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  • John Morrissey

Three Things: Memphis' new regime, checking in with the affiliates, and Miami's Tormenta raid

Happy holidays once again! I took last week off to enjoy the season and post my awful Santa photoshop piece, but I can't stay away for long. In any event, I’m back at it and should keep up with the weekly analysis and standings updates hereon out. Cheers.


Number One: How does Memphis evolve under new management?

I didn't hit on the Stephen Glass hiring immediately after Memphis pulled the trigger, and that's because I didn't know what to think. 901 FC had huge shoes to fill with Ben Pirmann leaving, and Glass had an impressive if mixed track record. With that in mind, I wanted to take a statistical look at his coaching gigs to see what gives.

To do so, I looked at the 2019 season for Atlanta United 2 and Glass' Aberdeen stint. I'm omitting four pre-COVID games for Atlanta and all non-league (i.e. Conference League) matchups for Aberdeen, but this sample is still a good representation of the manager's oeuvre.

Glass' spell in the Peach State paints a complicated picture. If you port that Atlanta roster from 2019 into my current prediction model, they'd expect to earn around 30 points with a 9% chance of playoff qualification. That's a big caveat.

Still, Two-nited had a historically leaky defense and subpar offense, and we can't deny that. They only finished eight points out of the playoffs, but they had a -0.6 expected goal margin per game and had the fifth-worst goal difference in a 36-team league. Stylistically, Atlanta rated highly in terms of defensive aggression by possession-weighted actions and held a lot of the ball.

When a tenured USL manager is hired in a new city, I look back at their old teams for potential signings. No offense to a four-year-old Atlanta roster, but there's basically nothing you'd want. Laurent Kissiedou is the big name, and Glass inherits him in Memphis; ditto Luiz Fernando. I'd give shouts to Jack Metcalf or Laurence Wyke, but they're respectively retired or off to MLS. Both would've been good fits in his preferred 4-2-3-1 or centerback-driven back three.

Moving on, Aberdeen is historically one of the titans of Scottish football. In taking over, Glass inherited a seat once held by Sir Alex Ferguson. Since 2013, the club had finished second, third, or fourth in every season, including the Glass-led back half of 2021. However, Aberdeen cratered to 10th as Glass didn't last through 2022.

The data, however, paints the picture of a rather successful team. While Aberdeen underperformed in the table, they dominated the ball and won the expected goals battle in any given match by +0.43. Glass' Aberdeen was not particularly aggressive in the press , and they usually played in a 4-2-3-1. Since his dismissal, the club has rebounded to third place in the 2023 Scottish Premiership at the time of writing.

That's a whole lot of bloviation, so what are the big takeaways? Stephen Glass teams:

  1. Dominate possession and consistently create chances

  2. Don't have a firm defensive identity or press with much fervor

  3. Work from a baseline 4-2-3-1 that can turn into a back three with an aggressive defensive line

By comparison, Ben Pirmann's Memphis held a high-ish share of possession, prioritized pressure, and sought to dominate the game territorially.

Glass seems to have added Akeem Ward as the right back to replace Derek Dodson, one of many former 901 FC players to join Pirmann in South Carolina. Inheriting Aaron Molloy and Laurent Kissiedou as the game-breaking passers to give his system teeth is huge, but Memphis can only maintain 2022's stunning success with more intelligent additions.


Number Two: The state of play for MLS-adjacent USL teams heading into 2023

I try and spread the love across the USL Championship in this column every week, so I figured that I should touch on the MLS affiliates despite a lack of roster action and the looming exits for MLS NEXT Pro. We'll start with the returning teams before turning to a few poachable players from the seceders.

Las Vegas Lights

Las Vegas is easy to cover because they’ve done nothing this offseason. Literally, they've announced zero players. I’ve criticized Memphis and Rio Grande Valley in offseasons past for their lack of action, but the Lights are taking things to a new level. Even if guys like Cal Jennings and Danny Trejo don’t come back – probably a foregone conclusion at this point – you still want Las Vegas to show signs of life.

Most of the 2022 roster hasn’t signed anywhere yet, but I did want to hit on Alex Lara’s move to Monterey. He was fine with Hartford a few years back but absolutely shone under Enrique Duran last year. The Lights used a low-lying 4-3-3 and relied on the pairing of Lara and Dekel Keinan to repel pressure and clog the box. Lara was fantastic at doing so, rating highly across the board in terms of his defensive statistics.

