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2024 USL Championship Eastern Conference Season Preview

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/04/24, 2:30PM EST


Check out the players to watch, tactical insights and projected finishes for every team

The 2024 USL Championship season is here, and it promises to be the biggest in league history.

With two broadcast partners for the first time in league history in CBS Sports and ESPN, the league’s clubs and talented players will be available on more platforms than ever. Thirty-five games will air on national television, including the league’s first on an over-the-air network.

So, what do we have in store?

Returning standouts, young stars and bright newcomers are all here to make an impact, and in advance of the big kickoff on Saturday, March 9, the USL’s Nicholas Murray and’s John Morrisey have everything you need to know.

Here’s a look at every team in the Eastern Conference. You can find the capsules for the Western Conference’s clubs here.

We’re ready for the new season, and hope you’ll be along for the ride.

Birmingham Legion FC
Birmingham Legion FC

Head Coach: Tom Soehn 
Venue: Protective Stadium 
2023 Record: 14-16-4, 46pts, 7th in Eastern Conference 
2023 Postseason: Eastern Conference Semifinals 

What’s Happened This Offseason? 

After an up-and-down campaign that saw Legion FC reach the dizzy heights of the Quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, finish as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, and ultimately fall to eventual conference-title winner Charleston Battery, the side reinforced in some areas but mostly held firm in its personnel as it looks for more consistency this year. 

The notable departures are a pair of forwards with Juan Agudelo (San Antonio FC) and Neco Brett (Memphis 901 FC) moving on, with Sierra Leone international Mohamed Buya Turay the likely replacement at the No. 9. The side has made what look on paper to be some other shrewd additions, including bringing AJ Paterson in to provide depth in defense, while highly rated 18-year-old midfielder Miguel Perez is also aboard on loan from St. Louis CITY SC. This squad should be a postseason side again and could achieve more if things fall into place.  

Key Returnee – Tabort Etaka Preston, winger: Acquired as a midseason arrival from Las Vegas Lights FC, Preston provided another dynamic presence in the attacking third and played a key role in the side’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinal against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The Cameroonian is a serious danger in one-on-one situations – he led the Championship with 76 completed dribbles in the 2023 regular season at a 54.7 percent success rate – and could be poised for a big year. 

Key Arrival – Mohamed Buya Turay, forward: The Sierra Leone striker has a well-traveled path but his experiences in the top flights in Scandinavia and the Far East offer a measure of what Legion FC fans can expect from the 29-year-old as he joins. Turay averaged a goal contribution every 133 minutes in Sweden’s Allsvenskan in his career on 33 goals and 13 assists in 75 appearances and seems a candidate to be a double-digit goalscorer in Birmingham this campaign. 

Young Player to Watch – Matthew Corcoran, midfielder: The 17-year-old was a breakout star for Birmingham a season ago. He made 31 appearances for the side in the league and parlayed that into a place in the United States squad for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in November. If the Dallas native takes another step forward this campaign, he could be the next top young USL Championship talent making the move to Europe.  

Key Number – 114: Enzo Martinez’s 114 combined goals (69) and assists (45) in the USL Championship’s regular season are the second-highest mark in league history, and potentially within range of surpassing Dane Kelly (132) during the 2024 campaign. 

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Legion FC has given itself tactical options for 2024. Head Coach Tommy Soehn has traditionally preferred a formation with two central defenders and a four-man press up top, but the addition of versatile defender AJ Paterson this offseason allows him to use a 3-4-3 look. Birmingham can still be fiery without possession - using an extra center back lends protection and lets the wide players push up more aggressively - but also will have an extra player to make build-up easier. 

How the side defends the channels will be key. In the past, Birmingham has left too much space behind its full backs, who would get caught up the field after overlapping. By using a back three, they have an extra player to rotate over and put out those fires. Forcing your defensive line to cover additional ground introduces issues all its own, but the 3-4-3 as a concept is clearly meant to cure a longer-term illness. 

Projected Starting XI (3-4-3): GK – Matt VanOekel; D – AJ Paterson, Phanuel Kavita, Alex Crognale; M – Moses Mensah, Matthew Corcoran, Enzo Martinez, Tabort Etaka Preston; F – Tyler Pasher, Mohamed Buya Turay, Prosper Kasim Prediction: 5th, Eastern Conference 

Charleston Battery
Charleston Battery

Head Coach: Ben Pirmann 
Venue: Patriots Point 
2023 Regular Season: 17-9-8, 59pts, 3rd in Eastern Conference 
2023 Postseason: Eastern Conference Title  

What’s Happened This Offseason? 

The Battery achieved the greatest single-season turnaround in USL Championship history in 2023 with a 34-point improvement in the regular season and then were seconds away from claiming a fifth league title before Phoenix Rising FC’s late equalizer and subsequent penalty shootout victory to spoil spoiled the night for the hosts at Patriots Point. So, what did Charleston do next? Make the sort of moves that ensure last year wasn’t a flash in the pan. 

Having brought some players with him from former club Memphis 901 FC last offseason, Head Coach Ben Pirmann added two more who figure to have an immediate impact in central midfielder Aaron Molloy and center back Graham Smith – both former All-League selections. The side also refurbished its attack after the transfer of Championship Young Player of the Year Fidel Barajas to Real Salt Lake and departure of leading scorer Augustine Williams (Indy Eleven), adding three strikers under the age of 23 in Jake LaCava, Jackson Conway and MD Myers. Don’t expect much drop-off from the defending Eastern Conference title holders this year. 

