Friday, January 2, 2009 TAMPA, FL — The year 2008 proved to be a memorable and historic period in USL history with amazing campaigns in league play and beyond. We take a look back at the year’s ten best storylines.
In USL’s most marquee league, the USL-1 season proved to be a captivating topsy-turvy year in which several teams (Montreal, Puerto Rico and Rochester) would find themselves surprisingly at the bottom of the table at some point during the season only to find their way into the playoffs and contending for the title. At the end though, it was the unexpected Vancouver Whitecaps raising the trophy for the second time in three years despite playing their first season under new coach Teitur Thordarson and going through a rebuilding transition. In USL-2, the surprising start to sophomore side Cleveland City Stars saw the club finish 10-3-7, giving them just four losses in their first two years. They knocked off two of the three previous champions in the postseason to claim the league title. In a story of opposite fortune, the Thunder Bay Chill of the PDL posted just their fourth winning campaign in nine seasons, rebounding from a 2-11-3 record from just two years ago to finish 13-2-1 and defeating the defending champion Laredo Heat on their home field in penalties to claim the title. While many would not be surprised given the person (Charlie Naimo) behind the team, the expansion Pali Blues ran the table in the W-League to capture the championship in their debut season, knocking off the defending champion Washington Freedom and fellow unbeaten FC Indiana in the final four. The surprising results in the Super-20 League and Super Y-League was that there was no dominant club among the list of champions as no one was able to capture more than one championship in a year of great parity.
CONCACAF Champions League
Perhaps overshadowing every other story of the year was the performance of the Montreal Impact and Puerto Rico Islanders in the CONCACAF Champions League. Having narrowly missed qualifying for the Champions Cup tournament in a Caribbean Semifinal defeat, the Islanders were given a second chance to advance to a regional competition upon the announcement of the launching of the Champions League, which would seed a third side from the Caribbean. Given the short turnaround, the Islanders were paired off with the other semifinalist, San Juan Jabloteh of T&T, in a playoff for the spot. Fabrice Noel gave the Islanders a 1-0 lead in the first leg at home and the club, despite struggling in league play at the time, held on for a scoreless draw later in May to advance.
Vancouver and Montreal also had a new opportunity to qualify with the addition of a berth for Canada. The creation of the Canadian Championship, a round-robin series with MLS’ Toronto FC would determine the participant moving on. Montreal opened with a 1-0 loss at home to the MLS side, but Toronto’s luck would essentially end there as Montreal went on to down Vancouver in both meetings while the Whitecaps managed a win and a draw against the Ontario side, leaving the final match as a must-win for Toronto. Montreal rallied in Toronto for a 1-1 draw in the final match of the series to clinch the second Champions League berth among USL sides.
The ouster of the MLS side began the ripples, which would become tidal waves when the tournament began in August. Montreal and Puerto Rico each advanced against formidable favorites in their Preliminary rounds, knocking off Real Esteli and Alajuelense. They then both opened group play with victories, Puerto Rico dropping Tauro FC 2-1 and Montreal posting a 2-0 blanking of Joe Public, both of whom had eliminated MLS sides in the Preliminary Round. Proving the opening results were no flukes, Montreal drew 0-0 against Atlante and Puerto Rico stunned Santos Laguna 3-1 in showdowns with top Mexican league sides. Two more draws would help see the Islanders through to the Quarterfinals, set for February, while Montreal continued to dominate. They allowed their first goal in five games in a 2-1 victory on the road against CD Olimpia and went on to defeat Joe Public again and earn a draw against Olimpia at home, becoming the first team to advance to the next stage, before dropping their final match 2-1 at Atlante. The pair continue their Champions League quests in February with Quarterfinal contests.
Lamar Hunt US Open Cup
Since the 1999 championship of the Rochester Rhinos, only two USL teams had reached the semifinals of the United States’ national championship tournament heading into 2007. The Carolina RailHawks and the Seattle Sounders made some noise in the 2007 edition in what proved to be a precursor, perhaps, of the year to come in 2008. The tournament was relatively quiet until the Third Round when three USL teams managed to advance to the Quarterfinals with upsets, including the USL Second Division Crystal Palace Baltimore, who shocked the eventual MLS Cup runners-up New York Red Bulls 2-0 before being eliminated via penalties in an even more surprising 1-1 draw against New England. The other two sides were the Sounders, who registered two upsets over MLS sides the year before, and the Charleston Battery. For the second straight year Seattle knocked off Chivas USA to move onto the quarters, where they would edge out the Kansas City Wizards in penalties after a scoreless draw. Charleston squeezed past the defending two-time MLS Cup champion Houston Dynamo in penalties after a 1-1 draw and became the first USL team to reach the semifinals three times with a 3-1 road victory over FC Dallas.
Having been paired together, the Sounders-Battery clash ensured a finalist from USL-1 for the first time since 1999, and only the third time since the inception of MLS with the Rochester having also made the 1996 final. Tied 1-1 at the end of extra time, the Battery prevailed at home in penalties 4-3 to advance to a championship contest on the road against DC United at RFK Stadium. In a closely fought match, a goal at the start of each half proved Charleston’s undoing, 2-1, as DC United went on to win their first Open Cup title since winning the tournament in their inaugural 1996 campaign.
