First and foremost, I want to implore y'all to get a paid subscription to Backheeled. The brunt of my writing will be located there this season in the form of my weekly power ranking column. For those that aren't familiar, I rank every team during every week of the USL season and provide a breakdown of the news and tactical notes for those clubs. It's basically 5,000 or so words of everything you need to know to stay abreast of the second division.
A subscription is very cheap in the grand scheme of things, and you'll also gain access to amazing coverage of MLS, the NWSL, and the men's and women's national teams. I personally covered the USMNT at the World Cup in Qatar, and I'll be doing the same for the USWNT, but the other writers on the site make me look like a beginner.
In any event, let's get to the USL offseason.
Number One: San Antonio adds to a juggernaut spine
On the face of things, losing Samuel Adeniran, Santiago Patino, Cristian Parano, and (probably) the pair of Nicky Hernandez and Jasser Khmiri seems like the harbinger of a bad offseason. When you're blessed with as deep a roster as San Antonio FC, that simply isn't the case. Indeed, the defending champs already look to be the class of the league heading into the new year.
For one, the spine of the squad is mostly back despite a few losses. Yeah, Adeniran was a starter down the stretch and Parano got playoff run-out, but most of the losses have been spot players. Indeed, Alen Marcina returns 68.7% of last season's minutes, headlined by Mitchell Taintor, Defender of the Year; Jordan Farr, Goalkeeper of the Year; and Connor Maloney, should-have-been-an-all-leaguer.
The announced additions have been superb. Juan Azocar was the first addition, hopping over from the Oakland Roots. More accurately, the wingback arrives on loan from a Venezuelan club to a USL team for a third straight year, but I digress.
Azocar comes off a 10-goal season where he ranked in the 87th percentile by my Goals Above Average (GAR) metric of player performance. Few wide men have his physical strength, powerful dribbling, and sense for timely forays into the box. He's Maloney-like with a bit more gumption and a bit lower of a work rate; he can eat Diedie Traore or Jordy Delem's time or play as more of a wide forward.
Niko Hansen, meanwhile, signed this week after a few years as an MLS journeyman. Look at some of his highlights from MLS; this is the definition of an Alen Marcina attacker! He's a good presser and instinctual running after turnovers. Maybe he's a "Deshane Beckford in 2022" that can't find time, but the numbers say otherwise.
If you project my Goals Above Replacement model onto Hansen's stats, he rates as an 83rd percentile player. It's a bit of an apples-and-oranges proposition. Hansen earned a lot of expected goals and assists as well as defensive actions as a late-game sub and energy guy and last-ditch source of offense.
Kimarni Smith was added Thursday afternoon. A DC United and Loudoun United product, Smith is another quick forward who fits the high-energy profile that San Antonio prefers. He only has four goals as a professional, but he boasted a 91st percentile conversion rate last year in the USL and drew fouls at a 93rd percentile rate. Throw him to either side of Ignacio Bailone, and he's an Andeniran without the scoring.
There are still holes to be plugged. Depth is crucial when you're a defense-first team, and Saad Abdul-Salaam and Khmiri were very good filling in and starting a decent share of matches. There's also some need in the central midfield, but San Antonio has put pen to paper with a very solid player there who can meet the standard of PC and Mohammed Abu. Basically, there's no reason that this team won't set the pace yet again in 2023.
Number Two: Analyzing the USL Championship schedule
If you missed it, the USL Championship and USL League One each released their schedules for the upcoming season. As a result, I analyzed historic results in the Championship and updated my 2023 Offseason Tracker with strength-of-schedule data and match dates in one convenient location. Check that out here.
To start, what did I uncover about rest days and match location?
In a vacuum, home teams outperform their expected results by 7% and away teams suffer to the same degree. This means that the host side is 7% more likely to earn a win or draw than they would be at a neutral site.
There's a statistically insignificant difference between "low-rest" matches played after three-to-five days off as compared to the typical six-to-eight day gap.
Things get weird with nine or more days of rest. Away sides gain significantly, performing only 3% worse than in a vacuum despite the travel. However, home sides suffer by a whopping 7%! Having about a week-and-a-half without a competitive match is as harmful as going on the road.
Using these findings and a mix of 2022 team performances and my projected 2023 standings, I built out a schedule model and found which teams had the hardest run-ins this year. The three hardest stretches, highlighted below, all ranked near the top in terms of cumulative three-, four-, and five- match difficulty. Who stood out?
San Diego Loyal boast the hardest stretch of the season, visiting San Antonio - the defending league champs - on June 3rd before hosting US Open finalists Sacramento on the 10th and rematching San Antonio on the 17th. For obvious reasons, San Antonio rated as the hardest matchup in my projection model, so any three-game unit containing Alen Marcina's side twice was going to be a tall order.
