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  • John Morrissey

USL 50: Ranking the league's top players

Which players in the USL are the best and the most important to their teams? I wanted to find out, so I started with a list of 400+ rostered players and worked from there. The result is USL 50, my ranking of the league's essential stars.

Across those 50 players and a set of honorable mentions, every club but one is represented. Sacramento leads the way with seven selections, with San Antonio and Louisville running close behind them. Unintentionally, there are 30 players from both the East and the West in the entire set of picks.

The youngest player represented is only 16 years old, nested amongst the honorable mentions. Two 34-year-olds share the distinction of being the oldest player on the list; they've aged like fine wine, and one is high up in the #2 slot. On average, a given member of this group is just over 27 years old, at the peak age for a soccer player.

What defines "best" in a list like this? Skill and raw talent matter, but those attributes have to make themselves apparent on the pitch. Goals and assists can give someone a boost, but off-the-ball movement and defensive positioning are equally impactful across season-long stretches. If someone's club has been demonstrably worse while they've been absent because of injury or international duty, that signifies something, too.

There were hard cuts to make, and I tried my best to decide which players were most crucial to their club in order to maintain some diversity. Do I think Alejandro Guido, Anderson Asiedu, Fabien Garcia, and Tyler Gibson are some of the 50 best players in the USL? Without a doubt. Guido is one of my favorite players, period. Still, have the performances of that aforementioned group warranted inclusion over scads of their teammates? That's the impossible question.

I also need to put in a good word for League One. I'm restricting this list to the USL Championship, but I'd be remiss not to mention players like Arthur Rogers or Rashid Nuhu. Just because someone hasn't played in the second division in 2022 or 2023 doesn't mean they wouldn't excel at that level.

To start, I'll delineate a group of ten players who joined or re-joined the USL this year and who I wasn't quite sure enough about to include in the proper ranking. After that, I go from fiftieth to first with my player-by-player breakdown.

Let's get to it.

Leo Fernandes (FW, TBR)

In a different universe, Leo Fernandes ranks in the top five of this list without a shadow of a doubt. Injuries are what they are, and that can't happen. Still, the reigning USL MVP is special; 19 goals and nine assists last year betray as much. Often used as a wing back in the past, Fernandes led Tampa Bay to another Eastern Conference Final last year as a forward liberated to roam, rove, and create constant danger. He's a legend of the league.

Arnold Lopez (CM, SAC)

Good defensive midfielders put in tackles and keep possession with safe, measured passing. Great ones deny opponents from ever receiving the ball in tackle-worthy positions and know when to break lines with their distribution. 28-year-old Arnold Lopez has shown hints of those latter qualities this year, and it's allowed Sacramento become more free-flowing in attack because of the surety the midfielder provides.

Denys Kostyshyn (AM, ELP)

Capable of dropping low to ping a jaw-dropping diagonal ball or pushing up high on the right to turn a 4-4-2 into a 4-3-3, Denys Kostyshyn has the look of a midfield maestro. He has a sixth sense for bobbing inside and out to accommodate full backs, yet he also has registered 81st percentile expected goals (xG) at his position thanks to killer instincts as a runner. He's the engine of this year's Locomotive.

Fede Varela (AM, PHX)

If you watch a Phoenix game this year, you can hardly go half an hour without witnessing an audacious chipped through ball or deft first-touch turn in the final third. The source? Fede Varela. The former Porto man camps in the half spaces as part of Rising's front three and dictates the action. He's in the 90th percentile for key passes per forward pass so far, indicating a precise eye for incisive distribution. That'll only get better as a new-look side settles in, and Varela will be a key cog therein.

Fidel Barajas (AM, CHS)

After lighting up the CONCACAF U-17s in the offseason, Fidel Barajas has kept up that momentum in Charleston. He was effective in a late-season cameo in 2022, but his audacity as a crosser and curling shots from the edge of the box look that much better with age. More impressively, Barajas is a fiery and disciplined presser that's excellent at sustaining a stifling counterpress. The sky is the limit for the young star.

