With 452 regular season goals, the 2022 League One campaign marked the highest-scoring season in league history. Still, there was solid defensive play across the league in 2022, and 2023 promises to offer the same. Key returnees, new arrivals and familiar faces in new places highlight a group of exciting defenders to keep your eye on in '23.
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Jordan Skelton | Image Credit: North Carolina FC
Possibly flying under the radar a bit with all the movement of attacking players during the offseason, Knoxville’s signing of former North Carolina defender Jordan Skelton could be huge in the expansion side’s inaugural professional campaign. Despite some lackluster goalkeeping in Cary skewing the defensive numbers a bit, the USL League One and League Two veteran defender enjoyed yet another productive season in 2022. Skelton led the league with 31 blocks and 164 clearances while also leading all defenders with 1,539 passes completed and 149 duels won. That individual productivity was apparent in American Soccer Analysis’ evaluations; Skelton led the league in goals added.
Arthur Rogers returns to Northern Colorado following an objectively insane season for a defender. Rogers set a new single-season league record with 80 chances created in an incredibly productive first season in Windsor. The 26-year-old Englishman’s nine assists – three of which resulted in match-winning goals – were the second-most on the season and most by a defender in a single season in league history. Defensively, Rogers excelled with a team-high 121 duels won and 25 tackles won. Rogers began his career back in London with semi-professional sides Hanwell Town FC and Wealdstone FC before playing collegiately in the United States with Kentucky Wesleyan College and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Rogers signed his first professional contract with USL Championship side Hartford Athletic in Dec. 2019 with whom he amassed 41 appearances and three goals over a pair of seasons.
Jalen Crisler | Image Credit: One Knoxville SC
A revelation for the record-breaking Kickers a season ago, Jalen Crisler was recognized as the runner-up for Defender of the Year and an All-League First Team selection in his third season in League One and second in Richmond. The 28-year-old defender finished second in league history with his 154 clearances in a single season and led the Kickers in duels won with 138, blocks with 25 and possessions won in the defensive third with 106. In addition to his two scores, Crisler helped the Kickers to the second-fewest goals conceded on the season (35) through his 150 recoveries and 22 interceptions. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, the Everett, Wash. native starred collegiately at Gonzaga University, earning First Team All-West Coast Conference honors in 2016. Following stints at the pre-professional level with Seattle Sounders FC U-23 and Detroit City FC, Crisler made his professional debut with Forward Madison FC in 2020. After just two appearances with the 'Mingos, Crisler really broke out with the Kickers in 2021, earning 28 appearances, before his special 2022 campaign. With the additions of Crisler and Skelton, Knoxville looks to be a tough defensive matchup.
Evan Lee | Image Credit: Greenville Triumph SC
With the sixth most regular season appearances in League One history, Lee earned his first All-League honor having recorded a team-high 17 blocked shots and 111 possessions won in the defensive third a season ago. In the most productive season of his seven-year career, Lee finally bagged his first professional goal - a dramatic stoppage-time equalizer on the road, mind you - and earned a career-best two assists to go along with it. Lee's 165 possessions won, 89 duels won and 83 clearances in 2022 helped Greenville to its fourth-consecutive postseason appearance. The Toledo, Ohio native spent most of his early career in the Buckeye State, playing collegiately with Ohio Wesleyan University before starting his professional career with USL Championship side FC Cincinnati. Earning 14 appearances with FCC in 2016, Lee signed with the Richmond Kickers and recorded 19 appearances with the then-Championship side between 2017 and 2018. Lee signed with Greenville ahead of its inaugural 2019 campaign and now sits just seven appearances shy of reaching the 100 regular season appearances mark.
Luca Mastrantonio | Image Credit: FC Tucson
Biding farewell to just two defenders from its league-best defensive unit from a season ago, Omaha will look to former FC Tucson man Luca Mastrantonio to fill those gaps. In his second season in Tucson, Mastrantonio proved quite effective as the second-year professional lined up alongside veteran defenders Donny Toia and Kaelon Fox. Mastrantonio gathered 51 interceptions and 166 possessions won - both highest amongst returning defenders in the league - to go along with two goals and 107 duels won. The 26-year-old Rome, Italy native spent one season with Italian Serie D side A.S. Ostia Mare Lido Calcio in 2015 before playing collegiately stateside. Between 2016 and 2019, Mastrantonio progressed from collegiate play at the NAIA level with the University of Northwestern Ohio (2016), to the NCAA Division II level with Rockhurst University (2017), and finally, to the NCAA Division I level with the University of California, Irvine (2019). After earning All-Big West First Team honors with UC Irvine, Mastrantonio inked his first professional deal with FC Tucson, earning 50 appearances and four goals with the former League One side.
Aaron Lombardi | Image Credit: Chattanooga Red Wolves SC
Starting his professional career at 26 years old in 2022, Lombardi enjoyed a breakout campaign with a Red Wolves side he helped to the 2022 USL League One Final. Lombardi's debut professional season saw the Argentine defender score a goal, record a pair of assists and win a crucial 42 fouls - the most by a defender. Lombardi aided in Chattanooga's special 2022 campaign with his 66 clearances and 20 chances created. Born in Rosario, Argentina, Lombardi immigrated to the U.S. at six years old and grew up in Southern California. The 26-year-old played for the LA Galaxy Academy, collegiately at the University of San Francisco, and most recently overseas in Italy. His time in Italy was spent playing with Serie D clubs Fossacesia, ASD Lanciano 1920 and Olympia Agnonese between 2020 and 2022.