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How Rhode Island FC, Hartford Athletic and North Carolina FC could look in 2024

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 01/22/24, 12:00PM EST


With preseason underway, here’s a look at the potential lineups each club could see start the new campaign

Rhode Island FC Head Coach Khano Smith has made some marquee signings as the new club prepares for its inaugural season in the USL Championship this spring. | Photo courtesy Rhode Island FC

The 2024 USL Championship Preseason is here.

In the past week, a collection of clubs have begun their preparations for the new season, now just under seven weeks away from its kickoff on March 9.

Optimism is high. Some players will declare themselves in “the best shape of their lives.”

And in certain quarters, everyone in the squad might be wearing a “Hello, My Name Is” sticker on their warm-up top.

Regular player movement and roster turnover is a fact of life in the USL Championship. While it’s not as drastic as it used to be – clubs retaining a dozen or more players from the prior season are now commonplace, especially if a club is coming off a successful campaign – the potential for an overhaul is always present.

You only need to look at last year’s participants in the 2023 USL Championship Final. Between title winner Phoenix Rising FC and the Charleston Battery only three starters in the final game of the season – Phoenix’s Darnell King and Charleston’s Leland Archer and Augustine Williams – were on their club’s roster at the end of 2022.

Add in the potential for expansion – this year in the shape of Rhode Island FC – and you have a lot of players with new homes and the hope that can bring.

Here’s a look at three clubs and their current potential lineup – the aforementioned RIFC, their rival Hartford Athletic, and Championship returnee North Carolina FC.

Rhode Island FC

Head Coach: Khano Smith
New Arrivals: 17 (expansion club)

Rhode Island FC hasn’t been shy about making marquee signings ahead of its debut in the USL Championship. From announcing Spanish goalkeeper Koke Vegas as its first player in club history to nabbing both Conor McGlynn and Prince Saydee from nearby Hartford Athletic, to then stumping up a transfer fee to the Tampa Bay Rowdies for forward JJ Williams, a strong central spine was already coming into shape.

Then, Head Coach and General Manager Khano Smith went and made another big splash last Friday with the signing of 2023 USL Championship Player of the Year Albert Dikwa, who figures to form a formidable tandem in attack with Williams this season. It’s easy to see why the expectations are high for Rhode Island to have immediate success this campaign.

As two players you’d consider a No. 9 in their lineup, the chemistry between Williams and Dikwa is going to be something to monitor, but it’s not hard to see how this can come together quickly. It went slightly under the radar last year, but Williams finished the season with nine assists as well as 12 goals, putting him tied for fourth in the league in goal contributions in the regular season. For a 6-foot-4 striker, Williams’ touch has always been good, and he could end up being the pivotal player in the attacking half for RIFC. With his ability to hold up play or win aerial battles to send teammates in behind – Williams led the league with 118 aerial duels won at a success rate of 63.8 percent – he will allow Dikwa and Prince Saydee the opportunity to stretch the field in the same way Cal Jennings did in Tampa Bay last season with Williams at his side.

What else can we expect? As we noted at the time, the signing of Koke Vegas would seem to talk to the possession-oriented style wants his side to play. Expect the Spaniard to at times work as a third center back behind center backs Grant Stoneman and Frank Nodarse, and for Conor McGlynn and Marc Ybarra to be in the connection web that looks to build play out. McGlynn’s long passing ability will also be something to watch, especially with Saydee’s pace on the right side.

There’s work still to be done – the defensive corps in particular needs depth – but there’s a starting point for RIFC to be better than your average expansion side this season.

Hartford Athletic

Head Coach: Brendan Burke
Newcomers: 15

There might be no other way to describe Hartford Athletic’s 2023 season than un fracaso.

The club’s four wins were half the number of its inaugural season in 2019 and resulted in practically a clean out of the coaching and playing department from incoming CEO Nick Sakiewicz this offseason. Of last year’s squad, only two are present in our projected lineup – left back Triston Hodge and midfielder Beverly Makangila.

That’s in part because of their prior relationship with incoming Head Coach Brendan Burke – who coached both at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC before their moves to Hartford last offseason – but also because you could almost every other position in the Hartford lineup has been at least maintained in the case of Conor McGlynn – now at Rhode Island FC – or upgraded.

Burke has typically liked to use a four-man back line which would see Joe Farrell and Thomas Vancaeyezeele currently slotted in at center back – Jordan Scarlett is also a good option here and has the versatility to play right back as well. What will be key is the chemistry in midfield, where Anderson Asiedu figures to play as the holding midfielder behind Makangila and Marlon Hairston, but it’s the front line where the hallmark of a Burke-led side come through.

The speed and skill Hartford has at its disposal fits the model of Burke’s turnaround in Colorado Springs, where Hadji Barry and Michee Ngalina were dominant over two season – Barry earning Player of the Year in 2021, and Ngalina Young Player of the Year in 2022. With Romario Williams coming in as center forward and the speed of Marcus Epps and Deshane Beckford flanking him – and the potential of Enoch Mushagalusa to come off the bench, the Athletic have speed to burn.

That feels like a formula for success, and a chance for Hartford to deliver the sort of turnaround the Charleston Battery accomplished a season ago to become a serious challenger.

North Carolina FC

Head Coach: Jon Bradford
Newcomers: 16

Congratulations, North Carolina FC, you’ve won the USL League One title. What are you going to do next?

Well, aside from whatever the equivalent of going to Disney World is, Head Coach Jon Bradford went out and added some outstanding veteran presences to a core of players that is set to return from last year’s victorious squad.

Now, the question is how he balances the lineup between his incoming newcomers – some of which like center back Paco Craig and forward Rodrigo da Costa have proven among the best in their position in the USL Championship over the years – while giving the players who earned NCFC’s first league title in club history their chance to prove themselves at a higher level.

Here’s how we think it might look on opening day, starting with giving 18-year-old goalkeeper Nick Holliday the chance to start with Jake McGuire waiting in the wings if needed. Craig comes into the back line alongside veteran Daniel Navarro at center back, while Justin Malou figures to slot in at right back as El Salvador international Nelson Flores Blanco retains his place on the left.

From there, however, the pieces might dictate a change from the 4-4-2 system that Bradford employed during the side’s title run to a three-man midfield unit. That would see Collin Martin come in as a holding midfielder, with 2023 USL League One All-League selection Mikey Maldonado and Rafael Mentzingen playing ahead of him, with Mentzingen free to join the attack as often as possible to provide creativity.

We then have three forward slots for four talented strikers. As important as Garrett McLaughlin was – captaining the side in the League One Final a season ago – it feels like he’s the one to miss out here. With Da Costa able to score and create as the central part of the three-man line, Evan Conway and Oalex Anderson round out the group, offering speed and finishing in what looks like a balanced initial lineup.

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