Joe Corona (CM, SDL)

It should surprise no one that a player with 23 USMNT caps is excelling in the second tier, but that doesn't lessen what Joe Corona has done to date. Sitting ahead of a back three in a double pivot or trio, Corona has served as a deep-lying destroyer or further-up linker as Nate Miller has required, and he's never put a foot wrong. Multiple Open Cup goals and 90th percentile expected assists (xA) are a sign of things to come beyond the dirty work that Corona naturally provides.

Lamar Batista (CB, SAFC)

When Lamar Batista signed a 25-day contract with the defending champs, he seemed to be a stopgap option that would quickly become an afterthought. Instead, Batista now seems like a crucial member of the San Antonio back three. In a wide center back spot, he is wildly effective at leveraging a huge frame and surprising foot speed to clean up danger. He's a towering presence in either box, and he gives Alen Marcina yet another elite defender in a team chock full of them.

Nick Markanich (AM, CHS)

After hardly getting time as a rookie in MLS, Nick Markanich is the breakout star of the USL less than a year later. Any player who can relegate Arturo Rodriguez and Emilio Ycaza to the bench is special, and Markanich has done so to great effect. He can rotate with a striker to confuse defenses or drop lower to find touches and keep offense flowing, all with an eye towards opening angles for his left foot. Markanich has the poise of a seasoned veteran already.

Panos Armenakas (AM, LDN)

On the hypothetical spectrum between subtlety and flashiness, Panos Armenakas is as far towards the latter as possible. Even so, he backs that panache up with curling finishes, next-level passes, and a powerful sensibility on the dribble, all of which elevate Loudoun to a tremendous degree. Armenakas hasn't lit up the scoresheet in the USL so far, but every touch he takes feel purposeful and progressive. It's rare for a 24-year-old to come into the league and immediately feel like they're a cut above, but Armenakas fits that bill.

Tyler Pasher (AM, BHM)

After a stint in MLS as more of a super sub than anything else, Tyler Pasher is back to being a USL superstar. Few players are as capable at slaloming through an entire defenses on 50-yard dribbles, and fewer still can cap those moves with thundering finishes. Pair that with the work rate embedded into a one-time full back, and you've got the total package. Health tends to be a question with the Canadian, but his ability to generate magic in an instant is Birmingham's not-so-secret weapon.

50. Jonathan Ricketts (FB, RGV)

Whether they're pressing high in a 4-2-4 or sitting deep in a proper back five, the Toros are dependent on Jonathan Ricketts' width to open up games. No player is better at whipping in crosses from odd angles and deep spots, but he's also smart as an underlapper. 6'1" and well-built, Ricketts can only get the job done in his own third. Still, you're left dreaming about that right foot after watching him in action in Edinburg.

49. Jeremy Kelly (AM, MEM)

In 2022, Jeremy Kelly broke out as an inverted left winger, nabbing eight goals and nine assists in a wonderfully fluid Memphis team. Amidst injuries and early foibles, Kelly - once a full back - has emerged as a proper No. 6 that's rapidly figuring out how to halt counters with strong positioning. Underratedly good with the ball in tight spaces and seemingly able to play any role on the pitch, Kelly could improve any team in the USL.

48. Aodhan Quinn (CM, IND)

The prototype of a box-to-box midfielder, Aodhan Quinn gives you everything on the pitch. He's been a captain. He takes a confident set piece. He sprays diagonal balls out wide. He knows when to crash into the box or drop back into a deep shape. The 31-year-old has evolved from a holding type in Louisville to a linking creator in Indy with stunning Western stints in between, but he can beat you in a million ways.

47. Koke Vegas (GK, SDL)

Few things are scarier than a goalkeeper roaming outside of their box to handle the ball. Koke Vegas makes it look easy, coming as high as his center backs in build to facilitate San Diego's possessive style. Turnovers are a rarity; Vegas' completion percentage on passes is upwards of 80%. Still, goalkeepers are most important in their net, and Vegas' ability to bail out the Loyal's errors are a cornerstone of the team's success. He's the rare goalkeeper to sport a genuinely complete skill set.

