Bethlehem Steel FC's James Chambers, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC's Rony Argueta and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC's Kenardo Forbes will all have key roles to play for their clubs in 2019.
It’s nine days until the 2019 USL Championship season officially gets underway. After previously looking at the goalkeepers and defenders that could step up to lead their teams to success this year, now it’s time to cast our eye over the midfielders who could be key figures in the upcoming nine months.
As much changes at Bethlehem Steel FC each season, the one constant has been James Chambers. The club’s 32-year-old captain has made 84 appearances over the club’s first three seasons, serving as Head Coach Brendan Burke’s general on the field amongst his younger teammates. Chambers isn’t solely there to provide experience and leadership, though, as evidenced by his outstanding display in Steel FC’s first postseason victory last October against Keystone State rival Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. As the faces around him continue to change, Chambers is the constant that will help Bethlehem take aim at a third consecutive postseason berth.
Rony Argueta’s return to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC this offseason, after spending the 2018 campaign with Fresno FC, brings one of the key figures in Colorado Springs’ first three seasons back to his former home and with him hope for the Switchbacks of a first playoff trip since 2016. Argueta’s consistency in the middle of Head Coach Steve Trittschuh’s lineup that saw him record 86 appearances over the Switchbacks’ first three seasons helped provide a backbone to the club’s lineup that freed its creative players to push forward safe in the knowledge that Argueta was there to provide cover. Likely to be teamed up with Jordan Schweitzer in the center of midfield, the 28-year-old will be looking for a return to form after making only 16 starts for the Foxes in the last campaign.
Juan Pablo Caffa finished tied for the team-high in both goals (9) and assists (5) in his first season with the Foxes, living up to the billing he received when the club made him one of its marquee signings before its inaugural season. It wasn’t enough to carry Fresno FC to the postseason, however, which means the year ultimately ended in disappointment for Caffa and his new teammates. At 34 years old, though, Caffa remains among the best playmakers in the league, having ranked sixth in the Championship with 81 chances created in the 2018 season. With new attacking options joining the Foxes including veteran forwards Jaime Chavez and Jackson, and youngster Qudus Lawal, Caffa’s chances created to assists ratio should have a big opportunity to rise this year.
While it was easy to get carried away with last season’s quartet of players that notched both double-digit goals and assists, we would be remiss not to note the return of the first player to accomplish that feat in the Championship’s history as Irvin Parra returns to the league after a season abroad. That Parra arrives as part of Head Coach Eric Wynalda’s new-look Las Vegas Lights FC squad adds to the intrigue as to whether he can come close to his previous feat that saw him log 11 goals and 10 assists across spells with the Tacoma Defiance and Orange County SC. If he can, then there could be a bright year ahead at Cashman Field after the disappointment that the club’s inaugural season ultimately brought.
After making a career-high 23 starts in the 2017 campaign, there was a certain sense of disappointment over the injuries that hampered Brian Ownby a year ago, limiting the talented attacking midfielder to only 11 regular-season starts and 11 more appearances as a substitute for the defending USL Cup champion. When the postseason arrived, though, Ownby once again produced with two goals and three assists in four starts as LouCity claimed its second consecutive championship. The 28-year-old’s form in last year’s USL Cup Playoffs means he is now tied for the most postseason goals in USL Championship history with six alongside Brandon Allen and Dennis Chin, but more importantly if he can stay healthy throughout the upcoming campaign, we could see the career season some were anticipating after his postseason heroics in 2017.
Playing on a team with one of the top young defenders in the league in Hassan Ndam, the New York Red Bulls II’s Jared Stroud’s candidacy for the Championship’s Young Player of the Year award in 2018 was slightly overshadowed. That was a slight shame, as the 22-year-old’s seven goals and 11 assists put him among elite company in the league’s young standouts, tied for the most combined goals and assists alongside Orange County SC’s Michael Seaton among those eligible for the award. As he enters his second season, Stroud should get a bigger spotlight for the Red Bulls II as one of the few returnees to the side. If he can produce in a similar fashion this year as he did as a rookie, a chance to follow the likes of Vincent Bezecourt, Florian Valot and others into a place with the Red Bulls’ MLS squad may not be far behind.
There are some players that success just seems to follow from place to place. Ottawa Fury FC is hoping that’s true of Wal Fall, who has imposed himself in impressive fashion over the past three seasons in the USL Championship to lead his sides to the USL Cup Playoffs each year as one of its leading box-to-box midfielders. Fall has scored 18 goals and added four assists in 78 appearances over the past three years, but has also proven one of the better ball-winners and distributors in that span as well. Over the past two seasons, Fall has won 381 duels – sixth-most in that span – at a success rate of 59.4 percent, while also winning 87 of 118 tackles, and his bullish attitude makes him the sort of player opponents don’t relish taking on. Fury FC will be hoping that continues as he joins its midfield with the goal of reaching the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time clearly in its sights.
Having earned two USL Championship All-League selections in the past two seasons, Jamaican midfielder Kenardo Forbes is definitely no longer flying under the radar as one of the top players in the league. Forbes has recorded 22 assists over the past four seasons, a total outstripped by only Real Monarchs SLC’s Maikel Chang (30) and former OKC Energy FC playmaker Jose Barril (26). But on top of his ability to create in the final third, what has made Forbes so valuable to Head Coach Bob Lilley has been his composure and leadership in the middle of the park. Forbes’ Riverhounds SC teammates last season talked about the calmness they feel knowing that Forbes will not only be consistently available but will make the right decision once he has the ball to help the team succeed. That trust can sometimes be hard to earn and is an indicator of what a key influence Forbes will be on the Hounds’ pursuit of USL Cup this season.
There were very few bright spots for Tulsa Roughnecks FC a season ago, but most of them were provided by Joaquin Rivas, who parlayed his 12-goal campaign into not only his first call-up to the El Salvador national team, but then his first goal for his country late last year in an exhibition against Haiti. An offseason arrival at Saint Louis FC, Rivas will now have the chance to add to his burgeoning reputation as part of an attacking corps that will be looking to improve on a season that produced a first postseason berth, but only 44 regular-season goals in 34 games. Rivas’ arrival should help boost those numbers, and in turn could help his chances of first getting El Salvador into the 2019 Gold Cup field, and then earning a place in that squad.
The young talent emerging from Sporting Kansas City’s Academy system has already started making its presence felt in the top flight thanks to Wan Kuzain and Gianluca Busio. Their fellow selection in the 2018 USL Championship 20 Under 20, Felipe Hernandez, might be the next one to make that shift as he enters his third season with the Swope Park Rangers as one of the key figures in the perennial playoff contender’s midfield. Hernandez has racked up 61 appearances over the past two seasons for the Rangers, including 34 appearances a season ago that saw him rank third on the team in minutes (2,554) and lead the team with 50 key passes. The 20-year-old will likely take on greater responsibility this season following the departures of a handful of key veteran players from SPR’s squad, and if he can step into those shoes on the leadership side, there could be a breakout year on the horizon.
Tag(s): News Features CO Spring Switchbacks Swope Park Rangers Bethlehem Steel FC Louisville City FC New York Red Bulls II Ottawa Fury FC Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saint Louis FC Rony Argueta Felipe Hernandez Kenardo Forbes Wal Fall Brian Ownby Irvin Parra James Chambers Joaquin Rivas Juan Caffa Fresno FC Las Vegas Lights FC Jared Stroud