2023 USL Championship Season Predictions

We learned nothing from last year

 The 2023 USL Championship season is now just days away, which means it’s time for the Forge to start gearing up after being relatively quiet for what seems like eons now. Regular readers may recall that we started off last year with a bunch of predictions as to how the season would go. Being gluttons for punishment, we have decided to ignore the lessons of history and do the same thing over again. To make things even worse on ourselves, we’ll also review our predictions from last year and see how they turned out.

Much has changed in the USL Championship in the past few months, the most obvious change being the departure of the remaining MLS 2 teams, with the exception of Loudoun United, who became a fully independent club again, and the effective exception of Las Vegas Lights, who were technically independent but to all intents and purposes the reserve squad for LAFC. Gone are New York Red Bulls II, LA Galaxy II and Atlanta United 2. The league is down to an evenly split 24 teams, and as a result the schedule has been adjusted so that, for the first time, each team will get to play every team in the opposite conference once. This is a great improvement from a competition perspective and will allow for much improved comparison between the two conferences (hint: they are much closer than they used to be). The playoffs have changed as well; there will be 8 teams in each conference and no first round byes.

On top of that there have been coaching and roster changes galore and many teams will be vastly different than were just a year ago. Overall, it’s going to be a very interesting season.

So, here’s what we think will happen:

Conference Champions

I didn’t go out on a limb last year; at least I didn’t think I did. I’m doing the same this year.

East: Louisville City

2022 prediction: Louisville City
2022 winner: Louisville City

Love them or hate them, there is no denying that Lou City is incredibly consistent. In 8 seasons they have never finished lower than 4th (2019), with 3 first place finishes and 4 2nd place finishes. They have never failed to make the conference championship game, and have advanced to the league championship 4 times, winning it twice. Last year they did it without the services of team legend Cameron Lancaster for an extended period. They are no less packed at every position this year and come midseason they may also find themselves rolling in cash as 17-year-old phenom Joshua Wynder likely moves to Europe for an anticipated $1 million or more. They are going to be very hard to get past.

West: San Antonio

2022 prediction: Phoenix Rising
2022 winner: San Antonio

Phoenix seemed like the obvious choice for 2022, but boy did they implode. They ended up finishing 10th and went through an embarrassing argument over poaching coach Juan Guerra from Oakland after giving long-time leader Rick Schantz the boot. They’ll be a lot better this year, but no one in the West can really match up to a virtually unchanged San Antonio squad that basically ran away with the conference last year, winning by a massive 17-point margin. If anything, most of the West has got slightly weaker with a number of top players heading east. San Antonio are scary good, and this year the Legion will have to face them in Texas. In July.

League Champion: San Antonio

2022 prediction: Tampa Bay Rowdies
2022 winner: San Antonio

It took 108 minutes but Louisville eventually edged the Rowdies for the Eastern crown and the privilege of losing to San Antonio. Tampa were good last year, just not quite good enough. They have beefed up a bit this year, and are the team with the best chance to beat Lou City in the Eastern playoffs. Still, 538 has Lou City at 22% to take the league, and Tampa at just 10%. But San Antonio (at 11%) were motivated last year and will be just as motivated to repeat this year. Yes, this seems like a lazy prediction, but I just don’t see anything else happening.

Playoff Locks

East: Tampa Bay Rowdies, Birmingham Legion, The™ Miami FC

2022 prediction: Tampa Bay Rowdies, Birmingham Legion, Pittsburgh Riverhounds
2022 teams: Memphis 901, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Birmingham Legion

By “locks” we really mean home field advantage other than the conference champions.

We got close here last season, missing only Area Code FC and Pittsburgh finished 5th. So, not bad really.

Pittsburgh really did nothing to improve over the offseason in what is now a very tight conference and if anything will struggle to make the playoffs at all. Memphis picked up Bruno Lapa to bolster the midfield and have Phillip Goodrum back to score in spades, but the lost the most important name – Ben Pirmann, who left to coach  the Charleston Battery. His replacement is Stephen Glass, whose resumé at Atlanta United 2 and Aberdeen is hardly stellar. And, we just learned, Goodrum is not happy to be back.

