New on SocTakes: 2019 USL Championship mega preview: Western Conference Part II

USL Championship mega preview
Photo credit: Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes

Welcome back to the 2019 USL mega preview series, covering every single one of the 36 teams contesting the 2019 USL Championship season. If you missed Part I, go check it out here.

We left off halfway through the Western Conference, so we’ll pick up right there and dive in.

Phoenix Rising FC

Everything finally clicked for Phoenix in 2018 thanks to some help from Didier Drogba and the emergence of Rick Schantz as permanent head coach. Since-departed Patrice Carteron built up a smart, well-disciplined system for Schantz to inherit, and the handover took place as smoothly as it possibly could have. The frenetic pace that Phoenix showed in the spring cooled off just a touch in the middle of the summer, but the club lost back-to-back games just twice all season and cruised through the playoffs.

Honestly, other than those anomalies to close out the regular season, the chaos in the Open Cup against Sporting Arizona FC and championship loss, there weren’t any standout “bad” moments for Phoenix in 2018. With that, the vast majority of the roster is back, a positive reassurance to the fans that they’re going for the championship again this season.

Only six players have departed, and excluding Didier Drogba, who retired, and Kody Wakasa joining their League One affiliate in Tucson, it’s really just four. Losing Billy Forbes and Kevaughn Frater hurts offensive depth, but bringing in Ben Spencer and Adam Jahn leaves Phoenix more than covered. The only loss that I’m concerned about is Chris Cortez. His 21 goals and six assists across the entire season are tough to recover from. Solomon Asante is the logical successor for that role, even if he’s not a true drop-in replacement for Cortez, and I firmly expect him to lead the team in goals scored.

In the midfield, the additions of Jose Aguinaga and Junior Flemmings only bolster one of the strongest offenses in the entire league. Both moves absolutely scream “we’re winning this thing this year” right at Louisville. Swap those two in for Drogba and Frater from their championship lineup, let Asante push forward as Aguinaga drops back and you have a team that runs circles around Louisville and wins that game.

Off the field, fan support continued to grow, and Phoenix now faces an issue so many teams would kill for: their stadium is too small. They managed a crowd of 7,707 against Swope Park in the playoffs, 1,500 above listed capacity. As they ride this momentum and keep improving on and off the field, they’ll need to think about expanding soon. Maybe we’ll see them break ground on that MLS-spec stadium this year.

Prognosis: Write them in for the conference final. In pen.

Portland Timbers 2

Carrying on what I started in Part 1, we won’t be recapping the true II teams’ seasons, instead focusing on developing players who made a difference in the USL last season, those who are ready to jump to MLS in the near future and those to keep an eye on for the 2019 USL season.

Foster Langsdorf was the standout attacking player for the Saplings last season, scoring 14 goals in 30 games before going down with a right lateral meniscus tear. He successfully underwent surgery in November and has been back for much of preseason. Knee injuries are always tough, and there’s that lingering anxiety of a re-injury, but he’s already looking like his usual self. There’s a few guys ahead of him on the depth chart for the senior team, but he’s exactly the sort of player to get some minutes in the Open Cup and late in the regular season. If Dairon Asprilla and/or Lucas Milano get sold at the end of the season, Langsdorf might end up starting in a year’s time.

Carlos Anguiano, one of the recent stars of the Timbers Academy, has signed his first professional deal with T2 despite having already registered 706 minutes in the USL the past two seasons. In his limited appearances last year, he showed promise if a lack of polish, and it’s a definite vote of confidence from Savarese to see him signed by the organization. He’s comfortable as both a winger and central midfielder with solid passing accuracy, especially at close range. I could see him one day taking over for Andy Polo on the right wing in MLS.

Much has already been said about Jeremy Ebobisse, who spent much of his time in the USL the past two seasons. Solid play with T2 in 2018 helped him fight his way back into the first team and there’s reason to believe he’ll be a regular in MLS in 2019.

Niko de Vera was picked up from Red Bulls II after playing for the League Two U-23 Timbers from 2015 to 2017. He was drafted from Akron in the 2018 SuperDraft, looking good but unspectacular for the Baby Bulls. He’ll be back in the system where he showed a lot of promise in years prior, and with T2 moving on from Batista, Mulligan, Phillips and Smith, he’s got an easy road to starting in the USL. He’s another guy who could end up playing the odd Open Cup game or the late-season, pre-playoff games where the starters get rested. Still have hopes for him yet.

