Thursday, April 16, 2009
TAMPA, FL – In addition to Carolina, who kicked off last weekend, the remaining four teams in the league that were not in the USL First Division playoffs last year are an eclectic bunch. The group consists of Portland, Miami and two new teams, the expansion Austin Aztex and promoted Cleveland City Stars.
Portland, who kicks off a week later on April 25, is the most surprising of the group with coach Gavin Wilkinson having guided a last-place team to second and a semifinal run in his debut season in 2007 only to return to the cellar last year. The most shocking part of the downturn was that they started the season with three wins and a series of four draws. After those initial seven games, they only posted points in consecutive games on two occasions and flopped to the finish line with four losses.
Miami, on the other hand, struggled with six losses in their first nine contests, but improved to post a nine-game unbeaten string midseason under first-year head coach and former Brazilian World Cup champion Zinho. Unfortunately, six of the results were draws, hampering their chances in the chase for the playoffs and ultimately leaving them out for the second straight year after qualifying in their debut campaign.
While Cleveland are the reigning USL Second Division champions, the club has undergone significant change since raising the cup last fall and are in similar shoes as the expansion Aztex, who enter the season with a brand new side. Both may be looking to copy Miami’s initial success as they reached the playoffs in their debut season in 2006, although the Blues had a decided advantage with World Cup stars Zinho and Romario leading the way that year but have since faltered. The other model is Puerto Rico, who went from just five victories in 2004 to the league championship match and a CONCACAF Champions League run over the past year.
Austin Aztex [Team Page]
With former English club manager Adrian Heath on board over the past year, the Aztex have a bit of an early feel as to what to expect when the first whistle sounds. Heath watched as the Aztex U-23 side in the Premier Development League won the division championship in its first season under veteran USL coach Wolfgang Suhnholz last year and took the former USL First Division Atlanta Silverbacks to penalty kicks, tied 1-1, in the US Open Cup before being knocked out 5-4.
It’s no surprise some of the top eligible talent from that squad made its way to the USL-1 lineup in the form of Wes Allen, Kieron Bernard, Zack Pope, Josh Alcala and netminder Miguel Gallardo, the PDL Goalkeeper of the Year. Heath also brought in Jarius Holmes from the St Louis Lions to round out his PDL contingent. Other rookies include UNC’s Mike Callahan, DC United draft pick Lyle Adams and Sullivan Silva, who has impressed in the preseason.
The rest of the squad is a mix of professionals from North America and Europe. The first-year club signed Houston’s top player, Kyle Brown, from its reserve team and signed former MLS players Ryan McMahen (Kansas City) and David Sias (Chicago). Competing with Gallardo for the starting spot will be journeyman back-up Sam Reynolds, who has spent the past four years with Miami, Toronto, Chivas USA and Portland.
Coming from last playing abroad are Eddie Johnson, Gifton Noel-Williams, Gareth Evans, Alexander Tapp and Ryan Caugherty.
In addition to last year’s time spent scouting for players and examining the opposition, the Aztex played a tough preseason with four matches against MLS opposition and provided a tune-up contest for league finalist Puerto Rico as they prepared for the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League Semifinal in Mexico. While the results were positive for a team still coming together, the two big questions heading into their debut are how well will they be organized as new team and how will the impact players from Europe react to playing in the summer, particularly in the heat of Texas?
Cleveland City Stars [Team Page]
Promotion to USL-1 after winning the USL Second Division title has been bittersweet for Cleveland. First the club lost head coach Martin Rennie, who suffered just four regular season losses in 40 games over the club’s first two seasons, to the RailHawks. Then the heart of the lineup followed him to Carolina with two-time USL-2 Defender of the Year Mark Schulte and 2008 GAA Champion Eric Reed going along with Jeremy Tolleson and All-League selection Sallieu Bundu. The Rochester Rhinos also managed to poach Kwame Sarkodie from the champions.