Tampa, as noted above, are strong and have added quite a few new pieces. Not least of those is Forrest Lasso returning from his one-year experiment in Sweden, as well as former Legionaries JJ Williams and Zach Herivaux. They also grabbed goalkeeper Connor Sparrow from Miami to give some stability to a previously rather questionable netminding corps. They just lost Leo Fernandes for the season to an Achilles injury but even without him they are very dangerous.

The Legion have made some major changes too, of course. Neco Brett is back and Indy Eleven forward Tyler Pasher also joins the team to offer some serious goalscoring chops.  Moses Mensah and Gabriel Alves will make life difficult on the left wing. The big question though is how will the Three Sparks replace Jonny Dean? Still, they have the ability to compete in the East and will earn a third straight home playoff spot.

So, Miami lost Connor Sparrow and also lost striker Speedy Williams (to Colorado Springs). Have they replaced those big pieces well enough to justify a top four finish? Well, maybe. Part of it is that Memphis is likely to be weaker than last year and that gets the South Floridians a boost. They have Adrian Zendejas in goal on loan from Charlotte FC of MLS. And they still have Kyle Murphy up top in search of recapturing his old form. They have enough to get so far, but probably no further.

West: Phoenix Rising, San Diego Loyal, Sacramento Republic

2022 prediction: San Antonio, El Paso Locomotive, Orange County
2022 teams: San Diego Loyal, Colorado Springs Switchbacks, Sacramento Republic

I completely blew it last year. El Paso didn’t make the playoffs and Orange County finished dead last after winning it all in 2021. Of the four Western home teams, I picked just one right. Oh well.

And yes, Phoenix are that much better this year. A jump all the way from 10th to 2nd is definitely on the cards. The roster has been heavily overhauled and looks much more threatening. The biggest acquisition is Danny Trejo from Las Vegas, who managed 14 goals in 2022 in an otherwise anemic attack. Goalkeeping is a potential question mark, though. They lost Ben Lundt to St. Louis SC, the 2023 MLS expansion team. In his place is Rocco Rios Novo, the 20-year-old Mexican-Argentinian-American who made a splash in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League with Atlanta United and spent most of his time since with Atlanta United 2. He is on loan from Argentina’s Lanus and definitely has the skills, but is still very young.

San Diego is no surprise here, despite a coaching change, with Landon Donovan handing over the reins to Nate Miller. That’s about the most noticeable change in this team other than the addition of local boy and forward Joe Corona. Corona spent 2022 with Forrest Lasso at GIF Sundsvall in Sweden, who apparently don’t think that much of Americans. He is 32 though, so may not feature all that much. Not sure the Loyal really need him, to be honest.

Another non-shock is Sacramento, who did some heavy lifting for the USL Championship by getting to the US Open Cup final last year. They also are largely unchanged, but did add one big piece in Russell Cicerone, who they bagged from Pittsburgh. Cicerone scored 15 goals last season. They could easily end up higher than 4th, but they should not expect to do any worse.

Wooden Spoons

East: Loudoun United

2022 prediction: Loudoun United
2022 “winner”: New York Red Bulls II

Loudoun surprised a few people last year by finishing 11th of 14. How? Well, the Baby Bulls were utterly execrable, Twonited forgot how to defend and the Battery had a nightmare season. Two of those are now gone, Charleston is a vastly improved team, and everyone else in the conference has done things to improve. Separating itself from DC United of MLS the club is basically starting from scratch and is going to have a tough time of it.

West: Las Vegas Lights

2022 prediction: Las Vegas Lights
2022 “winner”: Orange County

More repeat predictions, I know. But the Lights finished 9th of 13 last season for similar reasons to Loudoun (that is, other teams crashing and burning) and this year are in much the same position as Loudoun. Possibly worse. On top of losing the LAFC pipeline, Danny Trejo went to Phoenix and Cal Jennings to Tampa. Those are huge losses to a team that can ill afford to lose anyone. Their only chance to avoid the basement: getting past Oakland, who have also had a poor offseason.

