It was easy to miss, but it wasn’t just FC Dallas that got back to training over the past few weeks. North Texas SC, FCD’s second team, champions on the field and in your heart, are back training as well. While less has been leaked about the potential format of the 2020 USL seasons than the MLS’ plan, the league remains adamant about a return to play this year. As such, we continue our 2020 season preview series by taking a look at the state of the rosters in the third division.
Season-over-season roster continuity matters in soccer, and matters a lot in lower league soccer because contracts are shorter which makes player tenures shorter as well. MLS teams returned on average about 10% more of their minutes played from 2019 compared to USL1 teams. In the context of an unprecedented delay in the start of the season and potentially minimal chances for new teammates to learn to play with one another before the season resumes, continuity in the roster may have more effect than ever on the results of play. In that spirit, I compared 2019 statistics against what I can tell about the rosters of the clubs in USL1 by referencing their websites, the league website, and Transfermarkt. It’s not an exact science at this level of soccer since media coverage is so scattered, but I’m confident the numbers are in the right ballpark.
USL1 teams brought back ~60% of their rosters, with little preference for offense or defense, contributors or bench-players. Roster turnover strategy was not uniform across the league. The three worst teams in 2019 in terms of goal differential return the three smallest percentages of their minutes from 2019. The fourth worst team returned the highest percentage. The three teams that made the playoffs in 2019 that are still in the league all returned at least as many minutes as the median team in the league.
All that to say that the data is messy and requires closer inspection. I go team-by-team below, moving from clubs with the most continuity to the least, and analyze their key transactions in the offseason. League newcomers Omaha, Miami, and the Revolution are all excluded since their “continuity” requires dividing by zero. Lansing has zero continuity by default (RIP).
TORONTO FC II
2019 Finish: Missed playoffs, 7th in regular season
Key Departures: Jesus West (D), Patrick Bunk-Anderson (D)
Key Arrivals: No external arrivals of note. Even the players signed to TFC who might get TFC II minutes are all players that got time with TFC II on academy contracts last season.
The Skinny: The top team nearly across the board for returning production, TFC2 brings back basically everything from a team that was the third best in the league in 2019 at scoring goals (behind NTSC and the now defunct Lansing Ignite) while simultaneously being close to the worst defensive team. As you can imagine with an MLS second team, they were also one of the youngest teams last year, suggesting room for growth. The first team invested heavily in homegrown signings in the offseason, so they are clearly confident in this generation’s potential. However, losing an all-league 2nd team CB in Bunk-Anderson from an already anemic defense might be a tough pill to swallow. If gigantic CDM Noble Okello and CB Rocco Romeo both improve enough this year to cover up the loss of their defensive centerpiece, this team will be dangerous.
CHATTANOOGA RED WOLVES
2019 Finish: Missed playoffs, 5th in regular season
Key Departures: Sito Seoane (RM/RW), Vangjel Zguro (LM/LW), Jonathan Caparelli (LB)
Key Arrivals: Ricardo Zacarias (FW), Uchenna Uzo (CB), and a handful of college signees
The Skinny: Almost perfectly average in terms of both offensive and defensive output in 2019, the Red Wolves lost their 2nd and 3rd most productive attackers from last season. Seoane and Zguro were the Chattanooga’s favored pieces to place either side of prolific striker Steven Beattie. They will rely on the returning Greg Hurst and newcomer Zacarias, formerly of Club America’s 2nd team, to provide some spark. In addition, Uzo, a journeyman CB from the USL-Championship, will ideally be the stability they need to hold down the back. Chattanooga played a bend-don’t-break defend-and-counter style in 2019 that led them to have the lowest total number of passes in the league and the highest total number of fouls. Depending on the format of USL1 when it returns, that may pay dividends as there is a history of rugged, defensive teams going far in short-form tournaments like World Cups and playoffs.
2019 Finish: Lost in USL1 Final, 3rd in regular season
Key Departures: Kevin Politz (RCB), Dom Boland (D), Cole Seiler (RB), Christopher Bermudez (CAM)
Key Arrivals: Alex Morrell (FW), Brandon Fricke (CB), Abdi Mohamed (LB/RB)
The Skinny: Greenville ground their way to the USL1 final last year by playing nigh-unbreakable defense and then dumping the ball forward to one of Gomez, Keegan, or Bermudez to cut up the opposition that had recklessly flung numbers forward in frustration. Within that framework, used a shorter bench than Greenville, with only 20 total players earning a minute across the season, the lowest in the league. This offseason, they have done an admirable job of plugging holes with useful pieces. Chris Bermudez leaves to try to make it in the Championship? Bring in Tormenta’s Alex Morrell, who put up similar numbers playing in a more free-flowing system in South Georgia. The right side of the league’s best defense is gone? Raid the corpse of Lansing for Fricke and poach Mohamed from NYCFC where he was buried behind one of the best fullback tandems in MLS. There are a handful of people who believe Greenville should be favored to win in 2020. I’m not sure they got better at the same rate as peers this offseason, but they were one of the best from 2019 and they probably didn’t get any worse.
