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What if… an alternative look at the 2023 USL Championship season

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 02/05/24, 4:55PM EST


How some of the key moments last season potentially changed the final outcome of the campaign

Phoenix Rising FC claimed the 2023 USL Championship title as a perfect confluence of events culminated in the club's first league title. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Phoenix Rising FC

In approximately one month, the predictions for how the 2024 USL Championship season will start rolling in. They’ll all be based off what we think we know at the moment they’re made, and through that we’ll make educated guesses as to which teams and players could define the upcoming season.

There are things that can’t be factored in, however, which is what makes the season as dramatic as it is.

For example, what if the Tampa Bay Rowdies have 2022 Player of the Year Leo Fernandes at their disposal for the full campaign, instead of seeing him sidelined until October with a torn Achilles’ tendon?

It’s moments like those that can have a lasting impact on the course of a campaign, and the eventual outcome that this past season saw Phoenix Rising FC claim its first league title.

Here are seven more scenarios that seemed a turning point in the past campaign, and what might have happened if they hadn’t come to pass. Now, step into our alternate universe…

What if… Neill Collins stays with the Tampa Bay Rowdies?

Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

Leo Fernandes’ absence was a major element for Tampa Bay last season, and might have caused part of the bumpy ride the side experienced earlier in the season, but by the time the club had reached early July everything seemed to be moving in the right direction again.

Then came the bombshell – Head Coach Neill Collins has elected to step away and take the helm at EFL League One club Barnsley FC.

His final night at Al Lang Stadium was a celebratory one as the Rowdies took a 3-0 victory against Oakland Roots SC, moving their undefeated streak to 10 games. Immediately following, however, came a came a run of one win in the next four games, including a key defeat to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC that helped shape the race for the Players’ Shield at the end of the campaign.

If Collins stays in Tampa Bay, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where the Rowdies finish on top of the Eastern Conference standings – potentially with the Players’ Shield in hand – which in turn changes the seeding for the postseason and sees the road to the playoffs run through Al Lang Stadium. Given the success he’s led at Barnsley this campaign – putting the Tykes in contention for promotion to the EFL Championship – there could have been more silverware in the Rowdies’ trophy case, including the USL Championship title that has thus far eluded them.   

What if… Chris Wehan doesn’t miss the second half of the season for New Mexico?

There are players who have made more appearances for New Mexico United than Chris Wehan but it’s hard to think of someone who has made a bigger on-field impact for the club over its history. The attacking midfielder is the club’s all-time leader in goals (35) and assists (15).

Which makes it all the more agonizing as to what New Mexico could have been if Wehan had been available for selection beyond the club’s June 10th contest against the Tampa Bay Rowdies a season ago.

Three days later, new Head Coach Eric Quill was introduced, and who knows where things might have gone from there. With Amando Moreno putting together one of the best seasons of his career, Wehan could have added another consistent attacking threat for United, helping it avoid the ups and downs it experienced before a frantic final push to finish in eighth place in the West – just two points behind sixth-placed Phoenix Rising FC. With a higher seed, who knows where United could have gone from there?

This season, we’ll finally get to see Wehan play in Quill’s system, wondering what might have been.

What if… Jordan Farr doesn’t get replaced by Nick Marsman in San Antonio?

Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC

At the time, it was one of the most surprising moves of the 2023 season. In September, shortly before the USL Championship’s roster freeze, San Antonio FC acquired goalkeeper Nick Marsman on loan from Major League Soccer after his release from Inter Miami CF.

The surprising thing? Well, San Antonio already had 2022 USL Championship Goalkeeper of the Year Jordan Farr in their ranks. It could be said that Farr’s numbers weren’t living up to his prior campaign, but at the same time he had still posted eight shutouts, a 68.6 save percentage, a goals-against average of 0.97, and a Goals Prevented mark of -2.01 during the season.

Marsman, however, took the reins for the final five games of the regular season – making him postseason eligible – and then started both postseason contests for the side before it was bounced in the Western Conference Semifinals by Sacramento Republic FC, having dropped from second place to fourth during the run-in. Marsman’s numbers? A save percentage of 64.7 percent, a goals-against average of 1.71, and a Goals Prevented mark of +1.5 over his seven games.