Dark Horses

East: Hartford Athletic

2022 prediction: Detroit City

You can’t really say there was a “winner” as such in this category, but I think it fair to say that Detroit City more than met expectations last season. They won’t sneak up on anyone this year, though, and in fact will likely miss the playoffs after losing Antoine Hoppenot, Pato Botello Faz and Deklan Wynne. This year will be interesting in this category, with both Hartford and Charleston having good arguments as outside contenders in the East. The Athletic get the nod, though. Head coach Tab Ramos took over late last season, getting 4 of the team’s 10 wins that year over a 7-game span (and scoring at least 3 goals in each of those victories). Two new players will bolster the squad – the aforementioned Hoppenot and productive forward Elvis Amoh from Colorado Springs. 538 has trhem finishing 7th and the USL itself 10th, but they could easily do better than either of those.

West: Monterey Bay

2022 prediction: Oakland Roots

Oakland Roots had a bizarre season all told, including losing their head coach in a nasty clash with Phoenix. Noah Delgado squeaked them into the playoffs on tiebreakers, shocked San Diego 3-0 before losing to San Antonio. Delgado earned himself the permanent job as a result, but this year will be tough after seeing leading goalscorer Ottar Magnus Karlsson and midfielder Charlie Dennis leave. Instead, look south down the California coast for the team that could surprise a few opponents this year. Monterey spent nearly two months on the road to start the season and found themselves in a predictable hole, but got very close to the playoffs before collapsing late.  The 12th place finish did not truly reflect the quality of this team. This year they have added forward Alex Dixon from Pittsburgh and retain a very sold defense. They should improve on 2022 significantly.

Individual Awards

Golden Boot: Wilson Harris

2022 prediction: Kyle Murphy
2022 winner: Milan Iloski

Iloski was the sole bright spot in Orange County’s horrible season, edging Memphis’ Goodrum for the title with 22 goals. Our pick, Kyle Murphy, who netted 21 times in 2021, moved from Memphis to Miami and bagged just 10 goals in 2022, shocking almost everyone. He’ll probably do better this year, and may contend for the boot. Picking a winner is a tough call, though. Of the top 7 scorers (there was a 3-way tie for 5th), 3 are out of the running this year. Hadji Barry is in Egypt, Karlsson returned to Venezia and Leo Fernandes is out injured. Goodrum will either leave for greener pastures or be so pissed off as to play himself out of the running. Can Iloski repeat? Doubtful, despite a much improved Orange County team. I’m going with Lou City’s Wilson Harris. He scored 15 times last year and is leading a fearsome attack that will be difficult to fend off.

Golden Glove: Connor Sparrow

2022 prediction: Jeff Caldwell
2022 winner: Kyle Morton

The Golden Glove award is based on a goals against average, which heavily favors keepers for teams that don’t allow many shots. Lou City’s Morton edged San Antonio’s Jordan Farr for the award. But Morton made just 52 saves in 28 games, ranking a lowly 25th in that category. Farr was rather higher on that list, 7th with 84 saves. So this is a hard award to predict given its basis. However, we will go with Tampa’s Connor Sparrow. Last year with Miami Newton was 3rd in saves with 95 and tied for 8th in clean sheets with 8. The trip up I-95 will surely improve his stats significantly.

MVP: Aodhan Quinn

2022 prediction: Bruno Lapa
2022 winner: Leo Fernandes

Yeah, we really missed the boat on this one last year, as Bruno fell into complete disuse in Birmingham despite earning the team’s only hat-trick to date. As noted above, Fernandes is sadly out for the season, so this award is wide open. The award generally goes to the player with the best combination of goals and assists. As result I am sorely tempted to be a homer again this year and pick Enzo Martinez, who did well in both last year. I also considered Indy Eleven’s Cameron Lindley, newly arrived from Colorado Springs. But I decided to go with his new teammate Aodhan Quinn, who logged 9 goals and 7 assists in Phoenix last year and should improve on both of those in a beefed-up Indy attack.

That’s it, and we’ll see how well we did about nine months from now!

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