Wednesday, April 15, 2009
TAMPA, FL – With four teams having kicked off their 2009 campaigns last week, three of the remaining eight clubs – Montreal, Puerto Rico and Rochester – are looking to kick off their seasons chasing a return trip to the USL First Division postseason.
The USL-1 postseason is largely where the Montreal Impact and Rochester Rhinos have built their reputations, capturing five combined championships. The two rivals have been regular contenders for the title so much so that Rochester has never missed the playoffs in 13 seasons and the Impact have only come up short of the second season three times in 15 campaigns.
Both clubs, however, have come up empty of late in the trophy department with the Impact last winning the league championship in 2004 and Rochester in 2001 despite an appearance in the 2006 final.
Puerto Rico, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer in comparison having joined the league in 2004. After missing the playoffs the first two years, they have qualified the past three years, advancing deeper in the postseason each time with a championship appearance to cap things off in 2008.
Heading into last season, the Nutrilite Canadian Championship and its berth into the CONCACAF Champions League was an unknown. Now, after having won the title last year and making a stunning run to the Champions League Quarterfinals, the Impact face quite a dilemma. Do only four games this season really matter?
One thing that has been a constant for the Impact is finishing in the top three. Montreal has finished no worse than third in the league in the regular season dating back to the 2003 season and have been the only club to do so in the four seasons of a single table competition. But with the additional games against rival Vancouver and Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, the Impact will be faced with the challenge of balancing the two competitions this season, knowing what is on the line. If they do repeat as Canadian champions, it will ensure more schedule congestion at the close of the campaign and into the playoffs due to the Champions League calendar.
The Impact squad is largely unchanged from the past season, and particularly from its run in the Champions League. Since the USL-1 Final, the Impact have brought back former striker Eduardo Sebrango from the champion Whitecaps as well as their back-up netminder Serge Djekanovic. The club also added Minnesota standout Stephen deRoux and Seattle Sounders veteran Kevin Sakuda. All three field players saw action in the Champions League earlier this year, giving the squad an early jump on the 2009 USL-1 campaign.
Puerto Rico Islanders [Team Page]
Like Montreal, the Islanders head into the 2009 season with a leg up on their counterparts following their run to the CONCACAF Champions League Semifinals over the past two months. Puerto Rico also faces additional non-league competition during the season with the Caribbean Football Union’s club championship tournament, but the seeding has placed the Islanders into the semifinals with only one win needed as the top three teams in the tournament receive berths in the Champions League. With fewer upper echelon clubs in the current edition of the CFU tournament, the Islanders are likely to qualify and see congestion again at the end of the USL-1 season.
Unlike Montreal, the Islanders have made quite a few additions to their lineup to further deepen the squad for the potential balancing act that will be needed this fall. They began with the early acquisition of Nicholas Addlery from championship foe Vancouver. Addlery has already proven a wise addition, providing three goals in their four Champions League contests.
Puerto Rico also brought in Jamaican striker Sean Fraser from Miami as well as Carolina’s Martin Nunez and Chris McClellan. DC United’s Domenic Mediate also joined the squad and former Los Angeles Galaxy defender Kyle Veris signed upon his return from Europe. Rounding out the new additions was Kevon Villaroel from San Juan Jabloteh, the Trinidad & Tobago squad the Islanders defeated for the final Caribbean berth to the Champions League last spring.
Rochester Rhinos [Team Page]
While the competition may prove just as difficult or more so, the season will likely feel personally easier for coach Darren Tilley, who was named coach of the squad seemingly minutes before the 2008 campaign began. Facing a short preseason, the former Rhino standout grabbed the reigns and struggled through the first part of the season. But he was not alone as rival and usual contender Montreal was also near the bottom of the table along with Puerto Rico. One by one, however, the trio steadily rose from the basement and by the final day of the campaign, Tilley found himself sitting in fourth – an improvement over the previous season’s fifth-place finish.
After making several midseason moves last year, including a trade for Portland’s Andrew Gregor, Tilley has had a full offseason to reshape his squad, making several changes with four significant departures. Defender and assistant coach Steve Guppy left for a post on the Colorado Rapids staff and eventually lured away the Rhinos’ Scott Palguta as well. Luke Kreamalmeyer moved onto the Carolina RailHawks. Striker Matthew Delicate also left, returning to his former club, Richmond Kickers.
Tilley’s new players hail from a variety of sources, signing Puerto Rico striker Taiwo Atieno and Cleveland’s Kwame Sarkodie. He also brought in from the Atlanta Silverbacks Mike Ambersley and Brent Sancho, who was also named as Guppy’s replacement as assistant coach. Rochester also added a trio coming in from Europe in Christopher Nurse, Darren Kenton and Christopher Sanders only to see Sanders suffer a potential season-ending ACL injury in the preseason. On the other side of the injury news, the club will see the return of Mauricio Salles, who was out most of the season last year.