Four more teams saw their dreams of lifting the 2018 USL Cup end this past weekend as the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs neared their climax. For Reno 1868 FC, Bethlehem Steel FC and the Swope Park Rangers that means an offseason with a lot of decisions lie ahead, while the end to FC Cincinnati’s time in the league leaves broader questions as well as those of personnel. What will the next four months look like for these four teams?
Which core members of the squad will be back?
The fact that Reno has reached the postseason in each of its first two seasons in the USL is a tremendous credit to General Manager Andy Smith and Head Coach Ian Russell, who have pulled together players from both within the USL and the club’s partner in the San Jose Earthquakes to provide a model for how the hybrid partnership can give everyone what they want in terms of competitiveness on the field and a door to the next level.
Maintaining that balance is going to be key to the club sustaining its success, and while it certainly feels as though there is going to be change afoot with the Quakes after a disappointing run in San Jose, the opportunity to build on the club’s first postseason victory will certainly be there if the right players can be retained for 2019 and beyond. At the top of that list should be the spine of the squad, with defenders Zach Carroll and Brenton Griffiths, midfielders Guy Abend and Seth Casiple and forwards Brian Brown and Antoine Hoppenot all producing solid seasons.
Add in the likes of Brent Richards and Duke Lacroix and Reno will have a back line that it can build a team around with additions from San Jose and potentially the offseason free agent market. With some shrewd signings, the side will be back in contention for a playoff position, and potentially more, in 2019.
Has Brian Brown done enough to put himself in the frame for Jamaica’s National Team?
The biggest question last offseason for 1868 FC was which player was going to step up and fill the shoes left by 2017 USL Golden Boot-winner Dane Kelly. With 17 goals this season, fellow Jamaican Brian Brown answered that emphatically throughout the campaign, and that should bring the question of whether Brown can follow Kelly into earning a chance with the Reggae Boyz in the coming year.
At 25 years old, Brown is entering the prime of his career and would be the latest player to use the USL as a springboard to a chance with Jamaica, following not only Kelly but also Cory Burke, who competed for his country while still a member of Bethlehem Steel FC in 2017 before his breakout year for the Philadelphia Union this season.
The emergence of the likes of Burke and Kelly have made the forward roster more crowded for Jamaica Head Coach Theodore Whitmore, but it could be a good opportunity to see if Brown should have the chance to add to his lone international appearance when the Reggae Boyz assemble for next month’s Concacaf Nations League qualifying contest against Suriname in Montego Bay.
Will the San Jose Earthquakes’ hiring of Matias Almeyda cause a knock-on effect?
The announcement that the San Jose Earthquakes had hired former C.D. Guadalajara and River Plate manager Matias Almeyda to lead the club into the 2019 season was one that reverberated around North American soccer, but as the Quakes partners it could also have a positive effect on the future of Reno 1868 FC in the coming year and beyond.
Almeyda’s pedigree as a manager was in full evidence as he led Guadalajara to the 2018 Concacaf Champions League last spring, and his influence in overhauling an Earthquakes roster that finished last in the Western Conference should be substantial. That could have a knock-on effect to the players that arrive on loan in Reno next season, where the likes of goalkeepers Matt Bersano and JT Marcinkowski and outfield arrivals Paul Marie, Eric Calvillo and Danny Musovski had positive influences in their spells with 1868 FC this year.
If that domino effect occurs, it could offer Head Coach Ian Russell even more weapons to work with as he looks to maintain Reno’s position as one of the solid playoff contenders in the Western Conference and could potentially lead to more.
Can Faris take this offseason to spring load for 2019?
Bethlehem Steel FC’s introduction of Faris to its attack midway through the 2018 season provided a nice return from the 18-year-old Cameroonian, whose speed and nose for goal showed plenty of potential as he notched three goals and two assists in just over 800 minutes of action. With a 25 percent shot conversion rate and an average of 161 minutes per goal and assist, there was a lot to like on show.
The goal for Faris now should be to use this offseason as a springboard toward a strong 2019 that could see him follow a similar path to former Steel FC standout Cory Burke at a much younger age. Burke produced nine goals in 25 appearances for Bethlehem in 2017 before a remarkable first year in Major League Soccer that saw the Jamaican record 10 goals and one assist for the Philadelphia Union.
