The end of the 2022 season is drawing near with only 4 more match weeks until we reach the playoff season. In a league like USL League One where many contracts are short-term, it is just about time for us to start wondering, “where will all of these players end up next year?” For many, they will return to their teams or join different teams within USL League One. For some, they’ll travel to compete in leagues across the world or they’ll make the coveted step up to the next level in the USL Championship. We’d be naive to think that many if not all coaches across the league already have some players in mind for the 2023 iterations of their teams.
With the inaugural season of Lexington Sporting just over the horizon, I wanted to take a look at League One players and a system that I feel could not only get the job done in this league but could thrive. Some quick disclaimers: I have not spoken to anyone about possible transfers. This isn’t an attempt to start a rumor mill, but a fun exercise for myself. Also, this probably won’t be incredibly realistic. Not only would it be unwise/impossible to try to make a team out of the limited player pool contained within the 11 teams currently represented, but this would also go directly against the ethos of a club that seems to be heavily youth-focused. I’ll include some non-League One players that could be a good fit at the end as well in order to introduce you to some players you may not know much about as of yet.
Earlier this year, I asked folks on twitter if they felt that the league had a particular style or if it emulated a bigger league in some way. 75% of the people who answered the poll answered the Bundesliga, a league that is characterized by high tempo play, lots of 1v1s with centerbacks and an abundance of set pieces. Now this is, of course, a generalization of the Bundesliga as well as League One, but it does give us somewhat of a frame work for how to start thinking about how we go about this.
In a league where 5 of the 6 teams currently in the playoff race have over 35% of their passes being forward passes, I wanted to create a tactical set up and team that could bear the weight of defending a vertical and transitional game style, while also being quick and convincing in attacking moments. Controlling the speed of the game on both sides of the ball, creating disorganization between the lines, and forcing opposition defenses into as many 1v1 and 2v1 scenarios as possible, while limiting them on our side will be huge keys to success. This means even simple things like tight lines on long balls to ensure we have people to win the second balls or close space/make tackles. I want to be able to build from the back while also having players who have a good enough passing range with and without pressure to play forward quickly. Finally, I want midfielders who are able to get involved in the final third, draw the defense out with long shots and attackers who can help them get more involved so that there are more runners in the box for crosses and rebounds.
I decided to go with a 3-5-2, as I personally think this formation offers a robust structure in defense while doing a really good job of stretching opposition defenses when we have the ball. When considering a pressing structure, I’m not really concerned with high pressing but instead want a structure that limits central progression and forces LONG switches of play that keep the opposition’s game slow. From the front, I want strikers making ‘out to in’ (think pincer) pressing runs that allow passes into areas where my team have numerical parity or superiority. The inherent weaknesses of the 3-5-2 is the numerical superiority that teams with a back four have in the wide areas. While I don’t want the ball to progress through the middle, I’m totally fine with it being passed into central areas as there will always at least be numerical parity with a little more freedom for a CB to step out and engage higher up as well. If we can’t force passes into congested areas, the goal is to position in a way that forces the ball wide, but allows the team to shift back and nullify progression through tight defensive lines. While this leaves tons of space on the far side of the field, a tight line of 3 that shifts out to press near side ball carriers has time to reorient to the other side of the field and do the same.
On the attack, I’ve opted for a more technical back three with a “lone” 6 that is more progression minded rather than a destroyer type. The benefit of a back three is that a lone defensive 6 isn’t as necessary and this gives me many more options for getting the ball forward, getting long balls to free wingbacks and involving the midfield in the attack via one of the strikers while the other striker helps create space between the lines by stretching the defense with well timed runs and every so slightly offside positioning. Because many teams set up and press in either a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 set up, I want my rest defense to set up in more of a 3-2 shape as it gives me what I believe is the best platform to progress the ball, and forces counters and transitions to be slower and into wide areas. Having CBs who are confident enough to progress the ball via carrying and passing either forces defenses deeper or to close down, which opens up important areas both centrally and wide as picture below. Whether in the 4-4-2 or in the 4-5-1, there are always ways to progress the ball via attraction, which is why you’ll see I’ve selected alot of technically proficient players who can help get the ball into the final third. Having a striker who can help get the midfield into the final third for long shots or runs beyond the build up striker can help us get the necessary runners into the box to create chances on the goal. With wingbacks holding width and midfielders making runs into the box or sitting just outside the box, there are also a sundry of ways in which this team could create chances. I’m not going to go into great detail on tactics as that’s not what this is for, but I wanted to lay a foundation for why I selected the players I did.
