It’s taken a few weeks, but the USL has finally hit its “All-Star Break”. All 33 teams in the USL have played half of their 34-game schedule. Of course, there is no actual USL “All-Star” game—it’s hard to create a pocket during the season when all teams can afford time off. Demand to see the best in both conferences is not as high as what one would experience in the MLS.
However, let’s never say “never”. The growth of the USL as a second division league and the exposure provided by the YouTube/ESPN+ partnership could make the faint possibility a reality in the future. It all depends on how hungry fans will be in the future to see more East versus West match-ups.
This progressive rise of the USL has made it easier to follow which players are succeeding individually. While a lot of coverage tends to be regional, let’s at least try a shot at forming a mid-season team composed of USL Eastern Conference players. Maybe one day we’ll get to see a USL team of talent challenge an MLS team of talent. (My breath isn’t being held very long for that.)
Judging by results, statistics, and my personal gut instincts (which have only failed me in Vegas), this is my Starting XI for your 2018 USL East All-Stars.
Bob Lilley (Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC)
Considering that the USL Eastern Conference has already had four managerial changes over the past two months, some of the sour cream has already sunk. Louisville’s James O’Connor could have run away with the award early, but Bob Lilley’s form of defensive soccer has revitalized the Riverhounds. Pittsburgh has only conceded 7 goals over 17 games and 12 clean sheets in the process. Remarkably, this is even better than the rate Lilley enjoyed back during the 2015 Rochester Rhinos championship campaign (15 goals against and 17 clean sheets in 28 games). If the Hounds find a scoring streak, Lilley could lift another title.
Alternates: Alan Koch (CIN), Gary Smith (NAS)
Matt Pickens (Nashville SC)
There was some doubt when Nashville opted to build their team around the 36-year-old Pickens, but the former Tampa Bay Rowdies keeper has improved with age. Pickens has played every regular-season minute for Nashville, claiming 9 clean sheets and giving up only 11 goals over 17 games. While Pittsburgh’s Daniel Lynd has given up less goals, Pittsburgh also has also only allowed 40 shots on goal. Pickens has made his saves while facing 57 shots on goal, indicating his worth to the team’s overall defense.
Alternates: Daniel Lynd (PGH), Maxime Crépeau (OTT)
Ayoze (Indy Eleven)
Ken Tribbett (Penn FC)
Paco Craig (Louisville City FC)
While goal production in the Hoosier State has been relatively uniform, Indy Eleven’s Ayoze has been arguably one of the stronger offensive defenders in the league. Yes, three of his 4 goals have come from the penalty spot, but his other goal and three assists have come from set pieces. Ayoze is also in the Top 20 in both crosses and chances created, two categories not normally reserved for defenders.
After two injury-plagued seasons with Philadelphia and Bethlehem, Tribbett has returned to Penn FC and seen a resurgence. While he has only played 14 of the team’s 19 games so far, the Penn FC captain has contributed 5 goals (tops among USL defenders), 53 interceptions, and 59 clearances from the center-back position. Those numbers have helped Penn FC stake out a realistic shot at the playoffs.
Craig may not be glorious in the offensive categories like Ayoze and Tribbett, but he and Sean Totsch have been massive defensive stalwarts that have kept Louisville high in the table. While Totsch’s distribution numbers tick ahead slightly, Craig has been the defensive stallion, leading the team in clearances (83), tackles won (35), and interceptions (40). If Lou City can endure their coaching changes, Craig and Totsch could both be on the All-USL squad come season’s end.
Alternates: Blake Smith (CIN), Sean Totsch (LOU), Marcel Schäfer (TBR)
Jorge Herrera (Charlotte Independence)
Andrew Tinari (New York Red Bulls II)
Kyle Bekker (North Carolina FC)
Corben Bone (FC Cincinnati)
Frankly, the midfield features a ton of patrolling talent in the East. Some teams (FC Cincinnati, Red Bulls II, Pittsburgh SC) could field their entire crew and then some, but field generals dominate my coveted four choices.
Much like Pickens in goal, Herrera has turned back the clock this year. Herrera has spent a good decade of his career in Charlotte, scoring 63 goals with the Independence and the former USL incarnation of the Eagles. His production doesn’t seem to be ending—the 37-year-old Colombian striker has 9 goals and 3 assists over 19 games and may end up setting a career high for minutes in a season.
Considering his team has constantly changed around him, Tinari has been a rock-solid part of the potent Red Bulls II offense. The 22-year-old leads the team in minutes and has 64 created chances – the nearest competitor in this category in the East has only 40. While he has 5 goals and only 3 assists this year, that should change with Brian White, Armando Moreno, and Jared Stroud all getting more time in the forward line.
Bekker has flown under the radar due to NCFC’s slow start out of the gate. He is second in the conference in assists (7) and in the Top 10 in chances created and crosses. If the North Carolina defense can fortify to free up Bekker for more distribution to forwards Daniel Ríos and Marios Lomis, his production numbers should go up.
The choice of Bone for my Starting XI could be considered a biased pick, but when looking at the remaining candidates to fill the midfield, Bone’s overall numbers feel stronger. His passes (870) and success rate (83.4%) are among the highest in the conference, and his 3 goals and 4 assists show his workhorse mentality. While Moloto and Jimenez have the stats, I feel Bone has done more to lift the FCC midfield than people think.
Alternates: Nazmi Albadawi (CIN), Lebo Moloto (NAS), Santi Moar (BTH), Oscar Jimenez (LOU)
Emmanuel Ledesma (FC Cincinnati)
Cameron Lancaster (Louisville City FC)
Ataullah Guerra (Charleston Battery)
There is no doubt that Ledesma would be my runaway pick as the mid-season USL MVP. Manu’s 9 goals and 8 assists allow him to lead the league in combined points, and he is among the conference leaders in chances created, shots, and crosses. His physical play also identifies him as one of the more aggressive forwards in the league, and his distribution to Danni König and Nazmi Albadawi has given FCC one of the strongest front lines in the league. (And some of Ledesma’s 2018 goals have been pretty sweet, too.)
In a season where Lou City has started without their most prolific scorer from last year, Lancaster has managed to be productive when it counts. While he has only played an average of 66 minutes per game, Lancaster has taken 45 shots and scored 9 goals. His clip of a goal every 102 minutes puts him as one of the most productive scorers in the East. If he can remain healthy before the return of Luke Spencer, he could help Louisville in the long run.
While Guerra may not score in bunches, he has been a model of consistency for Charleston this season. The native of Trinidad and Tobago leads the East in goals (10), as well as game-winning goals (4), all without collecting a single brace or hat trick. Considering that Charleston’s remaining schedule features a lot of teams not projected to make the playoffs, Guerra’s stats could surge.
Alternates: Neco Brett (PGH), Daniel Rios (NCFC), Lucky Mkosana (PEN), Danni König (CIN)
Does this lineup remotely match what you had in mind for a Starting XI? Is Geoff a complete Homer for FC Cincinnati players? Let us know what you think!
Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for continued coverage of the 2018 USL season.