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  • John Morrissey

USL Tactics Season Preview: Profiles, power rankings, awards, and a title pick

Updated: Mar 12, 2022

Before I launch into a breakdown of every team in the league, I want to point you in the direction to a few resources that inform my approach to this process and can help contextualize the USL scene and offseason in general:

  • For desktop users and brave mobile visitors, my 2022 USL Hub has full team-by-team statistics, a full league transaction tracker, and predicted lineups for every single USL club.

  • The mobile crowd can visit my image-based 2022 Preview for a truncated version of those same team-by-team breakdowns and lineups.

  • Anyone who reads my content should familiarize themselves with my GAR Explainer, a data-laden screed on how I generate player-by-player value and performance estimates.

  • Of course, check out the USL Show for continuing coverage of the whole lower-tier ecosystem as well as my weekly USL Tactics Show.

  • For an actual smart take on the season ahead, please look into Nicholas Murray's article on the league website. He's so good at what he does, and I've linked to his Eastern Conference hub as a jumping-off point.

Now, let's get into it on my end. Note that the "+/-" column references my last power ranking from a few weeks back.

 

Tier 1 - Title Contenders

Starting at the top of the table, I have the Tampa Bay Rowdies leading the pack. Forrest Lasso and Evan Louro are big losses from a league-best defense, but I believe in Timmy Mehl and C.J. Cochran as replacements at centerback and in goal. On top of that, I really think that Jake Areman and Jake LaCava give this team a marked boost in versatility and creativity at the wingback and attacking midfield slots. They free Leo Fernandes, spell the burden on Yann Ekra and Lewis Hilton, and just give this team a plethora of options. How? Areman's utility as a left wingback lets Fernandes play higher, and Lacava's brilliance as a high-gravity #10 (note 90th percentile forward passing and shot-taking) will let Hilton sit deeper to pull the strings and Ekra leverage his destroyer skillset. The 3-5-2 is still rock solid, Sebastian Guenzatti is still a monster (97th percentile xG, MVP by GAR), and this team is going to be scary.

Two western sides follow closely behind Tampa in the top tier, so let's start with the new-look Sacramento Republic. In last year's iteration, the Republic were stale and feckless, devoid of any movement in attack and sorely lacking a presence in zone fourteen. They rank so highly because I'm entirely sold on Mark Briggs' overhaul in California's capital. Additions like Matt LaGrassa (top-quarter xA and DAs in his last USL season), Zeiko Lewis (90th percentile plus xG or xA three years running), Rodrigo Lopez, and Nick Ross utterly remake a poor midfield, and there've been similar veteran additions at every position. Douglas Martinez has to come good to put Sacramento over the top, but I believe in him; think back to that 2019 Real Monarchs team he helped drag to a title. This team is too strong in every facet, and I haven't even hit on the defensive talent characterized by old faces like Duke Lacroix and newbies like the enticing Irishman Lee Desmond or ex-Pittsburgh goalie Danny Vitiello. Expect big things here.

Meanwhile, Phoenix Rising has aptly replaced Solomon Asante with the deeply underrated Marcus Epps (98th percentile GAR), and you can easily imagine Arturo Rodriguez ascending to match the missing Jon Bakero's impact; still, this team is a half-step worse than they were at this time in 2021. That said, the possessive, counterpressing Rising style, shifting from a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 in block to an offensive front five, is carried by a midfield that largely returns, and you'd be crazy to put Santi Moar and Kevon Lambert outside of the title race. Ben Lundt (98th percentile GAR in 2020) is an underratedly giant add in goal as well; he's brilliant on his line, which fits a team that needs stops against the counter rather than an aggressive sweeper.

Louisville City comes next here, solidly second in the Eastern Conference. A traditional reliance on bold fullback play and a high-line has finally seen this team lean more fully into a three-at-the-back, and the pickups of Enoch Mushagalusa (96th percentile GAR), Wilson Harris (11th in goals in 2020), Ray Serrano, and others symbolizes the youth movement with names like Hoppenot and Souahy out. For all the adjustments, however, familiar faces like Cameron Lancaster (99th percentile xG, league-leading minutes-adjusted conversion) and Sean Totsch are going to stir the drink and cement Louisville as a bonafide contender. You can see the intensity of the system tiring out Paolo DelPiccolo and Corben Bone's ever-aging legs in the middle of the three-man central setup, but both are too heady to fall off the cliff quite yet. Expect more greatness here too.

