USL Eastern Conference Starting XI: Midseason Inventory

We’re halfway there! Which players would make up a theoretical Starting XI for a USL Eastern Conference all-star squad?

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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.

Head Coach

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)

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Goalkeeper

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)

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Paco Craig and LCFC’s defense frustrated FCC twice at Nippert Stadium.

Defenders

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)

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Midfielders

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)

Forwards

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.
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2018 USL Season Preview: Five Teams to Challenge FCC

Which teams in the Eastern Conference pose the biggest threats to FC Cincinnati in their quest for a USL cup in their third season?

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That’s a wrap on the dress rehearsals. Time for the real performances.

Granted, talking about the teams who will challenge FC Cincinnati for the Eastern Conference crown is a delicate maneuver. It’s way too soon to assume that a retooled team that was wiped out in the first round last year has the conference locked down. However, considering all of the talent drawn to the Queen City in the off-season, it’s hard to not mention FCC when possible contenders are brought up in conversation.

Naturally, the Orange & Blue shouldn’t be the only ones in that conversation. It begs the question—who will be FC Cincinnati’s biggest challenges during the 2018 USL season?

Louisville City FC

It’s a safe bet that, as long as Coach James O’Connor is calling the shots, Louisville City will be in the running for the top of the conference. It’s been an impressive run for the Boys in Purple since 2015, continuously bettering their team while shedding very little of the roster each year—15 players remain after their 2017 championship run, while 3 (goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh, forward Ilija Ilić, and midfielder Niall McCabe) have been on the team since the beginning.

That low turnover rate and the return of forward Magnus Rasmussen after a stint back in Denmark will bring a ton of familiarity to the team. While Louisville has lost two of their four defenders from 2017, O’Connor has often used a sparse D-line. He’s also buffered the back with ex-FCC-defenseman Pat McMahon and Jamaican national Shaun Francis. Couple their overall stability with unselfish play (65 goals between 17 players in 2017), and our neighbors to the south could be pushing for a second star to their logo.

Does Louisville have a weakness? If anything, it could be depth, as the team fields only 20 players on their roster. Then again, Lou City had the same number of players last year, and we know how far they went with that.

Indy Eleven

After their declaration to join the USL in January, Indy didn’t even have five players ready for the 2018 season, let alone their “Eleven” namesake. While FC Cincinnati had done a purge of their own roster, Indy Eleven went into full upheaval, holding onto only three of their players from 2017, and letting go of their head coach. Since then, they’ve completely rebuilt their squad, hired ex-Carolina Railhawks and Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie, and gone for broke by scheduling games at Lucas Oil Stadium. That’s a high roll for an ownership group that was low in the MLS expansion rankings.

While this alone wouldn’t necessarily make them a challenge, Indy has done well to pick up their own talents from the NASL and MLS. To anchor the defense, they grabbed Reiner and Karl Ouimette from the disbanded NASL champion San Francisco Deltas, then managed to coax MLS strikers Jack McInerney and Soony Saad into joining their souped-up squad. Take into account Indy’s close proximity and solid audience (they’ve consistently flirted with attendances close to 10,000), and they could legitimately throw scares into FC Cincinnati’s own rebuilt team by bringing their own traveling chorus of fans with them.

Tampa Bay Rowdies

Tampa Bay’s second season as a USL participant (if 2010’s “USSF Division 2” league counts) was incredibly successful by all standards, losing only twice at home on their way to second place in the Eastern Conference, their highest overall finish since their NASL championship team in 2012. FCC still hasn’t figured out how to earn points at Al Lang Stadium, losing all three away games there.

While the team held on to its veterans, fielding a team that has seven players in their 30s, they’ve managed to steal some huge talents from others. Jochen Graf, the lead scorer for Rochester in 2017, fills in a need at the striker position, as he and Georgi Hristov could become a potent double-forward combination. Meanwhile, Junior Flemmings and Jack Blake give them youth in an already stacked midfield brimming with international talent (Joe Cole, Marcel Schäfer).

A key grab may be in the goalkeeper position, as the Rowdies obtained ex-Charlotte Independence keeper Cody Mizell in the offseason. Mizell was second in the Eastern Conference in saves behind Mitch Hildebrandt. However, getting younger in goal might come at a cost, as Mizell had only 5 clean sheets in 2017, half as many as the departing Matt Pickens. Still, if this team clicks like they did last year, there’s no doubting the Rowdies should make the playoffs.

Nashville SC

When Major League Soccer came calling Nashville before the likes of Cincinnati, Sacramento, and other candidates with a D2 presence, it legitimately ruffled feathers in the Queen City. But there were doubts that NSC could construct an intimidating roster for the first of their two short years in the USL. However, a look through the roster shows that there are believers who have come to the Music City.

Head coach Gary Smith, who won an MLS title managing the Colorado Rapids in 2010, has already stockpiled 25 players on the Nashville roster. The offense will likely revolve around forwards Ropapa Mensah and Michael Cox, with Lebo Moloto and Matt LaGrassa leading the midfield. But Nashville is most likely to be known for their defense. The aforementioned Matt Pickens, Nashville’s first signee, was with Smith during the 2010 MLS Cup win with Colorado and had arguably his best season in net in 2017. The back line is comprised of solid USL talent gathered in a short amount of time and should give Pickens the help he needs.

Nashville will be a team that wants to win to prove to everyone that they deserved that MLS bid.

FC Cincinnati Themselves

While Pittsburgh has improved immensely by absorbing the remains of the Rochester Rhinos, and Charleston always seems to have FCC’s number in head-to-head competitions, it’s not unwise to suggest that the one team who can beat FC Cincinnati this season is FC Cincinnati themselves. (Yes, this is the coward’s way out when it comes to predictions, and I am a coward.)