46. Shane Wiedt (CB, SAC)

Across stints with Loudoun, Pittsburgh, and now Sacramento, Shane Wiedt has grown more confident with every passing year. His forward pass share has grown with each successive season, and he has emerged as an able ball carrier on the left or right side of a back three as of late. Pair the attacking overloads he forged with no-nonsense defending in his half, and you end up with one of the best defenders in the league. Wiedt is strong in rotations and communicates well, turning good defenses into great ones.

45. Sam Hamilton (CM, NMU)

Five years and more than 80 games into his Albuquerque tenure, Sam Hamilton is the heart, soul, and captain of his club. Now a central midfielder more than a defender, Hamilton brings verve and fire to one of the fiercest midfield presses out there. His contributions let New Mexico's star attackers go to work, but his attack-dog tendencies are the team's engine.

44. Paolo DelPiccolo (CM, LOU)

It's easy to forget that Paolo DelPiccolo was once the co-manager of Louisville City on an interim basis, and that's largely because his play on the field is so arresting. An institution in the middle in Kentucky, DelPiccolo is the generational talisman that maintains an identity of high pressure and dominant possession in his team. His movement is deft but always opens up room for teammates, and he excels at the pass-before-the-assist distribution that can fail to catch the eye. In many ways, DelPiccolo is LouCity.

43. Phillip Goodrum (FW, MEM)

The runner up in last season's Golden Boot race, Phillip Goodrum is best described as "tenacious." The finishing is spectacular; anyone that can look up his stats knows that. What stands out is his style of constant movement. He's always probing in the final third, challenging opponents shoulder to shoulder for second balls, and making his presence felt in the press. It's easy for skillful forwards to have a one-note game, but Goodrum is the sort of player that can galvanize an identity while also scoring 20 goals.

42. Bradley Bourgeois (CB, FCTL)

FC Tulsa is in the midst of a rebuild based on youth acquisitions and smart scouting, but their new look is still reliant on the surety of Bradley Bourgeois in the back four. An early-career right back, Bourgeois has stepped up to the plate in the center in recent vintage, and his game has remained elite. The former Atlanta United 2 man is excellent as a passer and super responsive covering to the wide areas, and he's known to be a strong leader in the Tulsa changing room. There aren't many USL players you'd clamor to have as a franchise building block, but Bourgeois is in that club.

41. Kenardo Forbes (CM, PIT)

Bob Lilley is the ultimate pragmatist as a manager, valuing defensive solidity and a coherent system over individual glory. It's a testament to Kenardo Forbes, then, that Lilley has kept him around for nearly a decade as the expressive creator at the heart of his teams. The all-time USL assist leader, Forbes often plays deeper in the midfield nowadays, but he still can shred opponents apart with a single kick. He bears pressure well and puts in strong defensive shifts, and he projects to keep doing so given his fine-wine career arc at age 34.

40. Samuel Adeniran (FW, SAFC)

Not yet having played in the USL in 2023, Samuel Adeniran is undeniable as a member of this list. In Tacoma in 2021, he spearheaded a hard-pressing, high-tempo 3-4-3 to the tune of double-digit goals, but his touch was raw. San Antonio scooped him up on loan halfway through 2022, and he hit double digits again while staying as strong as a defender and developing with the ball at his feet. Adeniran improves and expands his arsenal of skills incessantly, and he can take the defending champs over the top again this season.

39. Rece Buckmaster (FB, MEM)

By numbers alone, Rece Buckmaster isn't a superstar. Four assists and a goal in 2022 were a good return, but they don't signal obvious excellence. Buckmaster is a fine offensive presence at full back, but he's nailed into the USL 50 because of a pitbull-like work ethic and a ferocious nose for the ball. He's frenetic in working up and down the flank to hassle opponents or diving into the middle to recover possession, but his game is eminently controlled. With New York, Indy, and now Memphis, Buckmaster has done all of the dirty work to tilt the pitch in his team's favor across various positional deployments and roles. The 26-year-old is unmatched at simply doing his job to a perfect degree.