Two more Eastern teams have a title shout for me, and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds are first among them. All-time leading scorer Dane Kelly's transition to the Steel City might be the biggest transaction of the offseason, and he'll be fully activated alongside Alex Dixon and Russell Cicerone and with Kenardo Forbes feeding him (all three rated in the 97th percentile or better for GAR). Still, three defensive starters are out the door, and Todd Wharton's retirement is a big deal. Bob Lilley will have this team roaring by the summer, but the 'Hounds aren't without questions. Nevertheless, Lilley's ability to swap between back threes and fours, employ flat lines of six in the midfield, and get every drop of talent out of his side leave you feeling good.

The Birmingham Legion, whose loss of Neco Brett up top is massive, is in a similar neighborhood to the Riverhounds on quality. If Edi Horvat comes good, then this team is for real; every other component here is elite. For one, they were the USL's second-best defense in 2021, and Phanuel Kavita is immensely underrated as a defensive anchor. The Legion are powered in transition by right back Jonathan Dean (91st percentile xA) and do-everything central midfielder Andersion Asiedu; the latter is slept on by my numbers but is as good a box-to-box destroyer and recycler as any player in the United States. They've been joined higher up the pitch by Marlon's physicality via Tulsa and Enzo Martinez's incision by way of Charlotte. Still, I just fear for the scoring here, and I have a sneaking suspicion that we get an age-related Matt Van Oekel regression in goal. His Goals Saved Above Average jumped up more than a quartile from decent to elite last year, and he's no spring chicken; either way, his team is legitimately a threat.


Tier 2 - Playoff Locks

Moving down a step, we have a group of five mostly-Western teams with one or two question marks that keep them out of the title mix. The Colorado Springs Switchbacks lead the way, bolstered by Golden Boot hero Hadji Barry (98th percentile goals per minute, 86th percentile xA); an explosive wing group featuring Michee Ngalina, Malik Johnson, and Elvis Amoh; and the additions of Jeff Caldwell in goal and Cam Lindley as a #10. Ngalina's return from a "prove-it" loan to MLS deserves commentary; the Switchbacks only averaged one goal per game after his exit, after generating twice that rate through July. Re-united, they're going to be a joy on the counter and unstoppable in settled possession, but they're missing an elite presence in the middle to control games and resolve last season's transition defense problems. A tryst with a three-at-the-back system didn't solve their woes even if it fully activated their speedy wingers; system change is something to watch. Caldwell's goalkeeping is big and represents a full quartile of value-added over Sean Melvin, but the playoffs are a defensive beast that this team isn't configured to slay.

Next up, The Miami FC stand on their own as the only tweener on the Eastern side. The Memphis raid they pulled off in nabbing Kyle Murphy and Mark Segbers (both 90th percentile plus for GAR) is a huge deal that rivals any set of signings in the league, but they also lost their creative impetus from 2021 in the form of Ariel Martinez, Christiano Francois, and Billy Forbes. Don't let that spoil Murphy's insane movement and Segbers' league-best overlapping at right back, though. Additionally, their midfield pivot, top-quarter defensive-action and pass-volume men Speedy Williams and Bolu Akinyode, will continue to dictate every single match, but I'm left to wonder if they actually improved off of a top ten-adjacent 2021 performance. I'm also curious to see how the managerial change shakes out; Anthony Pulis was fine in Saint Louis and added players that fit his system, but there'll be a transitional phase here. I believe in their Sparrow/Craig/Chapman defensive core if the high line, high press 4-4-2 has gaps, but this doesn't quite feel like a title team.

