USL L1 Week One Preview and Predictions

*Featured photo credit: Brittany Hildreth Photography*

Make sure to check out her work for anything Greenville soccer related!

The League One season is upon us and brings all kinds of new and old story lines to the surface. If you want to get my opinions on the strengths of these squads or where my terrible opinions lead me to believe they will finish before we even kick the season off, go watch the Preseason Pod from Walkin 90 or the League One “Short Show” from the USL Show. We’ve got 4 games to cover for this weekend and I wanted to do a quick preview of each one! Each week, I’ll pick (or maybe you will) a game of the week and give a little extra attention to it with potential line ups, post game tactical breakdowns, and a player of the match. This week is of course Greenville’s home opener (y’all picked it, not me. I would have picked it though).

*USLL1Review Game Of The Week* Greenville Triumph VS CV Fuego FC: Greenville Win 2-1

A USL League One stalwart up against a very intimidating looking Fuego FC will surely be the story of the weekend. Greenville will surely be looking to make this season all about making that fourth title appearance in a row. Having never lost a home opener in their three years of existence, Greenville will be looking to come out strong against the league newcomers. Greenville’s tough, attacking transition based style will surely be a tough welcome to the league for a team that has done quite well in the pre-season.

On the Greenville side, we’ll likely see a very familiar side start the game, with the wing duo of Allen Gavilanes and Jesus Ibarra looking to make a big impact. On the other end, USL-C stalwart Villyan Bijev will be looking to be involved in the goals while a familiar face in Victor Falk will look to frustrate the Greenville attack in the midfield. Or — none of these players will play. That’s the beauty of the first game of the season. But i’m banking on these players being important parts of their teams if they do get the nod on Saturday. I have a feeling that Labovitz will be a big part of the Greenville squad this year. That being said, a big game to kick off the season could see Harkes opting for the seasoned veteran in Jake Keegan. Noah Franke misses out this week to injury (I think). I literally have no idea how Fuego will set up, but based off of the players at their disposal, the 4-4-2 felt very plausible.

Obviously, we also have to wrestle with the emergence of A LOT of NISA talent coming to L1 this season and this Fuego side that has plenty could be a good barometer for how players from the other 3rd division league might fair. This looks to be a really tough battle on paper and i’m so excited that I get to be there in person. I picked this one to end 2-1 as it looks like a tough task to prevent Bijev from doing SOMETHING, but Greenville’s cohesion and defensive strength will likely be the difference maker across the full 90.

‘Expected’ Line Up:

*Edit: After hearing Harkes on the team website about the pre-season and what they’ll be looking to do, it sounds like Jamie Smith will be taking that RB role come Saturday and a couple of small but recent injuries in midfield could lead to some changes there as well. There is one possibility in that vein that could be really exciting.*

Richmond Kickers VS FC Tucson: Richmond Win 2-1

Two playoff teams from 2021 kick off the season against each other in what looks to be a very tough encounter. One of the most frustrating teams to play against at home last season, Richmond still looks incredibly tough, returning more playing minutes from the previous year than any other team in the league. There are some question marks in their team, namely the loss of Ivan Maghaeles. The retired defender was arguably the most important part of that back line for 2020 and 2021. With Dakota Barnathan effectively coming in as his replacement, it will be interesting to see how this team grapples with the loss of such an important member. I’m looking at Jonathan Bolanos to be the difference maker this weekend, as that left side was arguably the best part of Richmond’s attack last season. They owned the left side when it came to adding value to their attacks (Goals added is basically an algorithm made by American Soccer Analysis that determines the value of player actions based off of the end points or conclusions of those actions). No team added more value on the left wing than Richmond and a huge part of that was down to Bolanos. On the other side of the field, it will be interesting to see who takes up the rb spot with the early departure of Esteban Calvo. Strong defense, field stretching, and the need to cover Terzaghi, which could pull defenders out of position will all be key aspects of a Richmond side that was SO good at home last season.

On the other end of this, Tucson ended the season on a HOT streak before getting tossed aside by Union Omaha in the Playoff Semi-Final. The high scoring side lost some key components in Charlie Dennis, Shak Adams, and BOTH fullbacks, but brought in some astute replacements in players like Tyler Allen and Jacob Crull. Deri Corfe, Giovanni Calixtro, and Kaelon Fox will surely be important focal points as far as returning players go and will likely be the difference makers if Tucson want a result. I’ll particularly looking at Calixtro to provide interplay with the wide forwards and free 8s by dropping in as a creative force. I really enjoy the way Tucson play, but also recognize the difficulty that comes with playing at City Stadium. It’ll be really important for Tucson to use their dynamic runs from midfield and wide to open up space against a typically stout Richmond low block. Tucson was really good at disorganizing opponents last season. An interesting, possibly game changing, battle in this game will be set pieces as you can see above. I picked 2-1 to Richmond simply because their stadium is an absolute fortress. It’s impossible to bet against Richmond at home until they start to prove otherwise.

