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11 Defenders to Watch in the 2024 USL Championship season

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 02/21/24, 2:00PM EST


Returning standouts and those aiming for bounce-back campaigns are in the spotlight this season

Last season, the trope that defense wins titles didn’t exactly play out in the postseason.

If you wanted to be among the teams at the top of the Eastern and Western Conference, however, it was an essential ingredient to fighting for the Players’ Shield and the potential for homefield advantage throughout the USL Championship Playoffs.

Sacramento Republic FC (26 GA) and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (29 GA) rode their defenses to the top of the standings and had individual performers honored for their work, led by reigning Championship Defender of the Year Arturo Ordóñez.

The Spaniard has a new home this season, however, and is among the 11 players we’re putting the spotlight on as players to watch in the upcoming campaign.

Want more preseason coverage? Check out our 11 Goalkeepers to Watch here.

Devon Amoo-Mensah, Detroit City FC

Due to its attacking struggles in 2023, Detroit City FC had to have one of best defenses in the USL Championship to earn a place in the postseason. In the side’s back line, there was no-one that stood out more than Devon Amoo-Mensah, who took home the club’s Players’ Player of the Year and Black Arrow awards for his consistency throughout the season.

The 28-year-old joined DCFC as it arrived in the Championship and has already accumulated more than 50 appearances, providing stability on the left side of Le Rouge’s typical back three formation. Last season he was outstanding in all defensive categories, winning 39 tackles at a 76.5 percent success rate, 173 duels at a 63.8 percent success rate, and recording 34 interceptions and 180 recoveries. Detroit will be counting on more of the same this season.

Paco Craig, North Carolina FC

Last season, Paco Craig and Miami FC were aiming to take a step forward to join the contenders in the Championship’s Eastern Conference, but the setbacks piled up as the side was unable to find a consistent track and ended up outside the playoff positions. Despite that, Craig remained one of the best-regarded center backs in the league – putting up a Goals Added mark of +6.63, trailing only Defender of the Year Arturo Ordóñez and Conor Donovan among CBs according to American Soccer Analysis’ data.

As Miami cleared house this offseason, that gave North Carolina FC a chance to swoop in and acquire Craig as one of the veteran centerpieces for their squad as it returns to the Championship after winning USL League One a season ago. With more than 200 appearances in the league across the regular season and playoffs, Craig fits the bill as a player still at the top of his game that can contribute a lot to Head Coach John Bradford’s squad.

Adrian Diz Pe, Indy Eleven

Photo courtesy Matt Schlotzhauer / Indy Eleven

It took a couple of years for Adrian Diz Pe to acclimatize to the USL Championship, but the past two seasons have shown the impact the Cuban can have and precisely why Indy Eleven acquired him via transfer prior to the start of the 2023 campaign. The 29-year-old earned his first Championship All-League selection after putting up impressive numbers in the backline for the Boys in Blue, including 202 duels won at a 64.3 percent success rate that included winning 98 aerial duels at a 71.5 percent success rate.

At 6-foot-3, Diz Pe has the size to handle confidently the Championship’s target forwards, and he’s also posed a threat from set pieces as well, recording three goals and an assist a season ago. After consecutive seasons logging a Goals Added mark greater than +5.00 in Tulsa and Indy respectively, the expectations will be for another stellar campaign in the Circle City.

Jack Gurr, Sacramento Republic FC

There were a lot of factors that went into the success Sacramento Republic FC achieved in the 2023 regular season, finishing on top of the conference standings for the first time since 2016, but the influence of Jack Gurr couldn’t be overlooked. The dynamic right-sided fullback likely ignited a debate on the definition of a defender – apparently for the Championship’s voters, he was good enough to be a finalist for Defender of the Year but didn’t quite get the votes to win it – but with five goals and six assists his impact in the attacking end of the field was invaluable.

When Gurr was in full flow, everyone else seemed to benefit. There were only four games in which Gurr didn’t start last season, but Republic FC’s attacking metrics show the difference. When Gurr was in the starting lineup, Sacramento won 18 of 30 games and averaged 1.6 goals per game. In the four games he wasn’t, the side went winless and averaged only 0.5 goals per game. You might not be able to attribute that solely to one player, but Gurr’s influence is going to be key again for Republic FC this season.

Phanuel Kavita, Birmingham Legion FC

There was plenty to enjoy in Birmingham Legion FC’s 2023 campaign, led by the club’s run to the Quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the USL Championship Playoffs, but there were times when its defensive frailties proved too much for an enterprising attack to overcome. There’s plenty of reason to go around for that, but as experienced as Phanuel Kavita is his performance levels dipped notably from their 2022 levels.

The 30-year-old posted a +1.51 Goals Added Above Replacement mark in in 2023 – his lowest of the past four full seasons – while winning only 15 tackles at a 53.6 percent success rate and recording only 21 interceptions in 2,736 minutes of action. There’s improvement needed in the Birmingham back line overall, but given his position on the team, Kavita’s campaign will be one to watch closely.