Key Returnee – Nick Markanich, forward: One of the new arrivals a season ago, Markanich was a breakout performer for the Battery in his second pro campaign. He notched 11 goals and three assists in 33 appearances as an attacking midfielder and graded out as the Battery’s leader in Goals Added per American Soccer Analysis at +7.78 over the season. Having signed a new contract this offseason, the 24-year-old will look to build on that success this year and lead the Battery to one more victory than a season ago.  

Key Arrival – Aaron Molloy, midfielder: The Irish midfielder reunites in Charleston with Head Coach Ben Pirmann after two seasons in Memphis in which he’s become arguably the most respected player at his position in the league as a central midfielder. Molloy recorded 10 goals, 18 assists and 148 chances created in the past two regular seasons while also leading outfield players with 492 recoveries while ranking second in 103 tackles won. His influence should make a major impact in Charleston this season.  

Young Player to Watch – Jake LaCava, forward: After two stints on loan with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, most recently from Inter Miami CF, the 22-year-old joined the Battery this offseason and brings a strong pedigree to his new club. While LaCava recorded 15 goals and seven assists for Tampa Bay in 55 appearances, he also showed off his versatility, at times being deployed as a left-sided wingback. This season could be a springboard to more success.  

Key Number – 17: Charleston’s 17 victories in the 2023 regular season were the most the side had earned in a campaign in the USL Championship era, and the most in club history since recording 19 wins in the 2002 USL A-League season. 

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Though they’ve experimented in the preseason, the defending Eastern Conference champs are likely to return to Head Coach Ben Pirmann’s classic 4-2-3-1 this season. Compared to 2023, Charleston will almost certainly keep the ball on the ground and play short more often. Pirmann has never been afraid of a varied approach, using aggressive counter pressure in the midfield to win knock-downs and long balls from the back. By adding Aaron Molloy, they’ve opened the door for a reinvention. 

Molloy’s gift is commanding offense from front to back. He’s often seen standing next to his goalkeeper to start build-up sequences, shepherding possession all the way to the final third. The former MVP finalist will allow players like Nick Markanich and Arturo Rodriguez to roam more freely, and new forwards like Jackson Conway and MD Myers with good hold-up skills will support that movement. 

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Adam Grinwis; D – Josh Drack, Juan Sebastian Palma, Graham Smith, Mark Segbers; DM – Emilio Ycaza, Aaron Molloy; AM – Nick Markanich, Arturo Rodriguez, Jake LaCava; F – MD Myers Prediction: 3rd, Eastern Conference 

Detroit City FC
Detroit City FC

Head Coach: Danny Dichio 
Venue: Keyworth Stadium 
2023 Regular Season: 11-15-8, 41pts, 8th in Eastern Conference 
2023 Postseason: Eastern Conference Semifinals 

What’s Happened This Offseason? 

Having produced one of the biggest upsets in the USL Championship Playoffs’ history by defeating Players’ Shield winner Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Detroit City FC entered the offseason knowing it had big shoes to fill as former Head Coach Trevor James moved into his new role as Sporting Director. The club pegged recent Sacramento Republic FC assistant coach – and former Premier League player – Danny Dichio as the fourth Head Coach in club history. 

The 49-year-old inherits a squad that has maintained its defensive qualities – Nate Steinwascher returns on a new contract after being nominated for Goalkeeper of the Year in 2023 – but still has the same question marks surrounding its attack as it did last offseason. New arrivals Elvis Amoh and English attacking midfielder Ali Coote appear the prime candidates to boost an attack that finished last in the league with 30 regular season goals as Le Rouge take aim at a third consecutive berth in the Championship postseason. 

Key Returnee – Nate Steinwascher, goalkeeper: The local standout was arguably the most important player for Le Rouge a season ago and earned his first nomination for Championship Goalkeeper of the Year after again logging 12 shutouts and more than 90 saves across the regular season and playoffs. Steinwascher’s shot-stopping ability is among the best in the league and he’ll likely need to be at his best again to help DCFC reach new heights. 

Key Arrival – Ali Coote, midfielder: The majority of the Scottish playmaker’s career has been spent in the League of Ireland Premier League at Bohemians, but he’s also seen action in the Scottish Premiership for Motherwell. Coote’s creativity combined with fellow newcomer Elvis Amoh search for a rebound season will be essential pieces of an improved attacking campaign at Keyworth Stadium. 

Young Player to Watch – Dominic Gasso, midfielder: The DCFC Academy product produced the first big moment of his young career with his brilliant game-winner against Pittsburgh in the playoffs. Before that, however, he’d become a regular as a holding midfielder in the side’s lineup, making 10 starts in 18 appearances. The 20-year-old should have the opportunity to continue that progression this season. 

Key Number – -11.41: DCFC goalkeeper Nate Steinwascher has posted a Goals Prevented mark of -11.41 over the past two regular seasons, the best of any goalkeeper in the USL Championship, having conceded 62 goals on an Expected Goals on Target Conceded mark of 73.41xG 

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: How does Danny Dichio fix this offense? Detroit has run back an elite defense almost entirely, but changes are needed further up the pitch. A three-man midfield with two defensive-minded options could liberate Maxi Rodriguez to reach his previous creative heights. A three-man front line with Elvis Amoh flanked by clever runs from Ali Coote and Ben Morris is another possibility. How Dichio strings it together without waylaying Detroit’s identity is key. 

I’d expect a three-at-the-back formation from the get-go, but experiment should and will ensue. This is a deep squad with a lot of versatility that can surprise in an improved Eastern Conference. 

