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USL Exit Report – Conference Quarterfinalists, Part 1

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 10/24/18, 5:30PM EDT

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After reaching the postseason in 2018, what’s next for Indy, Saint Louis, Charleston and Portland

It’s a tough thing, reaching the postseason but then seeing your season end after only 90 minutes of playoff action and quickly joining those who didn’t have a game last weekend on the sidelines. Sure, it’s nice to have made the USL Cup Playoffs, but there’s a sense of dissatisfaction, especially if this is a repeat occurrence.

But that playoff berth is always going to be viewed as something that can be built upon for next year. Let’s dig into how much optimism Indy Eleven, Saint Louis FC, the Charleston Battery and the Portland Timbers 2 fans should have about what’s ahead.

Indy Eleven

  2018 Record 2018 Finish 2018 Home 2018 Away 2017 Record 2017 Finish

13-11-10 7th  East
Lost in Conference
Quarterfinals
8-4-5 5-7-5 N/A N/A

With a Full Offseason, How High’s the Ceiling?

Indy was put behind the 8-ball to an extent with a late start to preseason training camp that saw Head Coach Martin Rennie trying to pull together a squad that had few holdovers from the previous season. That the side reached the USL Cup Playoffs says a lot about the pedigree of player that Rennie was able to mold into a team, but as the Scottish coach himself said after the club’s loss to Louisville this past Saturday, “There are definitely things that we’ve done well, but I think as professionals, we set very high standards and we didn’t meet them.”

Those words, and Rennie’s belief that the club can be among the elite in the USL in short-order certainly aren’t unfounded. If not for a disappointing 1-3-1 slide over the final month of the regular season that saw Indy go from challenging for a top-four finish to a No. 7-seed, which set up a stern task in taking on Louisville, we might not be talking about the Eleven’s 2019 season quite so quickly. This is a team that more often than not was focused, well-drilled and difficult to play against.

That bodes well for where the Eleven should find themselves in the Eastern Conference a season from now. With the experience Rennie brings from all levels of competition in North America and a strong ownership group led by Ersal Ozdemir, the remit for this offseason is going to be to build on what in the long-run will be viewed as a good reboot and put Indy in position to become one of the teams that will be a perennial contender.

Who’s going to hold the key to unlocking the final third?

In order to become one of the top clubs in the USL, the biggest area for the Eleven to grow this offseason is going to be in attack, and more specifically in how the side creates in the attacking third. The Eleven were one of the best teams in the league when it came to set pieces as it finished eighth in the USL with 65 chances created from dead ball situations, and with a player like Ayoze over the ball regularly that certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Where Indy was lacking, though, was when it was trying to create in open play. The Eleven ranked 28th in the league in chances created from open play with 233, an average of only 6.7 per game. That had a knock-on effect with the team’s attackers, where leading scorers Jack McInerney and Eugene Starikov both had minutes-per-goal ratios exceeding 200 minutes per goal and the side registered only 3.9 shots on goal per game.

Finding a creator that can bring more opportunities to McInerney, Starikov, Justin Braun or whoever else might be leading the Eleven’s line could be the move that takes Indy from average to good in front of goal, and as a result closer in line with teams like Louisville City FC – which has a league-best 373 chances created from open play this season after this past weekend – that the Eleven is looking to join in the USL’s pecking order.

Will Owain Fon Williams Make a Permanent Move?

Maybe the shrewdest move made by Rennie and Indy’s front office in building the squad was the addition of Welsh goalkeeper Owain Fôn Williams on a season-long loan from Scottish club Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Not only did Fôn Williams prove among the better goalkeepers in the league, he was also among the most durable as one of only five players to play every minute of the regular season.

Fôn Williams put up big total numbers for the Eleven, finishing fourth in the league with 91 saves and tied for seventh with 11 shutouts, and that coming in a regular season where he faced 132 shots on target, fifth-most in the league. All of that would be a good argument for Indy looking into making the move permanent this offseason.

That high volume of shots against could also make Fôn Williams’ 68.18 save percentage and 1.24 goals-against average more understandable, with the save percentage putting him a notch or two below the likes of Phoenix’s Carl Woszcznyski (76.42) and Nashville SC’s Matt Pickens (76.07), both of whom also faced more than 100 shots in the regular season. If the club retains Fôn Williams and his save percentage trends up in 2019, though, the club could have found a goalkeeper in his prime that can carry it higher in the standings.

Saint Louis FC

  2018 Record 2018 Finish 2018 Home 2018 Away 2017 Record 2017 Finish

14-9-11 8th  West
Lost in Conference
Quarterfinals
10-2-5 4-7-6 9-14-9 12th  East

Playoffs Achieved, Can Anthony Pulis Take STLFC Higher?

After three seasons of disappointment, the base-level goal for Saint Louis FC and new Head Coach Anthony Pulis this year was to achieve a first trip to the USL Cup Playoffs, which the club achieved before being summarily bounced in the Western Conference Quarterfinals by an Orange County SC side that would probably have taken care of business at home even if it hadn’t had a man-advantage for three-quarters of the contest.