A trio of Western sides round out the second tier, any of which could pop into the title discussion or fall from playoff grace entirely. The El Paso Locomotive were one of the league's best teams last year, but the exodus of Mark Lowry and some of his core (Jerome, Ketterer, King) gave me initial pause in my early-offseason thinking. Still, the Calvillo-Ryan-Luna-Mares-Velazquez midfield is insane and can carry John Hutchinson's frenetic system; each of those players ranked in the top third in one or more of xA, passing volume, or forward passing rates, and their upside is through the roof. I also love Nick Hinds on the wing. He was a slight negative relative to his per-minute expectations with Austin last year, but his marauding fullback game projects brilliantly with the defensive wing role he'll play in Southern Texas. I do worry about an aging Yuma next to a set of unproven names at centerback given this team's bluster about high pressure, but Evan Newton is a great backstop there. They're not far from a title tilt.

New Mexico United disappointed last season, but added wisely with the aforementioned Brett (95th percentile GAR) and Souahy entering alongside tantalizing centermen in Justin Portillo and Will Seymore. The latter duo's box-to-box skill is huge in improving the heart of a thin 3-4-3 shape, and the Brett-Moreno-Wehan front three is insanely diverse and skillful in front of them. I love the back three's depth this season as well, and I find Austin Yearwood to be a criminally under-discussed superstar well overdue for a fresh shot at MLS; that said, Kalen Ryden, captain and talisman, projects as a stronger central defender after multiple seasons of 90th percentile returns. Still, there's a new regime here, and I got burned projecting this club as a division winner last year, so I suppose I'm required to register a degree of caution.

One final shout for the San Diego Loyal of Landon Donovan. Alejandro Guido (90th percentile plus in GAR, fouls drawn, and shot volume) is maybe the best #10 in the league, and their back-three-to-back-four shift from attack to defense is one of the USL's more unique looks. If Kyle Vassell or Evan Conway glows up at striker coming, respectively, from the English and American lower tiers, then look out. A word of praise for Elijah Martin at back also. He can play any defensive role, and he did so to the tune of 88th percentile output in 2021; his presence, plus that of Charlie Adams (80th percentile xA, pass volume, and forward passing), makes their possession-obsessed system tick. Still, they're a Tumi Moshobane explosion away from true contention, and Koke Ruiz must come good in goal after just a handful of appearances in the Spanish fringes.


Tier 3 - Fringe Contenders

Now we arrive at my biggest, most muddled tier. We'll start with the best of my final three playoff teams: San Antonio FC in the West. Alen Marcina's counterattacking Texan juggernaut lost two genuine stars in Jose Gallegos and Marcus Epps, but the late additions of Kekuta Manneh (fast as hell) and Deshane Beckford (87th percentile crossing, also fast as hell) are a solid simulacrum of that pair's efficacy. San Antonio plays a counterattacking system, and those two will feast in the space that the 3-4-3 setup provides within that framework. I love their defense, and they're solidly ahead in the race for the seventh playoff spot in the West in my mind. Fabien Garcia and Garcia can't be undersold as two of the most adept defensive additions this offseason.

FC Tulsa, meanwhile, is undersold here if anything. Their biggest problem was defense down the middle in the form of bottom-five centerback GAR in 2021, so they signed a Salvadoran international central defender (Ronald Rodriguez) at that spot and and a tenured USL destroyer (Petar Cuic; top-third defensive actions) in the holding role to spell Eric Bird. Questions arise if they rely on Brian Brown for goals coming off of a 23rd percentile xG year and two seasons of bang average conversion, but I'm generally confident in the rest of their attacking corps; Dario Suarez, Joaquin Rivas, Rodrigo Da Costa, and new man J.J. Williams all rated in the top quarter for value, and all perfectly fit Michael Nsien's interchanging, half-space-focused offense. The Gabby Torres pickup as wing and fullback depth on either flank when El Salvador's Rivas and Cuba's Jorge Luis Corrales are gone for international duty is also astute.

Finally amongst the postseason mix, we have my Hoosier-bias darling in the form of the Indy Eleven. I genuinely think Mark Lowry, the king of the midfield diamond, is a genius. The Manuel Arteaga-Stefano Pinho pair up top is sharp too, with Arteaga coming off a 94th percentile performance campaign, and I think their star-studded defense regresses to the mean in the wake of the drab Rennie era. Noah Powder, moving from Real Monarchs and slotting in at right back, is fascinating; my GAR projections have him as one of the USL's biggest improvers and puts him in the 82nd percentile. Other Texan adds in Mechack Jerome, a Lowry lifer and slick-passing centerback, and Elliot Panicco, a goalie with 88th percentile 2021 stats, bolster my confidence.