Former Timbers assistant Rod Underwood has been busy re-building the team since his appointment and has brought in a myriad of players to fill the holes. Fellow Africans joining veteran Kenyan international Musa Otieno, who is set to return from the South African premiership for a second season, will be Sierra Leone internationals Ibrahim Bangura, Warren Kanu. Former Ivory Coast youth international Arsene Oka followed Underwood from Portland, joining Canadian Pall Ballard, who returns from playing in South Africa, and longtime Minnesota Thunder striker Leo Gibson of Liberia.
South African Godfrey Tenoff, a veteran of the USL First Division, is among the remnants of the championship side along with Jason Hotchkin, Ryan Stewart, and Anthony Stovall.
In addition to the transfer of Gibson from Minnesota, Underwood snared a handful of players with MLS experience, signing Gordan Kljestan (New York), Ricardo Pierre-Louis (Columbus) and Troy Roberts (Los Angeles). He also brought in Trinidad & Tobago international Terrance McAllister from Champions League participant Joe Public and American Max Cream, who has spent the past four years in Europe.
The vacated goalkeeper position could fall on the shoulders of rookie Evan Bush, who joins the club after a stellar career at nearby University of Akron. He’ll be competing for the position with other players yet to be announced.
Miami FC Blues [Team Page]
Zinho heads into his second year as coach of the team with a late start to the preseason and roster building process, but the Blues have accentuated a core group of returning players such as Cristiano Dias, Connally Edozien, Leonardo Inacio, John Pulido, Walter Ramirez and Chris Williams with newcomers.
Headlining the list of new additions are former Major League Soccer players Facundo Erpen and Diego Serna, the all-time scoring leader for the defunct Miami Fusion. They are joined by off-the-field headline makers Pedro Faife and Reinier Alcantara, two of the Cuban internationals who defected during the Olympic Qualifying tournament last year.
The club also brought in USL-1 veteran and El Salvador international Edwin Miranda from Puerto Rico, Zach Kirby from Atlanta and local Richard Perdomo from Carolina. Columbus back-up goalkeeper Kenny Schoeni joins 2007 Blues starter Patrick Hannigan, who returns after missing last season.
Miami showed further commitment to the community with the signing of local players, including standout striker Orlando Bueso while also inking a pair of collegiate standouts in Notre Dame’s John Traynor and Boston University’s Jarryd Goldberg.
Portland Timbers [Team Page]
The yo-yo performance of the team going up and down the table the last four years is no doubt wearing thin on the loyal supporters in Portland, who are desperately clamoring for a long-awaited championship. How long? Well, the Timbers history all the way back through the NASL era is devoid of a championship and only boasts one appearance in a final, something that does not sit well with amongst fans who take the rivalry with their Northwest neighbors seriously.
The Sounders kicked off their first MLS season a few weeks ago having won four USL-1 championships in five appearances in the final. Seattle reached the NASL final on three occasions as well. Vancouver, slated for MLS in 2011, has captured the USL-1 championship twice in its two appearances. They also won an NASL title. Seattle and Vancouver have each won two titles since the Timbers returned to the league in 2001, accounting for half the seasons the current franchise has been in the league. The success of their rivals has made the time since their 1975 NASL runners-up finish a long, long wait.
Looking to avoid their jump to MLS in 2011 empty-handed, the Timbers have overhauled the squad with a number of new faces. The Atlanta trio of standouts David Hayes, Jason McLaughlin and Tony McManus along with Minnesota’s Brian Farber immediately inject plenty of USL experience into the lineup.
Adding to the positive addition of Japanese star Takayuki Suzuki from last year, the club brought in J-League veteran Takuro Nishamura. He’s joined by the foreign additions of Frenchman Vua Dieumerci,Guinean Mandjou Keita and Antouman Jallow of Sweden and Gambia.
Rounding out the additions are the handful of MLS players Ryan Pore (Kansas City), George Josten (Columbus), Keith Savage (Chivas USA), Steve Cronin (Los Angeles) and Alex Nimo, who is on loan from Real Salt Lake. The signing of Cronin is a critical component of the lineup following last year’s struggles caused, in part, by the reliance of goalkeepers on loan after losing Josh Wicks to the Galaxy prior to the season.