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2024 USL Championship Western 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 Western Conference. You can find the capsules for the Eastern Conference’s clubs here.

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

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

Head Coach: James Chambers
Venue: Weidner Field
2023 Regular Season: 16-13-6, 53pts, 5th in Western Conference 2023 Postseason: Western Conference Quarterfinals

What’s Happened This Offseason?

Following a third consecutive trip to the postseason, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC reshuffled their technical staff as James Chambers moved up as the club’s new Head Coach as Stephen Hogan was promoted to Sporting Director. As they did a year ago, the Switchbacks also did some early business in the free agent market – bringing in center back Wahab Ackwei from Rio Grande Valley FC and Loudoun United FC duo Aidan Rocha and Koa Santos – but they saved their biggest splash for early in the new year with the arrival on loan of Ronaldo Damus from Swedish club GIF Sundsvall.

The Haitian will be expected to replace Romario Williams – who united with former Colorado Springs Head Coach Brendan Burke along with others at Hartford Athletic – as the Switchbacks’ center forward having recorded 33 goals in two seasons in the league across the regular season and playoffs. He joins an attack that will also return Juan Tejada, Maalique Foster and Jonas Fjeldberg. It might not be quite as star-studded as the last couple of seasons, but the Switchbacks still appear to be a solid squad as Chambers takes the helm.

Key Returnee – Speedy Williams, midfielder: The Jamaican international had a fine first season for the Switchbacks in the center of midfield, notching four assists while serving as a fulcrum in possession with 1,626 passes completed at an 84.2 percent success rate. It was the bounce-back campaign the veteran was looking for, and he’ll serve just as important a role this season as Colorado Springs looks to keep pace with the best in the West.

Key Arrival – Ronaldo Damus, forward: The Haitian forward bounced in and out of the lineup at times with San Diego Loyal SC a season ago, but across the regular season and playoffs produced another 15-goal campaign even with those challenges. Damus has scored 33 goals in two seasons in the Championship at a strike rate of a goal every 143.3 minutes – among players with at least 30 goals in the league, that strike rate ranks sixth all-time – and with the service he could receive another strong season should be ahead.

Young Player to Watch – Marco Rios, forward: The 18-year-old burst onto the scene last season with a pair of key goals as a USL Academy signing – including a late equalizer in the side’s regular season clash at home with San Antonio FC – and joined the professional ranks with the Switchbacks this offseason. Rios has shown a knack for being in the right place at the right time and will be worth keeping an eye on this year.

Key Number – 1.2: Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC conceded 42 goals in the regular season for their best goals-against average (1.2) since 2018. It marked an 11-goal decrease from the 2022 campaign for the side.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Between Brendan Burke, Stephen Hogan, and James Chambers, the Bethlehem Steel FC-to-Colorado Springs pipeline continues to define the Switchbacks’ style. Reliant on speedy wingers and a hard-nosed midfield to generate chances but otherwise patient and possessive, it’s a system built to forge high-leverage moments. By getting Koa Santos at right back, Quenzi Huerman on the wing, and Ronaldo Damus at striker, the Switchbacks have improved their ability to create and pay off those sorts of opportunities.

The trick for Chambers in his first year as the head coach is to avoid overplaying his hand. There will be a temptation to let Speedy Williams and Zach Zandi rip in the midfield or to encourage players like Wahab Ackwei carry the ball with impunity from the center back spot. There will be moments for the Switchbacks to press their collective luck, but there’s enough talent across the board in the likely 4-2-3-1 that patient opportunism will continue to be a virtue.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Christian Herrera; D – Duke Lacroix, Wahab Ackwei, Matt Maloney, Koa Santos; DM – Speedy Williams, Aidan Rocha; AM – Maalique Foster, Jairo Henriquez, Juan Tejada; F – Ronaldo Damus Prediction: 7th, Western Conference

El Paso Locomotive FC
El Paso Locomotive FC

Head Coach: Brian Clarhaut
Venue: Southwest University Park
2023 Regular Season: 13-13-8, 47pts, 7th in Western Conference
2023 Postseason: Western Conference Quarterfinals

What’s Happened This Offseason?

Year 1 for Head Coach Brian Clarhaut was an up-and-down affair which ended up with Locomotive FC at different points on top of the Western Conference and fighting for its playoff life. It earned a postseason berth in the end before being bounced by Orange County SC in the opening round, but then went about reorganizing its roster with the aim of solidifying some key areas of the field.

For a start, the side went and added some serious experience in holding midfielder Bolu Akinyode, whose ability to win possession doesn’t get big plaudits but could prove big for El Paso. There were more splashy moves as well, including grabbing Amando Moreno from its biggest rival in New Mexico United as well as leveraging its relationship with FC Juarez to bring in a trio of loanees. Add in Jamaican national team goalkeeper Jahmali Waite and veteran Tony Alfaro at center back and this could look a very different – and more consistent – proposition this season.

Key Returnee – Eric Calvillo, midfielder: The El Salvador international continued to be one of the consistent parts of Locomotive’s lineup in 2023 and his qualities in possession saw him rack up impressive numbers, including a team-high 37 chances created as well as four assists. Where Calvillo continued to struggle was on the ball-winning side, sitting below 50 percent in duels and winning only 20 tackles and 19 interceptions in 33 games. Step that up and it could have a major impact.