While the Sounders were celebrating a successful final season, USL also unveiled two upcoming expansion sides for the USL First Division. Set to begin competition in 2009 would be the Austin Aztex, who took over a recently launched PDL expansion club in the market and promptly led the team to a division championship in 2008. The Aztex are owned by Phil Rawlins, an owner and director of Stoke City. The club is directly affiliated with the English Championship side and also forged a partnership with Monterrey of Mexico. The other club, set to begin play in 2010, will be the Tampa Bay Rowdies, marking a return of the familiar name to the soccer landscape since the club’s final season in 1983 as part of the APSL, what is now USL-1. Expanding in a different way will be the Portland Timbers and Minnesota Thunder, who announced the launch of Premier Development League teams to their organizations. The Timbers side will play primarily in Portland while the Thunder’s development team will be located in nearby Rochester.
New Era for PDL / W-League
While Portland and Minnesota may be launching amateur PDL sides, the two follow in the footsteps of the Vancouver Whitecaps, who took the even bolder move of launching the first professional team in the PDL in 2008. The Whitecaps Residency team was comprised of professional players, allowing the club to develop the players at the elite U-23 level and bring them up for USL-1 play when necessary. The move proved beneficial in just its first year as several players saw action at the close of the season, including Ethan Gage, who helped lead the Residency team to the PDL Semifinals before bowing out to Thunder Bay. The 17-year old then played a key role in the USL-1 side’s championship run with playoff appearances that included starts in the second leg semifinal series match and the championship game. The FC Indiana Lionesses also competed as the first professional team in the W-League, posting a 13-0-1 record and reaching the championship match in their first season in the league.
Three-peat is a term typically reserved for three-time champions; but in the PDL, reaching the championship game two years in a row, let alone three, is an amazing feat. While the Laredo Heat were unable to claim a third straight regular season division title at 8-4-4, the runners-up would get the better of the division champ Austin in the conference final to become the first team to reach the league semifinals three consecutive years, besting Orange County’s run of three in four seasons. The Heat returned home for the final four contest with Reading and added to their historic achievement with a third straight championship game by quieting the Rage 2-0. At the end though, it seemed as though it was fate willing Thunder Bay to the first Canadian PDL championship as Laredo was unable to hold a 1-0 lead at home as the Chill held on to win in penalties 4-1 despite playing a man down since the 76th minute in what finished as a 1-1 draw.
Stade Saputo Opening
Home field advantage would have to wait for Montreal in 2008 as the new stadium reached completion. The road’s impact on the team’s unusually poor start took a back seat on May 19 when the Impact played host to rival Vancouver in front of a sold-out crowd of over 13,000. While the rain-soaked scoreless draw ended a two-game skid, it was the start of an adjustment period that took four games before a goal and a home win would come. The Impact, in fact, started 2-3-2 before turning things around at home for a 7-4-4 mark and a league low nine goals allowed at home for the season. In addition, home field proved a particular advantage in the Champions League with a mark of 3-0-1 and only one goal allowed. Stade Saputo brought the number of soccer-specific stadia in USL-1 to eight.
USL’s outstanding success on the field as 2008 unfolded perhaps overshadowed the organization’s positive affect in Puerto Rico and Bermuda. Since the Islanders birth in 2004, Puerto Rico’s national team program has grown from practical non-existence into a competitive side among the Caribbean elite. Bermuda, despite its size, has seen growth as well since the advent of the Hogges of the USL Second Division in 2007. Both sides accomplished unexpected feats at the beginning of the year when they advanced to the Second Round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. Bermuda downed the Cayman Islands 4-2 on aggregate to advance and gave the 2006 World Cup participant Trinidad & Tobago the scare of its life with a 2-1 victory in the first leg. In a close fought and arguably controversial second leg, T&T rebounded 2-0 to take the series and move on narrowly to the Semifinal Round. Puerto Rico won a 1-0 overtime squeaker against the Dominican Republic in the First Round, a single-game pairing, only to face a tough second round pairing against Honduras. The Central American side rolled 4-0 in the first leg, but Puerto Rico rebounded in the second to post a respectable 2-2 draw.
Beijing 2008 Olympics
With 41 current and former USL players competing in the Olympic games, hopes were high that some would find their way to the podium at the end of the event, especially with 31 players on four teams in the women’s tournament. The contingent of eight W-League alumni on the US squad helped lead the team to the final despite an opening day loss. They would find themselves facing Brazil, led by the W-League’s Daniela and Formiga. The U.S. put together a near perfect defensive performance to hold powerful Brazil scoreless for 120 minutes while getting a goal from former W-League player Carli Lloyd just six minutes into overtime to record a historic 1-0 victory and earn the gold medal. The victory marked the third gold medal for the U.S. women in four Olympic Games. The USA also won gold in 1996 and 2004 while taking the silver in 2000.
Playing in Silence
In perhaps the most remarkable human interest story of the year, Matt Eby became what is believed to be the first deaf player in USL history. The defender worked his way onto the squad of the expansion Real Maryland Monarchs and saw action in six games on the season, starting twice. Eby, deaf since birth, is also a member of the US Deaf National Team.