Let's finally address the Orange County SC slander. I've been vocal about my doubts in Cubo Torres (five goals since 2018) stealing Ronaldo Damus' shine, and the loss of Eric Calvillo is huge in terms of buildup out of the 4-4-1-1 defensive shell; he's the league's best ball-carrier and was my personal playoff MVP. The more Kevin Partida and Milan Iloski (90th percentile or better in GAR and xG, top quintile in forward passing) see the pitch to compensate, the better. I love Patrick Rakovsky (top quarter in all goalkeeper metrics), but this team is also replacing two back-line starters. Combine all that with a grueling defensive style across a slog of a USL campaign, and it's just a lot to contend with.

Staying in California, I'll hit on the Oakland Roots here. My stats love them, their defense is stout in a manner akin to Orange County, and the Memo Diaz/Akeem Ward fullback combo is dynamite to the tune of top-quarter defensive actions, crossing, and overall value. Still, this team only has one true striker and lost key pieces in Quincy Amarikwa up top, Wal Fall in the middle, and Kai Greene at back. They barely snuck into the playoffs last year, and it'll be quite the trick to do the same with a narrower field and a questionably improved roster. However, the idea of using a back three to maximize those fullbacks and the specter of a Charlie Dennis (93rd percentile League One GAR) star turn could make me look stupid here.

Memphis 901 is the best of the rest, and a more objective version of me has them ahead of Indy for the seven seed. It feels like second-year coach Ben Pirmann has been allowed to mold a roster around a centrally-tilted, possessive game starring Aaron Molloy and Laurent Kissiedou (98th percentile League One and Championship GAR, respectively). There's a cohort of other good passers like Niall Logue at back here as well. Their two imported Eleven fullbacks will be strong, but someone has to step up at striker. Luiz Fernando could be big in attack, but his middling end product (twenty goals and assists in more than one hundred appearances) isn't the scoring answer; inverted wing play a la Santi Moar from Phillip Goodrum (83rd percentile xG, 91st conversion and shot volume) could be.

The Charleston Battery aren't far off pace either; they're a reverse Oakland in that my numbers despise their roster but pass my eye test. In defense, new man Matt Sheldon (top-quarter defensive actions and xG) will dominate the right side, Preston Kilwien will improve the center, and Joe Kuzminsky will likely regress to the mean after a disastrous statistical 2021. Nonetheless, their three best midfielders (Lewis, Crawford, and Kelly-Rosales) are out in favor of youthful lottery tickets, and the load on Nicque Daley to step up in his twenty-one-year-old season is big. I've played the striker card a lot already, so I should note that Augustine Williams, 2020's Golden Boot runner-up, is a massive deal in this squad; the question is how Conor Casey's tactics activate him. At his best, Williams is a monstrous aerial threat who can finish with the best of 'em at this level. Casey himself has huge shoes to fill with Mike Anhaeuser's thirty years with the Battery finally reaching their conclusion.

My biggest call in this entire exercise is my inclusion of Loudoun United in the playoff mix. Ryan Martin's hard-pressing, direct-passing 3-4-3 system is now bolstered by a safe pair of hands in goal, League One stud Joe Rice. Last year, for reference, Loudoun's Goals Saved Above Average came third-from-bottom, but Rice produced a 91st percentile rate in other locales. The peripheral pickups - think Azaad Liadi up top or Sami Guediri out wide - combine dynamism with positional utility, and they'll compliment the audacious, game-changing talent of Teddy Ku-DiPietro (98th percentile GAR, 90th or better foul-drawing, pass volume, and defensive actions) at the #10 slot. Timmy Mehl and Robby Dambrot leaving could crater the defense in theory, but they were a disaster in their own third already. Maybe I'm drunk, but this team is tough.

