With the offseason in full swing, there have been plenty of signings across USL Championship. With so many to keep up with, here are some I believe will have a big impact in 2019. (Cameron Lancaster to Nashville has not been completed at this time.)
I’m not sure at this point if RGV or San Antonio is Houston Dynamo’s affiliate team, but I am sure that the picking up of Kai Greene is a good one for SAFC. When Sebastien Ibeagha left San Antonio for MLS’ NYCFC, it became an obvious missing piece in 2018. San Antonio had the 2nd most yellow cards in the league, giving up almost as many penalty kicks as clean sheets (4 vs 5). Only four teams allowed more goals than San Antonio in the Western conference and those four teams were at the bottom of the table. However, I think Greene will help stabilize the shaky backline.
While not the biggest name in USL, Greene’s 41 interceptions and 41 tackles did not go unnoticed in 2018. Winning 102 of his 147 duels, Kai has shown that he is not afraid to go 1-v-1 against anyone. Kai still has things to work on though, winning only a little more than half of aerial duels and completing only 33% of his long passes. But from what he’s shown in the past two years, it’s a safe bet that San Antonio’s defense is now a bit better than it was last year.
Everything That The Tampa Bay Rowdies Have Been Doing
Opposite of San Antonio’s problem, Tampa Bay did a decent job of keeping the ball out of the back of their net but had more problems putting it in their opponents. But after a season where only 5 teams in the East scored less than the Rowdies, Neil Collins and the Tampa front office have already started to make moves to change that.
The biggest and most important name of the group is former Reno player, Antoine Hoppenot. One of the most consistent players in USL, Antoine brings MLS experience, over 5 years of USL experience, and a playmaking ability which will all come in handy with a young Tampa squad. Tied for 3rd most assists in USL last year (13), Antoine more than doubled his assists while becoming more of a creator than the 12 goal finisher he was in 2017. Adding 11 more key passes in 2018 for a total of 62, look for Antoine to be the facilitator of this team.
When goal scoring is a problem, you bring in Brandon Allen, Zach Steinberger, and Malik Johnson to change it. While he hasn’t been the 21 goal scoring 2016 all league first team machine, Brandon Allen put up double digit goals in only 15 starts for Nashville. More importantly, it’s when the goals came that will be beneficial for Tampa who finished with 8 draws and only 9 points out a playoff spot. Zach Steinberger coming off of a 5 goal 4 assist year with North Carolina, looks to also bring offensive power to Tampa Bay as well.
When I saw Malik Johnson’s name, I was surprised he was not heading to the Canadian Premier League. However, Tampa Bay has found a great signing in the Canadian Youth National Team player who has been called up to Toronto’s first team and looks to solidify his role in a warmer scenery.
Moar Moar Moar! How Do You Like It?
When I think about underrated players in the 2018 USL season, I think of Maikel Chang Lewis Hilton, and Santi Moar. In their inaugural year, New Mexico United have hit the ground running signing the likes of USL experienced Juan Guzman, hometown hero Justin Schmidt, traveling man Josh Suggs, and now, Santi Moar. Coming off an even stronger season than his Rookie of the Year runner-up campaign, Santi is a player everyone knows, but he doesn’t get top of the league discussions like he should.
Santi has incredible ball skill and uses it to get around defenders who may be faster. And while he’s right footed, he has no issue dribbling and passing with his left, making him dangerous on both the left and right side of the field. This would be an excellent attribute to the team if New Mexico wants to play the ball wide and spread the defense. A move showing that New Mexico wants a postseason in their first season.
Memphis’ Caribbean Takeover
A few things you can always count on in USL; Sacramento fills their stadium with fans, Las Vegas fills their stadiums with llamas & money, and USL fills their rosters with Caribbean players. Whether it’s the seasoned vets like Omar Cummings, fast players like Neco Brett, or MLS experienced players like Cordell Cato, Caribbean players play a huge role in USL. So, it only makes sense that Memphis would head to Trinidad &Tobago to bring up a couple of USL-ready players to kick things off for their first season.
Signing Trinidad & Tobago national team players Triston Hodge and Leston Paul, as well as Jamaican Ewan Grandison, Memphis has done a great job bringing in players who have been standouts in their domestic leagues. Hodge, the youngest of the group, does a great job of using his speed to make recovery runs and go forward with the attack. The left-footed player is very confident on the ball and has no problems being one on one as an attacker. While his final third can use work, at 22, I think Hodge will be a standout player for Memphis.
Leston Paul, not named after Les Paul no matter how much Memphis will want to claim it, brings experience from a very physical El Salvador league and specializes in throwing off the balance of the defending team. While his technique still is a work in progress, Leston makes very smart runs and has a very aggressive level of play that draws defenders with him. Memphis will hope for those hard runs to the box and the clean passes that we have seen from him before.
Your Best Player To Your Worst Enemy
The Las Vegas Lights do a lot of ridiculous things, and I’m all about it! From the Llamas to the crazy coaches, I think Las Vegas brings fun and personality to this league. However, not everything Las Vegas does is a laughing matter, and letting the contract of your best player expire for your biggest rival to grab, might be the unfunniest thing that can happen.
Raúl Mendiola is on his way to Reno 1868 after new head coach Eric Wynalda stated in a radio interview on Technically Correct, “He was a headache before we even got a chance to work together.” And guess what, he’ll be an even bigger headache for the Lights at some point this year. As if Brian Brown wasn’t enough for defenses to deal with, scoring 17 goals in 2018, they now bring aboard the former LA Galaxy player who had a minute per goal ratio of 157.9. While eight of his ten goals this year came from inside the box, Mendiola found success with late runs and shooting from the side of the boxes. He always seemed to be perfectly positioned to receive a ball wide and cut in on counter attacks which might fit Ian Russell’s system perfectly. Add the extra motivation to stick it to his former team, and I have a feeling that the Silver State Cup games are going to be even more dramatic this year.
Photo credit to Christian Inoferio