Key Arrival – Amando Moreno, forward: The first player to go directly from one side of the Derby del Camino Real in the rivalry’s history, Moreno is coming off a campaign in which he notched 10 goals and five assists and earned his way back into the El Salvador squad. As a second striker, the 28-year-old will look to foster a good relationship with fellow newcomer Justin Dhillon to try and provide the goals this side needs.

Young Player to Watch – Brandan Craig, defender: The United States U-20 international arrives on loan from the Philadelphia Union with the aim of finding consistent First Team minutes and helping El Paso shore up a defense that was up-and-down a season ago. The 19-year-old has all the tools to succeed, and a powerful free kick that could bring back the memory of Mechack Jerome to the Southwest University Park faithful.

Key Number – 28: El Paso Locomotive FC recorded nine goals from outside the penalty area in the 2023 season, tied for the most in the league. Those tallies accounted for 28 percent of Locomotive’s goals overall, the highest percentage in the league.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Brian Clarhaut soccer is all about control, whether through possessive attacking or a defense that funnels the opposition into traps. Whether in a back three or back four, El Paso now have a roster built to do just that. This team will be opportunistic on the counter, routing through gifted ball carriers like Amando Moreno and Tumi Moshobane, but Bolu Akinyode is the less sexy linchpin. He knows how to set the tempo on build and put in timely tackles to pay off that trapping press.

Akinyode could be a natural partner for Eric Calvillo in the pivot of a 4-2-3-1, which seems a natural shape for Clarhaut to adopt. If it’s a return to the 3-5-2 the Locomotive landed upon at the end of last season, Akinyode could be the No. 6 or start as the centermost defender in the back line. Either way, this team ought to own the center of the pitch.

Projected Starting XI (5-2-3): GK – Jahmali Waite; D – Lucas Stuaffer, Noah Dollenbayer, Brandan Craig, Elijah Martin, Miles Lyons; M – Bolu Akinyode, Eric Calvillo; F – Amando Moreno, Justin Dhilon, Joaquin Rivas Prediction: 5th, Western Conference

Las Vegas Lights FC
Las Vegas Lights FC

Head Coach: Dennis Sanchez
Venue: Cashman Field
2023 Regular Season: 3-21-10, 19pts, 12th in Western Conference
2023 Postseason – N/A

What’s Happened This Offseason?

How about, everything? After finishing with the fewest wins in the league – although not the fewest points – Las Vegas Lights FC was acquired in January by six-time Major League Baseball All-Star José Bautista, who became its principal owner. In short order, he appointed former Venezia F.C. Assistant Sporting Director Gianleonardo Neglia as the club’s Sporting Director and Dennis Sanchez as its new Head Coach to usher in a new era for the club.

That means another year of wholesale changes in the roster, but this time there appears to be a plan in place. The side brought aboard veteran midfielder Charlie Adams as its first new arrival and then acquired Dominican Republic playmaker Edison Azcona – a move that is initially on loan, but likely to become permanent in July. Azcona is among the young players the side has targeted, also signing NCAA College Cup winner Shawn Smart of Clemson, but the side might sink or swim in Year 1 due to its veterans. Among those are two-time Championship Player of the Year Solomon Asante and former title winning center backs Fabien Garcia and Emrah Klimenta, whose experience and qualities will need to shine to push Las Vegas forward.

Key Returnee – Solomon Asante, forward: There’s no-one here from a season ago, but in Solomon Asante we at least have someone who knows Cashman Field well – after all, he recorded five goals and four assists in 10 career games against the Lights previously in his career. After notching two goals and six assists last season for Indy Eleven, the 33-year-old is looking for a comeback in the city that’s had some of the best in the entertainment business.

Key Arrival – Edison Azcona, midfielder: Everyone’s new here, but Edison Azcona’s arrival from Inter Miami CF this offseason was a statement on how Las Vegas wants to operate moving forward – and it’s much more in line with the Orange County SCs of this world than its former self. Azcona has been a rising star for the Dominican Republic Men’s National Team and is set to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics this summer, and now he becomes one the faces of Lights’ new era.

Young Player to Watch – Shawn Smart, defender: The 20-year-old won the NCAA College Cup as a sophomore last December with Clemson University and then elected to join the professional ranks with Lights and forgo his remaining eligibility. Slotting in at right back, Smart could have a big impact this season and is a player with upward mobility in his future.

Key Number – 14: Las Vegas Lights FC conceded 14 headed goals in the 2023 season, the most of any team in the league, and a number they’ll be aiming to reduce this campaign.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: During his year as an assistant with Austin FC II, new Las Vegas manager Dennis Sanchez’s club ran an offense out of a 4-3-3 shape that relied on inverted wingers to carry the burden in the final third. With Christian Pinzon, Solomon Asante, and Joe Gyau - who may be a full back more than an attacker at this stage - in tow, Sanchez will have the weapons to recreate that look. A 4-4-2 in which the wingers fly up into an attacking foursome may also be on the cards.

