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USL Power Rankings: The coaching carousel begins, Phoenix Rising plummet & more from Week 17

After 17 weeks of USL Championship action, we're ranking every team in the league.

26 min read

17 weeks down, 17 to go. It’s the exact midpoint of the USL regular season, and two coaching changes marked the occasion in style.

Morten Karlsen was the first to go, leaving the Orange County job amicably to return home to Denmark. Karlsen was appointed to the job partway through 2023 and quickly turned a struggling unit into a title contender. His success in the Championship ultimately earned him a promotion to a European job.

Danny Stone got the ax on Saturday, losing the Phoenix Rising job after a disastrous showing from his team the night before. The task for a first-year manager defending a title was never going to be an easy one, and standards are high in the Valley. Stone never pinned down an effective style, and it cost him his job.

That’s the dichotomy in the USL. Succeed to a great enough degree, and you have the platform to draw the eyes of the larger soccer community. Fail to do so, and you’ll be out by midseason. As always, change arrives for many reasons, but the league’s progress has only quickened its pace.

How did the rest of the league fare in Week 17? Let’s dig in.

1. Louisville (+2)

Result: 4-1 win at Birmingham

Having lost two of their last three games, allowing eight goals in the process, LouCity needed a rebound in Birmingham on Saturday. The look wasn't much different than usual in terms of shape, but the build patterns were. Louisville is often committed to longer passes from the back to advance play into the final third, and that aspect of Danny Cruz's system defined the match this time out.

The shift made sense in a few ways. 

For one, Birmingham's narrow 4-3-3 system is hard to break down through conventional means, especially if you want to work down the middle. For another, no team can match the trio of Wesley Charpie, Arturo Ordonez, and Sean Totsch for skill at the center back spot, especially when it comes to longer balls and diagonals. Ordonez impressed in particular from the central role, showing a great ability to turn his hips and pick out either channel on his right foot to push LouCity into attack.

Still, the Legion recovered well and contested second balls better than most of Louisville's opponents. Sam Gleadle – an injury substitute in the first half – was the difference-maker by accident. A willing runner with premium acceleration, Gleadle has often played as a wing back at other clubs. Cruz has used him up top, and that pace and nous from the No. 9 spot was exactly what was needed to beat Birmingham. Louisville's territorially dominant style isn't conducive to counters, but their few opportunities were made lethal because of Gleadle.

As they’re wont to do, LouCity ran up the score at home, but it wasn’t an easy win. That’s more impressive than a rout, frankly. Cruz adjusted on the fly to break down a good opponent, and that means a lot for a club that’s won easy for most of the year.

2. Memphis (+2)

Result: 5-1 win v. Phoenix

No one would accuse Emerson Hyndman of being a natural winger, but Stephen Glass’ choice to push Hyndman to the left flank has been an inspired one. 

Memphis have preferred an off-balance approach all season. They rely on combination play on the right wing to do damage. By inserting a conservative presence on the opposite side, 901 have found a counterweight that makes the scheme make that much more sense.

In practice on Friday, Hyndman tried three tackles and made four ball recoveries, but it was his intelligent reading of the game that made Memphis tick. When 901 needed him to push high out of their baseline 4-4-2 to close on a fullback, he did it. On the rare occasion where Phoenix broke down the middle, Hyndman would cover inside. He was simply immense.

Per usual, Memphis relied on Luiz Fernando on the right wing as an offensive hub, but they proved more effective than usual at cutting back and switching play side to side. 

Hyndman’s superior control in tight spaces helped, but Akeem Ward’s brilliance on the overlap at left back really stole the show. Ward picked up two assists, one a right-footed cross that’ll make highlight reels and the other a perfectly weighted sweeper that found the path of Nighte Pickering. He wasn’t one-note; Rising ran into a brick wall whenever they attacked down his side.

Memphis is a contender. They have game-changing attackers, the USL’s most underrated midfield pivot, and a superstar defender in the form of Ward. Phoenix didn’t put up a proper fight this week, but 901 more than showed their quality as an elite side in the West.

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