Ultimately, Loudoun stays an inch ahead of Hartford Athletic, who also has a respectable playoff claim. Bluntly, I don't like their offseason. Danny Barrera (95th percentile xA) returning at the heart of the 4-2-3-1 is key, and signings like Andre Lewis will complement him, but the rest of this team is stagnant; Modou Jadama is less capable than Thomas Janjigian in defense and a worse passer to boot, Ashkanov Apollon less bright than Gabby Torres, Peter-Lee Vassell less proven than Tabort Etaka Preston. On that Janjigian-to-Jadama switch: they're a close match to one another in style by a simple similarity model, but Janjigian just gives you so much more technique in my view. Their swap betrays a return to a route-one, balls-over-the-top approach, and Rashawn Dally's physical dominance at striker will be key in that context. If Dally finally comes good as a finisher beyond the hold-up talent and Austin Pack (89th percentile GAR while splitting minutes with Charlotte) can emulate Jeff Caldwell in goal, they may be in the mix. I'm not necessarily holding my breath.


Tier 4 - Everyone Else

The final tier here kicks off with Rio Grande Valley FC, who left their announcements late but have come up with a respectable squad. Still, RGV lost eight of their ten minutes leaders, own but one true striker, and feature a glut of central players that guarantee the return of Wilmer Cabrera's less-than-successful late-2021 diamond. Nonetheless, Ricky Ruiz projects as a star addition (86th percentile estimated GAR) after leading League One in assists, and Isidro Martinez is due for a bounce-back after odd deployment in New Mexico. The talent in the midfield is nice, but there's a massive lack of depth around it; only two players here, both mentioned, project in the top-third for 2022 performance, matching a drab eye test. Those numbers undersell the awesome Erik Pimentel in central defense at a minimum, but the point holds. The Toros are a step short.

Likewise Monterey Bay FC, who find their strength at centerback rather than central midfield. Kai Greene and Hugh Roberts (91st percentile projected GAR, 85th percentile defensive actions in Charlotte) might just be the best on-paper pair at that spot in the USL, but the rest of the roster is a bit woeful. This side will bunker their way to some points in the style of last year's Oakland Roots, led up front by Chris Cortez and Christian Volesky with Walmer Martinez and Sam Gleadle streaking along the wings, but my expectations are tempered. Shoutout Gleadle, though. He was nearly all-league for me in Reno, and he's such a great pickup alongside those central defenders.

The other expansion side, Detroit City FC, combine a NISA-centric squad with a few replacement-level USL midfielders, but the upside is up top in the form of Billy Forbes and Antoine Hoppenot, two proven weapons. Both converted, crossed, and drove xG at a top-third level or better. Meanwhile, their 3-5-2 will try to breed a defensive style that feasts off of Maxi Rodriguez-driven counters featuring Forbes' pace and Hoppenot's probing; conversely, it could foster an endless stream of concessions. Neither extreme is especially likely; this team, more than anything else, feels a shade below average with huge upside for 2023 after a year of adjustment.

Let's hit on Atlanta United 2. Frankly, the Georgians feel disrespected here; their intense, league-leading press scheme is wildly entertaining, and Aiden McFadden (95th percentile projected GAR, 94th xG) is one of the USL's best players, period. Still, they're so young and will miss consistent Caleb Wiley minutes as he steps up in MLS; their grasp of that fun system is tenuous before the loss of such a heady defender. Robbie Mertz is an xG and xA monster as a midfielder, and Nicholas Firmino is bright coming from League One to claim a wing role, but this team doesn't have the roster or the discipline within that hard-pressing 4-2-3-1 to make a run. Return to Loudoun for a minute; their centerback signings in the form of Carson Vom Steeg, Rio Hope-Gund, and Grant Lillard all come with extensive college and developmental track records with captaincies and caps aplenty - where's that level of experience for Atlanta's defensive spine?

Rounding out the East, New York Red Bulls II lost the crucial Jake LaCava on loan and their two minutes-leaders at centerback to simple cuts. Outside of that, the roster has seen minimal improvement beyond the promise of age-related progression. Maybe Curtis Ofori, barely at driving age but starting at fullback, or Steven Sserwadda, a bright #8/#10 hybrid, breaks out. Maybe Omar Sowe climbs closer to his 93rd percentile finishing from 2020 rather than last year's 26th percentile return, liberated by a year of growth from Jeremey Rafanello (a 95th percentile winger) or a strike partnership with loanee Jordan Adebayo-Smith in the context of a 4-4-2. Grant all of those things, and I'm still skeptical that they reach twenty-five points this year.