Finally, Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano were both promoted to the first team ahead of 2019 and both impressed in the USL last season. With Sebastian Blanco and David Guzman getting older, those two make sense as mostly drop-in replacements in midfield.

Prognosis: Pay attention to Anguiano and de Vera in particular in 2019.

Real Monarchs SLC

The Monarchs have been an oddity among II teams in that they’ve been just as concerned with winning games as developing players, leading to some of the most exciting and effective soccer in the league. However, they’ll be a radically different team in 2019.

First up, Martin Vasquez is in as the new permanent head coach following the departure of Mark Briggs. Sebastian Velazquez and Chandler Hoffman are both gone, too.

Justin Portillo won a shot at the first team following another impressive season in which he scored twice, logged seven assists and played more than 2,700 minutes for the second USL season in a row. He joined the Monarchs from Charleston after the 2017 season and was an immediate standout, showing incredible passing accuracy. His comfort in transition and on counterattacking plays was vital for the Monarchs throughout the season. He’s only 26, too, so he could have several good years for Petke with the first team yet.

Two players to watch in 2019 are Steve Jasso and Jordan Pena, both signed to the Monarchs from the RSL Academy. Both previously played for the Real Salt Lake Arizona youth programs in the USSDA before joining the primary academy team in Utah at the U-18/19 level for the 2017-18 season. Pena is a tough, true No. 6 midfielder with a great defensive mindset and disruptive capabilities. He’s exactly the sort of player I’d like to see succeed Kyle Beckerman in the next few years. Jasso, meanwhile, is primarily a right back who has spent some time at center back and right wing. He reminds me of FC Dallas’ Reggie Cannon in lots of positive ways, showing defensive reading beyond his years and comfort pushing forward as needed. Looking at how Petke has used Brooks Lennon with the first team, Jasso is exactly the sort of player RSL will want to keep around, especially if they get a massive offer for Lennon from Germany.

In goal, Andrew Putna now stands as RSL’s top ‘keeper prospect and first in line for the House of Rimando. Putna has generally been the bench ‘keeper for RSL in MLS and has only played seven USL games the past two seasons, but I like what I’ve seen from him and he’s shown himself to be mostly MLS ready. I rate him higher than former Monarchs goalkeepers Jake Leeker and Connor Sparrow, and I feel like working with Rimando will only help him grow.


Reno 1868 FC

  • Founded: 2015
  • First USL season: 2017
  • Home stadium: Greater Nevada Field (9,013)
  • Head coach: Ian Russell (third season)
  • MLS affiliate: San Jose Earthquakes
  • 2018 record: 16-11-7, +18 GD, 59 points, fifth in West, lost conference semifinal
  • 2018 Attendance: 5,066, 10th, -8.9 percent

Reno’s sophomore season wasn’t quite as explosive as 2017, but Ian Russell’s squad was once again highly effective. Despite starting off slow, after four games it looked like they might never lose again. From April 21 until July 28, Reno won 10 and drew six without a loss, and became the team to beat. They then went into a bit of a slump, losing three of four, but rallied to finish the season with a seven-game unbeaten streak. The club ended the year by advancing one round further in the playoffs, making for a very solid season indeed, even if they lost to Sacramento in the Open Cup again.

Unfortunately, several major players aren’t coming back for 2019, the most notable being Antoine Hoppenot. Hoppenot was a juggernaut for Reno, scoring five goals and leading the team with 13 assists. Only he and Brian Brown started every game, and the two of them were responsible for nearly half the team’s goals. Brown, though, will be back, and after scoring 18 goals in 2018, can only grow from here. He’s only 26, just reaching the prime of his career, and finally looked comfortable and at home in Russell’s system. He definitely looked and played his best at the tip of Russell’s slightly unusual 4-1-2-1-2 with Hoppenot out wide and van Ewijk just behind. To replace them, they’ve signed Corey Hertzog from Saint Louis and Raul Mendiola from Las Vegas. Hertzog fits into Hoppenot’s spot pretty nicely even if it isn’t an upgrade, while Mendiola in a lot of ways makes more sense than van Ewijk, who always seemed more comfortable out on the wing. If those two can combine for 12 goals and 15 assists, Reno will be just fine. And they just might.