Sanchez will need to form an identity at the back. Fabien Garcia and Emrah Klimenta both come from systems in which they held a high line and weren’t afraid to burst into the center circle for a tackle. There’s a possibility Las Vegas bleeds goals over the top early on in the year given their aggressive roster composition all over the pitch, but the sheer quality means it’s a risk worth taking.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Nicholas Ammeter; D – Joe Hafferty, Emrah Klimenta, Fabien Garcia, Shawn Smart; DM – Charlie Adams, Joe Gyau; AM – Solomon Asante, Edison Azcona, Christian Pinzon; F – Riki Alba Prediction: 11th, Western Conference

Memphis 901 FC
Memphis 901 FC

Head Coach: Stephen Glass
Venue: AutoZone Park
2023 Regular Season: 14-10-10, 52pts, 4th in Eastern Conference
2023 Postseason: Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After spending its first five seasons in the USL Championship Eastern Conference, Memphis 901 FC headed to the Western Conference for the 2024 season as the league rebalanced with the arrival of North Carolina FC and Rhode Island FC. It will do so without some of its key players from the past two seasons, however, with both All-League midfielder Aaron Molloy and Graham Smith joining the Charleston Battery, Rodrigo Da Costa jumping to North Carolina, and Jeremy Kelly heading to England.

That left Head Coach Stephen Glass with some rebuilding to do, but the pieces the club has brought in have the sort of pedigree that can keep 901 FC competitive. Neco Brett arrives to lead the forward line ranked second in regular season goals in league history, while 23-year-old Australian midfielder Zach Duncan promises to provide some bite in the center of the park. The side also added AB Cissoko from Tacoma Defiance after he earned MLS NEXT Pro Best XI honors while making only 16 appearances, while returnees like youngster Nighte Pickering will also be expected to take another step forward.

Key Returnee – Emerson Hyndman, midfielder: The former United States international fit into Memphis’ lineup nicely after his midseason arrival but with the departure of Molloy and Kelly there will be more expected – and needed – of the 27-year-old after notching two goals and five chances created in 704 minutes of action last season.

Key Arrival – Neco Brett, forward: The Jamaican forward was solid throughout the 2023 campaign in Birmingham with 12 goals and three assists, moving him past Cameron Lancaster and trailing only fellow countryman Dane Kelly in the Championship’s regular season scoring list. The biggest key for the 31-year-old this season will be staying healthy and available after logging just over 1,700 minutes last season. If he manages that, Brett’s scoring touch is still in great shape.

Young Player to Watch – Nighte Pickering, forward: The 19-year-old had four goals and four assists last season before fading a little down the final stretch of the campaign. With a chance to compete for the United States U-20 National Team in the 2025 World Cup cycle, another big step forward should be expected this year. If he does, Pickering should be in the frame for the Young Player of the Year award at the end of the season.

Key Number – 61: Memphis conceded 33 goals in the opening half of games a season ago, second to Hartford Athletic. That accounted for 61 percent of the goals they conceded in the campaign, the highest proportion in the league.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Patient and structured while in possession, Memphis has a team that wants to drive down the middle of the field and work through their central midfield before linking up with self-starting attackers like Luiz Fernando and Nighte Pickering. 901 has pace and skill to admire in the wide areas, and they won’t hesitate to drop their striker low as a dummy runner and try a long ball over the top to find speedsters if the possession game isn’t effective.

Off the ball, Head Coach Stephen Glass’ side tends to prefer a middle-low line. This isn’t a team that will sell out in the press; Memphis is more likely to turn their 4-2-3-1 into a 4-4-2 by dropping their wingers into a flat midfield and using their No. 10 to mark an opposing creator.

Projected Starting XI (4-2-3-1): GK – Tyler Deric; D – Akeem Ward, Lucas Turci, AB Cissoko, Oscar Jimenez; DM – Zach Duncan, Emerson Hyndman; AM – Marlon, Bruno Lapa, Nighte Pickering; F – Neco Brett Prediction: 8th, Western Conference

Monterey Bay F.C.
Monterey Bay F.C.

Head Coach: Frank Yallop
Venue: Cardinale Stadium
2023 Regular Season: 11-15-8, 41pts, 11th in Western Conference
2023 Postseason: N/A

What’s Happened This Offseason?

Monterey Bay F.C.’s second season was a roller-coaster ride with the highs of defeating the San Jose Earthquakes in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and two four-game winning streaks in league play tempered by downturns in form that ended up costing the side a shot at the postseason. The changes that came this offseason saw some key players from the past two seasons depart, including forward Christian Volesky and center back Hugh Roberts, while Sam Gleadle was transferred to Louisville City FC as well.

By way of replacement, after going and picking up midfielder Rafael Baca from Cruz Azul to positive effect last August, Head Coach Frank Yallop added another LigaMX veteran in Carlos Guzman – most recently at San Diego Loyal SC – to try and bolster the back line. The club also brought in Luther Archimede from rival Sacramento Republic FC and Tristan Trager in from the Charleston Battery to join a prospective front line that could also include Alex Dixon and Chase Boone. Monterey Bay will be hoping that is enough to find more consistency this campaign.

Key Returnee – Rafael Baca, midfielder: The veteran arrived in August last season and proved a success overall, notching a goal and an assist in 12 appearances. The 34-year-old’s ability to move the ball through midfield is going to be key for Monterey Bay this season as it looks to use its speed in transition to create chances. As long as he has defensive cover, he can still be effective.