Chattanooga Red Wolves VS Forward Madison: Madison Win 3-2

Special game with new head coach at Madison and a slightly depleted Chattanooga side that COULD struggle to get off on the right foot. This is the pick i’m least confident in as Chattanooga is always a real wild card and if it’s anything like last year, Chattanooga loves to be the bad guy. When Matt Glaeser was hired, he talked about his influences and ideas, with one of his influences being known for overly attacking soccer to the point of being quoted as preferring a 5-4 scoreline to a clean sheet. We’ll likely see a Madison team that wants to control possession, good counter-pressing structure, and creating high quality scoring chances. So in other words, we’ll likely see some similarities between the Chattanooga and Madison systems no matter how they set up formationally. From what i’ve heard, Madison want to be flexible formationally. They seem likely to set up with a back 3, having acquired a large number of CBs (some from back three systems) and fullbacks who could fill in as CBs. They look SO STRONG defensively, but Chattanooga is a different animal. It will be interesting to see a number of their players who are clearly talented but have lacked consistent playing time like Matheus Cassini and Abdou Thiam as they get their feet wet in L1.

On the Chattanooga end, they’re missing some key players for a variety of reasons and that could cause them to struggle. That being said, a few of those players haven’t been present for the entirety of pre-season and Chattanooga has still looked really solid. They will probably be typical Chattanooga: Field Control via a very high defensive line, central overloads with overlapping fullbacks, good counter pressure, and very high quality chances. Above you can see how Chattanooga’s forwards (Galindrez, Hernandez, and Frischknecht) were constantly in high value positions when they took their shots, largely due to the strong counter pressure and field control. Even Jonathan Ricketts (THE RIGHT BACK) took shots from better positions on average than many strikers. Obviously good positions don’t always equal goals (there are a couple of examples of that negatively on the graph above), but the pressure placed on opposition by Chattanooga puts so much stress on defensive structures. The winner of this match will likely be the team that is able to convert their high quality chances. Both teams have shown, even Madison without a new coach, that they can get players in high quality positions. Both teams also showed how high quality positions don’t mean squat if you don’t take advantage of them. It should be a high velocity match, but I think that Madison will pull out a 3-2 win and have a fun bus ride home.

Tormenta VS NCFC: Draw 2-2

This is going to be an inticing game! The two bottom dwellers from the previous season face off in what MIGHT be the most fun game of the weekend. Both teams struggled with any kinds of consistency last season to a frustrating degree and both were in need of some re-working. Both teams have similar convictions when it comes to youth development and while we’ll still see many young faces take the field during the L1 season, both teams did a lot of work to bring in leadership and re charge their attacks. On the Tormenta end, i’m most excited about Dayton product Kingsford Adjei. Kazaiah Sterling was a huge signing on the marketing end, but until we see him take the field in the states, there will be question marks about the highly regarded striker. Tormenta kind of struggled at consistently creating high quality chances, with only this weekends opponents creating fewer ‘big chances’ across the whole of 2022. They obviously still scored plenty considering the lower number of big chances, but the huge upside to Adjei is that he seems to create and take chances at a incredibly high rate on his own. Top 50 in the nation at NCAA level for shots taken, he was an incredibly potent attacking midfielder and you can see that on the ball and creation ability below. Getting him on the ball and in positions to score as much as possible will be huge for Tormenta’s chances at taking the win at home. That being said, they’ve done some incredible work this off season both outgoing and incoming. I’m excited to see how this new look and young team attacks the new season!

From the NCFC perspective, the basement dwelling team has done a fantastic job of addressing the issue of weaknesses in certain areas as well as bringing in really good leadership personalities. I’m not sure if they’ll be a playoff team this year, but i’m really high on the work they’ve done. They’ve brought in and retained great creative players, strikers, and defenders. As you can see in the xG graph above, NCFC’s struggles in attack could be a thing of the past with acquisitions like Garret Mclaughlin, Oalex Anderson, and Nicolas Molina. The xG per shot metric sometimes tells us more about tactical set up than it does individual quality, but the fact that they have multiple strikers getting in good positions bodes well for the Raleigh team. I also believe that the acquisition of Jordan Skelton will be MASSIVE for the defense. A vocal leader and organizer, Skelton won 70% of his headers at a top 3 duels rate at the League One level in 2020. Helping lead the Des Moines Menace to a L2 title is also another fantastic addition to his resume. Leaky will likely no longer be an adjective for the NCFC defense. It will be interesting to see how this NCFC team continues to grow into the league. I have this game ending with a 2-2 draw as both teams will be looking to get off to a fast start and will want to be all up in the goals.

League One season is SO close! With diverse tactical set ups, incredibly intelligent and motivated coaches, and hungry players we are looking at what is likely to be the best season yet! Thanks for reading as always and make sure to subscribe to email updates to be the first person to see new articles on this site! Stay tuned for highlights, tactical insights, and some more bad opinions about USL League One!


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