Let's finish up with second teams by way of Los Angeles Galaxy II. The Galaxy sat a step outside of the playoff race last year and feature a star striker (Preston Judd; seventeen 2021 goals) and dynamic left side (Lambe and Drack), but the loss of superstar Jorge Hernandez's 97th percentile xA and 94th percentile key passing in the attacking midfield is gigantic. Their late adds of Liam Doyle in defense and Michael Salazar in attack shore things up, but those two likely yo-yo as MLS bench-fillers. This team isn't a disaster to be sure, but my expectations are low when it comes to playoff upside. If I'm ranking MLS affiliate sides, they're behind Loudoun but ahead of Atlanta and New York.

The Las Vegas Lights, on the other hand, are messy. They've only announced a dozen players but feature plenty more anonymously on social media; they didn't hire a manager until mere weeks before opening day but carry over a consistent system stemming from LAFC's directives. On sheer talent and by way of my data, they're the worst side in the USL by a healthy margin, but they can also loan in a core of cross-league 'tweeners and surprise you on any given Saturday. Cal Jennings is frankly screaming for a move to a competitive side after another top-fifth xG, goal-scoring, and GAR season; he'll feast as players like Daniel Trejo and Bruno El-Mesmari (both in the 75th percentile for key passes) develop in attack. Still, their defense was dead last in 2021 by goals and shots on target allowed, and they currently have three centerbacks and no fullbacks on the roster. Vegas is going to finish last, but they're sure to cause some consternation along the way.

 

That's a lot of words already, and I know that they're ultimately meaningless when push comes to shove on the pitch. Still, just to circle back and summarize, that ranking gives me a playoff field as follows:

If we're talking locks, I'd bet healthy money on everyone from Tulsa on up in the East. The West is harder, featuring eight rock-solid teams for seven spots. Orange County could displace any team from El Paso down; for me, the top three is set in stone.

 

Wrapping around to awards, I'll hit on a few real and contrived categories. At the end here, I'll also include a first- and second-team all-league:

  • Most Valuable Player: Santi Moar of Phoenix Rising, a prodigious left winger, gets the nod. This team has half a question mark at the two other spots in their 4-3-3 attacking band, so Moar's monstrous right-foot threat (97th percentile xG, 98th percentile shot volume last year), is going to be vital. Phoenix will be great again overall, and I think Moar is the reason why they stay great in the final third.

  • Coach of the Year: This one is easily Mark Briggs in Sacramento if the Republic improve as much as I anticipate. It's hard to exaggerate how stale this team was in 2021; Briggs has the roster to experiment tactically and win the conference behind a fresh look.

  • Young Player of the Year: I have an impossible time seeing anyone but Diego Luna winning this award. He put up nine goals last year, rated in the 94th percentile for expected goals in assists despite only playing two-thirds of El Paso's minutes, and enters a more free-flowing system in 2022. Not bad for a teen, eh?

  • Most Improved Player: Louisville's tactical approach at back is a fascinating storyline, but Wes Charpie is going to be key at centerback no matter what. He'll earn full starter minutes in 2022, pairing 80th percentile or so defensive efficiency and passing stats with a subtle athleticism to anchor a leading back line.

  • Defender of the Year: Hold that thought.

  • Goalkeeper of the Year: I worry that this award automatically goes to the goalkeeper behind the league's best defense, but I'll pick Miami's Connor Sparrow nonetheless. His sweeping skillset (94th percentile defensive actions) and shot-stopping (top-quarter numbers across all relevant categories) are both elite and will be crucial behind Anthony Pulis' high line.

 

I punted on the Defender of the Year title and my ultimate pick for the USL champion because I wanted to unite the two in this final section. As the power rankings betray, I think that the Tampa Bay Rowdies are going to bring it home in 2022. Yes, they've lost some players, but I think Neill Collins' patiently incisive, vertically compressing, pressureful system will carry the day. I hit on some attacking names in Sebastian Guenzatti and Leo Fernandes, and they're superstars, but Aaron Guillen, my 2022 Defender of the Year, is ultimately emblematic of why this team is great.