Key Arrival – Tristan Trager, forward: The 24-year-old was regularly used as a spark off the bench as the Battery drove to the Eastern Conference title last season, notching five goals in 1,531 minutes while making 15 starts. Trager should be in line for a bigger role with Monterey Bay and his speed should complement the returning Alex Dixon and fellow new arrival Luther Archimede in the attacking line.

Key Number – 0: Monterey Bay was the only team in the league that failed to register a goal from a corner kick in the 2023 season.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: One of the most vertically-oriented teams in the USL Championship last year, Monterey will try and own possession more often in 2024. Carlos Guzman at center back, Xavi Gnaulati between the attacking lines, and a full season of Rafael Baca give this club an extra level of class and comfort with the ball at their feet. Replacing a physical set of No. 9s with the probing, ever-moving Luther Archimede is the sort of move meant to push the defense back and open space for those sorts of ball handlers.

Guzman’s addition and the exit of Hugh Roberts will also leave Monterey more athletic in defense within the context of a likely 3-4-3. This is a team that struggled to rotate and cover the channels too often, but Frank Yallop has taken steps that may just patch over the obvious holes.

Projected Starting XI (3-4-3): GK – Carlos Herrera; D – Carlos Guzman, Kai Greene, Alex Lara; M – Walmer Martinez, Mobi Fehr, Rafael Baca, Morey Doner; F – Tristan Trager, Luther Archimede, Alex Dixon Prediction: 12th, Western Conference

New Mexico United
New Mexico United

Head Coach: Eric Quill
Venue: Isotopes Park
2023 Regular Season: 13-14-7, 46pts, 8th in Western Conference
2023 Postseason: Western Conference Quarterfinals

What’s Happened This Offseason?

New Mexico United was a team in transition throughout 2023 with the departure of Zach Prince to reunite with Troy Lesesne at the New York Red Bulls and arrival of new Head Coach Eric Quill resulting in changes to the club’s makeup during the season and up-and-down form that ended with the flourish of a three-game winning streak to clinch a playoff berth.

The offseason has brought about more changes, including club originals Josh Suggs and Austin Yearwood heading into retirement, Chris Wehan departing after a recurrence of a knee injury that held him out of the second half of the season, and Amando Moreno jumping across the Derby del Camino Real rivalry to El Paso Locomotive FC. The new crop of arrivals can have a serious impact, however, with Marco Micaletto having impressed for South Georgia Tormenta FC and Columbus Crew 2 and players like Abu Danladi and Nanan Houssou bringing major pedigree with them. The vibes seem right, and this could be an intriguing campaign.

Key Returnee – Sergio Rivas, midfielder: Of the players already with United when Head Coach Eric Quill took over, Sergio Rivas was one that appeared to thrive in the new environment. The dynamic midfielder, had seven goals and five assists – both career highs – overall in the regular season with his ability to drive the attack forward coming to the fore. If there’s more of that in store, it should be very fun to watch.

Key Arrival – Nanan Houssou, midfielder: Playing on a Loudoun United FC side that had more downs that ups a season ago, Nanan Houssou put in some big shifts in central midfield. He won 40 tackles at a 70.2 percent success rate, made 230 recoveries and 43 interceptions, and had 25 chances created. That placed him as the fourth-rated Central Midfielder in American Soccer Analysis’ database at a +1.24 Goals Added Above Average mark. New Mexico brought him in via transfer this offseason and will be expecting the 23-year-old to ramp up further as a potential No. 6 in their lineup.

Young Player to Watch – Cristian Nava, forward: Everything appeared to be pointing toward a strong campaign for the Albuquerque native before he suffered a torn ACL in preseason last year. Now the 20-year-old is going to try to make up for lost time as he returns to action. There’s no question about Nava’s quality – he was the Golden Ball winner at the 2021 USL Academy Playoffs – and the Lab is ready to celebrate its hometown product.

Key Number – 59.1: New Mexico United converted 39 Big Chances into goals during the 2023 regular season, giving the side a league-leading 59.1 conversion percentage on its Big Chances in the campaign.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Head Coach Eric Quill got New Mexico to the postseason last year by playing fast and emphasizing pressure, running a narrow 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 shape that trapped opponents in the center of the park and generated fast breaks for fun. By holding a relatively high back line and encouraging the more advanced No. 8 midfielders to press up, New Mexico limited passing lanes and consistently forced opponents to make bad decisions. Their offseason moves have focused on retaining the players most important to that scheme while adding more recovery speed on the wings.

In attack, expect to see more dribbling and flair in the final third. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of solid passers in Albuquerque, but the Avionne Flanagan- and Marco Micaletto-types are best when they can use their pace or ingenuity to beat defenders one-on-one. In doing so, they’ll bend the defense and hopefully encourage sloppy rotations that will result in goals.

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK – Alex Tambakis; D – Chris Gloster, Kalen Ryden, Will Seymore, Arturo Astorga; M – Nanan Houssou, Nicky Hernandez, Sergio Rivas; F – Marco Micaletto, Greg Hurst, Mukwelle Akele Prediction: 6th, Western Conference

Oakland Roots SC
Oakland Roots SC

Head Coach: Noah Delgado
Venue: Pioneer Stadium
2023 Regular Season: 11-14-9, 42pts, 10th in Western Conference
2023 Postseason: N/A

What’s Happened This Offseason?