The initial goal was achieved, however, which opens the question up as to how STLFC can take the next step that a team like Orange County did this season to vault into the ranks of a USL Cup contender, and that’s where things get interesting. Three seasons into his Head Coaching career, there’s a pattern forming for Anthony Pulis where his side’s win total has risen every season. After going 9-14-8 in 2016 with Orlando City B, Pulis is now 33-32-31 in the USL regular season after picking up 14 regular-season wins this year. The same trend has been visible in goal differential, with OCB going from negative-14 in 2016 to plus-1 in 2017 before STLFC finished at plus-6 this season, another good sign.

Those trends mean it’s going to be interesting to monitor STLFC as it moves into the 2019 season. If the club’s second-half run that pushed it into the postseason can be sustained over a full year, there’s a good chance for another step forward. If there’s a plateau, however, then another fight to reach the postseason could be on.

Will Albert Dikwa Become the Secondary Scoring Threat STLFC Needs?

One of Pulis’ smartest moves this offseason was to make sure he brought Albert Dikwa with him from Orlando to Saint Louis, and the 20-year-old Cameroonian’s potential was highlighted by his position in the top ten of this year’s USL 20 Under 20 alongside other outstanding young attacking pieces.

As we’ve seen in the past, though, there’s that step that needs to be taken to go from a player with big potential to a player who fulfills it. This year, that wasn’t the case for Dikwa as he recorded only three goals in more than 1,700 minutes of action that included 19 appearances in the starting lineup. As much as Kyle Greig carried the Saint Louis attack this year, if STLFC is going to take the next step it is going to need Dikwa to make the next step in his career this offseason to become a reliable threat in front of goal.

Aside from the garish 584.7 minutes per goal ratio, the other number that stood out from Dikwa’s 2018 season was his 10.8 chance conversion rate on 29 total shots. That wasn’t the lowest in Saint Louis’ attacking corps – Corey Hertzog will certainly be wanting a bounce-back 2019 after converting only 9.8 of his chances this season – but if Dikwa’s star is going to continue to rise he must be more efficient in front of goal a season from now and make a run at his first double-digit season.

How Good Can Lewis Hilton and Wal Fall be Together?

There are certainly elements that good teams always seem to have, with one of those being a stable midfield core that can bring balance defensively and have the ability to drive a team forward. In the duo of Lewis Hilton and Wal Fall, Saint Louis might just have two players that can bring that to the side consistently in 2019.

The development of the partnership was stunted somewhat this season as Fall only made 21 regular-season appearances due to injury, but in those contests the side went 10-5-6. With an 85.7 percent passing accuracy rate that included a 78 percent accuracy rate in the opposition half on 46.8 passes per game, the rangy midfielder was key to driving Saint Louis forward once he’d won possession in midfield.

Hilton, meanwhile, missed only one game in the regular season and also put up strong numbers with an 81.2 percent accuracy rate on 54.1 passes per 90 minutes, 59 chances created and six assists. If Hilton and Fall can continue to build their partnership over this offseason and Saint Louis can have good fortune with both players’ health in 2019, it could spur a highly productive season for the club overall.

Charleston Battery

  2018 Record 2018 Finish 2018 Home 2018 Away 2017 Record 2017 Finish

14-6-14 4th  East
Lost in Conference
Quarterfinals
10-2-5 4-4-9 15-8-9 2nd  East
Lost in Conference
Quarterfinals

What’s it Going to Take for Charleston to Make a Playoff Run?

The only thing you’ve been able to count on in the first eight seasons of the USL’s modern era is the presence of the Charleston Battery in the USL Cup Playoffs. For the past two seasons, though, there’s been an early exit on home turf to the New York Red Bulls II, which has seen the Battery’s season end disappointingly early after strong regular-season performances.

The obvious issue the Battery have faced in both of those defeats, and generally in the postseason over the years, has been a lack of attacking production in the big moments. The last time Charleston scored in the postseason it was a goal by Zach Prince in 2016 to defeat FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, but in all the Battery have scored only 14 goals in 13 postseason contests. While other sides have seen players pop up and make big playoff performances, that hasn’t happened for the Battery.

Finding that extra gear when the postseason arrives isn’t always easy, but it’s something the Battery are going to have to add to their arsenal if the club is going to replicate its 2012 USL Cup victory anytime soon.

Tah Brian Anunga is the next __________________?

Ataulla Guerra grabbed headlines with his 15-goal haul for the Battery this season, but it’s arguable no-one had a bigger influence on the team’s success than young Cameroonian Tah Brian Anunga, who served as the side’s do-it-all man in the center of midfield with a style of play that made life difficult for opponents and simpler for his teammates.