Without Lara on the pitch, Duran’s side shipped six goals in about 200 minutes, a truly dire rate. The new Monterey man just knows how and when to intervene, and he’ll either be a high-end bench option behind Kai Greene and Hugh Roberts or the perfect addition to a new-look back three.

Loudoun United

In roster terms, Loudoun has been rather quiet. Dane Jacomen, a goalkeeper with a smattering of appearances in the USL universe, is the first familiar face for next year’s squad. There are a few college players that have been inked, and ex-Riverhound Tommy Williamson will lead the attacking line, but it’s too soon to judge much of anything in Northern Virginia.

That dearth of excitement doesn’t apply off the pitch. Steven Goff reported this week that Loudoun was expected to be sold to the owners of MiLB’s Bowie Bay Sox, allowing them to become independent of DC United. On the face of things, the move makes a lot of sense. Loudoun’s lease for Segra Field requires that the tenant play in the second division, precluding DC from moving the club into MLS NEXT Pro. The Bay Sox ownership seems fine, and it keeps the team in fairly local hands.

Competitively, this is a positive development. The new bosses won't spend like the USL’s deepest-pocketed clubs, but DC-era Loudoun has relied on teenagers and journeyman to a harmful degree. Frankly, League One may be a better fit for Loudoun in a vacuum – you could say that about any team in the Southeast – but I’m expecting to a see a degree of glow-up for Ryan Martin.

Still, the biggest story here may come from the MLS NEXT Pro consequences. DC United has produced a number of very decent prospects that have cut their teeth with Loudoun, and they’ll need an outlet in MLS’s new-ish developmental league. The hot rumor is that this team will play in Baltimore.

Baltimore is one of the absolute best untapped markets left for soccer in America. Abortive previous clubs and expansion efforts don't negate that this is a top-30 TV market home to nearly 600,000 citizens. A NEXT side would crowd the media landscape and compete for local youth talent if it were to run up against an independent USL team. They’d also create competition for a stadium or stadium site.

At the end of the day, what’s the point for MLS here? No minor league soccer team is a breadwinner, and boxing the USL out does little of note for any party. I'm partisan, but an indie club would do more for the fans and promote the growth of the game in a fuller way.

Atlanta United 2, LA Galaxy II, New York Red Bulls II

Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York might be done with the USL, but their legacies will live on through the players that return to the second division. Who might come back?

When I think about Atlanta United 2’s best moments last season, I immediately turn to Tristan Trager and Jackson Conway in the forward line. Jack Collison didn’t exactly forge an offensive juggernaut, but his team was successful when they pressed hard in the 3-4-3 and funneled offense into that pair in transition.

Trager is the better-rounded player of the two. He has the instinct of a real poacher in the box – 95th percentile expected goals per shot paint that picture – while offering up a smart sense for picking up possession on the counter. He’s an unselfish passer and weaponizes his body well to boot. Don’t let any of this be a knock on Conway. The more experienced striker netted double-digit goals in a 97th percentile Goals Above Replacement campaign, and he’s as pure a no. 9 as there is. He drew interest from playoff teams at midseason and should land back in the Championship if he so chooses.

Meanwhile, the Galaxy have maintained a more solid core as they change leagues. Preston Judd, the star striker that kept the team adjacent to the playoff race, is the big name to re-sign. Marcus Ferkranus, a ball-adept centerback that finished 2022 on loan with Phoenix Rising, was also kept around, as was Jalen Neal, an 18-year-old defender that seemed to grow in skill and confidence with every second he spent playing next to Liam Doyle.

If I was poaching players from the bygone Galaxy roster, I’d point to Owen Lambe, Josh Drack, and Cameron Dunbar. The former is a right back or central midfielder with intelligence for days. He was tasked with a fluid, position-swapping job in the team’s system in 2022, and he generated seven assists and 99th percentile Goals Above Replacement in nearly 3,000 minutes. Drack is a more traditional overlapping left back, but he put up three goals and two assists and is bursting with potential at age 22.