2019 Finish: Lost in USL1 semifinals, 4th in regular season
Key Departures: Bryan Silvestre (GK), Josiel Nuñez (CM), Wyatt Omsberg (RCB), Carter Manley (RB)
Key Arrivals: Wojciech Wojcik (FW), Jamael Cox (RM/RW), Elijah Lockaby (RB/RW), Michael Vang (CM)
The Skinny: Forward Madison returns more minutes and starts than the average team, but the bulk of those losses were concentrated in a few key players. Silvestre was one of the two or three best GKs in the league in 2019 and earned a move up a level to the USL Championship; Nuñez was an engine in the center of the park, 2nd on the team in starts, minutes, and tackles, and first on the team in combined shots and shot assists; Carter Manley and Wyatt Omsberg were key, quality depth pieces on the right side of defense. Wojcik gives them a giant, traditional striker option with a reasonably productive history in USL, but I’m not sure the team has upgraded at any other spot. Vang has a great story, but the bottom-line is you’re hoping to replace one of the best CMs in the league with either a tryout player or a player who wasn’t nearly as good in the same league last season in Jamael Cox. The story at GK is similar. This team barely made the playoffs in 2019 on the strength of their defense (though their goal differential painted a better picture than their points) – I have a hard time believing Forward got better this offseason. They probably got worse.
NORTH TEXAS SOCCER CLUB
2019 Finish: Playoff champions, regular season champions
Key Departures: Arturo Rodriguez (CAM/W), Brecc Evans (RCB), Callum Montgomery (LCB), Jonathan Gomez (LB), Alfusainey Jatta (CDM)
Key Arrivals: Juan Manuel Alvarez (CM), Anders Engebretsen (W), Alisson Dos Santos Correa (CDM), Lamar Batista (LCB), Nkosi Burgess (RCB – signed to FCD)
The Skinny: Hometown favorites NTSC return a better-than-average percentage of their offensive production from their record-setting maiden season, but they have more rebuilding to do on defense than any other team in the league. Obviously, losing three of the team’s starters along the backline from the stretch run last year (Evans, Montgomery, and Gomez) to USL Championship sides lends itself to bringing back fewer defensive stats, and yet the reigning USL1 MVP will be missing from the attack, which may have more impact than the numbers suggest. If Rodriguez was the irreplaceable straw that stirred the drink, we’ll see the effects of that early in the season. On the other hand, newcomers Alvarez and Engebretsen have both earned plaudits for their performances in the pre-season (Alvarez wore the armband for NTSC for at least one game, and spent time with FCD in Florida as well). Plus, as always with this team, there are the young players that are coming back a year further into their development who could make a leap to stardom at this level: think Dante Sealy and David Rodriguez. Much will depend on how quickly NTSC’s potentially all-new backline (especially Batista and FC Dallas draft pick Nkosi Burgess) can gel.
SOUTH GEORGIA TORMENTA
2019 Finish: Missed playoffs, 6th in regular season
Key Departures: Alex Morrell (FW), Charlie Dennis (RM/RW), Daltyn Knutson (LB/LCB), Connor Antley (RB), Jerry Saint-Vil (LB)
Key Arrivals: Pato Botello Faz (FW), Devyn Jambga (LM/LW), Rhys Williams (RB/RM), Luca Mayr (CM), Danny Jackson (RM/RW)
The Skinny: Second best in the league at the halfway point, Tormenta fell into a poor run of form over the final few months of the season, taking only 8 points from their final 12 games. That’s a shame, because Tormenta are a fantastic choice as everyone’s second favorite team in the league: they play attractive soccer, they have an integrated plan from their academy to their second team (in USL2) to their first team, and they’re investing in good faith to make soccer stick in the Statesboro / Savannah corridor. I love that they got Pato and Jambga to replace Morrell and Dennis. Combine them with Micaletto up top and Jackson for depth and Tormenta has one of the best three frontlines in USL1. Luca Mayr was promoted from their USL2 side after lighting the league on fire, and he should continue his absurdly productive ways attacking from the midfield. However, the best offensive player on the team last year was Antley (also the second-best player in the league behind NTSC’s Rodriguez), and he’s gone along with the left half of their defense. Expect a lot of 3-2 score lines from Tormenta in 2020.
