• John Morrissey

The Twenty-Seven: Phoenix faltering and regime change in Tulsa

There are twenty-seven teams in the USL, I've ranked them all, and I have no creativity: thus, a column name was born. These are my mostly-weekly power rankings featuring write-ups and snide remarks on whichever clubs capture my sprit. If you want more, make sure to check out:

But without further ado...

 

Title Contenders

1.) COLORADO SPRINGS: I spotlighted Cam Lindley early in the season, but Zach Zandi is nearly as influential in the Switchbacks' midfield. Take the first goal against Indy. His positioning and movement drags the Eleven out of their flat defensive line, and then he's on the receiving end of a dink from the holding forward. Zandi's continued movement forces a centerback up, opening a tiny window that the midfield maestro threads an inch-perfect pass through for an assist. His vision and intelligence as part of Colorado Springs' endlessly fluid attack are just lovely.

2.) SAN ANTONIO: The strongest moments for San Antonio this weekend in attack came when PC got forward and created numerical advantages for his side, providing that unique blend of absolute shithousery and technique in dangerous areas. Still, Oakland took advantage of the wide areas and channels that San Antonio vacates in their hard-pressing system to great aplomb, and the Texan titans looked vulnerable for chunks of the match.

The last two games for San Antonio sort of feel like the midseason doldrums. There've been absences and the challenges of integrating new faces like first-time scorer Samuel Adeniran, but Alen Marcina's side have crucially continued to earn results. That's part of why this team is so strong in 2022. San Antonio just has that ability to find a way, even against teams that are perfectly set up to counter their back three-based transitional style.


3.) SACRAMENTO: Sacramento heavily rotated their squad in anticipation of a big Open Cup game at the midweek, opting for role players like Maalique Foster and Ferrety Sousa to start up top and at wingback. I think it's supremely fun that the Republic are playing the Galaxy proper at midweek after getting their affiliate at the weekend, by the way. This match was something of a write-off given the rotation, but that doesn't lessen the fact that the side still showed cracks in the middle, even if the unchanged back three were a delight yet again. The result ultimately reflected a stronger second half, and Rafael Jauregui might be joining Diego Luna and Cristian Nava in the Holy Trinity of awesome young USL attackers.


4.) NEW MEXICO: New Mexico continues to rise after a fifth consecutive win. They haven't dropped a game since late April, and even that came against a juggernaut of a San Antonio team. Zach Prince's crew impressed me in Oakland with their second-half tactical adjustments. Initially matching the Roots with a back three, New Mexico brough Christian Nava on for a forward and reshuffled their midfield to adopt a 4-4-2 in the diamond variant. That narrow look overwhelmed the hosts, spotlighted Nava, and showed why this team shouldn't be taken lightly. Average xG numbers - even with the misleading boost from the rout against Phoenix's youth side - are the only red flag for a squad that passes the eye test.

5.) LOUISVILLE: We got a heavily rotated side out of Louisville, but the fierce 4-1-4-1 system remained. Ray Serrano, who put up 81st percentile GAR and 90th percentile xA as a nailed starter with Tacoma last season, impressed on the right, but the interesting thing was the introduction of Brian Ownby at striker. The switch came because of a late knock for Cameron Lancaster, and I thought that there was a clear lack of chemistry up front with Ownby's disparate patterns as a runner. He's still good, but it's just different when you get used to someone like Lancaster or Wilson Harris as a tried-and-true number nine.


6.) TAMPA: Tampa rotated their eleven a bit against a spunky Charleston side, with Laurence Wyke and Thomas Vancaeyezeele in the back line and Lucky Mkosana up top. The midfield and central defenders, maybe lacking a touch of chemistry, kept the ball splendidly against aggressive pressure but didn't consistently break through. Still, the Leo Fernandes-Jake LaCava sat narrower than usual as the match wore on, providing the outlets the side needed to overwhelm the press, and Fernandes' wondergoal showed why this side can be so darn effective with that pair driving the attack.