In defense, Reno retains all three of Brent Richards, Zach Carroll and Duke Lacroix, while adding Benjamin Galindo Jr. on loan from Guadalajara. That right there is the new Almeyda-era Quakes trickling down to the USL level, and I’m all for it. Between him, Fioranelli and Leitch, Reno will have no shortage of talented young players on the field in 2019. Expect to see JT Marcinkowski and Matt Bersano get loaned out once again, and I’d be shocked if Jacob Akanyirige, Gilbert Fuentes and Siad Haji don’t end up with hella USL minutes.

Prognosis: It feels like the new-found connection with the Quakes will benefit Reno in a big, big way.

Rio Grande Valley FC Toros

  • Founded: 2015
  • First USL season: 2016
  • Home stadium: H-E-B Park (9,735)
  • Head coach: Gerson Echeverry (second Season)
  • MLS affiliate: Houston Dynamo
  • 2018 record: 8-14-12, -6 GD, 38 points, 13th in West
  • 2018 attendance: 4,650, 14th, -34.3 percent from 2017
  • Name: still too long

The first season in RGVFC history was electric, as the debutants finished second in their conference, but hardly anyone was there to see it. In their second season, attendance skyrocketed as the quality of play dropped. When I said last year they needed to bring those two seasons together for 2018, I didn’t mean play bad soccer in a half-empty stadium.

Which is exactly what they did.

RGV limped through preseason, won just one of their first 17 games and had just 13 points halfway through the season. And then, things started to get better. They won twice in July, thrice in September and finished with a 50-point pace across the second half of the season. Echeverry managed to get things figured out enough to keep his job, and generally speaking, they looked not all that bad by October.

As is the case when any quasi-reserve team has a bad season, loads of players are gone for 2019, with nearly half the roster not returning. The only name that stands out to me is Todd Wharton. Despite a major lack of cohesion in midfield, Wharton managed to pull a five-goal, five-assist season out of seemingly nothing and was consistently one of the best players on the field. He showed clear signs of improvement on offense while maintaining pretty good stats in midfield, and it kinda sucks to see him leave. He’s off to Timbers 2, though, which could end up being good for him long term.

As expected, most of the players coming in are coming from the academy, with four more youth players set for USL minutes this season. One of them, Wilmer Cabrera Jr., is actually the son of the Dynamo’s head coach, and finally gets a contract after playing 725 minutes in 2018 alongside his brother David. Wilmer Jr. is still figuring out the professional game, but despite his limited playing time was starting to show some promise by the end of the year. A more organized midfield could be a real game changer for him.

Zach Jackson joins out of college having previously spent time in the Houston academy, and still could be a promising defender yet. He’s a bit too old to call him a prospect, but not long ago he was still an anchor in Furman’s back line. I’m keeping an eye on him.

Prognosis: It’s only up from here, right? Probably. Maybe.

Sacramento Republic FC

Following a rather disappointing 2017 season, Sacramento hired Simon Elliott, MLS veteran and former New Zealand international, as head coach, and former MLS standout Todd Dunivan as general manager. Both immediately impressed me with how they reorganized the Republic into a leaner, tougher and more defensively sound team. Sacramento began the season with a seven-game unbeaten streak, lost just three of their first 15 and closed out the season comfortably with four wins in a row. They lost back-to-back games just once, and lost by more than two goals on just one occasion. In the Open Cup, they picked off Reno and Seattle before nearly forcing extra time against LAFC, and despite a loss in the first round of the playoffs, can claim 2018 as their second-best season to date.

A retooled midfield let Cameron Iwasa shine to the tune of 17 goals and six assists, with Villyan Bijev laying claim to his starting spot as Iwasa’s strike partner. Mitchell Taintor and Shannon Gomez were defensive beasts who showed a strong ability on counterattacks, while Josh Cohen was absolutely phenomenal in goal all season. And the best part: they’re all coming back. Related to the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” there’s “if it’s basically perfect, don’t touch it, don’t look at it, don’t even think too hard in its direction,” and that’s exactly what Dunivant has done. They’ve not just maintained their entire core, they’ve added to it in smart, specific ways that make them all the more dangerous.