It’s high praise, for sure, but it’s unavoidable to make a comparison with the player that patrolled MUSC Health Stadium 10 years ago in the form of Ozzie Alonso when thinking about the upside that Anunga could have. Certainly, his performances this season should have caught the attention of bigger teams and only just having turned 22 years old there’s still clear room for growth in a player that led outfield players with 324 recoveries, sat third in the league with 82 interceptions and produced an 83.13 passing accuracy rate and 18 chances created when in possession.

Should someone come calling for Anunga, as Seattle Sounders FC did a decade ago with Alonso, it’s going to be a major gap that opens in the middle of the park. The Battery have a knack of finding ways to replace players who move on, that’s the reason why they’ve reached the USL Cup Playoffs in every season of the league’s modern era, but Anunga could be a tricky one to find an equal substitute for.

Can Neveal Hackshaw go from cult hero to national standout?

There are certain players in the USL who locally achieve cult followings, and Trinidad & Tobago defender Neveal Hackshaw is no different with the Charleston Battery. This year, though, the 23-year-old showed there’s plenty of substance to go with the style in a season that appeared to set him up for something big in 2019.

If Taylor Mueller remains the Sergeant Major of the Battery’s defense, and the veteran had another stellar season himself, then Hackshaw became his Master Sergeant while showing off a two-way game that thrived in the Battery’s three-center back formation. Building on his performance this offseason is going to be crucial, because there’s a potentially pivotal year ahead for Hackshaw’s career.

Entering his prime off a season in which he saw his major numbers rise to 52.2 passes per 90 minutes, 20 key passes, while more than doubling the minutes from his first two seasons, Hackshaw is moving in a positive direction when it comes to the Trinidad & Tobago National Team. Called up in September along with Guerra, if Hackshaw can raise his passing accuracy from 72.1 percent while maintaining his solid numbers in duels (63.2 percent), aerial duels (61.7 percent) and tackles (73.9 percent) he could put himself in the picture for next summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup, and potentially the World Cup cycle that will follow.

Portland Timbers 2

  2018 Record 2018 Finish 2018 Home 2018 Away 2017 Record 2017 Finish

17-13-4 6th  West
Lost in Conference
Quarterfinals
9-8-0 8-5-4 3-23-6 15th  West

You Just Made the Best Improvement in USL history. What’s next?

Prior to this season, no team in the USL’s modern era had the type of turnaround that the Portland Timbers 2 achieved to earn their first trip to the USL Cup Playoffs. Now the biggest question facing the side is whether that success can be replicated, or get even better, in 2019?

T2 went from just three victories in the 2017 season to 17 this year, raising their point total by 40 in the process as the balance brought to the squad by smart offseason additions like Jimmy Mulligan and a more stable lineup that saw seven players make at least 20 starts and the likes of midseason arrival Adrian Diz Pe or sometimes loanee Marco Farfan slide into the lineup nicely.

Finding a way to keep that balance, potentially with the likes of youngsters Harold Hanson and Augustine Williams continuing to make bigger steps into the starting lineup, is going to be the main task for Cameron Knowles, who performed the balancing act required with a side like T2 beautifully in his first season at the helm. With the balance the side showed in being able to win on the road as well as home, there might not be much backslide in 2019.

It’s decision time on Marvin Loria.

Portland made a very shrewd deal to bring in Marvin Loria on loan to T2 in March from Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa, and the 21-year-old repaid that with an eye-catching season that helped propel the club in the final third. Now it’s time for Portland to decide as to whether it would like to utilize the option to buy that was included with the loan.

Loria was one of the cornerstones that led T2 as he made 31 appearances and logged 2,324 minutes, good for fifth on the team, and put up six goals and seven assists while producing 43 chances created from open play. Add into that a league-high 88 successful dribbles at a 63.31 percent success rate and you have numbers that would indicate a very successful audition for the young Costa Rican.

The question is do the numbers add up on and off the field for Portland to make the deal and bring Loria on board with the Timbers this offseason? We’ll see soon enough, but it would probably be a surprise if Portland turned down the chance to acquire a player that appear to have a high level of potential that fits into its system well.

What do the next 12 months look like for Augustine Williams?

When he arrived as an 18-year-old signing out of prominent California club Nomads SC midway through the 2016 season, there was an element of curiosity about Augustine Williams’ decision to turn professional and eschew college. Two-and-a-half years later, there’s clearly been progression, but maybe not the breakout moment that had been hoped for when that deal was signed.

That makes the next 12 months a key point for Williams. After recording a career-high five goals in just over 1,000 minutes of action – the newcomers that provided T2 with a boost also ensured Williams was relegated to a substitute role more often that in his first season-and-a-half with the club – can he find another level this offseason that pushes him back closer to the 22 starts he earned in the 2017 season?

If he can, there’s the chance Williams can improve a shot conversion rate of 17 percent this past season, a rate that stood above the league’s average but below the top attackers in the league. Accomplish that, and Williams’ career could take off to a whole new level as he approaches his prime years as a player.

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