 

Playoff Locks

7.) DETROIT: In some ways I feel guilty that Detroit is constantly my litmus test or Mendoza line for a title contender. I’ve said it ad nauseum, but Le Rouge just need that one win to prove to me that they can really go out there and do the darn thing.

After a dispiriting, disjointed loss to Sacramento, the El Paso game as a return to form for Maxi Rodriguez especially. Trevor James was back to his adjusting ways, heightening the defensive line in the second half to allow Rodriguez to get higher touches. That paired with a generally more aggressive press to free #21, and it also coincided with increasing freedom for Deklan Wynne to overlap down the left against the slower side of the Locomotive defense. It was a good dynamic, and it shows why this side is really good. “Great” is still the question.

8.) MEMPHIS: On the road at midweek once again, Memphis came out slow without Laurent Kissiedou to pull the strings at the ten spot. They grew into things by upping their pressure in the middle of the pitch and choosing to sit back less. Aaron Molloy was as sharp as ever, but little-used midfielder Lucas Turci illustrated great precision as a passer, and Chris Allan replaced Kissiedou with smart movement rather than world-beating skill. A draw at a mediocre Hartford team isn't optimal, but Memphis showed heart, and they have money in the bank from a great start to the year that render Wednesday away nights with suboptimal lineups a bit less crucial.


9.) SAN DIEGO: When the Loyal are clicking, they really can be a joy to watch. I loved how they worked flank-to-flank against Las Vegas this weekend. Jack Blake came into the side and allowed Alejandro Guido to play something like a proxy forward, and the former Real Monarchs man showed why he's one of the best movers in the league. The Lights' tendency to overcommit to the wings was leveraged constantly by Blake; watch his positioning on Guido's stunning opening strike to see how a midfielder can open up space.

Blake and Collin Martin were especially strong pinching into their own half when Vegas went direct, allowing for stable transitions from the attacking 3-5-2 into the low-block 4-4-2. Still, Las Vegas took a 2-1 lead by leveraging such a sequence, getting beyond Nick Moon by overloading the half space. Things are still a work in progress, but the Loyal also were playing with a semi-rotated eleven.

 

Inside Track

10.) BIRMINGHAM: For yet another year, the Legion have a top-ten defense on goal allowance and xG concession terms. Phanuel Kavita and Alex Crognale both sit in the top 25% for defensive actions per foul conceded, and both are top-third in GAR as well. Matt Van Oekel is putting up another all-league campaign as well, boasting 94th percentile GSAA and high-end save percentage and other mainline stats. Birmingham had time to figure out their attack - an ongoing process - because this core is so darn solid.


11.) EL PASO: The Locomotive weren't all that impressive on the road in the Motor City for large swathes of the match, possessing well enough but failing to do a ton on the ball. Ricardo Zacarias symbolized a lot of what I’m struggling with about El Paso right now. He was the only player to register a key pass in the first half, but the game immediately opened when he came off in favor of Christiano Francois’ touchline-hugging pace. The change was crucial against a higher, more possessive second-half Detroit. Without Diego Luna and with an injury-riddled squad, experimentation is worthwhile, and I think that John Hutchinson has done a good job making changes to figure out what his best look is. What's the ceiling on this roster though? I think Yuma is a step slow in 2022, and Dylan Mares can only do so much. This is a likely playoff team, but I have reservations. Oh, and Lucho Solignac slaps.

 

In the Mix

12.) RIO GRANDE VALLEY: There might not be a more aggressive, hard-nosed defensive side in the USL than the Toros. Wilmer Cabrera's crew, pressing out of a 4-2-3-1ish shape off the ball, never give you an inch to breath in the middle. So much of that joy comes from wholehearted closing and back-pressure from the forward line, but the fullbacks - Malesevic and Ricketts this weekend, for example - are equally vital in their end-to-end roles. This team is spunky, and they just might find themselves in the playoffs despite a tumultuous offseason.