A left-sided centerback in Tampa's back-three, Guillen brings a second-team all-league 2021 campaign and an FC Dallas pedigree to the table. He rated in the 87th percentile for value-added last season while putting up top-third rates in terms of defensive activity, forward passing, and aerial wins while only missing one game all year. Guillen is a stalwart with a two-way skillset; he's been known to play left back at other club stops.

Guillen's complete game is absolutely crucial to the Tampa scheme, something that also holds true for Jordan Scarlett as the right-sided wide centerback. In their 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 shape, the Rowdies seek to keep possession high up the pitch, overloading you in a wide area before working centrally apace through technical players like Lewis Hilton or the aforementioned Guenzatti. To maintain possession and spark those overload cycles, they counterpress hard when an errant pass occurs and rely on a high line to cut out breaks and stay in the offensive zone. Additionally, the Rowdies often ask their defenders to join the attack to up the pressure on opposing defenses.

In every facet, Guillen fills that role to perfection, and that embodiment of the position sets him apart in my award reckoning. Let's start a deeper breakdown with an example of #33's utility in the final third. Below, you'll see the Rowdies cycling the ball high up the pitch, overloading the left. This kind of sequence is common for Tampa, usually goading opposing overcommitment that either creates a turnover for the foe or frees a switch to the other flank. Here, the Rowdies knock the ball back to Guillen's safe feet; he's nominally a release valve, not a creator. Indeed, his hip positioning hints at a pass to the center of the pitch, but Guillen takes a beat and plays forward to a dangerous teammate in the half-space. It's not a spectacular play per se, but it illustrates the technical skill and headiness that set the defender apart and define the Rowdies as a whole.

Inevitably, any side will eventually cede possession and face the prospect of defending. The best teams minimize these spells or nullify their efficacy, and there's more than one way to skin that cat. San Antonio, for instance, ranked in the bottom half for possession last year but in the top third for shot suppression through a hard-closing, center-denying press; Tampa does something similar by encouraging active centerback play out of a highish line so as to keep the ball for themselves. Guillen, again, embodies this principle. Below, he leverages his strength and the wrong-direction momentum of the Hartford forward to dominate an aerial battle, cut out the direct entry pass, and put the Rowdies back into the possession cycle. There's nothing mind-blowing here, but Guillen's flawless execution of his role and mastery of his own talent stands out in service to the broader system.

Still, even the best sides at inflicting their style are forced to engage in honest-to-goodness own-third defending at certain points, and Guillen excels here too. Systematically, Tampa's back line relies on a central clean-up man to put out fires and dominate in the air. Typically falling to Forrest Lasso in the past, this central centerback liberates his wide counterparts to be more adventurous, flanked by tracking wingbacks as further support. That middle role falls to Timmy Mehl now after some time with Loudoun; Rowdies fans should be giddy.

Guillen's intervention below occurs within that systemic framework. He maybe gets a toe on the initial ball, but his presence definitely throws off the striker's touch; his recovery on the ensuing interception is more impressive still. #33 is adept at these sorts of interventions. What's more, Guillen adopts a forward-looking mindset immediately after the win. Spoiler alert: the end result is Tampa entering the offensive half on a break. If that doesn't tell you what you need to know about Rowdies soccer, I don't know what will. This is a team with a clear identity, and 2022 is the year they bring it home on that identity's strength.

 

Even if the Rowdies ultimately fall short in the playoffs or if Guillen doesn't take home some well-deserved hardware come season's end, Tampa's system and Guillen's role within it are still going to be a joy to watch. I'm famously bad at predictions and expect to be wrong in both cases, but that doesn't make me any less excited for the year to come. If it isn't obvious at this point, I love watching this league, and I'm so excited to take in everything from Cal Jenning's mustache-powered Las Vegas Lights to whatever seven-man midfield insanity Bob Lilley is cooking up on the other side of the country. I hope you enjoyed this preview of the 2022 USL season; be sure to check out all my resources, and watch for new USL Show content as well as my writing here and elsewhere. Cheers.

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