38. Conor Donovan (CB, SAC)

When the remnants of the OKC Energy scattered into the wind, Conor Donovan was the pick of the litter, and he's proved to be crucial in Sacramento's defense-first revival. No defender is as capable at sitting in the middle of a back three and swatting away opposing attacks. The 6'2" center back is strong in duels and rarely misses a tackle, and he allows his wide counterparts to grow adventurous by way of his own solidity. He won't blow you away with his passing, but he knows how to dump the ball off to teammates with a liberating sense of timing. Conor Donovan deserves your attention.

37. Amadou Dia (FB, LOU)

There's an art to playing as a full back in territorially dominant teams. You must provide width against settled defenses without leaving your back line exposed on the counter. When attacks stall out, you need to revive them with cutting, clever runs. Having played more than 100 games in Phoenix and Louisville teams that embody that challenge, Amadou Dia has cemented himself as one of the best full backs in the business. Dia supports the high press with great intelligence, works off of speedsters and thinkers with equal excellence, and generally keeps top-tier sides ticking with his wholly complete game.

36. Mohammed Abu (CM, SAFC)

San Antonio teams are defined by their creation of chaos and tempo, but Mohammed Abu is the player who can slow things down and calm the storm. He sits in front of the back three like a stone column, snuffing out counterattacks to keep his team in control. When the moment arises, Abu can get up the pitch to create an overload, and he's underrated as an entry passer; five assists last year tell you something. Still, his excellence lies in that otherworldly ability to provide a stabilizing spine in an intentionally wild San Antonio system.

35. Brian Ownby (AM, LOU)

Now 32 years old, Brian Ownby is still a tremendous threat on the right wing. He scored nine goals last year, but he did so while also ranking in the 90th percentile or better for xG and xA alike. He's deceptively fast, and he's adept at driving at a defender before dropping the ball off to an open LouCity teammate at the last possible second. He can fill in at striker in a pinch, and he's a good header of the ball, but he can also play a more defensive role as a winger in a 4-1-4-1. There's something visually wonky about Ownby's game - maybe the long beard or unique runs? - but that doesn't make him any less of a legend.

34. Edgardo Rito (FB, OAK)

Sometimes, it feels like cheating to call Edgardo Rito a full back. As the right-sided wide man in Oakland's 3-4-3, Rito can be the most advanced player leaking out on the counter, and he's almost always sitting ahead of a forward or two when the Roots are in possession. You can fault Rito for failing to get back in defense, but he showed an ability to do just that while in New York; Oakland's system is designed to release the Venezuelan from those responsibilities because he's so good in attack. Few USL players are as fun to watch with a full head of steam.

33. Aaron Guillen (CB, TBR)

Twice an all-league player in Tampa Bay, Aaron Guillen's tremendous composure is his calling card. Need a solid left back in a back four? Done. Want a wide center back who can beat a press on the dribble? Guillen's your guy. All the while, he has the pace to make a full-pitch recovery run and put in a last-ditch tackle to bail out a slower teammate. The Rowdies are a defense-first team by nature, and Guillen is at the heart of that philosophy.

32. Antoine Hoppenot (AM, HFD)

There's an ill-informed tendency to point to Antoine Hoppenot's dominant campaign in Detroit in 2022 as fluky, but this is a player that's tallied 17 or more total goals and assists three times in six years in the USL. At some point, he's just the best winger in the business. Hoppenot is quick as a runner and even quicker as a decision-maker with the ball, and few players are as precise on the cross. You can throw him on either flank, make him the creator in a front two pair, or just let him do whatever and improve your offense solely because of his presence.