Oakland Roots SC missed out on the postseason for the first time since joining the USL Championship in 2021 last season and then saw some key defensive pieces depart as Danny Barbir headed to Indy Eleven and Emrah Klimenta to Las Vegas Lights FC. To replace them, the side looked both overseas in adding Georgian center back Gagi Margvelashvili and within the league as Camden Riley made the move from San Diego Loyal SC and Niall Logue from Hartford Athletic.

The most intriguing new arrival, however, is Haitian forward Miche-Naider Chery, who last year led Violette FC to a remarkable Concacaf Champions League upset of Austin FC. How he teams up with the returning talent up front in Johnny Rodriguez, Lindo Mfeka and Jeciel Cedeno will be worth watching closely. There are plenty of other familiar faces back with the side as well, including standout goalkeeper Paul Blanchette, El Salvador international Bryan Tamacas and Trinidad and Tobago international Neveal Hackshaw to try and push Roots forward.

Key Returnee – Paul Blanchette, goalkeeper: “Paul the Wall” lived up to his nickname last season and earned Championship All-League Second Team honors as his performances almost proved enough to get Oakland back into the playoffs. The NorCal veteran has been stellar in all three seasons in Oakland, posting a -14.17 Goals Prevented mark in that span, and another big campaign will be expected behind his new-look back line.

Key Arrival – Miche-Naider Chery, forward: Led by Johnny Rodriguez’s 12 goals, Oakland’s attack was hit-and-miss a season ago which ended up being a key to their absence from the playoff field. Enter Chery, whose experience at the club level and competing for the Haiti Men’s National Team makes him an intriguing addition to the squad. If things fall into place, Roots fans could have a new cult hero to root for.

Key Number – 114: Paul Blanchette recorded 114 saves to lead the Championship in the regular season last year, a number that Oakland will want to try and lower this campaign.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Oakland’s style is defined by the freedom of their defenders. The Roots run a 3-4-3, but they let their outside backs step high into the midfield and regularly carry possession into the attacking half. There’s often an imbalance to their shape, with Bryan Tamacas sitting much deeper at right wing back than Memo Diaz or Baboucarr Njie on the left. It’s an approach built around speed and verticality; Oakland wants to keep the ball on the ground but move up the pitch quickly.

Introducing a bigger striker into the mix could give the Roots variation. Like Ottar Magnus Karlsson in 2022, new signing Miche-Naider Chery is the physical type of player that can meet the end of long balls and get scrappy in the box. He could also help Oakland to slow down, shrugging off opponents while plays develop around him. The Haitian forward may be the piece that makes this club a varied enough threat to get back to the postseason.

Projected Starting XI (3-4-1-2): GK – Paul Blanchette; D – Gagi Margvelashvili, Neveal Hackshaw, Camden Riley; M – Memo Diaz, Daniel Gomez, Napo Matsoso, Bryan Tamacas; AM – Lindo Mfeka; F – Miche-Naider Chery, Johnny Rodriguez Prediction: 10th, Western Conference

Orange County SC
Orange County SC

Head Coach: Morten Karlsen
Venue: Championship Soccer Stadium
2023 Regular Season: 17-11-6, 57pts, 2nd in Western Conference
2023 Postseason: Western Conference Semifinals

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After the midseason turnaround manufactured by Morten Karlsen took Orange County to a second-place finish in the West, the club removed his interim tag and signed the Head Coach to a multi-year contract. The Danish manager will oversee a club that saw two key attackers depart via transfers last year as Korede Osundina headed to Feyenoord in the Netherlands and leading goalscorer Milan Iloski to FC Nordsjælland in Denmark, but otherwise there is plenty to work with from last year’s squad.

To replace Iloski, OCSC has gone down a similar path in signing 25-year-old SoCal native Ethan Zubak, most recently with Nashville SC in Major League Soccer. The side has also added Charlie Asensio from Austin FC and after his loan stint with the club late last season from Minnesota United FC it also signed forward Cameron Dunbar, like Zubak a product of the LA Galaxy Academy. The stability elsewhere in the squad, however, bodes well for what’s to come.

Key Returnee – Dillon Powers, defender: Powers returned to Orange County after a brief sojourn in Northern Ireland with Glentoran and instead of taking up his conventional central midfield spot instead moved to center back where he put in a stellar campaign that helped OCSC’s turnaround in the second half of the season. The 33-year-old should reprise that role this season with his combination of ball-winning ability and quality in possession an ideal combination for the style OCSC is aiming to employ.

Key Arrival – Ethan Zubak, forward: It’s not going to be a like-for-like replacement, but it’s easy to see the parallels between Zubak and the player he’s poised to replace in Milan Iloski. Both SoCal natives, they arrived at Orange County looking for a reset in their careers. Iloski blossomed over his two seasons to become the club’s all-time leading goalscorer before his transfer, and Zubak arrives with similar ambitions – to help the side succeed on the field while rebooting his own career.

Young Player to Watch – Bryce Jamison, forward: The 17-year-old was part of the United States U-17 Men’s National Team squad last November and appeared in every game while also notching one goal and one assist in just over 1,000 minutes in the Championship. Jamison has already gone overseas to train – including at OCSC partner club Feyenoord – and a strong season should provide him the platform to be the next young talent the club sends to Europe.