Projected Starting XI (3-4-2-1): GK – Nate Steinwascher; D – Devon Amoo-Mensah, Stephen Carroll, Matt Lewis; M – Brett Levis, James Murphy, Abdoulaye Diop, Rhys Williams; AM – Maxi Rodriguez, Ali Coote; F – Elvis Amoh Prediction: 10th, Eastern Conference 

Hartford Athletic
Hartford Athletic

Head Coach: Brendan Burke 
Venue: Trinity Health Stadium 
2023 Regular Season: 4-24-6, 18pts, 12th place in Eastern Conference 
2023 Postseason: N/A 

What’s Happened This Offseason? 

Where do we start? Having finished with the fewest points in the Championship a season ago, Hartford tore it all down and started over, hiring former Philadelphia Union executive Nick Sakiewicz as CEO and hiring former Championship Coach of the Year finalist Brendan Burke to lead a turnaround. After Burke’s experience leading the renaissance of Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC in 2021, there’s room for optimism that’s been fueled by the roster moves the side has made since his arrival. 

Leading the way is the return to the league of 2022 USL Championship Young Player of the Year Michee Ngalina, who recorded 22 goals and 17 assists in two seasons with Burke at the Switchbacks. Other familiar faces from Colorado Springs have also come aboard including winger Deshane Beckford and forward Romario Williams, but there’s more than that with Marcus Epps making the move from FC Tulsa after a stellar campaign in 2023 and the experience of Joe Farrell and Thomas Vancaeyezeele to help shore up the back line ahead of experienced Brazilian goalkeeper Renan Ribeiro. Expectations are going to be high for a first playoff berth since 2020.  

Key Returnee – Triston Hodge, defender: One of only four players retained from a season ago, Hodge offers versatility on the back line, primarily at left back but also in a three-man defense of the sort that Burke has previously used. The Trinidad and Tobago international had a passing accuracy rate of 85.6 percent a season ago while winning 75.7 percent of tackles and 57.6 percent of duels and could see regular action.  

Key Arrival – Michee Ngalina, forward: The Congolese winger was outstanding with Burke in Colorado Springs, becoming one of the hardest players to defend in one-on-one situations. After the departure of Hadji Barry late in the 2022 season, Ngalina was the centerpiece as the Switchbacks advanced to the Western Conference Final for the first time in their history and he’ll be expected to be a dynamic difference-maker this season in his new surroundings. 

Young Player to Watch – Pele Ousmanou, defender: The 19-year-old center back fits the prototype for players that Burke has had success developing – just see his work in turning Olivier Mbaizo from a prospect with the Philadelphia Union II in 2018 to Mbaizo becoming a fixture for the Union and being selected to the Cameroon squad for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Ousmanou might not start immediately, but his progression will be worth watching.  

Key Number – 710: Since the start of 2017, the trio of Marcus Epps (331), Michee Ngalina (223) and Deshane Beckford (156) have combined to complete 710 dribbles in the USL Championship’s regular season and playoffs. 

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: When a Brendan Burke team is ticking, they use a dynamic attacking unit to hit defenses before they know what’s coming, and true to form that appears the direction his new Hartford Athletic squad is going to take. That front line is supported by a steelier, deeper-seated defensive unit that serves as a stanchion against the possibility of a counterattack. Hartford has assembled a roster perfect for that system. Michee Ngalina, Deshane Beckford, and Marcus Epps are the perfect wingers for the concept, and Hartford is rife with veteran defenders who can do enough to let the good times roll up field. 

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Renan Ribeiro; D – Triston Hodge, Joe Farrell, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Rece Buckmaster; DM – Anderson Asiedu, Marlon Hairston; AM – Michee Ngalina, Marcus Epps, Deshane Beckford; F – Romario Williams Prediction: 7th, Eastern Conference 

Indy Eleven
Indy Eleven

Head Coach: Sean MacAuley 
Venue: Michael A. Carroll Stadium 
2023 Regular Season: 13-11-10, 49pts, 6th in Eastern Conference 
2023 Postseason: Eastern Conference Quarterfinals 

What’s Happened This Offseason? 

Following a return to the USL Championship Playoffs for the first time since 2019 last October, Indy Eleven had to deal with the surprise departure of Mark Lowry after two seasons as Head Coach early in the offseason. The Boys in Blue elected to bring aboard Sean MacAuley, most recently interim Head Coach at Minnesota United FC, whose experience across three clubs in Major League Soccer as well as in his native England should serve him well in his first permanent head coaching appointment. 

As in previous offseasons, Indy wasn’t shy about adding new talent either. Among the arrivals is former Charleston Battery forward Augustine Williams, who has notched 31 goals in the past two campaigns, while Aedan Stanley and Danny Barbir both arrive to help shore up the back line. With All-League selections Cam Lindley and Adrian Diz Pe returning alongside veterans Aodhan Quinn, Sebastian Guenzatti and Jack Blake, there’s plenty to work with here for the new boss. 

Key Returnee – Cam Lindley, midfielder: The Indiana native’s return for a second stint with the Boys in Blue produced a highly successful campaign. Lindley recorded eight assists and 60 chances created while posting a passing accuracy rate of 86 percent, setting the tempo in the middle of the park, and the 26-year-old figures to be a key figure again this campaign in helping Indy push into serious contendership. 

