Reno 1868 FC's Zach Carroll, the Charlotte Independence's Hugh Roberts and Nashville SC's Liam Doyle all figure to play important roles for their clubs this season on the back line.
In this week’s edition of our preseason preview series we turn our attention to those who comprise the all-important back lines around the USL Championship. Here are 10 defenders who will be expected to play important roles for their respective sides as they look to lift the USL Cup in 2019:
One of the most consistent defenders in the USL Championship for the past five seasons, Hugh Roberts arrived in Charlotte this offseason having made 131 appearances over that span. He’ll be looking to make a difference for an Independence side that last year missed the postseason for the first time since its debut in 2015. Coming off a solid year with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, Roberts gives new Independence Head Coach Jim McGuinness a key defensive piece, who also carries with an element of the lucky general to him; in five seasons, Roberts’ teams have always found a place in the USL Cup Playoffs, something the Independence will be hopeful is a good omen as they enter 2019.
A Georgia native, veteran defender Tyler Ruthven joined ATL UTD 2 late in 2018 and will be charged with leading the defensive group in the club's second season. | Photo courtesy Karl L. Moore / ATL UTD 2
ATL UTD 2’s defense was one of the most porous in the league in its inaugural season, conceding 72 goals – the fifth-most in the league – while recording only one clean sheet. Veteran center back Tyler Ruthven is going to be a key to turning that defensive frailty around. The Georgia native arrived at the club late last season and made four appearances, but with more than 150 professional games under his belt the 30-year-old is going to be a key on-field leader for his younger teammates as they look to improve in Year 2.
Still only 28 years old, Mechack Jérôme arrives back in the USL Championship with El Paso Locomotive FC as one of the most decorated internationals in the league. With 62 appearances for Haiti, the center back with a powerful shot is reunited with Head Coach Mark Lowry in the Borderland after the two connected at Jacksonville Armada FC previously. A 2015 USL Championship All-League selection while with the Charlotte Independence, Jérôme’s experience and ability will be key if El Paso is to make a bid for a postseason berth in its inaugural season.
With more than 230 appearances in Major League Soccer to his name, Marc Burch will captain Memphis 901 FC as it enters its inaugural USL Championship campaign. | Photo courtesy Minnesota United FC
Memphis 901 FC’s signing of Marc Burch, and his appointment as the club’s first captain, laid out plainly the expectation that’s being made of the Major League Soccer veteran as he arrives in the Bluff City. Having made 234 appearances in MLS across the past 13 seasons, the 34-year-old will lead a squad that has some other talented pieces including former New York Red Bulls midfielders Adam Najem and Dan Metzger. In what looks like a strong Eastern Conference, 901 FC’s defense will need to find its feet quickly if it’s to put itself into contention for a playoff berth in its inaugural year.
Nashville SC’s inaugural season also felt like a breakout year for center back Liam Doyle, who led the club’s outfield players in minutes played and proved extremely reliable in the middle of the second-best defense in the league. A former Sporting Kansas City SuperDraft selection, there certainly seems to be something about Doyle that former SKC Assistant Technical Director and current Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs likes, and should he put in another big season for the Boys in Gold after leading the side in clearances (222) and blocked shots (29) a season ago, the opportunity to make the move with the club to Major League Soccer could be waiting.
United States U-20 international Manny Perez is coming off a standout collegiate career at N.C. State as he joins North Carolina FC on loan from historic Scottish club Celtic FC. | Photo courtesy North Carolina State Athletics
United States U-20 international Manny Perez’s return to his roots at North Carolina FC on loan from legendary Scottish club Celtic FC should provide a major boost for the club on and off the field as Head Coach Dave Sarachan takes the reins at the club. A graduate of the NCFC Academy before a standout two-year collegiate career at N.C. State, Perez is going to want to stay in the forefront of the thoughts of U.S. U-20s Head Coach Tab Ramos ahead of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland in May. Putting in some big performances early in the season would accomplish that, and help North Carolina get out to a good start as it looks for a first trip to the USL Cup Playoffs.
Since he broke into the USL Championship for the 2016 USL Cup champion New York Red Bulls II, there’s been all kinds of promise shown by Trinidad & Tobago full back Noah Powder, and at just 20 years old it could be the moment for him to take the next step forward in his young career as he joins the Monarchs for the new season. After recording 22 appearances and two assists for Orange County SC as it topped the Western Conference, Powder is one of the new arrivals at Zions Bank Stadium tasked with keeping the Monarchs in the frame for silverware after a busy offseason of departures and arrivals in Real’s squad.
It’s easy to forget that as crucial as Aaron Long was to the New York Red Bulls II success on the way to lifting USL Cup in the 2016 season, his fellow center back Zach Carroll played an important role as well and earned USL Championship All-League Second Team honors in the process. From there, though, the paths of the two diverged, but Carroll showed with Reno 1868 FC a season ago that he has the characteristics to help lead a side to success. Reno’s defense conceded only 39 goals in 36 games a season ago including the USL Cup Playoffs, and figures to remain one of the league’s better units with Carroll at its heart.
Offseason arrival Amer Didic will be one of the keys as San Antonio looks for a return to 2017 form defensively this season. | Photo courtesy Gary Rohman / Swope Park Rangers
Things did not go to plan for San Antonio FC in the 2018 campaign, especially defensively, where the side conceded 48 goals in 34 regular season games. That was more than double the club’s league-best goals-against total of 21 in 2017 and put SAFC on the outside of the postseason places. That saw Head Coach Darren Powell and the club’s leadership undertake a roster overhaul that brought among others Amer Didic into the Alamo City from Sporting Kansas City. A 2016 All-League First Team selection for the Swope Park Rangers, the 24-year-old Canadian didn’t quite find the breakthrough at the MLS level after joining Sporting before the 2017 season, but his arrival in San Antonio will give him a chance to push reset and give SAFC a talented central piece who is as comfortable with the ball at his feet as he is warding off opposing attackers.
Tulsa Roughnecks FC conceded the most goals of any side in the Championship’s Western Conference a season ago, shipping 77 goals in 34 games, which meant an overhaul was coming to the club’s squad as new leadership in the front office took over. With more than 130 appearances in the Championship, Cyprian Hedrick was one of the players brought in to help address those defensive issues, with the 29-year-old Cameroonian having spent the past six seasons in the league. Hedrick’s arrival with the Roughnecks should also add a little extra to the Black Gold Derby this season, with Hedrick having spent three seasons in the Green and White of OKC Energy FC between 2014 and 2016 as he returns to the Sooner state this season.