The third year of a team’s existence feels like the one where results have to start coming. Despite the fuel from attendance numbers and the long run in last year’s U.S. Open Cup, the team fell flat from inconsistency in 2017. Winning streaks were rare, and players had to be signed in mid-season due to injuries, suspension, and fatigue. The early post-season exit for the second year in a row felt all too familiar in Cincinnati.

However, considering that head coach Alan Koch is now in his first full year with all the controls at his fingertips, there is a general vibe that this team can get it together. Quality players have been obtained from last year’s NASL Best XI team. Additionally, retirements and Division-1 call-ups on the defensive end have been countered with positive signings. On paper, this is an extraordinarily talented team rich with a desire to perform.

And that’s what critics will bring up—soccer games are played on fields, not on paper.

Much like Indy and Nashville, this Cincinnati team will need time to gel. 2018 will feel a little like 2016, where fans came in enthusiastic, but a little hesitant about where production will come from. A solid preseason showed an ability to spread the ball, and the emergence of new leadership in the back line. But the regular season will be a different beast altogether, especially if a potential MLS promotion motivates other teams to humble FCC.

The talent and the expectations are at higher levels than ever before, so can this band of 26 led by Koch, Damet, and Stern deliver on their potential? The march begins anew this Saturday, March 17th.

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for our Charleston preview as the season officially kicks off in South Carolina this weekend.

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Who Should Be in FC Cincinnati’s Starting XI?

With just over a week before FC Cincinnati’s USL opener against Charleston, which eleven players do you have lining up in Orange & Blue?

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With only nine days until the season starts, the smoke is starting to clear after the off-season demolition job done to this FC Cincinnati squad. By the time the first whistle is blown at Nippert a month from now, the team will be almost unrecognizable to the average FCC fan. One can almost imagine the hours Coach Koch and company have spent going through scouting and sorting just to get the semblance of a Starting XI.

Personally, my own lineup has gone through multiple edits as well, but it’s probably the best time to unveil what I could design. Of course, this doesn’t come without warnings; I’m not, nor have I ever claimed to be, someone who can put together a Starting XI for a competitive squad, but I feel that anyone on this FCC team could start in Week 1 and produce numbers.

This is also not a claim that I think negatively about the people I’ve left off my squad—I think each player has something positive to bring to the team, and I hope they both enjoy their stay in the Queen City and bring a great vibe to it.

My predicted Starting XI vs. Charleston:
Newton (GK)
Bahner – Keinan – Lasso – Smith
Walker – Ryan
Ledesma – Albadawi – Laing
Welshman

Subs: Richey (GK), Hoyte, Barrett, McLaughlin, Haber, Bone, Ameobi

I still feel that four or five players on my 4-2-3-1 formation could be replaced if others perform well against Sacramento on Saturday. However, I do see some solid pairings over the past two games, especially in the backfield. Both Dekel Keinan and Forrest Lasso have demonstrated the ability to be vocal on the defensive end, as well as toughness and command at the offensive end, producing some solid goals on corner set-pieces. I can see Paddy Barrett giving Keinan some breaks, but Lasso should be the workhorse this season.

I went with Evan Newton in goal, even though I think Spencer Richey is a solid backup option. I’ve been open about my belief that we overplayed Hildebrandt in goal the past two years—it just didn’t seem that Harkes or Koch believed in giving the backups a few games. I’m hoping that we see a 65/35 distribution between Newton and Richey (with a game or two given to Mark Village) so that our keepers can remain fresh.

For the midfield, Kenney Walker and Richie Ryan appear to be establishing good work between them, and their experience makes them indispensable. I think Manu Ledesma and Nazmi Albadawi should be sensible starts in the midfield, even though the tweak in Nazmi’s back has me wondering if Corben Bone gets the nod. (Of course, I also thought that Aodhan Quinn would be the perfect piece with Walker and Bone last year, so take my midfielder suggestions with a grain of salt.)

The edges could see some variation, but right now I feel sold with Blake Smith and Lance Laing on the left. Smith showed some frustration in the first half against Nashville, but gradually developed flexible movement with Laing in the second half. If Smith blitzes up the side, Laing is capable enough to drop back, as well. On the other side, I think either Matt Bahner or Justin Hoyte would work well, but I’ll go with the Cincinnati native for Week 1. At the moment, this spot is a coin flip that could be determined by the game vs. Sacramento.

The forward position could end up being the most difficult to predict. It appeared that Laing and Emery Welshman clicked against Nashville, while Daniel Haber and Tomi Ameobi worked best together against NKU. I wouldn’t be surprised if those combinations became Koch’s preferred pairings. I also wouldn’t be surprised if you found all three forwards (Welshman, Ameobi, and Danni König) getting equal minutes and goal distribution by the end of the year. For the sake of this lineup, I went with maneuverability over muscle and put Welshman with Laing to begin.

Koch has put together a squad with individual experience, but also a little bit of a higher average age by the time the first game begins. The team’s average is higher than last year’s (27.3 vs. 26 in 2017), but the Starting XI I’ve concocted has an average age of 28.7. Koch will tell you that age means nothing in this league, but hopefully, the overall boost in talent will make this Starting XI flexible enough to give people plenty of rest and opponents plenty of nightmares.

Does your Starting XI look the same? Would you tinker with the lineup or seek additional pieces? Let us know, and stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press as we wrap up FC Cincinnati’s 2018  preseason slate.

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