Key Arrival – Augustine Williams, forward: The Sierra Leone international moved into the Top 10 in the USL Championship’s all-time regular season scoring leaders while helping the Battery win the Eastern Conference last season. Williams has notched double-digit goals in three of the past four seasons and now he’ll look to form a partnership with Sebastian Guenzatti that can deliver a higher return than Indy’s 46 regular season goals a season ago.  

Young Player to Watch – Diego Sanchez, midfielder: The 18-year-old turned pro this offseason from Indy’s Academy after making his league debut last season, and then sparkled at the USL Academy League Playoffs in December. Time might be at a premium with Indy’s experienced squad, but Sanchez could make things happen given an opportunity or two. 

Key Number – 20,906: Aodhan Quinn has logged 20,906 minutes of play in the Championship’s regular season in his career, the most of any active player going into the 2024 season and only 331 minutes behind Hugh Roberts for the all-time league lead. 

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: New Head Coach Sean McAuley is starting with a blank slate in the Circle City, a roster full of USL stalwarts that couldn’t quite pay off their potential in a patient, hyper-possessive system in 2023. In all likelihood, McAuley won’t stray far from a baseline 4-4-2, but he’ll introduce a more varied attacking style utilizing Augustine Williams’ gifts as a target or the grace of Danny Barbir and Aedan Stanley moving the ball from the back. 

Indy has an older roster, one that might not bear an all-out press, but they’re deep enough in the central midfield to rotate heavily. Signings like Tyler Gibson bring veteran nous, Aodhan Quinn’s anticipated midseason return will add to the options in midfield, while Max Schneider’s box-to-box talents can shine in almost any context. Pragmatism and tactical shifts by matchup may just be the answer. 

Projected Starting XI (4-4-2): GK – Hunter Sulte; D – Aedan Stanley, Danny Barbir, Adrian Diz Pe, Macauley King; M – Jack Blake, Cam Lindley, Tyler Gibson, Douglas Martinez Jr.; F – Sebastian Guenzatti, Augustine Williams Prediction: 4th, Eastern Conference 

Loudoun United FC
Loudoun United FC

Head Coach: Ryan Martin 
Venue: Segra Field 
2023 Regular Season: 7-23-4, 25pts, 11th in Eastern Conference 
2023 Postseason: N/A  

What’s Happened This Offseason? 

Loudoun United’s first season as an independent club started brightly only to fade, but this offseason the leadership has had more time to mesh around a returning core featuring captain Zach Ryan, Kalil ElMedkhar and Cole Turner that has much more experience coming to the aid of Head Coach Ryan Martin’s squad.  

Leading the way is midfielder Drew Skundrich, whose versatility will be an asset for this squad after a good season with Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, while Christiano Francois and Florian Valot can both add value in the final third of the field. Whether that will be enough to maintain a sustained challenge for the playoffs this year in an ever-increasingly difficult Eastern Conference remains to be seen, however, as the departure of Nanan Houssou via transfer to New Mexico United looms large as an important spot to fill. 

Key Returnee – Zach Ryan, forward: The 25-year-old took the captain’s armband and produced 10 goals to lead the team while also notching three assists. Signed to a multi-year deal, Ryan is bought into Martin’s plan for the side and will be aiming for to up his shooting accuracy rate this season after coming in below 50 percent last year.  

Key Arrival – Drew Skundrich, midfielder: This is take two for Skundrich with Loudoun, where he signed three years ago before rapidly being promoted to D.C. United’s squad and making 39 appearances in Major League Soccer over two seasons. The 28-year-old is coming off a good campaign in Colorado Springs and his reliability in the center of midfield will make him a key part of United’s season. 

Young Player to Watch – Riley Bidois, forward: The 21-year-old New Zealander is likely to be part of the country’s squad at the Paris 2024 Olympics – he scored five goals to earn Player of the Match honors in a 9-0 drubbing of Fiji in the final of Oceania Qualifying – and coming from the second tier in Australia it will be interesting to see how the former Wellington Phoenix prospect fares here. 

Key Number – 61: Loudoun United scored 61 percent of its goals in the first half of games in 2023, but the side struggled to hold advantages and dropped 22 points from winning positions in the regular season, tied for second-most in the league. 

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Usually sporting a four-man back line in support of a fluid and flexible attack, Loudoun is older and wiser in the midfield this year and can really afford to spread the field out wide. Christiano Francois and Kalil ElMedkhar will have a long leash as the wingers in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 look, and the false No. 9-esque skill set of Zach Ryan at striker will do plenty to keep them involved. 

The question comes down the middle, where new faces like Drew Skundrich at the No. 6 spot and holdovers like Cole Turner in defense are solid but unspectacular. Signings and internal improvements will help a defense that conceded 61 times in 2023, but it may not be enough for Loudoun to go all-out in attack and get into shootouts. 

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Hugo Fauroux; D – Kwame Awuah, Jacob Erlandson, Keegan Hughes, Keegan Tingey; DM – Tommy McCabe, Drew Skundrich; AM – Kalil ElMedkhar, Florian Valot, Christiano Francois; F – Zach Ryan Prediction: 11th, Eastern Conference 

Louisville City FC
Louisville City FC

Head Coach: Danny Cruz 
Venue: Lynn Family Stadium 
2023 Regular Season: 14-12-8, 50pts, 5th in Eastern Conference 
2023 Postseason: Eastern Conference Final 

What’s Happened This Offseason? 

Louisville City FC recorded its fewest points in a full season since its inaugural campaign in 2015 a season ago to finish fifth in the Eastern Conference, but still kept its remarkable streak of reaching the Eastern Conference Final alive, advancing for a ninth consecutive postseason before falling to the Charleston Battery. It was a down season in many ways for LouCity, which failed to see a player record double-digit goals in the league for the first time in its history. 