Matt Mahoney, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

Since his arrival before the start of the 2021 season as one of former Head Coach Brendan Burke’s trusted reinforcements, no-one has made more appearances or logged more minutes for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC than Matt Mahoney, and it’s not particularly close. The 28-year-old has logged 28 appearances across the regular season and playoffs in the club’s colors – 31 more than closest rival to that crown Jimmy Ockford over that span – while serving as a consistent presence in the back line.

Mahoney brings a balance of ball-winning ability and quality on the ball for the Switchbacks. In 2023, he recorded 210 recoveries and 36 interceptions in 30 appearances. While his cumulative numbers for tackles won wasn’t high at 22, they were efficient at a 73.3 percent success rate. As Colorado Springs looks to maintain its position as a postseason contender – one that could break into the top four if things fall right – Mahoney is going to be an essential piece once again.

Arturo Ordóñez, Louisville City FC

There was a lot to like about what Arturo Ordóñez did in his first professional season with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, but the step forward the Spaniard took in his second season with the Hounds in 2023 was among the biggest any player posted in the campaign. In leading the Hounds to the Players’ Shield while individually claiming the Championship’s Defensive Player of the Year award, the native of Catalonia posted a +6.97 Goals Added mark as his qualities on the ball and defensive prowess were handsomely rewarded.

For Ordóñez, though, there’s still room for more, which is why he made the move to Louisville City FC this offseason to become a new potential centerpiece for the club’s three-man back line. At 26 years old, Ordóñez got a later start in the professional ranks than most after his college career at the University of Pittsburgh and now he’s aiming to make up for lost time. If he can put in another season comparable to 2023 at Lynn Family Stadium, there could be even bigger opportunities that come calling.

Graham Smith, Charleston Battery

The route including I-22 and I-20 between Memphis and Charleston has been well worn over the past two offseasons, which made the acquisition of Graham Smith as a free agent by the Battery this winter to reunite with Head Coach Ben Pirmann an unsurprising one. The 28-year-old was part of 901 FC’s surge up the Eastern Conference the past three seasons, including earning 2022 Championship All-League honors as the side finished second in the Eastern Conference.

This past year didn’t see Smith match that level of performance as a set piece threat, but his defensive numbers remained impressive in helping Memphis return to the postseason. He posted a 64.8 percent success rate on 153 won duels and a 71.1 percent success rate on 91 won aerial duels – both numbers higher than in 2022 – and his experience with Pirmann’s style should see him be a comfortable fit in the Battery’s back line.

Alexis Souahy, FC Tulsa

After being rewarded with USL League One All-League honors in 2023 for Union Omaha, it looked like Alexis Souahy was gearing up for his second campaign with Los Buhos. Then in January, after FC Tulsa appointed Mario Sanchez as its new Head Coach, that plan changed as the Oklahoma side came calling for the center back and acquired him via transfer late in the month.

The connection to Souahy and Sanchez goes back to their respective time at Louisville City FC, where Comoros international spent four seasons and won the 2018 USL Championship title. Last season, the 29-year-old was solid in his all-around play for Los Buhos, winning 121 duels at a 61.4 percent success rate and 70 aerial duels at a 62.5 percent success rate. As he returns to the Championship, he’ll likely be a key figure if Tulsa is to reach the postseason in its return to the Western Conference.

Mitchell Taintor, San Antonio FC

Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC

Over the past three seasons, Mitchell Taintor was one of the faces that anyone would most readily associate with San Antonio FC’s “Mentality Monsters”, part of a back line that was the anchor to the club’s success. Now, with the departure this offseason of goalkeeper Jordan Farr, defenders Fabien Garcia and Connor Maloney and defensive midfielder PC, he might look like a last man standing in a revamped SAFC squad.

That’s not completely true, of course. Carter Manley is back for his third season with the club while Trova Boni returns on loan after his late-season cameo in 2023. Taintor, however, is the player the spotlight will fall on as the connection to the club’s past success after his consecutive All-League selections. Another standout campaign will be anticipated for one of the league’s most established center backs.

Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Hartford Athletic

It wasn’t too long ago that Thomas Vancaeyezeele was one of the most versatile and respected defensive players in the USL Championship. He racked up consecutive All-League selections in 2019 and 2020 with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, the first year as part of a Hounds squad that finished on top of the Eastern Conference.

Since then, however, things haven’t quite gone right for the French Guiana international. Stints with San Diego Loyal SC, Birmingham Legion FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies didn’t work out as intended, and this past season the 29-year-old was out of the league entirely. Now he’s back, joining Hartford Athletic as it looks for a major turnaround in fortune under new Head Coach Brendan Burke. If Vancaeyezeele can recapture his Pittsburgh form, he could be a major part of delivering a successful season, and as such will be worth watching closely.

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