Stefano Bonomo joins from Tampa Bay, giving them a fantastic second option behind Iwasa, while Tyler Blackwood’s wing play at Swope Park fits well into Elliott’s system. It’s not a stretch to think that combined, those two can get close to 20 goals and 20 assists for 2019, which puts Sacramento firmly in the conversation for the championship. Greek defender Charalampos Chantzopolous joins from KPV in Finland, and although he might not be starter ready just yet, he’s only 24 and has some solid defensive chops. Speaking of defense, Sacramento has also added Dekel Keinan from Cincinnati and Matt Mahoney from Bethlehem, adding a veteran leader and a promising prospect in one move that makes an already dominant back line even stronger. Basically, the only thing standing between Sacramento and a championship is facing Swope Park in the playoffs.

Prognosis: Can someone beat Swope Park for us so we don’t have to deal with them again? Thanks.

San Antonio FC

  • Founded: 2016
  • First USL season: 2016
  • Home stadium: Toyota Field (8,400)
  • Head coach: Darren Powell (fourth season)
  • MLS affiliate: New York City FC
  • 2018 record: 14-8-12, -3 GD, 50 points, ninth in West
  • 2018 attendance: 6,939, sixth, -3 percent from 2017

San Antonio was frustrating to watch in 2018. They started the season looking good but not great, hit a real stride in July, completely fell apart for most of August and ended up just outside the playoffs. They’d win two, draw two, win four, lose four and just never found a meaningful consistency. Darren Powell did some great stuff in 2017, but I began to lose confidence last season and that hasn’t changed.

As expected, they’ve gone and cleaned house, retaining just five players. Ever Guzman led the team with 11 goals despite missing seven games and was the closest they had to a consistent finisher. Lance Laing has been signed permanently from Cincinnati following a five-goal, six-assist campaign. Rafa Castillo has been arguably San Antonio soccer’s most important player since joining the Scorpions back in 2014, even if he’s turning 39 this year, and it’s nice to see him get a chance to raise another trophy. Brazilian defensive midfielder Pecka is back, another re-signing I like, as he’s been an important disruptive presence for the past two seasons.

In goal, they’ve retained Matt Cardone, a decision that can best be described as questionable. He was clearly the second-choice keeper behind Diego Restrepo until Restrepo got hurt, and while he wasn’t terrible, it was a visible step down. They’ve also added Jonathan Viscosi from TPS in Finland as another option, and honestly, I think he might be the better choice for starter.

To solve their issues with midfield and the back line, they’ve signed loads of new options, including Joshua Yaro from Philadelphia, Walter Restrepo (he’s back!) from Colombia, Amer Didic from SKC, Jack Barmby from Portland and Cristian Parano from Argentina. All rather sensible picks, with Parano standing out as a potentially huge signing for them. Parano is 19, he played for Boca, River Plate and San Martin’s youth systems, and — potential hot take — could become San Antonio’s Mauro Diaz this season. I’ve enjoyed watching him through preseason and I think the kid has a bright future.

That said, the biggest offseason acquisition, in my eyes, is Alen Marcina as assistant coach. I’ve been riding the Marcina hype train for years now, and I feel like San Antonio is preparing for him to replace Powell should things go wrong. Lest we forget, San Antonio’s most recent soccer trophy came under Marcina.

Prognosis: Honestly, just give me Alen Marcina. The dude can coach.

Tacoma Defiance

  • Founded: 2014 (as Seattle Sounders 2)
  • First USL season: 2015
  • Home stadium: Cheney Stadium (6,500)
  • Head coach: Chris Little (first season)
  • MLS affiliate: Seattle Sounders
  • 2018 record: 6-7-21, -31 GD, 25 points, 16th in West
  • 2018 attendance: 3,370, 19th, +226.2 percent from 2017

Seattle has gone all-in on Tacoma, with plans for a new stadium for both the rebranded Defiance and Reign in the NWSL. I’m all for this, not just because they’re a little bit weird with their Kraken branding, but because it’s just better for these sorts of teams to take this approach (See: RGV, Bethlehem, Loudoun and Reno — sort of).