This offseason, though, the club appears to have completed the regeneration of the squad that began a couple of years ago. In come reigning Championship Defender of the Year Arturo Ordóñez and All-League First Team midfielder Taylor Davila as well as other potential difference-makers in Adrien Perez and Sam Gleadle. The offseason saw the sale of Oliver Semmle to the Philadelphia Union and Manny Perez to Denmark’s AC Horsens, while Cam Lancaster departed for Lexington SC and Paolo DelPiccolo retired while remaining with the club as an Academy coach. The expectations for the squad will be to compete for the top spot again and become the first side to win a third Championship title. 

Key Returnee – Wilson Harris, forward: The 24-year-old signed a new contract with LouCity this offseason after bagging 26 goals in the club’s colors over his first two campaigns. Harris is on course to become the youngest player to reach 50 regular season goals in the Championship’s history and will be aiming for a return to form after only finding the net nine times last year. If he does, it could provide the launching pad for what remains a promising career. 

Key Arrival – Arturo Ordóñez, defender: The Spanish center back was outstanding for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC a season ago as the Hounds claimed the Players’ Shield but makes the move to Louisville looking to find another level in his all-around game in LouCity’s more possession-driven style. Ordóñez’s ability on the ball could be as important as his defensive awareness and positioning this season, and he can also prove a threat at set pieces as well. 

Young Player to Watch – Carlos Moguel Jr., midfielder: The 20-year-old central midfielder took a major step forward in his minutes and production in the past season, notching four assists and 24 chances created in 1,310 minutes of action. Those numbers should increase this season, and there’s the potential that Moguel could become the second young talent that graduated from LouCity’s Academy to make the jump to a higher level sooner rather than later.  

Key Number – 13: Louisville City FC scored 13 goals from corner kicks in the 2023 season across the regular season and playoffs, the most of any team in the league, which accounted for 28 percent of its total goal count. 

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: By adding 2023 USL Championship Defender of the Year Arturo Ordóñez, LouCity have set themselves up splendidly to adopt a back three for the season to come. Ordóñez is incredible in his own box, but he has a sixth sense for stepping into the midfield to cover defense gaps or advancing the ball in possession that will pay off across the board. The shape is likely to be a 3-4-3, and the wing backs – especially Sam Gleadle on the right – will be especially empowered with a lighter defensive load thanks to that cover. 

The mix in the pivot is an open question. Dylan Mares and Taylor Davila would be the top combination on talent alone, but the energy of Elijah Wynder or No. 6’s instinct of Carlos Moguel may be necessary to make things tick. Head Coach Danny Cruz has plenty of stellar options no matter what he wants to get out of the central midfield. 

Projected Starting XI (5-2-2-1): GK – Damian Las; D – Amadou Dia, Kyle Adams, Sean Totsch, Arturo Ordóñez, Sam Gleadle; DM – Taylor Davila, Carlos Moguel Jr.; AM – Brian Ownby, Adrien Perez; F – Wilson Harris Prediction: 2nd, Eastern Conference 

Miami FC
Miami FC

Head Coach: Antonio Nocerino 
Venue: FIU Football Stadium 
2023 Regular Season: 11-15-8, 41pts, 9th in Eastern Conference 
2023 Postseason: N/A 

What’s Happened This Offseason? 

Miami FC missed out on a third consecutive trip to the USL Championship Playoffs on the final day of the regular season as defeat allowed Detroit City FC to snag the final postseason spot, which in turn led set the stage for Miami to take a detonator to what had been an underperforming roster this offseason as it installed former Italian international Antonio Nocerino as its new Head Coach. 

Nocerino isn’t unfamiliar with these shores – he played late in his career for Orlando City SC, and since his retirement worked at the Academy for the Lions – and there’s a notably Italian flavor to the roster that’s been built around some experienced USL Championship veterans. Players like Frank Lopez and Allen Gavilanes – who steps up from League One’s Greenville Triumph – have been joined by a plethora of younger players including the Italian trio of midfielder Manuel Botta and forwards Mattia Gagliardi and Rocco Genzano, all of whom are 21 and under. Given all the unknowns, it could be an interesting season to follow in South Florida. 

Key Returnee – Ben Ofeimu, defender: The 23-year-old is one of only three players that saw regular minutes to remain with Miami this season and he’ll be looking to take a step forward this season after a pair of campaigns in which he logged around 1,300 minutes. A former Philadelphia Union prospect, Ofeimu won only 53.3 percent of duels and 58.7 percent of aerial duels a season ago, below where you’d expect a center backs numbers need to be, which makes a step up in his performance key for Miami’s potential success. 

Key Arrival – Allen Gavilanes, midfielder: The 24-year-old playmaker was a key contributor for Greenville Triumph SC over the past two seasons and logged a career-best nine assists as well as a pair of goals last season as the side reached the postseason for a fifth consecutive campaign. Stepping up to the USL Championship will likely take adjustment for Gavilanes, but if he can emulate the growth new teammate Gabriel Cabral made in making the same step forward last season it could turn into a productive campaign. 

Young Player to Watch – Isaac Zuleta, forward: The 20-year-old didn’t get much of an opportunity after arriving at New Mexico United midway through last season, failing to make an appearance in the USL Championship, but he does have the pedigree of being a Colombian U-20 international during its last cycle. There should be more opportunity for Zuleta to show what he’s capable of in this squad.  