Every good team is the sum of its parts. The team I’ve selected here offers everything I could want in a team without it being the most obvious all stars stacked into one roster when the front office is funneling plenty of money into a stadium project, youth academy, and many other year one start up costs. I wanted to create a team with players who have the quality to make the difference in this league, but they all might not be getting minutes to reflect that quality for whatever reason (injury, tactical set up, etc). So without further ado, the players. I firmly believe that each of these players has the talent to make a big impact individually and collectively to make big waves in League One.
Side note: You’ll have to forgive me on some of the video quality. I ran out of Wyscout film minutes halfway through the article, so I had to get creative and go back to pulling clips from good old Youtube.
GOALKEEPER: Johan Peñaranda
At the keeper position I’m looking for a keeper who is technically proficient to help aid in the build up, has great reflexes, and can sweep up behind the defensive line. Obviously shotstopping is important, but I want more than just a shotstopper if I’m going to have any sort of coherent build from the back. Which is why I went with John Peñaranda.
There’s a lot to like about Johan Peñaranda. The keeper started the year as the back up, but has gone on to rack up 1500 minutes between the posts. Peñaranda has faced the third most shots per 90 while being 2nd in saves per 90 only behind the great Akira Fitzgerald. As you can see below, he’s got excellent reflexes from close range, is good at reading the path of balls into the box and can sweep up behind a higher line with the best of them. While he’s not the best shotstopper in the league, I really like the uniqueness of his game. His distribution under pressure is of particular importance to me as the tactical set up I’ve noted will likely involve my team being under pressure from a team that has been patiently building and is looking to win the ball back while we break. That last clip is of special interest to me as well. Being able to break the press by lobbing the ball over defenders to a fullback or deep winger is an incredible tool to have in the tool belt. Peñaranda checks a lot of boxes for me in the GK position and has some good potential for growth.
NON LEAGUE OPTIONS:
Cooper is a two time Summit League goalkeeper of the year with excellent distribution and shotstopping. Teams looking for a goalkeeping prospect surely have their eyes on this young man. The Roos of Kansas City are a fun team worth checking out if you have the time.
USL Championship: Joseph Rice
The former League One goalkeeper was a sight to behold in a NE Revs II jersey, but has not had a ton of luck seeing the field in his time at the Championship level. In 2021, no one had a better save rate than Joe Rice and this was just one of many things that made him successful. A fresh start could do his career wonders. I profiled him as a player that needed a step up after last season here.
WIDE CENTERBACKS: Dakota Barnathan and Cyrus Rad
For the CB positions, I’m intentionally noting a difference as I believe that the roles are MASSIVELY different. In the wide role, I’m looking for confident ball progressors who can drive the build up, have good anticipation, and are quick due to the need to shift quickly enough to keep our structure on long switches of play or in moments of disorganization. Not only that, but I need players good in duels/1v1 situations in transitional moments as the wingbacks will likely be higher up the field.
For my two wide CBs, I went with Dakota Barnathan and Cyrus Rad. While the varying positions Barnathan plays in has an impact on the way his stats look, Cyrus Rad is absolutely one of the best progressors from deep in the entire league. When he has the space and men available to him, he WILL find his target. His passing range is stellar, he’s got decent recovery speed and wins a good portion of his defensive duels. You would be hard pressed to find a better wide center back than Cyrus Rad.
