Three Things: most pressing team needs, a Loudoun check-up, standings projections
So, the SBNation news. I hit on this a few months ago, but my love for soccer started with the World Cup in 2010 and was fueled by the blogosphere from there out. Every morning started with, in order, visits to:
MLSSoccer.com (for all the Matt Doyle reasons)
SounderAtHeart.com (and an ensuing SBNation rabbit hole...)
Reddit (I miss /r/NASLSoccer)
My grandparents lived in Seattle, and I was lucky enough to score a tour of the shared headquarters of the Sounders and Seahawks on a visit as a teen. I got a free scarf, geeked out over MLS the year Mike Magee went mad, and became the sicko I am today.
SBNation was part huge for instilling the idea of what soccer journalism is in my mind. To this day, I've relied on Alicia Rodriguez and Dave Clark and Ryan Keefer and a million other amazing people to follow the USL coherently, much less MLS. Anyone that got screwed by today's news deserves so much better. Support soccer journalism, please.
Otherwise, it was a busy week on the content front for me. If you missed anything, be sure to check out:
Offseason grades for every team in the USL
An instant reaction to Brendan Burke's Houston move and assessment of Colorado Springs' offseason
My breakdown of the Joe Corona signing in San Diego
I also want to plug The USL Show, where we talked coaching changes and broke down the Enzo Martinez contract dispute. Ditto for The Backheeled Show, where we had 2023 predictions and excellent coverage of the USWNT. Both podcasts are must-hear for fans of the USL and American soccer alike.
Number One: Key spots to fill for USL contenders
As we near the preseason and get a better sense of lineups across the USL Championship, a few otherwise-solid squads that have glaring holes. Motivated by Indy's thin midfield - a problem solved by the massive Aodhan Quinn signing - I wanted to identify needs and recommend intra-USL free agent choices.
1.) Birmingham's right back
My model found that Jonny Dean was worth about six points last year for the Legion, and his move to Chicago leaves an important gap for Tommy Soehn. This is a team that will be dangerous up front with Tyler Pasher and Neco Brett joining up, but their firepower can only patch so many holes within a thin roster.
At left back, Soehn can turn to Jake Rufe or Mikey Lopez, though the latter may start in the pivot. Where to turn at right back? Matt Sheldon would be the big swing. He's a better pure passer than Dean if much less mobile, and he shone in Tulsa and Charleston. Other veteran options include Noah Powder and Alex McQueen, two versatile Trinidadian internationals, or a young player like ex-Baby Bull O'Vonte Mullings.
2.) Detroit's striker
Scoring by committee and a defend-first, counter-next approach led to an excellent USL debut for Le Rouge, but their forward group is depleted. If Trevor James wants to build on the successes of 2022, he needs a deadeye no. 9 in his team.
Some of the early additions are promising in a creative sense, but they're setup men. I praised Skage Simonsen's vision as a passer in this column last week, and Adrian Billhardt is a great secondary scorer from the right. Maybe Yazeed Matthews is the answer, but I'd look at young MLS-affiliated pieces like Jackson Conway or Preston Judd - two double-digit scorers - or a true hold-up type a la Steeven Dos Santos.
There's a case that Matthews is the guy, by the way. He had better expected goal production than any other Detroit forward excepting Francis Atuahene, who exclusively played in possession-heavy late-game situations. In any event, Matthews rated in the 91st percentile for aerial win rate and put up more headers per game than any striker in the USL. He even nabbed a playoff goal in Memphis. Add a back-up and let Matthews run? Not for me, but City may go that route.
3.) Phoenix's back line
Few roster builds have been as interesting as that of Phoenix Rising ahead of 2023. Most of their additions have come from outside of the USL, and their central midfield is oozing with technical, high-upside talent; Frederico Varela is especially exciting.
