USL Mailbag: Trophy favorites, academy progress, and playoff matchups

Quick Hits
  • As we head into the last month of the USL Championship’s regular season, we asked for your USL questions on Twitter…and you delivered
  • Today, we’re here to answer those questions, ranging from the academy landscape to trophy favorites to playoff matchups

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions on Twitter for this mailbag! I love getting feedback on what you all want to read about, and there were some great prompts about youth development, the playoffs, and League One. 

Let’s get to your questions and my answers.

To start, I’ve broken down the lay of the land for USL academies in chart form:

For context, the USL Academy League is a months-long regionalized competition, while the USL Academy Cup is an annual tournament. The Tampa metro area hosted the cup in 2021.

Even some of the teams without full academies maintain robust development setups. Indy Eleven bring together the brightest players from local youth clubs and send them to these broader USL competitions, but they aren’t coaching the kids year-round. The San Diego Loyal do much the same with their “Loyal Select” program.

Things vary at the low end of engagement too. Memphis has four players signed to “Academy Contracts,” but they don’t operate an academy or have any public youth partnerships. Tulsa, meanwhile, tout their local youth engagement but explicitly do not maintain their own development system. I’d expect to see more and more teams move toward that “Full Academy” tier in general given the profitability of selling bright prospects and league-wide initiatives in that direction.

I’ll assert that Louisville City and San Antonio FC are the two leaders in the clubhouse, but I’m taking the field with confidence.

In the last five seasons of USL Championship play, the regular-season leader in each conference has made the USL Cup in just two of 10 opportunities. Sure, that’s an arbitrary stat, but both of these teams have weaknesses.

Louisville quietly have just two wins in their last seven games, and they’re fresh off a 2-1 home loss to Memphis 901. Right now, Memphis have a game in hand and could end up with home field advantage in the East. I love to watch the Louisville press, but the combination of Sean Totsch’s slightly aging legs and Josh Wynder’s inexperience renders their high defensive line a bit vulnerable.

San Antonio have a lockdown defense, but their dominance is predicated on getting the first goal. When San Diego scored first against them in early August, San Antonio had to possess the ball and leave their defensive shell; they lost 3-0. I’d also be afraid of Sacramento’s Open Cup-proven efficacy in one-off matchups.

I’ll choose one for each conference, starting with the two-seed San Diego Loyal against seven-seed Rio Grande Valley FC in the West.

Cup-style competitions often yield defensive matchups where teams try to grind out 1-0 wins, but that isn’t in the DNA of San Diego or RGV. The Loyal are the highest-scoring team in the entire USL Championship, and Alejandro Guido is as thrilling and technical as any player out there. The Toros aren’t a lock to get in, but they’ve won four games in five, they press like maniacs, and midseason addition Christian Pinzon is always good for a goal out of nowhere.

In the East, a four-five matchup between the Birmingham Legion and Pittsburgh Riverhounds catches my eye. There’s a revenge aspect here; these teams’ first-round matchup in 2021 was canceled after a Halloween Party led to a COVID outbreak in Pittsburgh. More pertinently, these are two of the most tactically flexible clubs in the USL, and I’m dying to know how they approach one another.

With just three weeks to play in the USL League One season, none of the 12 teams in the league have been eliminated from playoff contention. Yeah, first-place Richmond isn’t going to blow a ten-point gap on seventh-place Northern Colorado to miss out on the playoffs, but that level of parity is still remarkable.

Union Omaha and Greenville Triumph falling back to earth after stellar 2021 campaigns is a big factor.

Both lost key players in the offseason. Marios Lomis scored 15 goals for the Triumph when no one else got more than five, and Andrew Booth was the engine of the midfield; neither came back in 2022. Evan Conway and Damia Viader now start for two of the three best teams in the USL Championship’s Western Conference after getting Omaha to the title game last year. Part of that comes down to comparable spending on player salaries across the league; even the elite teams in League One aren’t breaking the bank.

There’s also a bit of travel-driven havoc.

League One is heavily concentrated in the southeast, making away days to FC Tucson and Central Valley Fuego in Fresno that much more daunting. The former has seen two of their home games delayed for inclement weather, leading to matches kicking off after 11:00 Eastern. Add tough travel to comparable spending across the league, and you’ve got a recipe for parity.

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