13.) MIAMI: I spoke to this recently, but Miami might have the most technical set of centerbacks in the whole USL. Ben Ofeimu, Callum Chapman-Page, and Aedan Stanley form a trio of players that let Florian Valot roam, enable high fullback play, and ensure that the side stays as one of the more possessive, ground-based units in the USL. That fullback point is crucial. Marauding from Sean McFarlane, Mark Segbers, and the like is what opens up the best Miami moves. Those players can bomb upfield with the knowledge that initiation will never be a problem, even if the progression from the midfield into the box has proven fitful.


14.) INDY: I'm all in on the Eleven as a fairly decent playoff side, if an early exit at that, but the defense might be an issue. You look at the names and resumes of Mechack Jerome, AJ Cochran, and Jared Timmer and assume that this would be a bang-up back line, but the chemistry just hasn't come. Blame Timmer's lacking pace at fullback, consistent miscommunications in the middle from the other two, or something else, but that's my big issue for Indy at the moment.


15.) PITTSBURGH: After getting overwhelmed by Charleston's pressure from the attacking midfield line, Pittsburgh needed to adjust against a Rio Grande Valley side that approaches the game in a similar manner. Bob Lilley did so by starting four central midfielders in consummate Bob Lilley fashion. I've liked Marc Ybarra a lot this year, but Angelo Kelly-Rosales really shone as a progressor, holder, and steadying hand. He's someone who can make a difference and add some calm in a weirdly fluid Riverhounds setup. Of course, RGV's opener came because those centermen stayed too narrow. Balance is hard, and Lilley overstepped with this particular shift as the side couldn't quite break through once again, lacking the pace and guile to beat a rampant Toros pressing system. A late switch to a 3-4-1-2 featuring Dane Kelly didn't really change the dynamic or solve the root problem.


16.) OAKLAND: In an inversion of their usual pattern, Oakland started strong against New Mexico but faded as the match wore on. Attribute it to Edgardo Rito's injury - he'd be on my all-league ballot - or a belated switch to a back four against a tactically active foe, but it resulted in a loss. I still want Oakland to go out and get a real destroyer in the midfield, someone in the mold of a Bolu Akinyode. There's lots of technique and tempo-keeping in the pivot for the Roots, but I just need an extra bit of steel. You'll see it at moments when a centerback steps up to close, but that creates too many vulnerabilities for a side that uses its fullbacks like forwards.

Of course, the whole "fullbacks might as well be forwards" thing was just what the doctor ordered against San Antonio. The Roots found gap after gap by punishing San Antonio's high-closing defenders through those very players. Maybe what this team needs is balance. Juan Guerra has a system, but it's a matter of fine-tuning things for each matchup.


17.) LAS VEGAS: The Lights are very much the "he can't keep getting away with this" team of the 2022 season. Missing Danny Trejo as a starter against the Loyal, they converted on their first shot on goal after being roundly dominated. I'm a broken record on this, but man can Cal Jennings move, providing the exact skillset the side needs to scrape by with those one-off goals. Add in a strong defensive approach, initially vulnerable-looking in San Diego but better as the match wore on, and you see why this team just won't exit the playoff conversation.


18.) LOS ANGELES: Hosting Monterey on Wednesday, the Galaxy ran rampant. I've praised their rotation between a possessive 3-2-5 and a defensive 4-4-1-1 and focused on Owen Lambe, and that shift shape completely overwhelmed a sloppy and deadpan Monterey shape to great aplomb. Preston Judd looked vintage, scoring a hat trick with a set-piece header, a precise hit from range, and a clean run-and-dink nearer to goal. It's the youth-driven, experience-backed, stylistically satisfying kind of game you wish all affiliate teams could play.

Sacramento was a different test altogether this weekend in theory, but the Republic heavily rotated their lineup in practice. Still, Yoann Damet very intentionally sat Lambe low and wide in build against a side that pushes their wingers up in the press, therefore forcing Sacramento wide and opening central passing angles. Pair that with Remi Cabral brilliance in progression, and you've got another bang-up performance. Los Angeles couldn't quite get over the line on the road - a theme for this team - but I'm still on board.