2019 Finish: Missed playoffs, 9th in regular season
Key Departures: Dennis Chin (FW), Joe Gallardo (CAM), Joshua Hughes (CM), Maxi Rodriguez (CM), Elijah Lockaby (RB/RM)
Key Arrivals: Emiliano Terzaghi (FW), Kyle Venter (RCB), Devante Dubose (RB), Gianluca Cuomo (CM), a series of college players
The Skinny: The Kickers hit the reset button this offseason after a tremendously disappointing 2019 season. New coach, mostly new players, hopefully a new lease on life. Gone are the majority of players from last season’s anemic attack, including Gallardo, a controversial Best XI CAM who was directly involved in nearly as many chances as the next two players on the roster combined. One of those players was Chin, who is also gone, and the other was Mutuya Mwape, who Richmond hopes can combine with Terzaghi (a career backup striker from Argentina) and a raft of new signing from college to spark some goals. I am skeptical of the Kickers’ ability to hold their own in midfield after losing all three of Gallardo, Hughes, and Rodriguez without bringing in any pedigreed replacements (Cuomo is a journeyman of the US lower levels). Could be another long season in Richmond.
2019 Finish: Missed playoffs, 8th in regular season
Key Departures: Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu (CM), Devyn Jambga (LM/LW), Jamael Cox (RM/RW), Kyle Venter (RCB), Lamar Batista (LCB), Luke Hauswirth (RB)
Key Arrivals: Charlie Dennis (FW), Jonathan Caparelli (LB), a series of college players
The Skinny: Tucson is the second team of USL Championship juggernaut Phoenix Rising, and this offseason should be seen as them fully embracing that identity. Offloading tons of useful players to elsewhere in USL1 to make room for downward loans from Phoenix and a new raft of signings from college. It’s a team that likes to dominate the ball and win with style. However, with the best three players from last year’s pretty bad defense gone and no real replacements in sight, there’s a distinct whiff of “TFC2 2019” about this team, just without the explosive offense. It’s dangerous to underestimate Phoenix’s scouting network, so it’s possible they found some gems, but I think it’s more likely that Tucson struggles through a transition year in 2020.
ORLANDO CITY B
2019 Finish: Missed playoffs, bottom of table in regular season
Key Departures: Juliano Chade (GK), Matheus Silva (LCB), Randy Mendoza (LB), Serginho (CM), Thiago Souza (RM/RW), William Bagrou (ST)
Key Arrivals: Franklin Carabali (CB), Mateo Rodas (CB), Teddy Ndje (M), Ignacio Poplawski (FW), Aleksandar Gluvačević (FW), a series of college players
The Skinny: A genuinely wretched team last season. As dominant as NTSC was, OCB might have still been the most exceptional USL1 team in 2019, just not in the desired direction. The difference between OCB and the next worst team, Richmond, in units of goal differential in 2019 was roughly the same as the difference between Richmond and Lansing, the second-best team in the league. Just look at their form chart for second half of the season.
In response, OCB have sold many of their starters while maintaining a surprising amount of the reserves (these guys weren’t good enough to get on the field for that team?). New signings are concentrated in a player profile I wish NTSC would exploit a little more: players that prepped in the US, went overseas to try to make it, and come back after failing to break through. With a healthy dose of college players and some high potential signings from the nooks and crannies of South America, OCB’s rebuild is well underway. The goal for 2020 is respectability.
It’s hard to say anything definitive without knowing the format that the USL1 season will take. However, we can focus in on a few clear points:
- North Texas SC returns the least of 2019’s contenders. The other two returning playoff teams, Greenville and Forward Madison, brought back more, but I think Forward did not do enough to replace the key players they did lose. Can Chattanooga or South Georgia or one of the expansion teams displace them?
- NTSC, South Georgia Tormenta, and Toronto FC II might end up all looking very similar in 2020 – strong attacks paired with defenses that need time to grow together.
- Of the teams that finished near the bottom of the table in 2019 and decided to hit the “reset” button this offseason, OCB might have done the most to improve for 2020. The main issue is their quality in 2019 left them so much ground to make up. Don’t expect any of Tucson, Richmond, or OCB to be challengers this season.
- In the event of a condensed season, depth will become the currency of the league. Greenville and Chattanooga and their peers got by last season with smaller rosters, which may not be feasible in 2020. Will that give the advantage to the “2” teams around the league (NTSC, TFC2, OCB, Tucson, NER2, MIA2)?