Key Number – 11.1: Miami’s three current returning players – Ben Ofeimu, Gabrial Cabral and Ben Mines – combined for 3,752 minutes in the league a season ago, or 11.1 percent of available total minutes to the squad. 

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: No team in the USL Championship is as blank a slate as Miami, which totally overhauled its roster and leaned into youth this winter. The makeup of their back line ought to set the tactical tone. Players like Nicolas Cardona and Alejandro Mitrano are confident ball handlers and passers who can comfortably play at center back or full back, and they hint at a team that tries to attack with control. 

Given the youth and the speed up top, Miami could also be a counterattacking threat. Start with deep-seated 4-5-1 in block, push spark plugs like David Mejia forward on the break, and rely on veteran forward Frank Lopez’s hold-up play to link it all together. 

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK - Khadim Ndiaye; D – Jordan Ayimbala, Alejandro Mitrano, Ben Ofeimu, Nicolas Cardona; M – Gabriel Cabral, Andrew Booth, Sam Biek; F – Allen Gavilanes, Frank Lopez, David Mejia Prediction: 12th, Eastern Conference 

North Carolina FC
North Carolina FC

Head Coach: John Bradford 
Venue: WakeMed Soccer Park 
2023 Regular Season: 19-7-6, 63pts, 2nd in USL League One 
2023 Postseason: League One Title Winners 

What’s Happened this Offseason? 

Having announced it would return to the USL Championship in August, North Carolina FC departed USL League One in spectacular fashion, earning its first league title in club history with a penalty shootout victory against the Charlotte Independence in November. The core of that group – including All-League selections Mikey Maldonado, Rafa Menzingen and Oalex Anderson – remain part of the squad moving into the new campaign, but NCFC Sporting Director and Head Coach John Bradford has supplemented that group with some key Championship veterans that could make the club immediately competitive at this level. 

Leading the way are two potential pillars at the front and back with forward Rodrigo Da Costa coming aboard from Memphis 901 FC and five-time All-League selection Paco Craig added at center back. There are other noteworthy arrivals including midfielder Collin Martin and forward Evan Conway, both arriving from San Diego Loyal SC. The side did move talented young goalkeeper Nicholas Holliday in a transfer deal to Charlotte FC of Major League Soccer, but with veteran Jake McGuire back on board after his time with Miami FC and U.S. youth international Antonio Carrera joining on loan from FC Dallas, the competition to fill the spot between the sticks should be one to watch. 

Key Returnee – Oalex Anderson, forward: The St. Vincent and the Grenadines forward became NCFC’s leading goalscorer during its three-season stint in League One last season, notching 24 goals and 10 assists in 59 appearances for the side at a strike rate of a goal every 163.4 minutes. Anderson isn’t a stranger to the Championship having previously competed for Tacoma Defiance in the league and his speed should allow NCFC to stretch opposing defenses consistently. 

Key Arrival – Paco Craig, defender: The veteran center back individually delivered another stellar season last year with Miami FC, even while the side narrowly missed out on a postseason berth. If he maintains his standard – and at this point there’s no reason to expect otherwise – Craig’s experience and quality at the center of defense will help NCFC create a strong backbone for the team as it enters a highly competitive Eastern Conference. 

Young Player to Watch – Julian Placias, forward: The 17-year-old turned pro with North Carolina FC out of the LA Galaxy’s Academy late last year having scored once in seven appearances for the LA Galaxy II in MLS NEXT Pro last season and after being the leading goalscorer in the U-17 Division of MLS NEXT Cup last June. He might not get a lot of minutes this season given the depth chart ahead of him, but Placias is among the players looking to follow the path forged by Jonathan Gomez, Diego Luna and Fidel Barajas, to name but three.  

Key Number – 248: North Carolina’s nine new arrivals from USL Championship clubs last season logged 248 appearances and 19,137 minutes of action in the league across the 2023 regular season and playoffs.  

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: On the way to the League One title last year, North Carolina championed a 4-4-2 with plenty of matchup-centric wrinkles. The constants? A fearless central midfield that stopped opponents at the halfway line, and lovely two-man play up top. Out of possession, Oalex Anderson and Garret McLaughlin could man mark opposing center backs, or they could vary their positions to focus on denying the midfield. In possession, Anderson’s classical No. 9 style opened space for McLaughlin to find touches. 

With a supercharger roster, North Carolina has even more options. Evan Conway can play anywhere from wing back to striker, and Rodrigo Da Costa is incisive across the front line. Head Coach John Bradford would occasionally break out a phase-based system where North Carolina would possess in a back three, and I’d expect more variation this season.   

Projected Starting XI (4-4-2): GK – Antonio Carrera; D – Nelson Flores Blanco, Paco Craig, Daniel Navarro, Justin Malou; M – Evan Conway, Mikey Maldonado, Collin Martin, Rafael Menzingen; F – Oalex Anderson, Rodrigo Da Costa Prediction: 8th, Eastern Conference 

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Head Coach: Bob Lilley 
Venue: Highmark Stadium 
2023 Regular Season: 19-5-10, 67pts, Players’ Shield winner 
2023 Postseason: Eastern Conference Quarterfinals 

What’s Happened This Offseason? 

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC claimed its first piece of silverware in the USL Championship era, winning the Players’ Shield with the best record in the regular season. Then the Hounds suffered one of the biggest upsets in the Championship’s playoff history against Detroit City FC in what turned out to be a handful of key players’ last game in the club’s colors. As continues to be the case, Pittsburgh saw three of its notable starters depart, led by Championship Player of the Year and Golden Boot winner Albert Dikwa – now at Rhode Island FC – as well as Championship Defender of the Year Arturo Ordóñez and goalkeeper Jahmali Waite. 