Still, there's a lack of balance in defense at the moment if Juan Guerra uses the 3-4-3 system that he preferred in Oakland and the Valley last year. Rising has signed two true central defenders to date, Alejandro Fuenmayor and John Stenberg. The latter is an unknown quantity with 150 games in Sweden's lower tiers; the former is a transfer from the Roots that put up 83rd percentile Goals Above Replacement last year.
Fuenmayor is ball-capable and a solid system fit, and we'll charitably assume that Stenberg comes good. Who's the third man? It could be Darnell King, a 5'8" career fullback with only a handful of late-2022 starts at center half. Maybe it's Kevon Lambert, unconfirmed as a returnee and needed as a no. 6. My answer? Sell your soul for Jordan Scarlett, a right-centerback with two Conference Final appearances in New York and nearly 70 excellent games for Tampa Bay.
Two other spots to note: Oakland's central midfield and Memphis' net. Let's start with the former. Charlie Dennis, Mikael Johnsen, Matias Fissore, and Jose Hernandez combined to play about 90 games in total minutes across two pivot spots; all have departed. Spot man Joseph Nane re-signed today, at least. Noah Delgado has added a versatile no. 6 in Napo Matsoso and an interesting prospect in Ryan Her, but more impact is needed. The Kevin Wright signing - he's a Sierra Leone international fullback with English experience - hints at good news ahead, however.
Meanwhile, Memphis is currently without a single goalkeeper on the public roster as we barrel towards the season. Trey Muse, poached by Ben Pirmann in Charleston, was above-average if not world-beating in 2022, and a capable replacement is a must for Stephen Glass. The side inked centerbacks Carson Vom Steeg and Jelani Peters and left back Akeem Ward - a personal favorite - to multi-year deals this week, but their remaining gap is a crucial one.
Number Two: Loudoun's quietly successful offseason rebuild
Don't look now, but everyone's favorite MLS affiliate has assembled a replacement-level squad! My playoff odds aren't overly friendly towards the Virginians, but a 5% chance of qualification in an ever-tougher Eastern Conference is nothing to scoff at. The big thing for me has been the number of mature professionals Ryan Martin has inked. This team isn't composed of DC United teenagers alone.
Zach Ryan and Tommy Williamson, two USL veterans, look to lead the attacking line. Ryan operated as a linking no. 9/no. 10 type for New York, and I liked him as a ball carrier in transition. Still, he rated in the 63rd percentile for expected goals per 90 and below average by every other relevant metric. Williamson has a great 6'1" frame and nabbed six goals in inconsistent appearances with Pittsburgh in 2021; he put up nine-goals in his MLS NEXT Pro debut year with Minnesota.
I'm frankly mixed on both of those forwards, but other prospects are more promising. Cole Turner, a midfielder signed this week, stands out. Just 21 years old, Turner played 20 games for Philadelphia Union II after a year-end loan to El Paso two years back. His statistical profile couldn't paint a clearer picture: this is a pure no. 6. Metronomic passing and efficient midfield destruction are in his toolbox.
The wide areas truly excite me. Koa Santos, added from Charlotte in League One, is a potent threat as a right back. He was used as more of a wingback last year, putting an attacking skew on his numbers, but the crossing and creation stand out. Kalil ElMedkhary, a product of North Texas SC with nine goal contributions in League One a few years back, seems to be a natural fit ahead of him on the wing.
MLS NEXT Pro numbers are difficult to find and less thorough than my USL dataset, but the statistics are very high on Kwame Awuah, the presumptive left back. He put up 0.16 expected assists per 90 - somewhere near the 70th percentile - and rated in the 80th percentile overall by my Goals Above Replacement metric. He also was a nailed starter in the Canadian Premiership and could be a Jalen Robinson-esque leader at 27 years old.