Dunbar might be the cream of the available crop. I wrote about him on my blog and for Backheeled (twice, in fact!), highlighting his searing pace and comfort level as a box-to-box wingback or wildly potent threat in the final third. Dunbar knows exactly when to crash the box with a far-post run or take on an opponent with the ball at his feet. The comparison here is Enoch Mushagalusa, who moved from Sporting Kansas City II to Louisville City last year and put up 10 goals on 99th percentile expected goals per 90. Call me crazy, but Dunbar would do much the same in the Danny Cruz system or something comparable.

Not to disparage the Baby Bulls – lord knows I’ve done too much of that in this space – but there isn’t a ton of great talent that they’ve let go. Zach Ryan looked heady as a no. 10 or withdrawn striker, but I have questions about his athleticism. Jesus Castellano helped to balance the midfield and shepherd ball carriage late in the season, but he’s a role player at this stage. Omar Sowe, a 15-goal scorer across 33 or so games in 2020 and 2021, is the clear pick for me out of New York’s released players. Like Conway, he can easily fill a starting no. 9 role.

I do think that my struggle to really key in on a massive crop of options across these three teams is indicative of why the MLS NEXT Pro departures are a win-win. The affiliated development squads simply lack the quality to compete with ever-stronger independent sides filled with grown men. I hope we still get loans to the USL side of the pyramid for developed prospects without a clear path to MLS minutes, but the general separation is a positive.


Number Three: Anthony Pulis turns to the defending League One champs for depth

We've now seen Miami FC add three new faces this offseason, and two come from League One's South Georgia Tormenta. The reigning third-tier champs boasted a roster thick with talent across the board, and Miami smartly sought to add some of their useful pieces. In Gabriel Cabral and Curtis thorn, Anthony Pulis has acquired in two players that add a high level of strategic versatility to Miami's arsenal.

Thorn was the right back for Ian Cameron's title side. He's a defensive sort of player at that spot, and Tormenta employed him in a rather flat back four. Instantly, then, you'd assume that the Englishman would back up dynamite wingback Mark Segbers. That could be true, but Thorn's aerial excellence and disciplined positioning could alsosuit a back-three nod.

The new man's entrance as a right centerback would mirror the responsibility often given to Aedan Stanley on the left. When Miami caught fire late in the year, Stanley played as a left back in defense but more of a back-three left centerback in possession; the end result was improved wing aggression for the side. Thorn enables Pulis to repeat the trick.

Cabral (or Gabriel? The official league stats page calls him "Gabriel de Freitas") rated much higher than Thorn in my statistical Goals Above Replacement model. Indeed, he was better than 98% of League One players. Still, his game has a certain specificity. He tempo-sets and intervenes with elite efficiency, but you'd be remiss to task him with incisive creation. He's a Tyler Gibson more than an Aaron Molloy, but there's a bit of late-arriving offense too.

Given that description, you might question the fit next to Bolu Akinyode. Both are prototypical no. 6s in contrast to the departing Speedy Williams. The Jamaican international pairs similar levels of defensive nous with elite progressive skills and a tight touch. League One expert Brandon Mays thinks "this guy is a season or two away from regular MLS minutes if he continues to develop" and that, given his growth trends, "a multiyear deal is by far the smartest move [Miami could] make." There's enough talent here to throw something at the wall and see what develops.

I do think that a comparison between Cameron’s Tormenta and Pulis’ Miami bolsters the fit. Tormenta went long on about 64% of their restarts, while Miami sat at 63%; both rates notably exceeded league averages. The League One winners came in with 0.95 crosses per key pass versus 1.16 for Miami. The latter mark would’ve come third-from-bottom in League One, but the broader point is that both teams look to go long, gain possession from second balls, and pursue ground-based incision in the final third.

These additions are strong and systematically logical, and this week’s signing of Ben Mines – a bit of a journeyman winger, but a talented one – is another boost. Still, Miami sorely lacked for central creation beyond Florian Valot, lost one of the league’s best goalkeepers in Connor Sparrow to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and suffers from an imbalanced roster with a million starting-caliber centerbacks and very few forwards. The early steps have been encouraging, but there’s work to do at Riccardo Silva Stadium.


Standings Projections

I won't comment much, but here are the newest standings projrections for the Championship. The East is absurdly tight, and Louisville has established a duopoly with Birmingham after the Dylan Mares signing. Out West, San Antonio is utterly ascendent, but peep Monterey! Elsewhere, I dropped League One projections on Twitter, and I might add those here going forward.

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