Dakota Barnathan is great at anticipating what’s going to happen, defends aggressively, and is confident enough to progress the ball quickly. He’s not nearly as forward thinking as Cyrus Rad, but he provides a good option out on that right side. Below, you can see how he does a great job of anticipating the arrival of a long ball, wins the header, and immediately helps turns defense into offense. We also know that he can play in a progressive minded system after lining up at Tucson for Jon Pearlman in 2021. That fact alone is enough for me as Pearlman always manages to find really talented CBs (peep the CB partnership that has been on a STREAK since August) and turns them into really good players.
CENTRAL CENTERBACK: Kaelon Fox
Kaelon Fox was an easy choice for me. Not only is he a great player and leader for FC Tucson right now, the three years he spent in Lexington at the University of Kentucky would make him an automatic fan favorite. He’s a tall figure, making him important on set pieces (see video below). He’s great at covering space and being aware of his surroundings and he’s really good at keeping a cool head, making him a great fit to be the last line of defense for this squad. He’s quite versatile as well, which allows the team to offer different looks depending on the game.
NON LEAGUE OPTION:
The younger brother of League One defender Daltyn Knutson is a huge talent. Central Arkansas is a really well drilled team defensively and Knutson would be a great player to bring in if Omaha doesn’t try to unite the brothers first. This won’t be the last time you see something about Central Arkansas in this article 👀.
WINGBACKS: Aaron Lombardi and Noah Franke
This is one of the most important parts of the formation as it takes dynamic players with talent on and off the ball to really make this formation work. Technical players who can hold width, be convincing in progression and whip in great crosses while also positioning themselves to make good recovery runs, defend the counter, and defend in a low block takes special players and I think I’ve picked two here. Franke hasn’t played enough minutes due to injuries this season to have a realistic radar, but his ability on and off the ball is a sight to behold. He makes intelligent runs, is great at holding width AND is able to use that width effectively when the time comes, and can be a massive part of play in the final third as seen below from his time at Tucson.
Not only is he fantastic offensively, but his aggressive defending makes him a perfect candidate for a role like wingback in which he has more freedom to roam forward, but needs to be able to recover to regain defensive shape after the ball is lost.
In regards to Lombardi, this is an interesting case. Lombardi did not begin to learn fullback until he arrived at Chattanooga. In Italy, he played primarily as a more central midfielder and looked fantastic. What I like about Lombardi is the fact that his head is always up, he’s always looking for ways to progress the ball and get it into the final third. You can see from this clip from Serie D that he was made for the wide areas. An incredibly technical player with his head on a swivel makes for chaos out wide. One thing I’d definitely want to see more of is an ability to keep holding width. He’s grown a lot as a fullback this year, but in order for this team to be successful, we can’t get too narrow and play into the hands of teams like Greenville and Omaha and he’s shown that sometimes he likes to harken back to the old days (in fairness, that also led to his beautiful volleyed goal from early in the season so one can’t be too mad). Regardless, he wins most of his defensive duels, he’s got incredible anticipation off the ball and is really good at picking out players in transition.
NON LEAGUE OPTION:
USL Championship – Toby Sims, Pittsburgh Riverhounds
Toby doesn’t NEED a move by any stretch of the imagination. He’s getting decent minutes under one of the most intelligent coaches in the Championship and is playing decently. But if he happened to want more minutes, the Fullback/midfielder would be the perfect addition to an inaugural squad. A highly decorated player already, Toby has the quality to fill in nicely on that right side and create havoc for opposing defenses.
DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER: Ozzie Ramos
The defensive midfielder is one of the most important roles as it’s super important to ball progression in the 3-5-2. I need someone who dictates play from the back, is tactically disciplined and intelligent, and needs to have the passing range to play through the midfield lines, over the last line and out wide at tempo. There are a number of really good players in League One who could take this role, but the first player that came to mind was Ozzie Ramos. If you follow Ozzie on social media, you know that he lives and breathes the game. He’s constantly seeking to learn more about tactics, training, how to be a better player, etc. If a soccer account I don’t follow pops up on my twitter with important information, I guarantee it’s because Ozzie Ramos liked or retweeted the post. He’s an incredible ball progressor, really good at managing tempo, a GREAT passing range and able to drive forward with the ball.
NON LEAGUE OPTION:
MLS Next Pro: Jake Rozhanksy, NE Revolution II:
Rozhanksy was one of the best tempo managing midfielders in League One in 2021 and has done well again with 4 assists to his name in MLS Next Pro across 1600 minutes. Rozhansky was the engine room for the Revs in 2021 and he’d be a FINE addition to any possession based team looking to create chaos by pulling opponents out of their deep blocks and making incisive passes. You wouldn’t be able to take the ball from this man in a phone booth.
CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS: Daniel Bedoya and Mutaya Mwape
For the central midfield, I needed some unique players in this formation. Needed players who can make longer pressing runs as they’ll often be the ones to do so, technical players who can work in tight spaces and get the ball forward quickly, able to take long shots, and able to get involved in the final third. I wanted reliable players who were intelligent, disciplined, quick, versatile, and able to play at a consistent level. I’ll admit I went a little more attack minded here, but my two choices were Daniel Bedoya and Mutaya Mwape. While Bedoya is more of a complete midfielder, Mwape is more final third minded. Both are so dangerous going forward, technical, and able to produce magical bits of end product.
Mwape has been in and out of League One for a while and despite the fact that he hasn’t made too many appearances for Tormenta this season, he’s an incredible player. Mwape is another really good technical player, willing to take run at players, creating space for himself or drawing opponents away to create space for his team. He’s a really intelligent player, especially when it comes to his movement and tempo management. He really strikes me as a player with incredible vision and quick thinking. He always looks assured in what he’s doing and can cause all sorts of trouble for opposition midfielders.
Daniel Bedoya has a lot of great qualities as well. He’s an invaluable set piece taker for starters. Whether it’s launching direct free kicks into the back of the net or launching corners into the box, Bedoya is so good at putting the ball JUST where he wants it.
One of my favorite things about Bedoya is this one particular pass he’s REALLY good at completing. It’s a dink of sorts over the last defensive line right to a player making a run along that line. As you can see below, he’s so good at keeping the ball, turning into space and perfectly timing a long ball.
Not only is he fantastic offensively, he’s makes great recovery runs, has a nose for interceptions, and uses his body in really intelligent ways to zone off opponents after getting even the tiniest amount of space between the ball and the opponent. He’s not afraid to go to ground, but his angles of recovery runs are so good and his timing so perfect that he rarely has to go in for a slide tackle.
The most important thing for me with both of these midfielders is that in moments of transition, they’re so convincing. In their own way, both of these players can absolutely be a FORCE for disorganizing opponents because of their quick decision making and technical ability.
NON LEAGUE OPTION:
This will never happen, but I’m going to say it anyways
USL Championship – Andrew Booth, Charleston Battery:
I cannot think of a single player I’d love to have on my team more than Andrew Booth. He checks so many boxes for a midfielder in this system (or any system for that matter) and having him as one of the 2 outside center mids would be a dream come true. He’s a relentless presser, an efficient tackler, and often the driving force for getting into the final third. His shot map from 2021 reflects how dangerous he could be. Not only was he willing to shoot from anywhere, he was also an important part in second balls on set pieces. I’ve spoken briefly on why a man outside the box to collect second balls and take long shots can be important for any team that wants to avoid being countered on after a set piece here.
STRIKERS: Juan Galindrez and Oalex Anderson
Finally, we have our strikers. Up front, I’m looking for a dynamic duo who can feed off of each other, drop deep to involve the midfield when necessary, and create a high volume of dangerous shots for opposition defenses to deal with. Both of the players I’ve chosen offer something unique while also just being clinical in front of goal. While Juan is more of a final line striker who is really good at putting himself in really good positions to score and being decisive in his shooting, Oalex is much more involved in the build up, is an incredible dribbler, and can easily get everyone involved in the play or take it himself and create chances for his team by carrying it all the way down the field.