19.) PHOENIX: After a few dry weeks for Rising, Rick Schantz moved the side into a 4-4-2 shape that liberated Baboucarr Njie as a winger, employed two forwards with spirited support from the central midfield, and generally ran rampant over Loudoun. Still, the shot-margin titans couldn't punctuate an early lead, and Loudoun turned up the gears in the middle to shockingly dominate Rising.

What went wrong? The second and third goals for the Virginians came through central pressure that left any sane fan crying out for Luis Seijas' technique and safety in possession. Those same moves overwhelmed Phoenix's left side with a winger and wingback roving in the channel, which in turn forced Rising to overcommit and opened up centering passes and concessions. Yeah, bad finishing luck is a thing, but this team is consistently making the same errors at back and isn't addressing them.

At the same time, calls to sack Rick Schantz are insane to me. This club has suffered from injuries and absences as much as anyone, and they're in the thick of the playoff hunt. I get that expectation are high, but Schantz has proven himself able and intelligent for years.


20.) HARTFORD: Of all the sides adrift of the playoff race, Hartford is the strongest-looking by the numbers, firmly ahead of outside-chance peers like Los Angeles and Tulsa by xG. That underlying half-competence, however, hasn't resulted in a win for more than a month. Against Memphis, hard-nosed fullback play from Boudadi and Gdula helped to shut down an outside-in attack initially, but the Luka Prpa-Danny Barrera tandem lacked the muscle to stop 901 FC from romping down the middle.

At that juncture, I couldn’t help but weigh whether Andre Lewis could be a stabilizer. He combines above average defensive actions with 95th percentile tackling efficiency, and he's in the 83rd percentile for xA to boot, and a restored Harry Watling gave him a go against Atlanta. Alongside Prpa and McGlynn, Lewis indeed contributed to a more spirited central press, and Hartford generated 22 shots in a three-goal win.

 

Down Bad

21.) MONTEREY: One step forward, two steps back for Monterey. A few good weeks of upsets and fluidity have given way to a terribly disorganized midfield pivot and dispiriting results. The Los Angeles match was a cavalcade of poor set piece defending, fullback-to-centerback disharmony, and lackadaisical movement in possession. The injury bug is partially to blame, and Adrian Rebollar's emergence as a truly bright attacking threat (top-fifth foul drawing and shot conversion) tempers things, but I was so ready to deem Monterey a playoff dark horse a few weeks back.


22.) LOUDOUN: What a win for Loudoun against Phoenix, and to do it by confidently asserting their typical style! Zoumana Diarra was bright in the Loudoun 3-4-3, getting into his side's right channel and showing himself to be a danger on the dribble against a shambolic Rising back line. Jalen Robinson, a recent addition and veteran presence, also looked solid on the left side of the back three. Loudoun isn't reinventing the wheel, and Abdellatif Aboukoura looked like a star again in nabbing a first-half goal and later. I attributed recent improvements to a linking central creator a few weeks back, and Aboukoura's attacking gravity doubles down on the efficacy generated by Michael Gamble et al.

My man Ryan Keefer doubled down with Ryan Martin quotes after I pointed it out, but Loudoun adjusted brilliantly within their base look to punish Phoenix's fullback frailties. Push Sami Guediri to the sideline, plant Diarra or substitute Tyler Freeman in the half space, and go to town as Rising get flustered. Lovely stuff.

23.) ORANGE COUNTY: Unless you live under a rock, you know that Orange County shipped 18-year-old defender Kobi Henry over to France for a record fee early this week. At the player level, I'm chuffed for Henry. He's incredibly gifted on the physical side, and he leverages that frame to shut down transition looks and body opponents. Though raw as a passer, he has potential with a precise left foot. He needs to improve at using that 6'2" height to contest aerial battles, and he has a penchant for ball-watching, but the germ of USMNT potential is undoubtedly there. More broadly, Henry's development and ability to earn professional minutes as a teenager is another shining example of the Orange County model. Think about Aaron Cervantes and Ronaldo Damus in year past; this club has benefitted as much as any in the USL from scooping up or breeding young stars, winning games because of them, and then letting the players to move to greener pastures for a handsome profit.


