / Las Vegas Lights FC

A Texas native who made his professional debut in the Championship with Austin Bold FC, Julian Gaines has been a solid performer in the lower divisions the past two seasons while on the books at Los Angeles FC. The right back had two goals and one assist for Las Vegas Lights FC in the Championship in 2022 and this past campaign notched four assists, completed 45 dribbles, and had an 87.4 percent passing accuracy rate for Los Angeles FC 2 in MLS NEXT Pro. Those numbers saw Gaines earn a +3.02 Goals Added above Replacement mark in 1,565 minutes, while also being a regular part of LAFC’s matchday squad. At 21 years old, there’s potential upside here for a side looking for an attacking full back or wing back in its system.

Chris Gloster, Full Back (23)

Part of both the United States U-17 (2017) and U-20 (2019) squads that competed at FIFA youth World Cups, Chris Gloster hasn’t quite found the breakthrough at the senior level in the years since. That doesn’t mean there isn’t potential for the left-sided defender to provide positive value for a USL Championship club moving forward, though, with Gloster most recently having played for Atlanta United 2 and having previously spent time on loan at Sacramento Republic FC. Gloster had 11 chances created and a crossing accuracy rate of 30 percent in seven appearances in MLS NEXT Pro this past campaign and could be a good reclamation project with a high ceiling in the right environment.

Brady Scott, Goalkeeper (24)

When he arrived at 1. FC Köln as an 18-year-old in 2017, Brady Scott was arguably America’s top goalkeeping prospect. In the next youth world cup cycle, he backstopped the United States to victory against France in the Round of 16 at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, but since then the California native hasn’t quite found the next level in the senior ranks. There’s still potential here for Scott to become a solid starter for a Championship club, however. During his time on loan with Memphis 901 FC in 2021, he had a goals-prevented mark of -2.67 in seven appearances. The concern, however, has been Scott’s consistency. His save percentage in Memphis was 64.3 percent, while with Columbus Crew 2 in MLS NEXT Pro this past season it sat at 62.7 percent with six shutouts in 15 matches.

Collin Smith, Full Back (20)

Young defender Collin Smith showed positive attacking attributes while on loan with Birmingham Legion FC from FC Dallas this past season. | Photo courtesy Birmingham Legion FC

There was plenty to enjoy about Collin Smith’s time on loan with Birmingham Legion FC with the 20-year-old’s attacking qualities on regular display from the right back position. Smith’s speed helped him complete 40 dribbles at a 71.4 percent success rate this past season while also recording two goals, one assist and 12 chances created. He was also solid enough defensively, winning 30 tackles at a 69.8 success rate and 54.9 percent of duels while also notching 130 recoveries and 27 interceptions. Time and experience should help Smith’s defensive deficiencies – he ranked in the Top 15 among defenders in being dribbled past by opponents – but the upside he has should make him a solid addition for 2024 and potentially more in the future.

Christian Torres, Forward (19)

The youngest player in this list, Christian Torres has shown promise over the past three seasons with Las Vegas Lights FC and Los Angeles FC 2 and now could be ready to break out in the right situation. A Mexico U-20 international, Torres recorded four goals, two assists and 23 chances created in just over 2,000 minutes for Lights FC and this past season had one goal and three assists in MLS NEXT Pro, grading in the 92nd percentile among forwards with 27 chances created in 1,354 minutes of play. There’s going to be work needed to coax next-level performances out of Torres, who turns 20 next April 15, but the potential he’s shown should have plenty of teams interested in seeing if they can manage it given the upside not only on the field but also as a future prospect for overseas transfer.

Mohamed Traore, Center Back (21)

Mohamed Traore played a notable role in Phoenix Rising FC's run to winning the 2023 USL Championship Final, and now will look for his next move this offseason. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery

Slotted in at the left side of Phoenix Rising FC’s back line, Mohamed Traore was one of the most consistent parts of the club’s lineup as it won the USL Championship Final in November while on loan from Los Angeles FC. Those performances weren’t enough for LAFC to retain the Senegalese defender, however, but that should make him a prime target as a player who is still young but has more than 75 appearances in the Championship over the past three seasons. Traore showed progression from his two seasons on loan with Las Vegas Lights FC, posting a career-best 68.9 percent tackle success rate on 31 tackles won as well as duel success rates of 57.2 percent and an aerial duel success rate of 55.9 percent. That’s plenty to work with as the 6-foot-3 defender continues to come into his own.

Ethan Zubak, Forward (25)

It’s typically a fool’s errand to make direct comparisons between players, but the similarities in traits – if not pathway – between Ethan Zubak and Cal Jennings a year ago after his release from Los Angeles FC are uncanny. As he emerged in the Championship with the LA Galaxy II in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Zubak recorded 20 goals in 52 appearances at a strike rate of a goal every 183.8 minutes while also notching a 25.6 shot conversion rate and 48.7 percent shooting accuracy rate. Zubak hasn’t made the breakthrough at the next level, but he feels like a player that should deliver double-digit goals for a USL Championship club with the right supporting cast and maybe more if everything goes to plan.

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