2022 USL Championship Season Predictions

Nostradamus has nothing on us

Well, we’re back from our Caribbean scouting tour. We didn’t find any new soccer phenoms for the Legion to snatch up, but if anyone in Birmingham wants to start a pro cricket team we have a bunch of names they might want. Anyway, the season is finally about to get started and it’s time to get ready. With that in mind, we’re going to make a few predictions over which we are all doubtless going to have a few good laughs once the season is done and dusted.

One thing that will impact how we are making the predictions is that this year each conference has one less playoff spot. Only the top 7 teams will make it, with the conference champions getting a bye in the first round (which they are calling quarterfinals despite only having three games in each conference). A reseeding system will also be in effect.

This means that winning the conference gets an automatic home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs, and second place automatically gets home field in the first two rounds. Third and fourth get home field in the first round. At a minimum, then, you want to be in the top four and preferably the top two. A mind-numbingly complicated tiebreaker system is applicable too, which you can find at the bottom of this page.

With that, here goes:

Conference Champions

These may seem like rather obvious choices, and indeed they are but neither team has done anything that suggests they are any weaker than in the past. Perennial contenders, the both of them.

East: Louisville City. 

That being said, the recent injury to Louisville’s Cameron Lancaster that will keep him out for an extended period does change things for the team. But Lou City is deep and experienced and they should be able to ride it out without too much difficulty. For one thing they picked up Enoch Mushagalusa from Sporting Kansas City II as an option at striker and have strengthened the midfield with Manny Perez and Ray Serrano. They also now have goalkeeper Kyle Morton from the Houston Dynamo so scoring on them will be no easier than it has ever been.

West: Phoenix Rising

The Rising for their part said goodbye to Solomon Asante after four years, but he was beginning to age a tad at 31. They picked up Scotsman Greg Hurst in the general raid on Union Omaha’s 2021 roster and it remains to be seen how he will fare going up a tier. He is going to benefit from playing in front of Santi Moar, one of the league’s elite midfielders. Defensively the roster looks strong too, notably Aodhan Quinn in his second year with the club.

League Champion: Tampa Bay Rowdies

The Rowdies may not win the conference but their ongoing playoff rivalry with Louisville City will continue. They have met in the playoffs each of the past three seasons, Lou City winning in 2019 and Tampa winning the past two years. The Rowdies missed out on the championship the past two years thanks to COVID in 2020 and a surprise loss to Orange County last year. They are not going to let that happen again.

The squad is stacked. They lost stalwart defender Forrest Lasso to Sweden’s GIF Sundsvall and goalkeeper Evan Louro to, well, nobody bizarrely enough. He is replaced by C.J. Cochran from OKC Energy (on loan) who will likely get the starting nod over Cuban Raiko Arozarena. They haven’t brought in any major name to fill Lasso’s spot, but the rest of the defense aren’t exactly pikers. Besides, they will continue to score in bunches. They have not only Sebastian Guenzatti but signed Kyle Greig on a free after his option was oddly declined by Lou City, who will likely live to regret that decision.

Playoff Locks

East: Tampa Bay Rowdies, Birmingham Legion, Pittsburgh Riverhounds

By “locks” we really mean home field advantage as discussed above.

We’ve already covered the Rowdies, so in the East that leaves the Legion and the Riverhounds. Quite a few pundits have the fake steel city ahead of the real one, and that seems largely predicated on two things: the departure of Neco Brett (and to a lesser extent, Junior Flemmings and JJ Williams) from the Three Sparks attack and the arrival of near-legendary striker Dane Kelly in Pittsburgh. That seems like an easy argument to make.

But Kelly – who will soon become the first 100-goal scorer in league history – is beginning to age at 31. He may drop off in pace and goal production this season. Moreover, the Hounds have a big question mark at goalkeeper. 2021 starter Danny Vitiello left to Sacramento Republic, and the two shotstoppers on the roster are Kevin Silva, who has 13 appearances in 5 seasons (none at the Championship level) and recent college graduate Chase Vosvick, formerly of Loyola University. That tends to suggest that the Hounds may be a slightly easier out than some think.

The Legion, on the other hand, are probably something of a question mark to many as the entire front line has changed. In particular, Edi Horvat will be an unknown quantity until the league gets to see what he can do, and it is likely they will get vewy, vewy afwaid. The team also brought in the highly motivated Enzo Martinez from the Charlotte Independence as well as Marlon from FC Tulsa and elsewhere the squad is virtually unchanged. If the team gels as it should it will be a legit title contender. Look for them to outdo the Riverhounds.

West: San Antonio, El Paso Locomotive, Orange County

I feel a lot less certain about these selections than I do about the East picks. There’s been a fair amount of shuffling around over in the West, and things could turn out very differently than I anticipate. Most notably, the San Diego Loyal could be poised for a playoff run. What is fairly certain, though, is that Orange County are not going to repeat.

