What defines 2022’s top USL teams? Clear tactical approaches

Quick Hits
  • San Antonio FC and Louisville City FC are both having exceptional seasons in the USL Championship: they’re both on top of their respective conferences, they’ve both clinched playoff spots, and they both lead their conferences in goal differential
  • What’s behind their success in 2022? Much of it comes down to detailed tactical gameplans from Danny Cruz and Alen Marcina
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San Antonio FC and Louisville City FC are both having exceptional seasons in the USL Championship right now. They’re both on top of their respective conferences, they’ve both clinched playoff spots, and they both lead their conferences in goal differential.

The clubs have each allowed 22 goals this season, which is best in the league by far. Impressively enough, both also have MVP candidates at center back: Mitchell Taintor (San Antonio) and Sean Totsch (Louisville) anchor elite defenses and have also added eight and five goals apiece. Despite these surface-level similarities, San Antonio and Louisville play two of the least similar tactical systems in the second division.

Let’s dive into how these two teams approach – and win – games.

San Antonio’s approach out West

Alen Marcina’s San Antonio use a back three in a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 shape. No team in the USL averages a lower share of possession than the Western Conference leaders. In fact, San Antonio’s 42.6% share of the ball is the lowest of any team in the USL since the Ottawa Fury in 2018. The Canadian side finished 10th in their conference that year and didn’t sniff the playoffs. 

More than 20% of San Antonio FC’s passes are heaved long, which is more than any other team in the USL Championship, and no team takes fewer offensive touches between their shots. Essentially, the Texan club chooses to sit back, rely on an elite defense and star goalkeeper Jordan Farr, and strike upfield in an instant with long and direct counter attacks. 

Now, most defense-first, system-centric clubs use a consistent lineup and lean into their chemistry. But San Antonio hasn’t repeated a starting eleven once in 2022.

This weekend’s matchup with the San Diego Loyal illustrated every aspect of this team’s idiosyncrasy. Nacho Bailone earned his first start of the season after 15 substitute cameos, and he shouldered off a defender to claim a long ball and jolt San Antonio into the lead in the first half.

After that, the team allowed just one shot on target in open play, leaned on Farr to save a penalty, and rode out 42.8% possession for the win against the second-place team in the West.

Louisville’s tactics out East

Meanwhile, Louisville play a consistent 4-1-4-1 built on high pressure and dominance in the run of play. Danny Cruz’s team owns 55.5% of possession in contrast to his Western counterpart; that rate is good for second in the league. Only two teams in the USL have scored more than Louisville, and their offense is centered around a consistent forward line in contrast to the revolving door in San Antonio. Wilson Harris, Brian Ownby, and Enoch Mushagalusa all have eight goals or more, summing to more than half of their club’s tallies this season.

The press really drives Louisville’s success. Out of that base 4-1-4-1 formation, the two No. 8s often push up behind the striker to clog the middle of the pitch against a back three. Other times, the wingers sit higher, denying outlets to the fullbacks – Louisville recently used that gambit to create a counter and earn a Mushagalusa goal. Further back, the system is based on Tyler Gibson’s tremendous intelligence as a lone holding midfielder and the stability of Totsch’s high defensive line.

Though Louisville has two consecutive draws, they still hold a five-point edge atop the East. San Antonio is up by nine points over the field in the West, and both will enjoy home field advantage for as long as their playoff runs last. While both teams play wholly distinct styles, they’re confident and consistent in how they play. Many of the other top contenders in the USL have experimented with their system, but Marcina and Cruz have leaned into unchanging identities. 

Their choices have paid dividends and the two teams may just meet in the USL Cup Final in November.