31. Charlie Adams (CM, SDL)

San Diego's offense is full of idiosyncratic creators, but Charlie Adams' deep-lying passing is their most refined route to success. He keeps the ball moving in possessive build-out, tears open passing lanes with his every step, and always ends up in a pocket to play a breathtaking switch into the final third. Adams is equally good at advancing further up and slicing teams apart with crisp throughs, and he's a set piece weapon to boot. You could make an argument for every central midfielder on the Loyal roster, but Adams is an undeniable member of the USL 50 list because of his pure class in the center of the park.

30. Devon Amoo-Mensah (CB, DCFC)

Trevor James has a keen eye for talent acquisition, and Devon Amoo-Mensah is the shining star amongst a fleet of smart acquisitions for Le Rouge. Amoo-Mensah burst onto the scene in 2022 as a great defender, but one with excellent technique on both his right and left feet as a passer. It's easy to get lost in the offense with the 27-year-old, but he also ranked in the 85th percentile or better last year for aerial wins and defensive actions; he's workmanlike in his own half, and he's only getting better.

29. Danny Trejo (AM, PHX)

In a defense-first Las Vegas team in 2021, Danny Trejo emerged as a capable carrier in transition with hints of two-footed guile in the final third. Maintaining that excellence on the dribble, the former LAFC prospect exploded as a dynamite finisher that could use his gravity to open up paths for creation in a 14-goal 2022 campaign. Trejo will continue growing as the talisman of a new-look Phoenix team, and it's that secondary scoring - he's a sniper from distance behind a No. 9 - and especially that slaloming progression that make him elite.

28. Paul Blanchette (GK, OAK)

Lovingly nicknamed "The Wall" by adoring Roots fans, Paul Blanchette is well on his way to a third-straight year in the 85th percentile or better for Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA). In a team that plays a high line and uses a hard press, Blanchette is the piece that makes Oakland's tactics viable. Rarely ever a sweeper, there's a simplicity to Blanchette's excellence that makes him a bit of a throwback. He's the reason this club has made two playoff appearances and defended their way to upsets in both cases.

27. Rodrigo Da Costa (AM, FCTL)

For a player with an all-league nod and 51 total goals and assists in his last three full seasons, Rodrigo Da Costa is criminally underrated. It's flowery to say, but almost all of his touches are a work of art. Still, the Brazilian can press in the front line of a 4-4-2 and drop between the members of a pivot to dictate in build. He's a real workhorse for someone with so gentle a first touch and so keen an eye as a progressive passer. Tulsa's offense is a blast to watch so long as Da Costa is running it.

26. Phanuel Kavita (CB, BHM)

A veritable iron man who rarely misses a minute, Phanuel Kavita is the platonic ideal of a defense-first center back. He can step up and intervene, but his bread and butter come inside the box. Kavita knows how to hedge between runners without overcommitting, and he has the physical skills and snap response time to clear up danger before it really arises. The 30-year-old is a rock.

25. Alex Crognale (CB, BHM)

Ranking one of Phanuel Kavita and Alex Crognale higher than the other is a fool's errand; both are superb. Crognale is the more adventurous of the two. His passing from the back is as good as any other defender's in the league. He's judicious and highly effective at stepping into the midfield to make a stop. Still, Crognale also does his job in the box with vanishingly few errors, and he's a huge reason why the Legion are an elite defensive team.

24. Hugh Roberts (CB, MBFC)

Leadership is impossible to quantify, but Hugh Roberts oozes it. His off-the-pitch commitment to the Monterey community and to social justice are hugely admirable, and they're matched by visible leadership in directing a back line. I'd take Roberts in a one-on-one aerial duel against any player in the league, but he's still quick enough on his feet and agile enough in boxing foes out to handle any situation. Now 10 years into his USL tenure, Roberts continues to be a model of excellence.

23. Augustine Williams (FW, CHS)

Augustine Williams scored 13 goals for a counter-centric Los Angeles team. He added six more in nine starts for a plodding San Diego side. 16 more tallies came in 2022 for a feckless Charleston team without an identity. The Sierra Leone international is a chameleon of a forward whose inch-perfect finishing and poacher's instincts make him a threat in any system, and his timing on back-shoulder runs and flexibility around the net have made him the cornerstone of the Battery's 2023 revival.

