San Antonio FC’s ruthless, no-nonsense style helps them win first USL Championship title

Quick Hits
  • San Antonio FC won the USL Championship on Sunday night after beating Louisville City by a 3-1 scoreline in the final 
  • With a strong roster and Alen Marcina’s consistent, ruthless system, San Antonio are worthy champions

San Antonio FC are the USL Championship winner for 2022. They lifted the trophy on Sunday night, after a 3-1 win over Louisville City that showed off their consistent system and intelligent roster moves. 

A commitment to manager Alen Marcina and his no-nonsense style gave San Antonio the edge… and now they’re champions. Let’s talk about how all of those things added up to produce a title.

How the final was won

The first half of the championship game was defined by chances in transition. 

Louisville were aggressive down the wings in their 3-4-3, pushing the wingbacks up in both attack and defense. Instead of generating chances for themselves, though, that positioning opened up the channels for San Antonio on the counter attack. Just two minutes into the match, a Santiago Patino run into the left channel earned the hosts a penalty kick (which they failed to convert) and Samuel Adeniran burst into the same area in transition before hitting the shot off the post midway into the half.

Even when those wingbacks created danger by moving Louisville City into a 3-2-5 possession shape, San Antonio had the answers. Jordy Delem and Mohammed Abu, the defensive midfielders for the Western Conference champions, moved low and wide to cover for their teammates in the backline. Essentially, Marcina used a back seven in the defensive third. San Antonio weren’t messing around, people.

Louisville tried to become more aggressive in the middle of the field to control the game in those spaces. Tyler Gibson, a deep-lying No. 6 by trade, often joined his midfield partner Paolo DelPiccolo in pushing up field. With those two players forward, the wingbacks didn’t have to push up quite so high and Louisville could gain a bit more control. But unfortunately for Danny Cruz, this shift left his team undermanned in San Antonio’s half. They simply didn’t have enough targets upfield.

Game-changing moment

Shortly before halftime, San Antonio earned yet another penalty. Their control in transition and efficient, direct attacking paid dividends as Patino converted the shot to help his team take a 1-0 lead. The goal was well-deserved.

In response, Cruz brought on Brian Ownby – a stalwart with nearly 150 appearances for Louisville – in place of centerback Josh Wynder. The move was supposed to give the Eastern Conference champions an added foothold in attack while allowing the wide men to play with greater discretion. But the changes didn’t help. The Adeniran-Patino forward pair, bolstered by attacker Cristian Parano, overwhelmed Louisville’s center backs, and a negative, foul-heavy San Antonio slowed the tempo. In the 64th minute, Adeniran scored on a clever set piece, and at that point, the game was basically over.

Cruz made a few substitutions, and Wilson Harris, who was a Golden Boot contender this year, entered as a substitute despite picking up an injury in training. Still, the offensive moves further weakened Louisville’s defense, and Parano swiftly collected a brace to create a 3-0 scoreline. San Antonio coasted from there, conceding to an Ownby rebound that made it 3-1, but never felt a second of doubt.

A worthy winner

The match was a testament to Marcina’s quality as a scout of USL talent and his implementation of a simple but lethal system. Fabien Garcia and Carter Manley, offseason additions from Austin Bold and Rio Grande Valley FC, respectively, were excellent in the backline and stifled exciting Louisville winger Enoch Mushagalsua. Both were solid in Texan USL teams in 2021, but Marcina made them special.

Loan additions in attack also made the difference for San Antonio. The club came into 2022 with a number of high-profile players, ranging from USL mercenaries Deshane Beckford and David Loera to MLS veteran Ketuka Manneh. The latter never made an appearance for Marcina’s side, and the former two were displaced by Adeniran and Parano in the middle of the year. 

Ruthless efficiency defined San Antonio on and off the pitch.

Ultimately, a defense-first, counter-heavy approach won the day for a second-straight season in the USL playoffs. Orange County SC won the title in 2021 in a straightforward 4-4-1-1 that sat low and countered through Ronaldo Damus. San Antonio did many of the same things in their approach, trusting that their low-possession system would generate chances with those loan additions. With Goalkeeper of the Year Jordan Farr in the back and strikes from Parano and Adeniran winning the title game, no one can question the approach.

Was this the flashiest and most exciting team in the USL? No. But was San Antonio thrilling to watch in their defense-first, counter-second approach? Absolutely. Between San Antonio’s title run and Sacramento’s success in the U.S. Open Cup, we’re all reminded that defenses can win championships in the USL.