A look at the Opening Night foursome

Thursday, April 9, 2009

TAMPA, FL – Of the four clubs that kick off their 2009 USL First Division campaigns Saturday on Opening Night, only the Charleston Battery come into the upcoming season looking to build on last season. The Minnesota Thunder, Carolina RailHawks and the defending champion Vancouver Whitecaps are in transition mode.

The ever-dreaded rebuilding tag, however, may have been proven to be a non-factor in the USL First Division last year with the performance of the Whitecaps. They came into the campaign with a new coach looking to take the team in a different direction. All they did was use the depth created by the new additions to the roster and newly-created professional Premier Development League Whitecaps Residency team to spur a run to a second title in three years.


Winning a championship under those circumstances may prove to be an inspiration to Minnesota and Carolina, who come into this season with new head coaches. Charleston, meanwhile, will be looking to incorporate what made their Open Cup run a success into this year’s league season and playoffs instead of fading down the stretch.

Vancouver Whitecaps [Team Page]

In hindsight, last season’s rebuilding campaign was mostly in review mode as many of the club’s veterans were kept and used as depth in the championship run. This offseason, however, the Whitecaps and coach Teitur Thordarson did a little spring cleaning with the roster. Out are numerous veteran players such as Jeff Clarke, Jason Jordan, Steve Kindel and Alfredo Valente. In addition, several other significant players moved elsewhere. Eduardo Sebrango and back-up goalkeeper Serge Djekanovic moved to Canadian rival Montreal while Nicholas Addlery made the biggest trek all the way to Puerto Rico.

There are still a handful of veterans that remain to serve as the backbone of the side for 2009 with Martin Nash serving as the captain and longtime USL-1 striker Charles Gbeke providing offense.

The club filled the void of the departed veterans with a few others from around the league, adding Marco Reda from Charleston, Justin Thompson from Portland and Ansu Toure, who played for Atlanta and Miami last year. The Whitecaps also brought in a couple foreign players, including Caribbean internationals Kenold Versailles (Haiti) and Tyrell Burgess (Bermuda), who spent last year with the Reading Rage of the PDL. Vancouver also inked former New York Red Bulls defender Jeff Parke after contract negotiations with Seattle broke down.

Charleston Battery [Team Page]

The Battery started off well but struggled down the final third of the season as the ratio of road games increased along with continued participation in the US Open Cup. The focus, deservingly, shifted to the Open Cup and nearly saw the Battery become the second USL First Division team to raise the trophy before falling short in the Final on the road against DC United, 2-1.

The heart of the club’s lineup remains the same for 2009 with the notable exception of Rookie of the Year Osvaldo Alonso, who went to the Seattle Sounders Major League Soccer expansion side. In his absence, the Battery have beefed up the roster with additions. Coach Mike Anhaeuser brought in experienced striker Dan Antoniuk and defender Frankie Sanfilippo from rival Carolina as well as midfielder Kenji Treschuk from Seattle. The Atlanta duo of defender Matt Bobo and midfielder Scott Buete also made the move to Charleston.

The Open Cup finalists also brought in Jamaican O’Brian Woodbine and J-League veteran Tsuyoshi Yoshitake from abroad along with Toronto’s Tyler Hemming. Moving up from the lower divisions are Harrisburg’s Nigel Marples and rookie Tommy Heinemann from the PDL St Louis Lions.

Looking to capture similar magic as they did with Alonso, who defected during Cuba’s participation in the 2007 Gold Cup, the Battery added Yeniel Bermudez, who did the same during last year’s Olympic Qualifying tournament.

Carolina RailHawks [Team Page]

In describing the state of Charleston’s rival to the north, the best way to represent it is as a combination of expansion and promoted sides. With the departure of original head coach Scott Schweitzer after his two years, change would be expected for a team that failed to reach the postseason last year. Carolina nearly cleaned out its entire roster however.

The precipitating factor in many of the changes was the addition of new coach Martin Rennie, who had built the expansion USL Second Division side Cleveland from nothing into a one-loss first-year team and second-year league champion. With Rennie’s move to Carolina came a handful of the City Stars’ top players such as Jeremy Tolleson, Sierra Leone striker Sallieu Bundu, 2008 USL-2 Goalkeeper of the Year Eric Reed and two-time USL-2 Defender of the Year and USL-1 veteran Mark Schulte, giving the RailHawks a bit of a feel of a promoted side, especially given Cleveland’s move up to USL’s top flight.

On the expansion side of things, among the few remaining players from 2008 are Hamed Diallo, Matt Watson, Kupono Low and Caleb Norkus, leaving numerous spaces to be filled. On that front, the mix of players came from three locations – the USL First Division, Major League Soccer and Europe.

Making the move from rival league clubs were Seattle’s Joshua Gardner, Charleston’s Aaron King, and Rochester’s Luke Kreamalmeyer – all key contributors for their sides. The club also acquired veteran Joseph Kabwe from the USL-2 Charlotte Eagles.

A large number of players will be joining the side having come off campaigns in MLS last year. John Gilkerson and Caleb Sewell hail from the Red Bulls, joining Amir Lowery (San Jose), Devon McKenney (Columbus), Daniel Paladini (Chivas), Brian Plotkin (Columbus) and former Battery striker Gavin Glinton (San Jose).

Former Real Salt Lake defender Jack Stewart leads a list of players coming stateside from Europe. The club also signed Paul Ritchie and veteran La Liga player Marcelo Romero on defense.

Minnesota Thunder [Team Page]

Like Carolina, the Thunder will have a new head coach in Don Gramenz. However, Gramenz is not a stranger to the Thunder, having played 13 years with the club and serving as an assistant last season until receiving the interim post midseason.

The new coach chose not to make major overhauls to the team following his ability to turn it around in the second half of the campaign last year to make the playoffs. Instead, the Thunder focused its offseason efforts primarily on augmenting the roster to make it more competitive with the other playoff sides.

The Thunder brought in Portland’s Lawrence Olum and Seattle’s Youssouf Kante from fellow USL-1 sides and added a handful of players with MLS experience. Rod Dyachenko and Quavas Kirk made the move from DC United while Ryan Pore joins from Kansas City and Andrew Peterson leaves the defending MLS Champion Columbus Crew.

Rookies Marcus Watson, Geoffrey Myers and Rich Costanzo will also be called upon to contribute to the squad in 2009 with the departures of retiring Luchi Gonzalez, Leo Gibson (Cleveland) and Stephen deRoux (Montreal).

The club avoided what could have been a devastating loss in goalkeeper Nicolas Platter, who played every minute last year for Minnesota. Platter spent the preseason with DC United and was on the cusp of being transferred until a last-minute trade saw former USL-1 keeper Josh Wicks move from Los Angeles to fill the back-up role that looked to be Platter’s. His return will certainly be critical in Minnesota’s plans considering the drop-off Portland experienced in 2008 following the departure of Wicks to LA.



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