22. Nick Moon (FB, SDL)

On his natural right, inverted on the left, or anywhere in between, Nick Moon is undeniable as one of the USL's best full backs. San Diego's system liberates Moon to hug the sideline and stretch the pitch - he's a wicked crosser - or narrow into the half space to create overloads and initiate quick one-twos. He's still a responsible defender at the same time, and that vast array of skills is why he's utterly essential to the Loyal's game.

21. Wilson Harris (FW, LOU)

Now in his fourth full season in the USL - a limited teenaged year and season split with time in MLS notwithstanding - Wilson Harris has put up an elite 0.6 goals per game or better at every stop. He's among the most clever scorers out there and can beat you in a number of scenarios, but he excels in a plethora of areas. Harris spearheads Louisville's 4-1-4-1 press, uses his body to hold up possession excellently, and can throw in a clean backheel or through ball that illustrates his purposefully applied skill. He's the full package at striker.

20. Paco Craig (CB, MIA)

Paco Craig is a five-time member of the USL all-league teams, and he's showing no signs of slowing down in his 30-year-old season. Craig serially puts up top-quarter tackle win rates, aerial win rates, and foul efficiency numbers, and he's a powerful option on the business end of a set piece. Miami plays a fluid defensive system, and Craig's brilliance in central defense lets them experiment without a hitch.

19. Patrick Seagrist (FB, COS)

Counting stats are overrated. There's no better illustration of that than the fact that Patrick Seagrist has five total assists in 5,000 USL minutes. Nonetheless, he's tremendously incisive cutting opponents apart while deep in build. His bombing overlaps in the Memphis back four next to Jeremy Kelly and in a Colorado Springs back three this year are always systematically crucial. Seagrist is fast, and that doesn't always shine until he's making a great recover to track back and put out a fire. You can build any team around the 25-year-old's contributions.

18. Nathan Steinwascher (GK, DCFC)

On a per-minute basis, Nathan Steinwascher prevented more goals above expectation than any USL netminder in 2022. He's already second place in 2023. Steinwascher is 6'0" and not the longest-limbed goalkeeper, but he more than makes up for it with springy leaping and prodigious positioning. He's brave in shepherding set pieces, and that hard-nosed mien sets the tone for a gritty Detroit team.

17. Cameron Lindley (CM, IND)

With nine assists last year at the base of the Colorado Springs midfield, Cam Lindley emerged as a premier creator in American soccer. Lindley has always been excellent as more of a No. 10 at other stops, but the unflappability from deep that so shone with the Switchbacks may be his best quality. The two-time Indy man sprays passes like no other and can shield a back line, but he still picks moments to step into the final third to play that killer ball to create a goal. Lindley's intelligence is a joy.

16. Jack Gurr (FB, SAC)

Combining brick-wall strength, instant acceleration, and fearlessness in every phase of the game, Jack Gurr is the best right back in the USL. Good with Atlanta, the Englishman made the leap at wing back in Sacramento, and he's reaching new levels in 2023. Gurr can overlap when the midfield draws opponents in and open space on his own with confident underlaps. He's incredibly disciplined in the back five when Sacramento's shutting down matches, and he embodies the spirit of a Mark Briggs team.

15. Enzo Martinez (AM, BHM)

Whether a low-lying string-puller in Charlotte or an out-and-out false nine in Birmingham, Enzo Martinez is brilliant. He has more than 50 goals and assists since returning to the USL in 2019, and he draws the ire of rival fanbases because of the ease with which he picks opponents apart. Martinez finished with 24 total goals and assists last season, but he was also excellent as the centerfielder that held together an aggressive front-line press. He isn't the quickest, but there's an economy to his movement that betrays an unmatched ability to read the game.