That being said, there is still a strong core of players returning led by the midfield contingent that features Robbie Mertz, Danny Griffin and the Championship’s all-time assists leader Kenardo Forbes. To supplement the side’s attack, former South Georgia Tormenta FC forward Kazaiah Sterling has come in after winning the USL League One title two seasons ago and logging 30 goals in 48 appearances over the past two seasons. It’s always a fool’s errand to write off a club coached by Bob Lilley. This side might not be as strong as last season, but the postseason should once again be in the side’s sights by the end of the campaign. 

Key Returnee – Danny Griffin, midfielder: Griffin wasn’t at Highmark Stadium at the start of the 2023 campaign after signing with Huntsville City FC, but it didn’t take long for the Hounds to enter the market to bring the dynamic central midfielder and he made a significant impact once again on the side’s fortunes. Making 27 appearances – and missing only 32 minutes in that span – Griffin made 41 interceptions, 196 recoveries and won possession 19 times in the final third, linking play consistently. The 25-year-old will be back in the spotlight again this season. 

Key Arrival – Kazaiah Sterling, forward: Filling the shoes of the Golden Boot winner is never an easy task, but Sterling’s success at South Georgia Tormenta FC in the past two seasons showed what he’s capable of as he steps up a level from USL League One this season. Sterling’s 30 goals for Tormenta across the regular season and playoffs came at a strike rate of a goal every 119.4 minutes. He produced a shooting accuracy rate of 66.7 percent and didn’t overperform his Expected Goals mark by a massive amount (22.38xG). If he gets the service he could, it could be a very productive arrival. 

Young Player to Watch – Sean Suber, defender: A Second Round selection in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft by Nashville SC, Suber spent the past campaign in MLS NEXT Pro with Huntsville City FC and made 26 appearances for the side. A graduate of the Charlotte Independence’s Academy system, the 22-year-old center back should be part of the rotation for the Hounds in the upcoming campaign.  

Key Number – 10: Kenardo Forbes tied for the league-lead with 10 assists in the regular season a year ago, making him the first player to record consecutive regular seasons with double-digit assists in the Championship era. 

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley’s 5-3-2 (or 3-5-2 in an attacking context) is the stoutest system in the USL Championship, built on grit and aggression to prevent opponents from ever finding a flow. Pittsburgh takes long goal kicks and isn’t afraid of their center backs blasting the ball up field; they’re less concerned about cleanly maintaining possession and more focused on keeping the action firmly in the opposing half. To that end, the Hounds clamp down on loose balls in swarms of three or more, usually involving one of their central midfielders and the nearest wing back. 

When they’re in the final third, Pittsburgh’s two strikers stake out positions near the goalposts to pin the defense deep. On the edge of the box, midfielders like Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz serve as hubs to keep the ball moving, and they can either seek out those forwards, hit advancing wing backs, or go at it on their own. Really, the Riverhounds are best on the counter, when they can release a runner out of their deep-block 5-4-1 and catch an opponent before they’re set. 

Projected Starting XI (5-3-2): GK – Eric Dick; D – Junior Etou, Pierre Cayet, Sean Suber, Patrick Hogan, Dani Rovira; M – Kenardo Forbes, Danny Griffin, Robbie Mertz; F – Edward Kizza, Kazaiah Sterling Prediction: 6th, Eastern Conference 

Rhode Island FC
Rhode Island FC

Head Coach: Khano Smith 
Venue: Beirne Stadium 
2023 Regular Season: N/A 
2023 Postseason: N/A 

What Happened this Offseason? 

The birth of a new squad, that’s what. After months of planning and preparation, Rhode Island FC began to build its first roster under Head Coach and General Manager Khano Smith and took some big swings in the process. RIFC brought on Spanish goalkeeper Koke Vegas from San Diego Loyal SC as its first signing and then made two big attacking splashes by acquiring forward JJ Williams via transfer from the Tampa Bay Rowdies and signing 2023 Championship Player of the Year and Golden Boot winner Albert Dikwa as a free agent. 

There are other elements to like in what RIFC is building, including nabbing midfielder Conor McGlynn and winger Prince Saydee from new rival Hartford Athletic. It’s always a challenge for expansion sides to come together – and there might be a little bit of a question in terms of the squad’s depth as it prepares to kick off – but Rhode Island is here and ready to make some noise ahead of the opening of its riverfront stadium in Pawtucket for the 2025 campaign.  

Key Defender – Koke Vegas, goalkeeper: The Spanish shot-stopper became a cult hero at San Diego Loyal SC over the past two seasons, proving capable of pulling off spectacular saves when needed as the side reached consecutive postseasons. Where Vegas’ additional value for his new club may come, however, is with the ball at his feet – in 2023, no goalkeeper attempted or completed more passes than he did, a nod toward the likely playing style RIFC is aiming to employ. 

Key Forward – JJ Williams, forward: You might expect this position to be filled by last year’s Golden Boot winner, Albert Dikwa, but Williams produced an outstanding season for the Tampa Bay Rowdies that saw him record 12 goals and nine assists which prompted Rhode Island to swoop in this offseason. The 26-year-old is reunited with Head Coach Khano Smith after having previously worked together at Birmingham Legion FC. 