They’ve also brought in Chris Little to replace John Hutchinson, which is such a smart move. Little has served as the academy director for the Sounders since 2017, and if anyone knows the ins and outs of their prospects, it’s him. Last year was rough for the Soundlings, leading the conference with a crushing 21 defeats, and that’s probably why Hutchinson is gone. That said, there were a few standout players I’m keeping my eye on for 2019.

Denso Ulysse, a Haitian youth international defender who signed with the team back in 2017, was easily one of the top defenders on the team most of last season — even when they were getting stomped — and he’s got a high ceiling. Nick Hinds, another promising young defender, is back from a stint at Akron University and looks to be firmly committed to the Sounders cause for the future. Australian midfielder Jesse Daley is back for another season after becoming a vital piece of the central midfield.

They’ve also brought in four more academy players, with midfielders Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio and forwards Danny Robles and Alec Diaz joining the team. Leyva is quick, clever and can score just as well as he can pass, and looks like he’ll be a stud playmaker in a few years time. Atencio has spent time at both defender and defensive midfield. He’s also been playing “up a year” in the USSDA, without any signs of trouble. If you’re looking for a young replacement for Ozzie Alonso, look right here. Robles has played as an attacking midfielder, winger and forward, and looks pretty comfortable just about anywhere in the front of the field. He’s got competition for his spot in MLS, but he’s still very young and has time to prove himself. Diaz, though, is the one I’m most interested in, as he’s the best-scoring forward prospect in the Seattle system. In just 10 USSDA games this season he already has 13 goals, and he’s the natural fit to fill the void left by Clint Dempsey. I’ll be shocked if he’s not playing in MLS in 2020.

Prognosis: #PlayYourKids, people.

Tulsa Roughnecks FC

  • Founded: 2013
  • First USL season: 2015
  • Home stadium: ONEOK Field (7,833)
  • Head coach: Michael Nsien (first season)
  • MLS affiliate: Chicago Fire
  • 2018 record: 3-12-19, -41 GD, 21 points, 17th in West
  • 2018 attendance: 3,094, 21st, -19.7 percent from 2017

The last line I wrote about Tulsa in 2018 says it all: blow it up and rebuild. The 2018 season was an absolute disaster. Tulsa didn’t win a game until June 27, didn’t win a second one until August and had two four-game losing streaks during the season. They scored just 36 goals, allowed a breathtaking 77 and looked utterly hopeless for most of the year. Head coach David Vaudreuil got sacked on June 25 with the team firmly at the bottom of the West. Michael Nsien was named as the interim head coach and managed to at least win three games, which apparently was good enough to keep him for 2019. I’m not sure that was the right move, but time will certainly tell.

Tulsa really did completely blow it up at the end of the year. Only one player is back for 2019: D.J. Dean. He’s only 20 and played just 403 minutes last year, but Nsien must like what he saw to keep him around. Or maybe he didn’t want to cut literally everyone.

Tulsa’s approach for their 2019 roster is a mix of international signings, USL veterans, free agents and young kids right out of college. There’s so much change it’s impossible to know where to begin, so I’ll try and cover as much as we know about how Tulsa might look.

Mallan Roberts, Matthew Sheldon and Cyprian Hendrick have signed to anchor the back line, and all three guys have USL experience doing just that. They’ve also brought in Moses Makinde from Sweden’s Syrianska. They’ve looked solid in preseason with a few shaky moments late in games, but nothing that some familiarity and training can’t hopefully resolve.

Christian Altamirano looks to be playing the quintessential 10 roll for Tulsa, not far removed from doing just that for some of the biggest clubs in Honduras. Manny Gonzales impressed me several years ago during his time with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and he’s the right sort of holding midfielder Tulsa needed last season.

In goal, they’ve gone with Sean Lewis as the first choice who was decent enough for Jacksonville and Penn FC in recent seasons. He’s not a star sort of player, but he’ll be good enough for 2019.

As for their attendance, I’m hoping that an improved team capable of winning at least four games will get the fans interested again. It looks bad, but it’s not a death sentence.

Prognosis: If we rebuild it, will they come back? And will it even work?

This concludes Part II of the 2019 USL mega preview. Next up, we tackle the top half (alphabetically) of the Eastern Conference.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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