How managers Danny Cruz, Alen Marcina can influence the USL Championship Final

Quick Hits
  • The USL Championship Final will kickoff on Sunday between San Antonio FC and Louisville City
  • A number of things could decide this title clash, but the role of each team’s manager shouldn’t be understated

The USL Championship Final is set. San Antonio FC will take on Louisville City on Sunday in a battle between the Western and Eastern Conference’s top seeds. Today, we’re looking back to the conference finals and looking ahead to this Sunday’s final to examine how each team’s manager can influence their team’s title chances.

Louisville’s in-game changes

In their eighth Conference Final in as many years, Louisville City showed how they’ve continued to evolve tactically. Over the weekend, they shifted from a back three to a back four, creating a 4-3-3 shape that overwhelmed the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ two-man central midfield. The Rowdies overreacted and pinched narrow, leaving space for Enoch Mushagalusa on the left wing. He earned four shots and put in two crosses, but Louisville couldn’t break through.

Louisville manager Danny Cruz found the right adjustments, though. 

Elijah Wynder, the hero of the last round, entered in central midfield and veteran winger Brian Ownby joined him on the right side. Wynder and Ownby added a dose of physicality and allowed Louisville to play a more direct style based on long balls, which pinned Tampa Bay back.

A late red card almost spoiled their dominance, but Cruz made the right shifts yet again. Talented young center back Joshua Wynder, Elijah’s brother, entered to create a 5-3-1 shape that proved impenetrable for Tampa Bay, and Louisville eked out a corner on the counterattack in extra time. Elijah Wynder scored the winning goal in the 108th minute, validating every strategic choice his coach made and illustrating how flexible and deep this team is.

Next man up for San Antonio

Unlike Louisville City and their frequent adjustments, San Antonio relied on their tried-and-true defensive system for the full 90 minutes in their win over Colorado Springs Switchbacks last weekend. 

Still, their versatility and ability to plug holes stood out. 

Mohammed Abu and PC, the two stalwarts in San Antonio’s defensive midfield, missed the Conference Final with injuries. In their stead, Jordy Delem, a natural fullback with just six starts in 2022, and Justin Dhillon, a striker coming off a six-goal, eight-assist season, stepped up.

While manager Alen Marcina’s general 5-3-2 shape was as familiar as ever, he employed Delem and Dhillon in a way that leveraged their unique skill sets. Dhillon, stationed on the right, moved high into a forward role on goal kicks and restarts and often leaked out immediately after turnovers to make himself a threat in transition. Delem played deeper than the box-to-box Abu typically would, using his natural mobility to sweep across the width of the field as a roaming No. 6.

Even with a different midfield look, things were formulaic for a San Antonio team that knows exactly who they are. They nabbed a goal from a late-arriving central midfield run in the 23rd minute, sat deep while holding just 30% of possession, and scored late on the counter to clinch a spot in the final.

Finding the weaknesses

With two high-quality teams squaring off on Sunday, what can separate San Antonio and Louisville?

Mushagalusa will be key for Louisville. He provides pace and skill at an unmatched level in the USL and his runs could stretch San Antonio’s aggressive backline. Louisville will likely use a 5-3-2 shape rather than a 4-3-3 to match San Antonio’s three forwards with three central defenders, so the burden on Mushagalusa to move up and down the wing in both defense and attack will be that much greater.

Connor Maloney’s run from the midfield put San Antonio up 1-0 in the Conference Finals – and that kind of movement will be the key to breaking down Louisville. Tyler Gibson, the deep-lying No. 6 for Danny Cruz’s team, will be tasked with marking either Dhillon or Cristian Parano. Someone like Maloney must deftly navigate the space Gibson vacates if San Antonio want to create chances.

Still, if there’s a lesson we can take from the playoffs so far, it’s that both Marcina and Cruz are smart managers who can and will adapt. The choices that define San Antonio and Louisville’s systems from the opening whistle will inevitably give way to shifts and substitutions, and the better game manager will bring home the hardware on Sunday.