What of the rest of the defense? I'm low-ish on Dane Jacomen (26th percentile Goals Saved Above Average in two games) in net, but Yanis Leerman deserves a shout for his potential in the back four. The always-excellent Ryan Keefer profiled his college resume at UCF and connections with the Loudoun staff. Central Florida, of course, put Cal Jennings, Jonny Dean, and Yannik Oettl into the professional ranks; all three excelled in the USL last season. Leerman even paired with Central Valley defender Francois Dulysse in his freshman year!
Friday saw Leerman get his partner in the back line with the signing of Bryce Washington, formerly of Atlanta United 2. You can see a clip of his ball carriage from a defensive spot here, as well as his season numbers:
Washington never struck me as the best pure defender, but he was efficient in the tackle according to the numbers. Last year's Atlanta side was often caught against the counter or pinned deep, so I don't invest too much in Washington's raw performance; there's tons of talent here.
This has been a lot of resume-listing, but the moral of the story is that Loudoun's additions are interesting at a minimum. There's a lot of pace and creativity out wide plus a ball-carrier and hold-up man up top. The defenders are par-level at least in my mind. You can see the bones of a Ryan Martin team; press like maniacs on the flanks and counter apace. The spine needs work, but Loudoun may just be a tough out.
Number Three: Standings model updates
Here's my latest set of points projections for 2023. The Model™ is based on my estimates for player minutes and individual player performance via Goals Above Replacement (GAR) expectations. Direct any questions or complaints to me on Twitter.
In any event, the West remains rather striated. San Antonio is a cut above, uh, every single team in the USL. Below them, Sacramento have reclaimed the two spot amidst a strong Pittsburgh-raiding offseason. Joe Corona gave San Diego a slight boost, but he's also taking minutes from excellent players in Collin Martin and Charlie Adams.
Phoenix has dropped off a tick after adding two goalkeepers (Patrick Rakovsky and Rocco Rios Novo) that combined for a Goals Saved Above Average of -14 last year. For those in the back: those two cost their teams more than a dozen goals! Rakovsky is better than that; the 2021 playoffs proved as much. Rios Novo also is undervalued for his skill on the ball.
The eight spot is really tight between Colorado Springs, Rio Grande Valley, and El Paso. I would take the Toros with a gun to my head because they always come through, but who knows with the other two teams replacing their managers.
What about the East? Indy has taken a big jump, and they could catch Memphis if 901's goalkeeper - see above - ends up being a bust. Aodhan Quinn alone was worth about three points for the Hoosier side. Birmingham was up-and-down amidst the Jonny Dean transfer and Juan Agudelo's re-signing, and Loudoun's busy week saw them crawl back into the mix.
Detroit is at an interesting junction. They're a step above the bubble but keep dropping amidst a blase offseason. What does Trevor James add to reassert his team's claim on a playoff berth? Charleston, hot on Le Rouge's tail, suffers from a widely-dispersed rotation at the moment; more minutes equates to more trust in a player's quality and a higher predicted GAR. The Battery may be undervalued.
Further, here are those standings with error bars for each team. Retention is the key factor here. Every additional percentage point of minutes that you don't bring back adds about 0.2 points of uncertainty. In other words, losing a player that got around 2,500 minutes (just under 30 matches) would equate to two points error in one direction or another.
The West is notable for its low volatility at the high end. Each of the top four projected teams in that conference sits at 68% retention or higher. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Lights at the other end of the table still have a zero-point season as a possibility. Quick note: I've heard a few more-than-respectable names that they've invited to preseason camp! A heartbeat!
Additional quality and parity across the board have had an interesting effect. The Eastern line for postseason qualification is 41.2 points, and it's 40.9 out West. Last year, Tulsa (42 points) and El Paso (46 points) would've set those low water marks.
Without Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles and accounting for expected spikes in quality from Charleston, Hartford, and Orange County, there simply aren't as many free points on the table. Las Vegas – roster pending – is the only pushover, and that means that teams are going to have slightly lower point totals that crunch towards a median. Your Louisville types will still sail towards 70 or so points, but they’ll have a harder time. To me, that’s great for the league.