Key Number – 4: Orange County SC recorded four goals directly from free kicks in the 2023 season, the most of any club in the league. Milan Iloski had two, while Brian Iloski and Markus Nakkim had one apiece.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: A confident adherent of a 4-3-3, Orange County will beat you with sharp passing patterns and a considerate mix in the midfield. Every overlapping run from a full back or deep-drop from a midfielder is replaced by a countervailing move in Morten Karlsen’s system. Take that midfield, where Kyle Scott plays as a deep-lying creator in build-out while Kevin Partida moves upfield to claim second balls and make dummy runs. Meanwhile, Partida rotates deep as a destroyer when Orange County defends, while Scott sits higher to clog passing lanes.

Markus Nakkim and Dillon Powers tend to hold a middle-height defensive line from the center back spots, supporting the more aggressive and fluid action higher up the pitch. Assuring that they’re protected will be key in the season to come. Orange County likes to push their full backs quite high on the overlap, and they may have an extra incentive to do so this season without the magic of Milan Iloski up front. If that’s the case, Partida or new signing Sofiane Djeffal will have their hands full roving side to side to cover the channels and sidelines.

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK – Duran Ferree; D – Ryan Doghman, Markus Nakkim, Dillon Powers, Owen Lambe; M – Kyle Scott, Kevin Partida, Seth Casiple; F – Christian Sorto, Ethan Zubak, Bryce Jamison Prediction: 3rd, Western Conference

Phoenix Rising FC
Phoenix Rising FC

Head Coach: Danny Stone
Venue: Phoenix Rising Stadium
2023 Regular Season: 12-10-12, 48pts, 6th in Western Conference
2023 Postseason: USL Championship Title Winners

What’s Happened This Offseason?

After becoming the first team to win four consecutive road games on the way to claiming the USL Championship title, Phoenix Rising FC has undergone an offseason with numerous changes, not least on the sidelines where Juan Guerra’s departure to Houston Dynamo FC led to the side promoting assistant coach Danny Stone to his first head coaching position. In addition to Guerra’s departure, Rising also transferred midfielder Carlos Harvey to Minnesota United FC and forward Manuel Arteaga to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, while All-League First Team selection Danny Trejo headed to Polish First Division side Korona Kielce as a free agent.

Phoenix has brought in plenty of new faces that should fit into the system that figures to remain in place. Remi Cabral arrives on loan from the Colorado Rapids after being co-Golden Boot winner in MLS NEXT Pro last season, while Edgardo Rito and Juan Carlos Azocar figure to give plenty of attacking potential on the flanks. The most interesting pivot of the offseason for Rising FC, however, was its addition of two fascinating young prospects in 2023 College Cup winner Pape Mar Boye from Clemson University and Juventus FC academy product Guilio Doratiotto. After previously pushing for veteran talent above all else in pursuit of a league title, Rising seems to be heading in a new direction this year.

Key Returnee – Rocco Ríos Novo, goalkeeper: There were plenty of heroes that stepped forward in Phoenix’s playoff run, but Ríos Novo might have been the side’s most consistent performer outside of Danny Trejo all campaign. The Argentine shot-stopper earned Championship Final MVP for his heroics across 120 minutes and in the penalty shootout, but over the season he also posted a -6.58 Goals Prevented mark. After earning a spot in Argentina’s U-23 squad that successfully qualified for the Paris 2024 Olympics in February, Ríos Novo should again be key for the defending title holders.

Key Arrival – Pape Mar Boye, defender: The Clemson standout was coveted after his freshman season saw him help the Tigers claim the 2023 NCAA Men’s College Cup, but the 20-year-old elected to sign with Phoenix over taking a reported Generation adidas contract from Major League Soccer to enter the SuperDraft. Mar Boye should see plenty of minutes this season, and could be on a track to Europe sooner rather than later.

Young Player to Watch – Guilio Doratiotto, midfielder: The 19-year-old arrives in Phoenix having come through Juventus FC’s Academy and represented Italy at the youth international level. His pathway certainly seems different to the convention in Italian soccer, but the central midfielder has the pedigree and the drive to make an impact in his new surroundings.

Key Number – 53: Phoenix Rising FC recorded 53 goals inside the penalty area in the 2023 season, the most of any side in the USL Championship.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Rocco Ríos Novo’s star turn down the stretch helped carry Phoenix to a title in 2023, and his profile as a goalkeeper defines many of Rising’s principles. He’s stellar from a technical perspective, and he spearheads a team that builds short out of the back like their collective lives depend upon it. Ríos Novo is also a willing and able sweeper-keeper, one that covers the hole behind a field-compressing high defensive line.

Rising’s 3-4-3 spreads the field with offense-centric wing back play, which new signings Juan Carlos Azocar and Edgardo Rito will only sharpen. The outside motion frees up room for Panos Armenakas, a left-foot maestro used on the right wing, to cut inside and wreak havoc. Look for Armenakas and those overlapping threats to terrorize defenses with plenty of one-twos and rapid passing moves in the final third.

Projected Starting XI (3-4-3): GK – Rocco Rios Novo; D – Pape Mar Boye, Alejandro Fuenmayor, John Stenberg; M – Juan Carlos Azocar, Renzo Zambrano, Guilio Doratiotto, Edgardo Rito; F – Dariusz Formella, Remi Cabral, Panos Armenakas Prediction: 4th, Western Conference

Sacramento Republic FC
Sacramento Republic FC

Head Coach: Mark Briggs
Venue: Heart Health Park
2023 Regular Season: 18-6-10, 64pts, 1st in Western Conference
2023 Postseason: Western Conference Final

What’s Happened This Offseason?

