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USL Championship preview: 11 players to watch in 2019

Jun 5, 2018; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville City FC forward Cameron Lancaster (9) dribbles the ball against the New England Revolution during the first half at Lynn Stadium. Louisville City defeated New England 3-2. (Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports)

The United Soccer League rebranded and reorganized itself into three tiers during the offseason, and the highest level – the USL Championship – is set to get underway this weekend.

Filling rosters in the league are budding and promising prospects, former MLS stars, bonafide professionals and journeymen who just flat out love the sport of soccer. Some players have been established on their respective teams for several seasons, while others are newcomers to the league, trying to help an expansion side find its footing.

As the USL Championship gets underway, here’s 11 players to keep an eye on in 2019.

Jose Hernandez, Defender – ATL UTD 2

Hernandez joined Atlanta United in December 2017 on a Major League Soccer contract but suffered an injury early on and spent most of his time with ATL UTD 2 last season, the USL Championship affiliate of the reigning MLS champ. This season, Hernandez is healthy, and he’ll be with the 2s for all of 2019 on a season-long loan. This is a key season for Hernandez’s development as a professional, but he’s already impressed. Last year, he appeared in 15 USL games and racked up 26 clearances, two blocks, 20 interceptions, 19 tackles, eight successful crosses, one assist and a 78 percent success rate on passes, typically playing from the left back position. A 21-year-old Venezuelan, Hernandez captained his U-20 national team at the 2017 World Cup.

Manny Perez, Defender – North Carolina FC

Perez is getting to play for his hometown club before joining Celtic FC, a giant of the Scottish Premier League. An NCFC academy product, the right back played two seasons at N.C. State and twice declined the chance to enter the MLS SuperDraft. Instead, he signed with Celtic earlier this year and has now been loaned back to NCFC. Under new head coach Dave Sarachan, Perez will be key in helping NCFC get back to the playoffs after missing the postseason in 2018. Although he’s a stout defender, Perez can get involved in the attack. He tallied six goals and nine assists at N.C. State.

Andrew Gutman, Defender – Charlotte Independence

Like Perez, Gutman turned down MLS, declining a homegrown contract offer from the Chicago Fire. The 2018 Hermann Trophy winner also signed with Celtic FC and was loaned to the Charlotte Independence. Charlotte also missed the playoffs last season, but has reloaded by bringing in Gutman and former Golden Boot runner-up Enzo Martinez, among other players. Gutman is a versatile player, being named Big Ten Defender of the Year, but also leading the Indiana Hoosiers in goals scored as a senior. In 90 matches at Indiana, he racked up 20 goals and 17 assists.

Cameron Lancaster, Forward – Nashville SC

Lancaster won the league’s Golden Boot last year and helped Louisville City win the championship by scoring a league-record 25 goals. In the offseason, the 26-year-old Tottenham academy product signed an MLS deal with Nashville SC, but USL fans will get to enjoy him for one more season as Nashville doesn’t make the MLS jump until 2020.

Thomas Enevoldsen, Forward – Indy Eleven

A USL Best XI selection in 2018, the 31-year-old winger from Denmark tallied 20 goals and 10 assists in 37 appearances for Orange County SC last year, his first in the USL. He has quickly established himself as one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league, and in the offseason he was scooped up by Indy Eleven. Enevoldsen has 11 caps for Denmark’s national team, but hasn’t featured for the country since 2011.

Joe Greenspan, Defender – Pittsburgh Riverhounds

A former MLS SuperDraft pick by the Colorado Rapids, Greenspan has become one of the top defenders in the USL, being named to the league’s Best XI last season. In 24 appearances for the Riverhounds last year, the Naval Academy product racked up 175 clearances, 13 blocks, 59 interceptions, 16 tackles and eight key passes. At 6-foot-6, he proved to be a threat in the box too, scoring on three headed goals.

Josh Cohen, Goalkeeper – Sacramento Republic

Cohen emerged as a top keeper in the league last year, notching 12 clean sheets, the third most in the USL. The 6-foot-1, 26-year-old landed on the league’s All-Second Team and had a 78 percent success rate on saves, notching 120 on the 154 shots he faced. Cohen also stopped two penalty kicks last year and his play was a big reason why Sacramento finished second in the Western Conference.

Solomon Asante, Midfielder – Phoenix Rising

A 28-year-old from Ghana, Asante excelled in his first USL season, making the league’s Best XI while tallying 14 goals and nine assists for a Phoenix team that made it to the championship match. Asante can play as an attacking central midfielder or on either wing. He was also solid on defense last season, intercepting 43 passes and winning 26 tackles. Since 2012, he has 17 caps for the Ghana national team.

Paco Craig, Defender – Louisville City FC

A native of London, England, Craig has been instrumental to the success of Louisville City over the past two seasons, helping the team win two championships and twice being named to the league’s Best XI. Without question, he’s one of the top centerbacks in the league. Last season, he finished second in the league’s voting for best defender while racking up 208 clearances, 29 blocks, 72 interceptions, 51 tackles, three assists and two goals.

Michael Seaton, Forward – Orange County SC

Seaton turns 23 this year, but it seems like he’s been around for a while. In 2013, he became the third player from D.C. United’s academy to sign a professional deal with the club. Since then, Seaton has bounced around pro soccer, playing in MLS, in Sweden and in Israel, but had his best statistical season last year with Orange County. In 29 appearances, he scored 15 goals and assisted on seven others. Seaton also has 14 caps for the Jamaican national team since 2013. He’ll be looking for a second consecutive strong season as Orange County’s No. 1 option on offense.

Chandler Hoffman, Forward – Birmingham Legion FC

A Birmingham, Ala., native, Hoffman is home to help begin the history of his hometown’s first USL Championship club. A proven scorer in the league, Hoffman has found the back of the net 42 times over the last three seasons, playing for Louisville City and the Real Monarchs. The UCLA product also has MLS experience, playing briefly for the Philadelphia Union, LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo. He’ll be key for the Legion as they seek the playoffs in their first season.

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