A crucial run at the end of the year for the Tampa Bay Rowdies was a close second. Al Lang Stadium will play host to two of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference according to my projections, and Neill Collins' side must also travel to play the defending champs. Note the short rest for the Memphis game as well.
We get an honest-to-God derby for the East's biggest offseason movers next: say hello, Indy Eleven! Mark Lowry will be hoping to be in the thick of playoff contention by late July, and this run of games could earn Indy a home playoff berth if things go swimmingly. The Louisville-Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest starts the stretch, and it wraps with a game against Birmingham, my projected two seed in the East.
Finally, we see Detroit City join the club. It's two familiar faces to start, with two of my three strongest projected sides visiting Keyworth Stadium. Then, Detroit gets a ten-day break before traveling to Charleston, one of the most improved sides of the offseason. The rest helps going into the Pirmann Bowl, but this is rather tough. Still, Trevor James has 20 more matches to right the ship if his club falters.
Last up, what's the easiest set of games? Tampa Bay makes a second appearance with a truly dire triad. Loudoun and Las Vegas are projected to get as many points total as the third-worst USL team, and that team just happens to be Oakland. Yeah, the Rowdies are on the road, and the Roots are liable to build out their roster into something stronger than its mid-January state, but this is a nice break in the heart of a tough calendar.
Number Three: What is Skage Simonsen's upside with Detroit?
It's been a quiet offseason in the Motor City to date with only two additions to a playoff roster. Trevor James and the team's front office rained down multi-year extensions on the defensive core and retained the talismanic Maxi Rodriguez, but what about the new faces?
Richie Ballard, more of a winger than a no. 10, doesn't inspire confidence. He frankly feels like more of a patchwork wingback and has played less than 30 matches worth of minutes in total since 2017. Ballard didn't even scratch the 400-minute mark last year in a Miami team that was worse than Detroit in the table.
However, I think that Skage Simonsen could be one of the breakout stars of the 2023 season. In an offensively challenged Loudoun team, he generated 74th percentile expected assists with a 90th percentile forward passing rate. In other words, Simonsen excelled at constantly moving the ball up the pitch, and he did so with a sense of purpose. The result was a seven-assist year.
Meanwhile, Detroit's Connor Rutz generated one assist and rated amongst the worst attacking players in the league in terms of expected assists. That isn't to denigrate Rutz; I wrote an entire article about his talents last season! Still, Rutz's strengths are late-arriving bursts into the box, pass-before-the-assist wheel-greasing in the final third, and a fierce work rate. If I'm Trevor James, I'm eschewing a true defensive no. 6 and putting Maxi Rodriguez with Rutz and Simonsen in a clever, offensive midfield three.
Still, I want to linger on Simonsen for a moment. What makes him such a tantalizing prospect for Detroit? The example below is illustrative.
To set the stage, you're seeing Loudoun advance in transition against San Antonio's back five. Simonsen has advanced into a forward position on the shoulder of the centermost centerback while a teammate runs into the half space to challenge that same defender.
When the San Antonio man hedges between the two Loudoun men, Simonsen takes a smart step. He notes that the centerback's momentum heads left, so he moves to that defender's right deeper into the midfield. This move accomplishes a few things:
Simonsen finds additional space in an immediate sense.
If the defender has to turn towards Simonsen, he has to entirely change the direction of his movement.
If that defender steps back, a Loudoun player can run in behind.
Simonsen finds the ball in the gap, and the centerback suffers from analysis paralysis, allowing the half-space runner in behind. Simonsen is challenged by a recovering midfielder, but his perfect first-time pass coolly ignores that pressure and finds Loudoun's #27 for an assist. It's a wonderful play, and I expect to see more of it from him in a Le Rouge shirt.
With Antoine Hoppenot and Pato Botello out, this Detroit team still needs forwards if they hope to return to the playoffs. Ditto Deklan Wynne at left wingback; maybe Ballard surprises there? Still, there's a spine at back and a high-upside midfield, and I trust the scouting and player acquisition model in Detroit to give Coach James what he needs.
Standings Projections and Top Free Agents
Here's the latest from my projection model in terms of the standings. With Jonny Dean out, Birmingham sinks to third in the East after leading since the Tyler Pasher addition. Louisville and Tampa Bay have Thanos-ed themselves to inevitable top-two status; note that the Rowdies have three unannounced signings in the mix. I'm also eyeing the gap between eight and nine here.
The West is more competitive on the bubble, with three teams right on the edge of the eight slot. San Antonio continues to look unassailable, but Sacramento has leapt up to second after the addition of Shane Wiedt; dare I say their roster is mostly complete?
Finally, an update to the free agent pack. I won't bloviate too much, but I've included the top five players according to my Goals Above Replacement model and then my next ten subjective favorites. I've also added a quick note on availabilities; a few of these players are signed already or close to that point, but it's not my place to leave those hints.