Sacramento Republic FC was minutes away from returning to the USL Championship Final for the first time since its inaugural season in 2014, only to come up short. The foundation of the team that has grown into a powerhouse under Head Coach Mark Briggs remains in place, however, with some key new arrivals that could push the side over the top this season.

The most notable of the new signings is forward Trevor Amann, who set a USL League One record with 23 goals last season at Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC to win the Golden Boot and Player of the Year honors. He’ll join an attack that returns Russell Cicerone and Sebastian Herrera with Rodrigo Lopez and Cristiano Parano present to provide creativity. Defensively, the back three of Shane Wiedt, Conor Donovan and Jared Timmer is also back in front of Goalkeeper of the Year Danny Vitiello, while Jack Gurr has signed a new contract to remain and provide an impact on the flanks.

Key Returnee – Jack Gurr, defender: The right-sided wingback was a finalist for the Championship’s Defender of the Year award as his dynamic play helped power Sacramento in attack throughout the season. Gurr’s speed and quality of delivery – say nothing of his sense of when to cut underneath and join the attack in the right channel – makes him a tremendous asset for Republic FC, one that will likely continue to shine this season.

Key Arrival – Trevor Amann, forward: Sacramento saw Russell Cicerone bag its first double-digit goal season since Cameron Iwasa last year, but in Amann they have a player who could unlock even more attacking success as a true No. 9 in the lineup. Amann’s quality finishing inside the penalty area propelled Northern Colorado to success last season and with the service he could receive from Jack Gurr, Damia Viader, Rodrigo Lopez and others, he could have another big year ahead.

Young Player to Watch – Rafael Jauregui, forward: The 19-year-old will enter his fourth season as a professional this campaign and all reports out of preseason camp are that he’s taken the leap forward to become a contributor. Jauregui’s feel for the game has always been praised by Republic FC’s coaches and if he’s found the physical level to compete in the Championship, then big things are ahead.

Key Number – 6: Sacramento Republic FC dropped only six points from a winning position during the 2023 regular season, the fewest of any side in the Western Conference.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Republic FC is a defensive club as a matter of identity, but they shine because of the interchange and fluidity innate to their offensive 3-4-3 system. The wider forwards in that shape often drop deeper into the channels to serve as hubs in possession; in doing so, they open room for wing backs like Jack Gurr to overlap and get into the box. When initiating, Sacramento confidently uses their center backs as ball carriers, though they aren’t afraid of a longer heave to relieve pressure and tilt the pitch.

Defensively, Sacramento is masterful in transition. After turnovers, their wingers and wingbacks dutifully drop into very low positions, forming a 5-4-1 in and around their own box. No team was as stingy last season by goals allowed, and there’s no reason that’ll change in 2024.

Projected Starting XI (3-4-2-1): GK – Danny Vitiello; D – Shane Wiedt, Jared Timmer, Conor Donovan, Jared Timmer; M – Damia Viader, Luis Felipe Fernandes, Arnold Lopez, Jack Gurr; AM – Rodrigo Lopez, Russell Cicerone; F – Trevor Amann Prediction: 1st, Western Conference

San Antonio FC
San Antonio FC

Head Coach: Alen Marcina
Venue: Toyota Field
2023 Regular Season: 14-6-14, 56pts, 4th in Western Conference
2023 Postseason: Western Conference Semifinals

What’s Happened This Offseason?

Even before San Antonio FC’s elimination by Sacramento Republic FC in the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs, it felt like changes were afoot at Toyota Field. So it proved this offseason as goalkeeper Jordan Farr was transferred to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, both Fabien Garcia (Las Vegas Lights FC) and PC (Union Omaha) signed as free agents elsewhere and Connor Maloney announced his retirement. Of those most closely identified with the “Mentality Monsters” that won the 2022 league title, only defender Mitchell Taintor and forward Santiago Patiño now remain as the side retained only seven players from the past campaign.

There are other familiar faces, of course, with Carter Manley and Shannon Gomez both back as defensive pieces and Jorge Hernandez set to reprise his role as playmaker. The addition of Marco Ferruzzi from FC Dallas as Sporting Director also signaled a change in philosophy, and Head Coach Alen Marcina’s side is aiming to play a more possession-based style than of late while remaining a team committed to high pressure defensively. How that will work out is going to be fascinating to watch.

Key Returnee – Mitchell Taintor, defender: The 2022 Championship Defender of the Year had another stellar campaign last season to earn All-League honors. His presence on the field and in the locker room will hopefully carry the spirit that the past two editions of the squad built in making Toyota Field one of the hardest places to visit in the Championship.

Key Arrival – Juan Agudelo, forward: The former United States international made the move to San Antonio from Birmingham Legion FC this offseason and certainly feels like a fit for the possession style that his new club wants to employ. Agudelo only had five goals and five assists for Legion last season but he had 49 chances created and still had the ability to beat opponents one-on-one, recording 55 successful dribbles at a 61.8 percent success rate.

