Images: Darren Abate, USL
It’s no secret San Antonio FC was a solid team defensively in the 2017 United Soccer League season – the best in the league on that side of the ball, in fact – and they’ll hope to repeat such success in 2018.
Ironically though, SAFC’s defense needs the most attention of any area on the field before the season starts, not in terms of skill but rather numbers. All 20 players under contract have been announced, and of those, only five are listed as defenders. SAFC’s defense is still in a decent place, they just need to reinforce and round out the roster with a couple more defensive signings.
The defenders SAFC does have are a good bunch. Left back Greg Cochrane has played almost every minute of his two seasons with SAFC and leads by example. Center back Cyprian Hedrick suffered an unfortunate injury in the first match of the 2017 USL season but returned to bolster the SAFC defense with his skill and experience. Stephen McCarthy took Hedrick’s place and rose to the occasion in the center of defense.
However, Ryan Roushandel has never been a staple of the SAFC defense in his two years with the club and could now be considered a defensive midfielder after being pushed into that role and impressing late in the 2017 season. Mark O’Ojong also shifted positions late last year, moving to right back and performing decently but showing his unfamiliarity with the position at times; he can fill in there, but it would be risky making him the starter.
In a sense, it’s a risk all along the backline having virtually no depth. By fair means or foul, SAFC’s defenders picked up a sizable number of yellow cards last season, and on a few occasions, multiple defenders at a time were on the brink of missing a match.
A one-game suspension could be the least of SAFC’s problems though if a void opened up for an extended period. Fans and followers of San Antonio soccer from before SAFC may remember a carousel of makeshift right backs early in the 2015 Scorpions season after Saad Abdul-Salaam was recalled from his loan by MLS’s Sporting Kansas City, who were already struggling with injuries early in their season. No fewer than five players filled the position before Milton Palacios came in and locked it down in the second half of the season.
Palacios stayed in San Antonio when SAFC came along but got a concussion in the 2016 season, whereupon natural right back Max Gunderson plugged the gap for most of the remaining matches. After neither of them returned, Ben Newnam held the position for most of 2017 before O’Ojong was forced to take over for the last few games, where he made the occasional error. Perhaps he’s learned the position better in the offseason, but there’s no evidence yet. SAFC has perhaps been lucky to avoid long-term injuries or have reliable cover if something does come up.
SAFC seems to be aware of their relative lack of defensive depth, as evidenced by having a right back on trial in training alongside the first-choice defense. As for the center of defense, 2017 USL Defender of the Year Sebastien Ibeagha could still return to SAFC depending on how his trial with MLS’s NYCFC goes. The MLS affiliate could also send down AJ Paterson or Alex Bumpus, second- and third-round picks, respectively, in the MLS SuperDraft 2018.
As it stands though, there’s still a bit of work to be done on SAFC’s roster.
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