USL Preview 2019: Where are the good players?

New to the USL as we head toward Nashville SC’s final go-round in the Championship? Let’s take a first look at the 2019 season by evaluating where the best players are going to be suiting up.

Team of the Year

First, let’s take a look at where last season’s All-League players ended up:

all_league_first_team-webcover_large-2019
First-team all-league with 2019 team logo added. Non-Championship logos in black and white.
all_league_second_team-webcover_large-2019
Second-team all-league with 2019 team logo added. Non-Championship logos in black and white.

Of the 22 total players who earned all-league honors last year, seven will not play in the USL Championship in 2019: three FC Cincinnati players move up to the Major League Soccer edition of that squad, Maxime Crepeau has returned to Montreal Impact after a season-long loan to Ottawa Fury last year, Hadji Barry and Kyle Bekker have moved abroad to clubs in Israel and Canada, respectively, and Thomas Enevoldsen has said he intends to play in Major League Soccer this year (and if he doesn’t, it appears going back to Europe is more likely than another stint in USL).

Twelve more of those players will return to the team with whom they suited up in 2018: two each with Charleston Battery, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and Sacramento Republic; and one each with Indy Eleven, Louisville City, Nashville SC, Orange County, Phoenix Rising, and Seattle Sounders 2.

That means three are as-yet unaccounted for: Darnell King, Cameron Lancaster, and Daniel Rios. All three have signed with Nashville SC (from San Antonio, Louisville, and North Carolina, respectively).

Team of the Week

Let’s take it a step further, and look at not just the team of the year, but teams of the week. For starters, how correlated were Team of the Week selections with finish in the final table? A bit more so in the Eastern Conference than the West:

 

There’s a pretty solid straight line in the East, while a few outliers in the West really take away (though some make sense). Teams to the bottom/right of the lines are underrepresented on the TOTW lists compared to their positions in the table.

Nashville SC (49, 9) is one of the teams with fewer selections than you’d expect (probably makes sense, given a lot of the early-season success was more a team accomplishment, and the lists were heavily skewed away from defensive selections, too), while Louisville City has a few more – though in their case an Cincinnati’s, it’s hard to say the teams with by far the most selections are being treated unfairly one way or another, as there can be some psychology into “let’s not give them three guys on the list again” especially as you get to the end of the year with FCC. Tampa Bay was the most overrepresented team in the East, which was blitheringly obvious even over the course of the year.

The West’s were a bit crazier: San Antonio (50, 15) is vastly overrepresented largely because they went on a late-season run with plenty of good performances as they unsuccessfully tried to return to the playoffs (and cynically, I’m thinking there’s a ton of “we expect them to be good so let’s pick more of their players to these lists” as it relates to the team that finished second in the West the previous year). OKC Energy – the most underrepresented team on the list with 43, 5 – was bad for much of the year, then solid-not-great, so they didn’t have a ton of picks as they were never a sexy choice. LA Galaxy (37, 11) is overrepresented because Efrain Alvarez is awesome and it’s not his fault his team can’t defend (he had five of their 11 selections). That’s an instance where the correlation between picks and finish shouldn’t necessarily exist.

So now that we’ve established TOTW selections as a pretty good metric for determining team quality, let’s see the changes year-to-year.

Eastern Conference
Team 2018 Picks Out In Net
Atlanta United 2 5 5 (4 to parent club) 0 -1
Bethlehem Steel 12 10 (3 to parent club) 0 -7
Charleston Battery 11 6 0 -6
Charlotte Independence 9 9 3 -6
FC Cincinnati 18 – (MLS)
Indy Eleven 12 5 5 0
Louisville City FC 18 9 2 -7
Nashville SC 9 2 16 +14
New York Red Bulls II 10 5 (1 to parent club) 0 -5
North Carolina FC 12 8 0 -8
Ottawa Fury FC 10 4 2 -2
Penn FC 6 – (hiatus)
Pittsburgh Riverhounds 15 4 1 -3
Richmond Kickers 3 – (League One)
Tampa Bay Rowdies 11 7 6 -1
Toronto FC II 4 – (League One)
New Clubs
Birmingham Legion FC 3 +3
Hartford Athletic 2 +2
Loudoun United 0 0
Memphis 901 FC 1 +1
Western Conference
Team 2018 Picks Out In Net
Colorado Springs Switchbacks 9 6 0 -1
Fresno FC 10 2 0 -7
LA Galaxy II 11 9 (6 to parent club) 1 -8
Las Vegas Lights FC 7 6 0 -6
OKC Energy FC 5 3 4 +1
Orange County SC 14 4 1 -3
Phoenix Rising FC 15 5 5 0
Portland Timbers 2 12 11 (8 to parent club) 0 -11
Real Monarchs SLC 15 8 (2 to parent club) 1 -7
Reno 1868 FC 13 9 (5 to parent club*) 2 -7
Rio Grande Valley FC 5 4 (2 to parent club*) 0 -4
Sacramento Republic FC 15 6 7 +1
Saint Louis FC 10 3 1 -2
San Antonio FC 15 11 2 -9
Seattle Sounders FC 2 4 3 (1 to parent club) 0 -3
Swope Park Rangers 13 11 (1 to parent club) 0 -11
Tulsa Roughnecks FC 4 4 2 -2
New Clubs
Austin Bold FC 3 +3
El Paso Locomotive FC 0 0
New Mexico United FC 4 +4
*Reno and Rio Grande Valley are not technically pure “Two teams,” but their technical sides are controlled by MLS clubs (Earthquakes and Dynamo, respectively), so I considered them in the same category.

Your big winners? Nashville is the only returning team in the East with a positive net. OKC and Sacramento – obviously starting from very different points – have positive nets in the West. Birmingham Legion appears to be the winner in the East among expansion teams, while New Mexico United looks best in the West among newcomers.

North Carolina FC appears to have lost the most in the East (primarily in the form of Daniel Ríos to Nashville SC and Kyle Bekker to the Canadian Premier League), while San Antonio and Swope Park lost the most in the West.

Obviously the “Two teams” – what I’m calling the MLS reserve sides, as seems to be the verbal standard, at least – have a different situation, and most of those same players will return to the USL teams as long as they haven’t aged out, or they’ll be replaced by players of similar caliber loaned down again.

It’s worth noting that good players from outside USL aren’t reflected here: Austin Bold has nabbed players from Liga MX and Chinese SuperLeague, to name one quick example. There are also a ton of selections from last year’s teams of the week not signed anywhere yet. Thomas Enevoldsen, as mentioned above, won’t likely return to USL (though it’s flat-out insane he made only one team of the week all year). However, 46 total TOTW selections (spread among 39 different players) are still floating around out there and could be signed.

There’s plenty to be settled, but it seems unlikely anyone challenges Nashville SC when it comes to winning the offseason.

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