Young Player to Watch – Kameron Lacey, forward: Young Player to Watch – Kameron Lacey, forward: In his first professional season with Minnesota United FC 2, Kameron Lacey notched double-digit goals at a strike rate of a goal every 149.3 minutes. That’s a fair clip whatever league you’re in, and Lacey will be aiming to build on that as he returns to Texas having once been a prospect in the FC Dallas Academy.

Key Number – 13: San Antonio FC scored 13 goals in the opening 15 minutes of both the first and second halves of games in the 2023 season, the most by any club in those 15-minute segments of contests.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Since its title-winning 2022 campaign, San Antonio has prided itself on being the most direct and physical team in the USL Championship. Alen Marcina’s system has always required the utmost effort for a full 90 minutes, and his 3-4-1-2 shape has hinged upon wave after wave of players pushing upfield in the press. That requirement applied equally on both sides of the ball; San Antonio has been the most vertical team in the Championship, hoofing passes into the opposing half so as to press, press, and press some more to win turnovers in the most dangerous areas.

Change may be on the horizon: Marcina has stuck to the usual shape in the preseason but hinted at a more reserved and possessive turn. In practice, this would see the wing backs play deeper and serve as passing outlets rather than run streak routes like wide receivers, and it would also make technical pick-ups like Luke Haakenson more likely to start in the defensive midfield as a creative cog. There’ll still be grit, but it may be measured with a dose of controlled offense.

Projected Starting XI (3-4-1-2): GK – Pablo Sisniega; D – Kendall Burks, Mitchell Taintor, Kevon Lambert; M – Lucas Silva, Mohamed Abu, Luke Haakenson, Shannon Gomez; AM – Jorge Hernandez; F – Juan Agudelo, Santiago Patiño Prediction: 2nd, Western Conference

FC Tulsa
FC Tulsa

Head Coach: Mario Sanchez
Venue: ONEOK Field
2023 Regular Season: 10-15-9, 39pts, 10th in Eastern Conference
2023 Postseason: N/A

What’s Happened This Offseason?

FC Tulsa was in the playoff picture until late in the season when a tough final stretch finally eliminated the side from contention, but this offseason has brought numerous changes that could define where the club is heading in the next few years. Firstly, the club’s ownership acquired the Titan Sports and Performance Center to become FC Tulsa’s new training facility and then set about adding some veteran pieces such as Justin Portillo and Arthur Rogers to help push the team forward on the field.

Then, in January, came the surprise departure of Head Coach Blair Gavin, and another change in direction. Mario Sanchez was hired from Racing Louisville FC and Louisville City FC to be the club’s new Head Coach – bringing former Championship title-winner Luke Spencer with him as an assistant – and two of the supposed new arrivals in Jeremy Kelly and Charlie Adams both departed before appearing in the club’s colors. Sanchez brought in Alexis Souahy – acquired from Union Omaha after a strong season in League One – to bolster the back line while Suriname international Joey Roggeveen is set to take over in goal. There will be some questions going into this season, but the long-term outlook still feels positive overall.

Key Returnee – Phillip Goodrum, forward: The Tennessee native arrived midway through the 2023 season and quickly took to his new surroundings, putting away 12 goals in 21 appearances at a strike rate of a goal every 157.2 minutes. If that pace continues, Goodrum should be a candidate for the Golden Boot again as he was in Memphis two years ago, and as importantly it could propel Tulsa back into the playoff picture at the end of the season.

Key Arrival – Justin Portillo, midfielder: The veteran central midfielder joined this offseason from New Mexico United after two solid seasons in Black and Gold, and his influence not only on the field but also alongside youngster Nate Worth could make him one of the most important players to Tulsa’s success this season. Portillo is a smooth technician on the ball and is one of the best set piece takers in the league, which should provide opportunities in the final third.

Young Player to Watch – Nate Worth, midfielder: The 17-year-old came on impressively in the second half of the season as former Head Coach Blair Gavin entrusted him in the center of the park and there’s no reason to think that Worth won’t be a consistent presence this season. After offseason training stints in Europe, he’s poised to be one of the USL Championship’s next top exports overseas.

Key Number – 504: FC Tulsa allowed 504 total shots in the regular season, the most of any team in the Championship, with 161 of those going on target.

John Morrissey’s Tactics Corner: Given his background in the Louisville system, new Tulsa Head Coach and Sporting Director Mario Sanchez is likely to prefer a 4-3-3 with ample gusto in the press. Defenders like Alexis Souahy and Bradley Bourgeois have the athletic profiles to play a high back line, and midfielders like Nate Worth have the energy to run for days and close down hard on opponents. Top it off with Philip Goodrum’s pesky, hard-nosed contributions as a No. 9, and you’ve got a team that won’t be easy to break down.

Offensively, Arthur Rogers’ deployment is the big question. Rogers ran USL League One as a deep-lying creator in Northern Colorado, but the system was built around him there. He can ably play in central defense, at right back, or in the midfield depending on Sanchez’s needs for a given matchup.

Projected Starting XI (4-3-3): GK – Joey Roggeveen; D – Patrick Seagrist, Bradley Bourgeois, Alexis Souahy, Arthur Rogers; M – Nate Worth, Justin Portillo, Blaine Ferri; F – Moses Dyer, Phillip Goodrum, Stefan Stojanovic Prediction: 9th, Western Conference

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