Would it have made a difference to have Farr in net? It certainly feels as though it might, and it led to a split-up this offseason that saw Farr acquired by the Tampa Bay Rowdies to become their No. 1 goalkeeper this year. 

What if… Phoenix Rising FC doesn’t acquire Dariusz Formella from Oakland?

Midseason moves have become a common occurrence in the USL Championship, and the decision by Phoenix Rising FC to acquire Dariusz Formella from Oakland Roots SC in July might have been a gamechanger in the biggest way for the eventual USL Championship title winners.

While Phoenix already had two of the league’s top goalscorers in Danny Trejo and Manuel Arteaga, Formella became a vital piece down the final stretch of the season as fatigue saw Arteaga’s form start to drift. After a run of subdued performances down the stretch, then-Rising FC Head Coach Juan Guerra decided to change things up – shifting Formella into the No. 9 slot and Arteaga as an option off the bench – for the side’s postseason opener against San Diego Loyal SC.

The move paid off in a big way. Formella scored twice – including the 119th-minute winner in extra time – to help send Phoenix past SD Loyal in a 4-3 thriller in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, and the Polish forward retained his place throughout the rest of the postseason.

Without Formella to turn to, things could have turned out the same for Phoenix, but the impact the midseason arrival made can’t be discounted.

What if… Dominic Gasso doesn’t knock Pittsburgh out of the playoffs?

Photo courtesy Jon DeBoer / Detroit City FC

For almost the entire 2023 regular season, Highmark Stadium had been a fortress. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC had lost only once at home – in a strange, 3-1 midweek setback to Indy Eleven – but aside from that the side had won 13 times, drawn three, and conceded only 10 goals across those contests on its home turf.

And then, in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Dominic Gasso’s first goal in the professional ranks for Detroit City FC brought the Players’ Shield winner’s season to an abrupt end.

Would victory against Le Rouge have meant more silverware for the Hounds? It’s hard to predict, but with Pittsburgh having defeated prospective future opponents in the bracket Louisville City FC and the Charleston Battery earlier in the season, it’s easy to imagine. (In this alternate history, LouCity’s streak of reaching the Eastern Conference Final in every season would have finally come to an end.)

With a handful of the side’s key players having moved on this offseason, the Hounds might have to wait for such a golden opportunity to present itself again.

What if… Sebastian Herrera is available for Sacramento in the postseason?

On his base numbers, the absence of Sebastian Herrera during Sacramento Republic FC’s assault on the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs wasn’t major. The forward had only scored five goals in the regular season, and three of those came from the penalty spot.

But that would underestimate what Herrera brought to the side in his capacity as the side’s No. 9, a role that proved key in the structure that saw Sacramento finish comfortably on top of the Western Conference. Forget the goals for a minute – what made Herrera essential was everything else he did for the side.

Among forwards, Herrera’s 47 aerial duels won ranked in the Top 20 percent in the league, while his defensive actions leading the side’s press ranked in the top 17 percent despite logging less than half the available minutes in the regular season. He wore down opposing back lines with his energy, allowing Luther Archimede to come on as the literal change of pace that would take advantage of that fatigue.

Even without Herrera – whose last appearance came on October 7 against Rio Grande Valley FC – Sacramento was 10 minutes away from hosting the USL Championship Final. It’s easy to imagine how his presence as the centerpiece of Sacramento’s attack – allowing Russell Cicerone to play his more natural supporting role – would have made an impact.

What if… Leland Archer scores for Charleston in the penalty shootout?

Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery

Ahead 2-0 after two rounds of the penalty shootout in the 2023 USL Championship Final, the Charleston Battery could have felt like they had one hand on the cup.

At that moment, according to’s Markov chain model, the hosts had a 96 percent chance to lift the trophy at the end of the night at Patriots Point, a number that only dropped to 94 percent when Renzo Zambrano got Phoenix on the board to start the third round.

And then, when Leland Archer’s penalty kick went wide of the left post, something changed. Statistically, the Battery were still in control with an 84 percent chance to win, but had Archer found the net it would both have pushed the Battery’s odds to 98 percent, but also provided the added value getting to shoot to win provides.

According to data, players who have a chance to win a shootout for their side have a 92 percent success rate compared to those who’s shot could lose the shootout for their side, a 60 percent success rate. If Archer’s shot goes in, it puts Chris Allan in position to be a hero, and might have provided a far different ending to last year’s final.

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