Defending League One Coach of the Year, Darren Sawatzky, hopes to build on stellar 2022 with the Kickers | Image Credit: Richmond Kickers
You’ve read all of the team previews and players to watch ahead of the start of the 2023 USL League One season on Friday night.
But how are all of these pieces going to fit together on the field as the 12 teams vie for glory at the end of the fifth League One campaign?
We’ve enlisted the help of John Morrisey – whom you know as @USLTactics on Twitter and from Backheeld.com – to provide the keys to each club’s tactical approach and the players who should be the one who’ll make that system run throughout the campaign.
Let’s dig in.
Moments of magic for Villyan Bijev and Cherif Dieye aside, Central Valley struggled to create last year, especially down the center of the pitch. Enter 2022 All-League First Team selection José Carrera-García, the definition of a star creator in League One who signed from Chattanooga. The attack will improve in the 4-2-3-1/4-4-2, but questions remain over Fuego’s aggressive style and less effective back line.
After making the playoffs with the league’s worst defense, Charlotte doubled down on an offense-first game by bringing back striker Dane Kelly and winger Joel Johnson while retaining their attacking core. Both signings are cerebral types who can operate in the tight spaces bred by Charlotte’s patient style. Still, losing goalkeeper Adrían Zendejas hurts, and the back line or new holding midfielder Brad Dunwell must step up to see the Independence back into the postseason.
Runners-up in 2022, the Red Wolves proceeded to lose more than half of a lineup that dominated opponents in a possessive 4-2-3-1. The number of changes may lead to a slow start, but Chattanooga is armed with ball-playing defenders like Manuel Madrid, formerly of Phoenix Rising FC, and Trinidad and Tobago international Mekeil Williams, last with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. Assuming the system stays somewhat similar, new Head Coach Ziggy Korytoski badly needs a No. 10 to emerge to have his club tilting at the title yet again.
Perennially stout – Greenville has boasted a top-three defense in every year of their existence – Triumph SC have kept the back half of their squad together while revamping the attack. Devin Boyce, an eight-assist midfielder in Omaha’s 2021 title team, stands out as a possible sparkplug, and Tevin Shaw, a breakout last year with Tucson, is the sort of patient No. 6 who can control tempo and turn Head Coach John Harkes’ side into a sharper unit in possession.
Head Coach Mark McKeever’s Knoxville team leaned into experience, building out a roster with USL Championship veterans (Ilija Ilić, Jalen Crisler, Sean Lewis) and League One stalwarts (Jake Keegan, Jimmie Villalobos, Jordan Skelton) to fill out his preferred 3-4-3. This team looks to be really stout in the back, and a defensively-sound approach is vital for expansion teams. That said, One Knox is a star No. 10 away from contention; there isn’t a magician in this midfield or attacking group, yet.
In their expansion season, Lexington went rather young in their roster build, adding just one player over the age of 30. Ates Diouf, an attacker with USL Championship pedigree, and Don Smart, a League One legend, give you creation on paper, but the Lexington defense stars only three players with experience at this level. There’s a blueprint for future success in place, but year one could be tough.
In adding bright fullbacks like Jacob Crull and Stephen Payne and giving Derek Gebhard a 10-goal strike partner in Christian Chaney, Forward Madison FC improved a ninth-place team from top to bottom. Last year’s back-three shape is likely out the door, but the defensive overhaul headlined by Timmy Mehl, a veteran of Tampa Bay and Chattanooga, allows Head Coach Matt Glaesar to commit more bodies forward. This team is due for a step up.
Despite back-to-back last-place finishes, Head Coach John Bradford’s North Carolina teams have consistently pursued a possessive back-four system. With three 2022 All-League One selections coming on board – featuring Louis Perez in the attacking third and Mikey Maldonado and Daniel Navarro further back – North Carolina has the personnel to improve markedly. If the new faces mesh with star attackers Oalex Anderson and Garrett McLaughlin to create something coherent, worst-to-first is a real possibility in Cary.
A late charge up the table couldn’t quite take Head Coach Éamon Zayed’s club into the playoffs last year. That run was powered by Arthur Roger’s league-best crossing and Irvin Parra’s nimble finishing, and both are back. The core of a wholly decent back four also remains, and the Hailstorm have picked up attackers with tenure in the Mexican and Scottish second tiers. Questions remain over linking play and defensive destruction in the center of the pitch, but Northern Colorado will be in the playoff hunt.
After a draw-heavy 2022, Union Omaha poached El Paso Locomotive FC assistant Dominic Casciato to replace Jay Mims as manager. Casciato was the “offensive coordinator” for a team that regularly held 60% of possession, but Omaha’s identity rests on direct play and staid defending. Bruising striker Steevan Dos Santos and a number of technical yet hefty defenders hint at a middle ground built on slower tempo and controlled breakouts; the playoffs should be the floor.
With Emiliano Terzaghi in the middle, Richmond can never be counted out. Even so, losing the secondary creation of players like Jonathan Bolanos, Ethan Bryant, and Stephen Payne creates some questions. Kharlton Belmar, a prolific wide forward in the Championship, and new fullback Michael Hornsby, added from Central Valley, can do the job, but the Kickers look a shade less fluid and more defensively flimsy even if they’ll contend.
The defending champs didn’t escape the winter unscathed, especially in the midfield and on the flanks, but keeping do-it-all defender Jake Dengler and the instant offense of Kazaiah Sterling in attack will keep Tormenta FC elite. Additions like Preston Kilwien, a wonderfully technical central defender, and the dynamic Matheus Cassini, picked up from an impotent Madison team, will shine in South Georgia's disciplined 4-2-3-1. The biggest move of all? Signing Head Coach Ian Cameron to a contract extension on the sidelines.
The fifth season of USL League One arrives tonight, March 17, as defending champions South Georgia Tormenta FC kick off the new campaign on the road against North Carolina FC. With a record 31-week, 192-match regular season and two new expansion clubs, the 2023 League One season promises to be the most exciting edition yet. Follow all the action, all season long, on ESPN+.