San Antonio (whom the Legion will face for the second straight year, this time at home) has added attacking power in Kekutah Manneh, formerly of MLS’ Austin FC. He joins Santiago Patino in a very potent front pairing. They also signed midfielder Deshane Beckford from Colorado Springs who also poses a meaningful threat. The team could have a competition for goalkeeper, having added Indy Eleven’s Jordan Farr on the offseason and Colombian Cristian Bonilla alongside long-time player Matt Cardone.

El Paso, theoretically, should need some time to find their feet. The biggest loss for them was head coach Mark Lowry, who left for Indy Eleven. Lowry had led the team since its inception four years ago. Stepping in is John Hutchinson, who previously had a stint as head coach of the Tacoma Defiance, but has mainly coached in his native Australia. The primary on-field loss was standout goalkeeper Logan Ketterer, now with Club de Foot Montreal of MLS. Replacing him is long-serving Championship keeper Evan Newton on loan from the Vancouver Whitecaps. So long as Hutchinson finds his feet quickly, the team should be fine.

Orange County likewise hasn’t changed much, but frankly were major overachievers last season. There were no really big offseason moves, although the acquisition of striker Erick Torres (better known as Cubo because of his square head) was touted as some as a big win. But since leaving the Houston Dynamo in 2017, Torres has played 63 games. He’s scored 5 goals over those games. Atlanta United fans were glad to see him go at the end of 2021. They remain good enough to start the playoffs at home, but probably won’t go any further than the second round.

Wooden Spoons

East: Loudoun United

About the best thing you can say about Loudoun United is that they won’t be as bad as Las Vegas. Quite. The league will likely be relieved to see them head to MLS Next Pro in 2023. Meanwhile, they are an easy 6 points for most teams in the East. The roster is a bit of a mystery – the club website lists a full roster but mostly names that appear incorrect. Big gains though are goalkeeper Trey Muse (from the Seattle Sounders but most recently on loan with the San Diego Loyal) and defender Sami Guediri from Inter Miami.

West: Las Vegas Lights

This is a pretty easy one to call. The Lights have been, other than their logo, an embarrassingly bad team from the get go. 4 seasons. 5 head coaches. Best finish13th in the conference. Being a revolving door reserve squad for LAFC didn’t help matters. The current squad, four days before the first game, is just 12 players per the club’s website. New head coach Spaniard Enrique Duran has a tough job on his hands in what could be the team’s last season in the league (LAFC’s MLS Next Pro plans are unclear and MLS is considering a Las Vegas franchise).

Dark Horses

East: Detroit City

Unlike fellow Championship newbies Monterey Bay in the West, Detroit City has an existing history to judge. They were NISA champions the past two years, with a record of 22-2-7. Yes, they lost just twice in two years. However, a full 34-game slate will be something new for them. But they appear to mean business. They grabbed former Lou City midfielder Antoine Hoppenot and their own former player Abdoulaye Diop (the other Atlanta United 2 Diop, no relation). Also coming in is striker Billy Forbes from The Miami FC. They are led by 4th-year head coach Englishman Trevor James who has a strong coaching and scouting record. They could be a surprise to some teams in the East and could easily overperform.

West: Oakland Roots

After upsetting El Paso in the Western Conference quarterfinals, the Roots aren’t going to sneak up on anyone this season, but likely will not suffer a sophomore slump. They do have a problem to fix though: in 2021 they attempted just 303 shots, the lowest in the league. To fix that they have brought in Dariusz Formella from Sacramento Republic. They also have a new head coach in Juan Guerra, previously an assistant at Indy and Phoenix. He replaces Jordan Ferrell who took over as head coach after the club fired Dario Pot before ever playing a game. Ferrell returns to his position as technical director. A return to the playoffs could be a long shot, but don’t count them out.

Individual Awards

Golden Boot: Kyle Murphy

Memphis 901 has a history of odd management decisions, Letting Murphy head off to Miami is high on that list. He tied Cameron Lancaster for 3rd in the Golden Boot race last season with 21 goals and with the strong Miami midfield supporting him has a strong chance to improve on that. Colorado Springs” Hadji Barry had an aberrant season in 2021 and won’t produce at anything like the same rate. Lancaster will be playing catch-upas he starts the season injured, which means this could be a two-man competition between Murphy and Guenzatti.

Golden Glove: Jeff Caldwell

Last year’s winner, Evan Louro, isn’t currently in the league, so this award could be wide open. Caldwell was a finalist last year (along with Birmingham’s Matt van Oekel). He moves from Hartford Athletic to Colorado Springs this season (he also appeared once in the 2021 playoffs for Miami on an “emergency” loan) and will be an impact player on that team. At 26 he’s also relatively young for a starting keeper, and has a long career ahead of him.

MVP: Bruno Lapa

Jeff Rueter of The Athletic picked Bruno as his preseason MVP last year, and then he went and got himself injured. Hope I’m not repeating the curse. With Enzo Martinez and Marlon either side of him, Bruno now has more distribution options than before, and of course is a scoring threat in his own right. Now in his third season, look for him to really step up and give opposing defenses serious headaches all season.

OK, that’s it. Don’t go looking for this post come November, as there is a very high probability it will have mysteriously disappeared!

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