14. Luis Solignac (FW, ELP)

In 2021, Luis Solignac ranked in the 93rd percentile in terms of xG per shot. In 2022, he scored 17 goals on a 97th percentile conversion rate, and he already has four strikes in 2023. "Lucho" is the most consistent No. 9 in the USL, and he uses his strength and power to constantly offer a threat in the box. El Paso is always a high-possession team, and they couldn't ask for a talisman better suited to spearheading that style.

13. Kevon Lambert (CB, PHX)

Still only 26 years old, Kevon Lambert has 19 caps for the Jamaican national team and has been a stalwart in Phoenix since he was a teenager. Now the leading central defender in a high-sitting back three, he's equally adept at setting the tempo and demolishing counters as a No. 6 or covering behind a wing back in his current role. The captain of his side, Lambert is a good leader and communicator, and his sustained excellence is often taken for granted.

12. Russell Cicerone (FW, SAC)

In Pittsburgh and elsewhere, Russell Cicerone was often considered a supporting piece. He was the second striker or a winger that happened to add goals in St. Louis, and double-digit goal returns felt under-covered in Lilley-ball Pittsburgh. Now, Cicerone is shining as the forward in Sacramento. A Republic striker must press ferociously, stretch opposing lines with drifting interchange, and somehow end up in front of net to convert chances; the 28-year-old does all that and then some.

11. Luis Felipe (CM, SAC)

Sacramento's concentration of talent tends to lift all boats, but Luis Felipe is the player that brings things together. Yes, he can score a goal from distance in the Open Cup or add four tallies off late runs in 2023 USL play, but he's not an attacking midfielder. Yes, he put up 72nd percentile defensive actions last year, but he's not a holder either. Luis Felipe's excellence comes in the ability to drop deep and hunker down when needed or to step up and make a run that frees a teammate. He's the ultimate glue guy, even if that yeoman's work is finally being rewarded on the stat sheet this season.

10. Lewis Hilton (CM, TBR)

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that's especially true of the Rowdies and Lewis Hilton in 2023. You only appreciate Hilton's impeccable ability to close down passing lanes, spark zone entry from deep, and link possession in the final third when Tampa Bay lacks for all those skills. The Englishman has never generated more than nine total goals and assists in any one season, but that fundamentally misunderstands Hilton's value. The direct contributions are icing on the cake for the maestro-like work Hilton does in the orchestra that is the midfield.

9. Milan Iloski (FW, OCSC)

Fresh off a Golden Boot win, Milan Iloski is undeniable as a top-ten USL talent. He isn't a traditional striker by any stretch, often sitting left-of-center and cutting in from an inverted slot or playing as a proper left midfielder with the ability to cheat out on the break. Iloski is deceptive with the ball at his feet and quick to turn and shake on the dribble. He can punish a defense from anywhere within 30 yards of the net, and he takes a larger share of his team's shots than any other player over the last two seasons. Orange County hasn't set the league on fire in the Milan Iloski era, but he'll be the centerpiece of their next great team unless greener pastures come calling.

8. Alex Dixon (AM, MBFC)

Monterey made Alex Dixon their one big addition this offseason for a reason: he's a game-breaking offensive talent. The former Riverhounds and Rhino has an admirable work rate and can play as a proper wing back if need be, but his instinct around the net and anticipatory movement has fit like a glove in a bunker-and-run system in 2023. Dixon has a mean right foot, and he's good on either side, allowing Frank Yallop to use him, Sam Gleadle, and Chase Boone with wonderful flexibility. He won't light you up on the dribble or burn you with searing pace, but that makes Dixon's manipulation of space that much more exceptional.

7. Sean Totsch (CB, LOU)

Another of those identify-defining stalwarts at Lynn Family Stadium, Sean Totsch is still a defensive prodigy in Louisville's ever-high back line. His presence near midfield in that back four compresses opponents and lets his team dominate the ball off the counterpress. Totsch also sets the tone for a team that values possession with his crisp passing. A nine-year pro, the defender exploded to a nine-goal season last year, and there are few sights more exhilarating than Totsch stepping up to take a penalty, but his calling card is still that ability to halt opposing attacks in an instant.