Faris has shown off the sort of tools that should translate to that higher level, and if he can make a run at Seku Conneh’s Steel FC single-season record of 10 goals starting next spring there could be a very bright future ahead of the youngster.
What does the road ahead look like for Santi Moar?
There are a handful of players who have been key to Bethlehem Steel FC reaching back-to-back editions of the USL Cup Playoffs, but arguably at the top of the list in that category is Spanish winger Santi Moar. The 25-year-old has made more appearances (65), scored more goals (12) and recorded more assists (15) than any other player for the side in the past two seasons.
But what does that mean in the bigger picture for Moar? In a perfect world, it would mean a chance to prove he belongs at the next level with the Philadelphia Union, but there are other considerations the club would have to make if that’s going to happen. That said, it certainly does seem there is an opportunity for the team to get some good value should it move Moar into the Union’s squad.
A good potential comparison for Moar would be Florian Valot of the New York Red Bulls, who starred for the New York Red Bulls II as the side won the 2016 USL Cup and then provided three goals and five assists in 14 appearances in Major League Soccer this year before a torn ACL brought his season to a premature end. Philadelphia will have taken note of the success Burke has had in the top flight this season, and Moar could have the potential to follow suit.
How big could the next 12 months be for Matthew Real?
Signed to an MLS Homegrown Player contract before the start of the 2018 season, Matt Real got a first taste of the top flight while remaining with Steel FC for most of the season. The upcoming 12 months, though, are going to offer a big chance for Real to take the next step for both club and country.
Real has made 39 appearances over the past two seasons for Steel FC, this year earning USL 20 Under 20 honors as he proved a strong performer at left back for the side. Selected to the United States U-20 National Team for the upcoming 2018 Concacaf U-20 Championship after helping lead Bethlehem into the USL Cup Playoffs for a second consecutive year, Real’s performance at the tournament could offer an ideal platform to build into the 2019 season.
With the manner fellow Homegrown defenders Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty – himself part of the U.S. U-20 squad at last year’s 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup – have grown into the Union lineup this season, the opportunity is clearly there for Real to grasp. The next 12 months could tell us a lot about where Real is headed in the long-term.
Did Hadji Barry do enough to earn a promotion?
With the pedigree that made him a First Round selection in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, it might have been a surprise that things didn’t go more smoothly for Hadji Barry in his first two professional seasons with Orlando City SC, but the Swope Park Rangers made one of the smarter signings of the offseason when they picked up the Guinean forward and were rewarded with a club-record 19 goals this season.
Barry’s sequence of setting a USL record by scoring in eight consecutive games gave the club a key boost as it broke out of a midseason downturn to ensure a third straight trip to the USL Cup Playoffs as he led the side among regulars in the lineup in both shot conversion rate at 30.2 percent and minutes per goal at 155.1. It’s a very strong case for Barry to be the latest player to make the move from the Rangers to Sporting Kansas City’s squad this offseason, especially with his status as a domestic player.
The challenge facing Barry, though, is that Sporting Kansas City’s attacking corps is very, very solid right now, as you’d expect for a side that finished top of the Western Conference of Major League Soccer. But with the fourth-highest goals total in the USL over the past three seasons, trailing only Chandler Hoffman, Brandon Allen and Cameron Lancaster, is there another MLS club that might look at Barry as a valuable asset and look to make a move with SKC for his services?
Will Wan Kuzain make another jump this offseason?
There has been a certain amount of expectation placed on Wan Kuzain since he first took to the field for the Swope Park Rangers, and each time the now 20-year-old has lived up to them. Named the No. 3 player in the 2018 USL 20 Under 20 after a standout season with Swope Park that also saw Kuzain make a half-dozen appearances for Sporting Kansas City, the question now is whether his ascent will continue this offseason and lead to more top-flight action in 2019?
The most impressive thing Kuzain added to his arsenal this past year was his striking ability, which saw him register three goals directly from set pieces among his four tallies overall. His passing ability and calmness on the ball remains first-rate and has been notable in his MLS appearances as well as those with Swope Park.