Young Player to Watch – Karifa Yao, defender: The 23-year-old came through the Club de Foot Montreal Academy before joining Vancouver Whitecaps FC, but it’s his work on loan with Cavalry FC of the Canadian Premier League that has made Yao stand out so far. The 6-foot-2 center back will be aiming to be a regular in the lineup as he looks to make a big jump forward in his individual pathway. 

Key Number – 20: Albert Dikwa recorded 20 goals to win the USL Championship’s Golden Boot last season but also became the first player to reach 20 goals in a league campaign without recording an assist.  

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Rhode Island has remarkable depth for an expansion team, and that leaves it with ample tactical options. Marquee signings like Koke Vegas and Grant Stoneman, both veterans of a high-possession San Diego team, can spearhead one of the ball-dominant attacks in the league if Head Coach Khano Smith so chooses; they hint at the use of a back three. Further ahead, however, Albert Dikwa and JJ Williams are the sorts of bruisers that could sit atop an old-school 4-4-2 and knock down long balls into advancing teammates. 

No matter the shape, Rhode Island projects to have a fearsome press in the midfield. Smith is no stranger to that mentality from his years as an assistant in Birmingham, and personnel like Marc Ybarra and Conor McGlynn are as cerebral and assured as you can get in the middle of the park. Physical full back options like Gabriel Alves and Stephen Turnbull could help the cause as well, narrowing out to really compress the central areas. 

Projected Starting XI (4-4-2): GK – Koke Vegas; D – Gabriel Alves, Grant Stoneman, Frank Nodarse, Stephen Turnbull; M – Joe Brito, Marc Ybarra, Conor McGlynn, Prince Saydee; F – JJ Williams, Albert Dikwa Prediction: 9th, Eastern Conference 

Tampa Bay Rowdies
Tampa Bay Rowdies

Head Coach: Robbie Neilson 
Venue: Al Lang Stadium 
2023 Regular Season: 19-9-6, 63pts, 2nd in Eastern Conference 
2023 Playoffs: Eastern Conference Quarterfinals 

What’s Happened This Offseason? 

After contending once again for top spot in the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Rowdies crashed out at the first hurdle in the postseason for the first time since 2019, losing to the one club they’ve had difficulty solving recently in Birmingham Legion FC. This offseason, however, was one looking to consolidate its place as a serious Championship title contender, including the appointment of a new manager after Nicky Law’s short stint in charge following the departure of former Head Coach Neill Collins. 

Fellow Scotsman Robbie Neilson comes in with a resume that is impressive. On three occasions he’s secured promotion to the Scottish Premiership with two different clubs in Heart of Midlothian and Dundee United F.C., winning the Scottish Championship each time. He’ll work with a squad that has retained much of its talent – including All-League selections Cal Jennings and Charlie Dennis – and added forward Manuel Arteaga and goalkeeper Jordan Farr via transfers from Phoenix Rising FC and San Antonio FC respectively. Arguably as importantly, 2022 Championship Player of the Year Leo Fernandes is set to make his comeback after a ruptured Achilles’ tendon limited his action a season ago. 

Key Returnee – Leo Fernandes, forward: The 2022 USL Championship Player of the Year was absent for much of the 2023 campaign after a ruptured Achilles’ tendon suffered in preseason, but the Rowdies were still able to be among the most dangerous attacking sides in the league anyway. That bodes well for Fernandes’ return, with the 32-year-old still possessing the quick feet and imagination that can push Tampa Bay forward. 

Key Arrival – Jordan Farr, goalkeeper: As Jordan Farr appeared to fall out of favor at San Antonio FC late last season, it opened up the potential for a move and the Rowdies pounced to acquire the services of the 2022 Championship Goalkeeper of the Year. With Connor Sparrow moving on after one season with the club, Farr will be expected to produce a big campaign and help the Rowdies win their first league title in more than a decade. 

Young Player to Watch – Damian Rivera, forward: The 21-year-old has joined the Rowdies on a season-long loan from the New England Revolution and on early showings in preseason looks to be fitting in nicely. Expect to see Rivera regularly as part of Tampa Bay’s attacking rotation as he looks to make the most of his opportunity to take the next step in his career. 

Key Number – 90: Rowdies forward Cal Jennings became the fastest player to reach 50 regular season goals in the league’s history, bagging his half-century in his 90th regular season appearance in the league with a two-goal performance against Louisville City FC.  

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: New Tampa Bay Head Coach Robbie Neilson is a back-three man, but his version of the 3-4-3 is different from the variant preferred by predecessors Neill Collins or Nicky Law. The Rowdies of yore were more focused on structure than pressure, but Neilson expects his main No. 9 to harry opposing defenders while the wingers sit a step back and jump at opportunities for interceptions. In build, Neilson is wont to keep the ball on the ground, driving through the wide defenders instead of defaulting to longer passes. 

The Rowdies have a very skillful back line, with stalwarts like Aaron Guillen and Jordan Doherty very willing to get creative in possession. Their ability to drive into the channels will be potent, drawing defenses out and opening gaps for more advanced midfield creators like Lewis Hilton and Charlie Dennis. Tampa Bay has made roster moves and hired a manager that suits these exact sorts of sequences, and they’ll likely combine to keep the Rowdies near the top of the table yet again. 

Projected Starting XI (3-4-3): GK – Jordan Farr; D – Aaron Guillen, Forrest Lasso, Jordan Doherty; M – Blake Bodily, Lewis Hilton, Charlie Dennis, Nick Moon; F – Manuel Arteaga, Cal Jennings, Leo Fernandes Prediction: 1st, Eastern Conference 

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