Photo courtesy James Loving / Richmond Kickers
The variety in scope of what it means to be a good defender in this era – where teams are now going back to experimenting with back threes and wing-backs over traditional back fours – means it is more essential for coaches and clubs to find the right fit for how the team sets up. Many teams play out of the back, so the skillset for even the most traditional center back has also changed, with simply being able to clear decisively from your own penalty – while valued – is only one skill of many required.
As with our list of five goalkeepers to watch in the upcoming season, the group below doesn’t make up a definitive list of the top defenders in the USL. They do have intriguing roles to play for the respective teams, however, as the season begins this weekend.
A 2016 USL Cup champion, Zach Carroll made the offseason move from the side that earned the championship in the New York Red Bulls II to the one it put four goals past in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last year in Orlando City B.
A USL All-League Second Team selection as his standout from with the Michigan Bucks translated quickly to the Red Bulls II backline. Carroll made 25 appearances for the side in the regular season as it held opponents to a league-low 21 goals, and now looks to accomplish something similar for Head Coach Anthony Pulis’ side as it attempts to push higher in the Eastern Conference this season.
Photo courtesy Ben Solomon / New York Red Bulls II
Photo courtesy Nick Tre. Smith / Swope Park Rangers
When he entered his rookie season from NAIA’s Baker University, Amer Didic was likely only on the radar of those in the Sporting Kansas City organization that had scouted the young Canadian. Seven months later, the 22-year-old had made his first appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League, and helped lead the first-year Rangers to a place in the 2016 USL Cup Final.
Now, after earning his first call-up to a Canadian national Team of any kind with the U23’s this week, the pressure will be on Didic to avoid a sophomore drop-off. He will have help in that endeavor, with Oumar Ballo back to allow the tandem to try and continue where they left off, but the pressure and expectations will be much higher for the rangy center back than they were a year ago.
One of the few holdovers from Republic FC’s championship season in 2014 after the roster turnover that has seen typical player movement, and the desire for Head Coach Paul Buckle to put together the pieces that will secure another title, James Kiffe’s role in Republic FC’s back four could be crucial to the team’s success this year.
A former Ventura County Fusion standout, Kiffe’s ability to not only defend his position well, but also get forward up the flank is designed to help pull opposing defenses out of position, and create space for a plethora of strong attacking pieces Republic FC has in its arsenal. Kiffe’s five assists a season ago showed his growing maturity as he moved past 50 regular-season appearances, and more will be expected this year.
Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
Photo courtesy James Loving / Richmond Kickers
In his third season with the Richmond Kickers, Hugh Roberts’ growth came into full bloom. One of two players in the league to play every minute of the season, the center back reached 75 USL regular-season appearances as he recorded only one yellow card over the course of the season.
Roberts’ growth saw him become the marquee offseason signing for Bethlehem Steel FC, which needed help in the back after conceding 43 goals during its inaugural season. Roberts’ arrival to give his younger teammates the leadership they need in the center of defense will be crucial to Steel FC’s playoff hopes, and could come with a bigger reward for the 24-year-old at the end of the year.
A former U.S. U23 National Team player, Oscar Sorto made the move down the I-405 this offseason from the LA Galaxy to Orange County Blues SC, becoming part of new Head Coach Logan Pause's revamped squad for the new season. A former Galaxy Homegrown, Sorto made 59 appearances for the Galaxy II over the past three seasons, helping the side defeat Orange County on its way to the Western Conference Championship in 2015, but wasn't quite able to make the jump into regular minutes with the MLS squad.
Sorto has proven a solid fullback throughout his time in the USL, and will be a valuable asset for Orange County as it moves into a new era alongside fellow former Galaxy defender Joe Franco. The 22-year-old will also be wanting to prove that he can find another gear this year, with the likelihood that Orange County's MLS partner, Los Angeles FC, will be taking a long, hard look at his potential to join its inaugural MLS roster next year.
Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Five Others to Watch: Jordy Delem, Seattle Sounders FC 2; Taylor Mueller, Charleston Battery; Cyprian Hedrick, San Antonio FC; Joe Farrell, Rochester Rhinos; Josh Suggs, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC