We’re now 13 weeks into the 2019 USL Championship season and we’re starting to see a clearer picture of who might be vying for recognition at the end of the campaign.
In the third edition of a season-long series, USLChampionship.com’s John Arlia and Nicholas Murray spotlight the players and coaches who have positioned themselves to be in contention for individual awards in November.
John McCarthy, Tampa Bay Rowdies
Callum Irving, Ottawa Fury FC
Jake Fenlason, Saint Louis FC
ARLIA: Here’s a stat for you that should remove any lingering doubt that this is officially John McCarthy’s award to lose: In the 29 days since our last awards update, McCarthy did not concede a single goal while making nine saves across four consecutive shutouts. Not too shabby. With nine clean sheets in Tampa Bay’s first 13 games, McCarthy is already more than halfway to the Championship’s individual single-season shutout record of 15 set by Maxime Crepeau a season ago for Ottawa Fury FC and is almost a certain bet to surpass that mark. Speaking of Fury FC though, Irving has been impressive in recent performances and is building a respectable resume to compete with Fenlason, but it seems like your preseason prediction of McCarthy was spot on.
MURRAY: What continues to be most impressive about McCarthy is his competitiveness. As well as Tampa Bay’s defense has played this season, he keeps managing to come up with big saves when they need them, like his penalty-kick save against Birmingham Legion FC this past Saturday that extinguished the hope Legion FC had of building a second-half comeback on home turf. I’m impressed with Irving, too, he’s picked up nicely from where he left off in 2017 after taking a back seat to Crepeau last year with Fury FC, but I’d also like to mention two guys out west in El Paso Locomotive FC’s Logan Ketterer and Fresno FC’s C.J. Cochran who are both sitting with goals-against averages of 1.00 through 12 appearances this season, which in the high-scoring Western Conference is a solid number for each.
Pape Diakite, Tampa Bay Rowdies
Sam Fink, Saint Louis FC
Ken Tribbett, Nashville SC
MURRAY: We – and everyone else – talked plenty about the attacking reinforcements Nashville SC made this offseason, but I think even with the way Daniel Rios has played this season it’s possible to fashion an argument that the best new signing for the club has been Ken Tribbett. He had a tremendous rookie season with Penn FC before joining the Philadelphia Union and has to be on NSC’s radar to stay with the club next season as it moves up to MLS given the consistency with which he’s performed this year. Fink and Diakite are both strong candidates as well, but Tribbett has really come to the fore in Nashville’s six games the past month.
ARLIA: There’s no doubt that Tribbett has been one of the most consistent performers this season, as evidenced by his 92 duels won (at a 73.6 percent success rate) and 95 recoveries, which both rank in the top 10 amongst Championship defenders. However, it’s still hard to argue against Diakite, who has been the stalwart at the back for the league’s best defense. The 6-foot-4 center back is tied for the league lead with 85 clearances and has played every minute of his 12 appearances, having missed only one match through a retroactive suspension. Fink has been equally strong for STLFC’s second-ranked defense and with three goals, the club’s captain boasts a bit more offensive potential than his competition in this category. I feel like this could still be too close to call.
Luca Lobo, Tulsa Roughnecks FC
Juan Tejada, Tampa Bay Rowdies
Eryk Williamson, Portland Timbers 2
ARLIA: I mentioned in our last update that Real Monarchs SLC goalkeeper David Ochoa was the candidate most likely in danger of slipping off the list and he has here in favor of Tejada, though some of that has to do with the lack of Championship action the 18-year-old has had due to his inclusion into the U.S. squad for the U-20 FIFA World Cup in Poland. Tejada has certainly earned his inclusion though, as the Panamanian has provided a spark for the unbeaten Rowdies while appearing in every match so far this season. The 22-year-old rookie ranks second amongst Tampa Bay players in goals (4) and dribbles attempted (41) and leads the team in shot conversion rate (40 percent). Lobo and Williamson are still here with their seven goals and seven assists respectively, but they haven’t done much to improve their candidacy of late.
MURRAY: How can you not love the narrative that Tejada has brought to the Rowdies this season? Local player at NCAA Division II Eckerd College, came into camp as a trialist and has become the Robin to Sebastian Guenzatti’s Batman in the Rowdies’ attack. The energy he brings to the game makes him a pain to deal with for opposing defenses, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him catch Lobo soon in the goals department. Looking a little further afield, meanwhile, keep an eye on Kai Koreniuk for the LA Galaxy II. He’s got four goals and two assists so far this season and is one of the players helping keep Los Dos’ hopes of a playoff return in decent shape.
Neill Collins, Tampa Bay Rowdies
Troy Lesesne, New Mexico United
Nikola Popovic, Ottawa Fury FC
MURRAY: With his side still undefeated in league play 13 games into the season, Neill Collins is still leading the pack here in his first full season in charge of Tampa Bay, but we’ve got two new faces in hot pursuit as New Mexico United’s Troy Lesesne goes from an effective honorable mention last month to on the podium this. When any expansion side gets out to the sort of start New Mexico has, you’re always waiting for it to hit some kind of adversity, but this past month saw it face a game apiece without its top two scorers Santi Moar and Kevaughn Frater thanks to suspensions and the side simply cruised through. There might be other bumps in the road ahead, but it feels like thanks to Lesesne this squad is well equipped to ride those out.
ARLIA: Even despite Tampa Bay’s unbeaten start, I’m feeling pretty good about my preseason choice of Lesesne given that both teams lead their respective conferences at this point and New Mexico had the tougher challenge of starting from scratch. That shouldn’t discredit what Collins has done though, because while we thought the Rowdies would improve this season, I think I can safely say that we didn’t expect them to be unbeaten after 13 games having conceded just four goals. Speaking of turnarounds, the feeling in the Fury FC camp this preseason was one that expected to take a big leap forward this campaign. Now, sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings, we have to give Popovic a lot of credit for delivering on those expectations and revamping an attack that held Ottawa out of the postseason last year.
Kevaughn Frater, New Mexico United
Santi Moar, New Mexico United
Daniel Rios, Nashville SC
ARLIA: We’ve got a new entry into the MVP conversation as Nashville SC’s Daniel Rios joins New Mexico United’s attacking duo of Kevaughn Frater and Santi Moar in the running for the Championship’s most prestigious honor. There’s an argument to be made for Reno 1868 FC forward Brian Brown (eight goals, five assists), but Corey Hertzog has provided some secondary scoring for Head Coach Ian Russell’s side. What sets Rios apart is when you start to look at where Nashville might be without him. The 24-year-old has scored eight of NSC’s 20 goals to this point this season, six more than fellow offseason signing Cameron Lancaster, who has battled injuries following his record-breaking Golden Boot campaign. Rios is a huge reason Nashville sits third in the Eastern Conference standings at the time of writing.
MURRAY: Brown’s form got him called up to the Jamaica squad that is going to face the United States on Wednesday night at Audi Field, and those eight goals and five assists have him tied with Frater for the most goals contributed to so far this season. To me, though, the big X-factor in this race is going to be the question of what happens with the New York Red Bulls and Tom Barlow for the rest of 2019? We saw a similar situation three years ago when the LA Galaxy II’s Jack McBean scored effectively a goal per game for the opening half of the regular season – 15 goals at a rate of a goal every 88.9 minutes – before being sent out on loan to English club Coventry City FC. Barlow is unlikely to follow that path, but he could stick with the Red Bulls even when Bradley Wright-Phillips gets back to 100 percent. If he comes back on loan to the Red Bulls II, though, with the way NYRB II creates chances and he puts them away he could very quickly re-enter this conversation.