Full question submitted by Derek D.: “Who are the favorites to win the USL Championship now that we’re two-thirds of the way through the season?”
Hey, thanks for the question Derek! As we move into the last third of the USL Championship season, it’s time to start thinking about the playoffs. Who are the leading contenders to win it all? I’ll answer that question. But to put an extra little twist on things, I’m also going to look at why each contender will win the USL Championship Final…and why they won’t.
Louisville City FC
FiveThirtyEight Championship Odds: 23%
Why they’ll win: Louisville have allowed a league-best 16 goals this season and they’re third in the league in goals scored despite missing star striker Cameron Lancaster for most of the year. Jorge Gonzalez, one of the breakout stars of 2022 and a three-goal scorer, is underperforming his xG by nearly four goals and is due to come good.
Why they won’t: While the defense and press can be magical, Louisville are susceptible to balls over the top when their fullbacks get high. If you put teenage center back Joshua Wynder into a tough situation, you can get a winning goal in transition in a single-elimination setting.
San Antonio FC
FiveThirtyEight Championship Odds: 21%
Why they’ll win: Manager Alen Marcina’s three-back shape is built for playoff soccer. San Antonio absorb pressure and can beat you on the counter in an instant; they’re dead last in the USL Championship with 42% possession but enjoy a top-ten goalscoring offense.
Why they won’t: If the opposition scores first against San Antonio, they have to stretch their system to try and possess, which then leaves them vulnerable. The San Diego Loyal earned a 3-0 win by doing just that over the weekend, and we could see that pattern again in the postseason.
Tampa Bay Rowdies
FiveThirtyEight Championship Odds: 20%
Why they’ll win: The Rowdies haven’t lost since April 30 and are more tactically flexible than ever this season. They just got Robert Castellanos, a center back on loan from Nashville SC, back from injury, and midseason addition Nicky Law has hit the ground running as a deep-lying playmaker in an already fearsome offense.
Why they won’t: Jake LaCava and Leo Fernandes, Tampa Bay’s leading goalscorers, are converting chances at rates above 20%, which may well be unsustainable. Are they peaking too early? Maintaining top form from April to November is a tall task.
San Diego Loyal
FiveThirtyEight Championship Odds: 9%
Why they’ll win: Landon Donovan’s side is the only team in the USL Championship with 50 goals so far in 2022 and they have four forwards with five tallies or more. That offensive variety is supported by a defense that’s allowed just three goals in four games while playing out of a malleable 4-4-2 shape.
Why they won’t: The recent defensive success belies the fact that the Loyal have allowed twice as many goals as West-leading San Antonio this year. San Diego also have a self-defeating mean streak: they’re the only team currently in the playoff field with five red cards, and that can bite when every game is crucial.
FiveThirtyEight Championship Odds: 6%
Why they’ll win: Bringing Robbie Mertz home shored up an already elite midfield. Mertz’s unflappable skill and creativity – he has seven assists in 2022 – open things up for the attack. The ‘Hounds also have a top-ten defense based on goals allowed.
Why they won’t: Manager Bob Lilley hasn’t led a team past the playoff quarterfinals since 2015, consistently underperforming in crucial moments. His tendency to constantly tweak his lineup and system can hurt against the most disciplined and talented teams at the end of the season.