24.) CHARLESTON: Chalk it up to familiarity and time, the return of AJ Paterson, Romario Piggott, and Mauro Cichero, or something else, but Charleston's defensive structure against Tampa was great yet again. Joe Schmidt was an anchor as a holding number six, and the club put in a spirited effort again after the Pittsburgh upset last weekend. Leo Fernandes doing Leo Fernandes things spoiled the party to a degree, but the Battery aren't the pushover we saw early on.


25.) TULSA: With a hugely disappointing draw against Red Bulls II, Tulsa sat six points out of the last playoff spot with two extra games played. xG hates this side; their overall margin there is bottom-five in the USL. Tulsa had moments against New York where the back three system worked, but those instances were undercut by regular centerback spacing problems. It took whole-hearted shifts from Kembo Kibato and Eric Bird to prevent as holders to prevent a massacre. It's quite the omen when this New York team quintuples your shots on target.

Clearly, the Tulsa front office was equally disheartened, and Michael Nsien was dismissed on Friday. He didn't do a horrendous job and got Tulsa to the playoffs last season, but his team has just one win since April. A lot of things went into that run. Injuries and call-ups are a uniquely destabilizing force for Tulsa; Joaquin Rivas, one of the most talented players in the USL, is regularly out with El Salvador, for instance. Still, the ex-gaffer’s team selections have always been a question mark even with that context.

The real problem came in the locker room. In discussions with a number of current and former players, it became clear that Nsien can be divisive. He’s incredibly passionate, and that makes him likeable and amiable at the best times. No one had a bad word to say about his motivation and his big heart. Still, that fire can rub some people the wrong way and numerous people cited lacking communication as a problem. I think he’s great at developing players and generating buy-in when things are going to plan, but some of the strategic frailties have publicly shown in 2022.

Moving forward, the priority has to be possessive attacking through Rodrigo Da Costa and Joaquin Rivas; I firmly believe that pair can win games so long as the defense is competent. In that vein, experiment at back! Return to a familiar foursome. Get Petar Cuic back in the eleven as a central defender so you can keep Eric Bird in the team. Make sure Ronald Rodriguez never misses a second unless he’s on Salvadoran duty. Try dropping Brian Brown, whose finishing has been an issue, and steel up the core.

No matter what, I just want something new and stylistically different from Donovan Ricketts. He had his first full training session on Saturday despite the club's weekend bye, and he faces a difficult stretch by way of Memphis, a resurgent Charleston, and San Antonio before June is out. Still, FC Tulsa is talented! I trust that improvement is on the way.


26.) NEW YORK: I love the Baby Bulls' pride kits, pictured below. They're garishly rainbow-striped, and I absolutely need one in my life. On the pitch, the resurgent 4-2-3-1 shape turned into a Wiki Carmona- and Sam Williams-driven front five that ate Tulsa alive in the middle. Tulsa's shape was abhorrent, don't get me wrong, but New York took every inch and enjoyed a strong bit of combination from Jonathan Filipe and that attacking corps all evening at the midweek. New York consistently enjoys horrid underlying data, but games like this one - or at least similarly bright moments - are too common to ever view a trip to Montclair as a walk in the park.

27.) ATLANTA: Raimar won plaudits for his offensive outburst last weekend, and he's in the 99th percentile for xG and 91st for xA overall amongst fullbacks, albeit in limited minutes. His defense impressed me against Hartford this time around. All of the Connecticut side's best moves came down the left, opposite Raimar's flank. It's always a blast to see players glow up midseason at the affiliate clubs, and Raimar seems like a prime example of the phenomenon. I don't want to oversell Atlanta in any respect after an abhorrent game against Hartford, but they have their moments.