As with Barry, the question is whether a player like Kuzain can break into a Sporting Kansas City lineup that has the quality to take the top spot in the Western Conference. That’s where the work this offseason has to come, but the sky remains the limit for one of the model players to come through Sporting Kansas City’s overall system.
What will Paulo Nagamura’s continued presence mean for the Rangers?
After each of the first two seasons for the Swope Park Rangers, there was a departure at Head Coach as first Marc Dos Santos and then Nikola Popovic departed to take up new coaching positions elsewhere. This year, though, there figures to be continuity after a good first year for Paulo Nagamura in the lead role on the sidelines that didn’t end with another piece of silverware but showed the Brazilian looks likely to keep the ship moving in the right direction in all aspects.
From a player standpoint, not only did Nagamura get strong seasons out of the veterans in his side like Hadji Barry and Tyler Blackwood, but players like Felipe Hernandez became more integral pieces to the club’s success. When there was a downturn in form midseason, Nagamura said the right things publicly to keep his side moving in the right direction and helped the side produce a pair of clutch victories at home and away to San Antonio FC that almost certainly decided the playoff spot the two were battling for.
The balance a coach in Namamura’s position must strike is a difficult one, but one that we’ve seen navigated well by those like the New York Red Bulls II’s John Wolyniec and Bethlehem Steel FC’s Brendan Burke. Nagamura’s name should be alongside those two soon enough if his first season with SPR is anything to go by.
Where does FCC’s final season rank in the league’s all-time history?
If the goal wasn’t clear from the manner in which FC Cincinnati built its squad for the 2018 season, especially after the league disappointment of 2017 that saw the side finish sixth in the Eastern Conference and go out in the opening round of the playoffs in spite of its Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup success, the club was going for everything in its final season before a move to Major League Soccer.
In large order, that goal was achieved. FC Cincinnati rewrote good portions of the USL’s record book with the most wins and points in the regular season in the league’s history, a 23-game regular-season undefeated streak that concluded on the final day of the regular season in dramatic fashion and a 10-game winning streak that also raised the bar in the league’s modern era.
According to Ryan Allen’s ELO ratings, that was certainly good enough to rank as the best regular season in the league’s history, even ranking above the one-loss regular seasons put together by Orlando City SC (2014) and the Rochester Rhinos (2015) as Cincinnati’s win total edged it past the 2016 New York Red Bulls II with a 1203 rating. But, unfortunately for FCC, becoming the greatest season in the league’s history means winning USL Cup, which it was kept from the chance at accomplishing by this year’s edition of the Red Bulls II. That preserved New York’s historic 2016 season that saw it claim the USL Regular Season Championship and USL Cup as mathematically the most impressive year to date and kept Louisville City FC’s 2017 USL Cup-winning season in second place in the rankings.
Cincinnati sure wowed us throughout this year, but to stake a claim as the best of all time you need to win the last game of the season.
Which players should be sticking around for 2019?
It’s a debate that almost certainly evolved throughout the year from who could make the transition to Major League Soccer at the start to the point now where it is decision time for the club. As Head Coach Alan Koch told media on Monday, “the guys and myself are all pretty disappointed but we're trying to be transparent and give the guys information as quick as possible.”
So now what’s the path moving forward? It certainly feels as though defender Forrest Lasso and winger Emmanuel Ledesma could be part of the squad moving forward. Lasso put together a second consecutive stellar season and plays a position at center back where players preceding him like Aaron Long, Daniel Steres and Sebastien Ibeagha have earned regular minutes in MLS since making the move up. It seems inconceivable that Ledesma won’t be moving forward with the club, either, even though at 30 years old there might be an element of risk to that signing.
It might also make sense for Cincinnati to see what type of deal it could make with Vancouver Whitecaps FC for goalkeeper Spencer Richey after his season on loan at the club, while Corben Bone has looked ready for a return to the top flight in his performances over the past two years. Nazmi Albadawi’s season was also impressive and should merit a solid look.
Then you get deeper down the roster, and what value players who have been with the club from its inception like Jimmy McLaughlin and Kenney Walker would have in terms of the club’s culture and ability to contribute off the bench. It’s an unenviable task Koch and his team now face in the days ahead as they try to set up their club for success moving forward.