Oalex Anderson is one of those players who can be everything you want in a striker. His League leading dribbles per 90 at 9 attempts per 90 along with a 61% dribble completion rate combines with a top 5 shots per 90 rate makes him the perfect striker in a league that has been terrorized by technically proficient players. He may not be the most efficient finisher, but his incredibly high shot volume from wide and deep starting areas more than makes up for what is supposedly lacking. Some of this has to do with being moved out the wing some this year, but you can see just how important he is and how HUGE of an impact he has in the final third.
He’s only played about 1400 minutes this season, but every time he gets on the field he seems to come up big for NCFC. Take his cameo against Forward Madison for an example. In the first clip he carries the ball forward at great speed, fearlessly taking on anyone in his path to win the penalty. In the second clip, the intelligence and discipline to hold width opens up so much space for for NCFC to work into and gives his teammates more time to get into a scoring position before putting in the beautiful ball across the face of the goal.
Galindrez may not be the most flashy dribbler, but there is no striker with more potential to hurt your chances at three points than Juan Galindrez. Despite the late start with the team and being in and out of the starting 11, Galindrez has racked up 11 goals and has again been the most dangerous striker in terms of xG in the league (2nd time running).
He may not be the 1v1 aficionado that Anderson is, but he offers so many incredible attributes to a team in the final third. He’s incredibly strong, he’s imposing in the air, and my particular favorite is his ability to create space between him and opponents in order to get better chances on goal. Galindrez is someone you HAVE to keep track of in the box. If you’re not constantly scanning to understand his positioning, you WILL regret it as Kaelon Fox did in the first clip when he misjudges the ball and realizes that Galindrez had peeled away towards the back post. His runs along the shoulder and on the blind side of defenders are what give him so many opportunities to score.
While he’s a great finisher, he’s also not afraid to be involved with the press or to drop deep to dialog with midfield runners. He’s a player I would definitely keep an eye on as the season comes to a close.
NON LEAGUE OPTIONS:
A teammate of Bradyn Knutson, Assibey-Rhule spent his summer at Minneapolis City SC in USL League 2 before heading back to school and playing with the Bears in Arkansas. Bernard is traditionally a winger, but he’s exactly the kind of player I’d want combining with a strike partner and making runs past the last defensive line to stretch the defense. Despite just getting started with CAU, he’s already got two goals in 164 minutes of game time. He would be an excellent addition to any League One squad.
USL League Two – Tomás Duben, Western Mass Pioneers
I’ve spoken about Tomás Duben already, but this is exactly where I’d want to bring him back up. This is another player who’s not a natural striker, but would fit in really well as a second striker/10 who can help involve midfield in the game and move more players into the final third. I’ve spoken to Tomás on multiple occasions and his understanding of the game is fantastic. His ability to recognize free space, shift into it, and exploit it quickly makes him an incredibly dangerous player in the final third. If you want to read more about him, check out this short twitter thread below, or read the scout report dropping soon.
I wanted to include Selmer Miscic, but my Wyscout ran out before I could collect any more film, so enjoy this singular clip of him being awesome in MLSNP and know that I’d love for him to return to the league as well. WHAT A CHIP!
I’d bet on EVERY SINGLE ONE of these players to be standouts in 2023 (as if many of them haven’t been already). If Lexington can land even a few of these players, they will be in good shape for their inaugural season. As the season comes to a close, be sure to keep your eye on these players and your fingers crossed… they might just end up on your team (I do not want Franke to join Lexington, FYI. If they’re not going to hire me to be their coach *and they definitely should NOT do that*, then Franke needs to stay in Greenville. I don’t make the rules). Lexington fans, GET EXCITED. Soccer in a passion filled league is coming to your city and being part of the fan base there might just be one of the best things you ever do.
***While I can’t wait to have a new team in the League to cover, I’d be remiss if I didn’t let you know of other ways that you can get more in depth coverage of Lexington Sporting Club. Definitely Follow @cranekickslex on twitter or find Tyler on the USL Show every Tuesday. He’s doing great work to bring important coverage of the team to Lexington. He’s keeping up with everything, including the most recent stadium developments as seen below.