A rising star, title winners on the decline, and more of the USL’s biggest surprises in 2022

Quick
Hits
  • There have been some big surprises on the field in the USL Championship this season 
  • From a former title winner on the decline to a rising star, we’re running through three of the USL’s biggest surprises so far in 2022
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Who doesn’t like surprises? Okay, well, a lot of people don’t like surprises. But hey, don’t worry about them right now. Just focus on you – and the USL Championship, where there is never a shortage of surprising developments. Let’s dive into three of those surprises from the 2022 season so far. 

Orange County’s struggles

On the way to a USL Championship trophy last year, Orange County SC allowed just 10 goals in their final 15 matches, relying on a 4-2-3-1 setup and a defense-first style to win games. In the offseason, they transferred Ronaldo Damus to Europe after he scored four postseason goals in 2021, and box-to-box midfielder Eric Calvillo – my personal pick for playoff MVP – left for El Paso. 

To compensate, Richard Chaplow’s side brought in MLS stalwarts like Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres and Tony Rocha.

Needless to say, things haven’t gone to plan. 

Orange County is second-to-last in the Western Conference right now and hasn’t won a match since early May. Goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky, the unsung hero of last season’s bunker-and-counter brilliance, is last in the entire USL for goals saved above average, but he’s been hung out to dry by sloppy defending. The team seems to break out a new shape every other week and lineup inconsistencies have made things worse. Even with the turnover, no one could’ve seen this drop-off coming.

Tampa’s new attack

Through their first 10 games of the 2022 regular season, the Tampa Bay Rowdies earned just 13 points. They were languishing in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings. At that point, Neill Collins made the daring choice to bench forward Sebastian Guenzatti, whose goalscoring record over the previous three years was unmatched in the USL. Without Guenzatti in the lineup, the new look featured a hold-up forward and two industrious wingers. The wingers would move inside to clog the middle of the field while defending before driving play forward on the dribble in the attack.

Those wingers, Jake LaCava and Leo Fernandes, have combined for six goals in six games since that tactical and personnel switch.

Tampa hasn’t lost over that stretch, earning wins against Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Phoenix in the process. The Rowdies’ slow start was unexpected, but a Guenzatti-less lineup boosting Tampa bay back into trophy contention is an even bigger surprise.

Danny Trejo and Las Vegas

In the preseason, my playoff odd calculations gave the Las Vegas Lights a whopping 0% chance of making the cut in a stacked Western Conference. Today, Vegas is tied for the all-important seventh spot, which is the last spot above the playoff line, and attacker Danny Trejo is the key reason why. 

Trejo, a 24-year-old who debuted for Los Angeles FC in MLS this past weekend and returned to the Lights a day later to score a winner in San Diego, has eight goals and four assists in 2022.

Las Vegas didn’t name Enrique Duran as their manager until one month before the season, but he instantly installed a 4-3-3 system that sits deep off the ball and drives counterattacks through Trejo. The Lights’ defensive organization and the rise of their star creator weren’t on anyone’s radar, but both factors have lifted Las Vegas into the playoff mix.