6. Maxi Rodriguez (CM, DCFC)

For Detroit supporters, there's no greater joy than Maxi Rodriguez standing over a set piece or drifting behind an overlapping wingback to create danger from the half spaces. He's exceptionally good at bursting into the final third to either bend the defense or find a shooting lane, and he actually leads Le Rouge in shot attempts this season. All the while, Rodriguez ranks in the 78th percentile for defensive actions amongst midfielders. The 27-year-old had suitors this winter but chose to keep leading a spirited, familial club, and he continues to provide some of the most complete midfield play in the USL.

5. Mitchell Taintor (CB, SAFC)

What can't Mitchell Taintor do on the pitch? He's terrifically efficient in his own third; Taintor ranked in the 94th percentile for defensive actions last year, and he did so with a 90th percentile actions-to-fouls ratio. His long gait allows him to sweep up danger in the channels and recover as he tracks back. The latter ability is necessary because the San Antonio man so regularly carries the ball into the attacking half. He's an underrated passer and crosser, and he can elevate with the best of 'em to contest set pieces and score goals. He's the best central defender we have in the USL today.

4. Jordan Farr (GK, SAFC)

San Antonio has a very good, very skillful defense, but their aggression naturally lets opponents in on net, and it does so in a rather dangerous manner. Jordan Farr is so good because he excels at denying these high-leverage opportunities. Farr saved more than seven goals above expectation in 2022, and he's nearing the two-and-a-half mark already in 2023. His distribution is fiercely un-sexy, but it's direct and no-nonsense by design; the former Indy man is charged with keeping the ball in play and generating second-ball opportunities in the opposing half. That Farr grabbed the starting spot by the scruff of the neck last year was unexpected, but it made San Antonio the best team in the USL and has kept them there this season.

3. Connor Maloney (FB, SAFC)

When you conjure up the mental image of a "tough" or "physical" player, someone that's barely 5'6" may not spring to mind. If that's the case, you've not seen Connor Maloney play. He's a wrecking ball at either wing back spot or in the central midfield, and he even served as an emergency center back this season. Maloney has played a greater share of his passes forward up the pitch than any other outfield player in 2023, and his six assists in the last two years indicate that those passes aren't just empty heaves. He's ferocious collecting second balls, wickedly quick tracking back, and knows when to pinch into the center of the park to put out a fire. He, like Farr and Taintor, defines the "Mentality Monster" identity in San Antonio.

2. Rodrigo Lopez (AM, SAC)

I have to own up: there's no player I enjoy watching more than Rodrigo Lopez, and that influences these rankings. In a given match, Lopez is going to find touches in every possible inch of the opposing half, and each touch is going to bend the defense out of shape. He's eminently happy to let his teammates find the back of the net as he leads the league in shot creations. When Sacramento wants to finish off a game, Lopez will camp on the left side of a 5-4-1 and make life miserable for opponents, but he's underratedly good in the 3-4-3 press, forcing risky passes and backing up the aggressive linemates alongside him. Even at 34 years old, Lopez is one of the select players you can build a club around.

1. Aaron Molloy (CM, MEM)

A reigning MVP finalist, Aaron Molloy is pure class in the central midfield. When Memphis restarts on a goal kick, Molloy isn't out of place dropping below the center backs to lead build-out from its point of origin. You can't give the Irishman an inch of breathing room, or he'll beat you with a precise diagonal or perfectly weighted through ball. Molloy is lethal on free kicks, and he can do a job in the midfield pivot defensively. This year, Stephen Glass has allowed #6 to press up with more regularity, and the results have, of course, been exceptional. I've spoken in similar terms about a few other midfielders here, but Molloy's game is so refined and his role within the Memphis system is so essential that it's nigh impossible to convey. For my taste, he's the best player in the USL.


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