ALEX AFONSO. After playing at 10 Brazilian clubs over nine years, the 27-year-old Afonso figured American soccer offered more stability. Well, he's welcome to stick around Miami FC as long as he wants after leading the USL-1 in scoring with 15 goals in 2008. Afonso's scoring title comes two years after another Brazilian, World Cup '94 star Romario, shared the scoring lead.
OSVALDO ALONSO. Following in the footpaths of fellow Cuba defectors Maykel Galindo and Eduardo Sebrango, who have starred in the USL-1, Alonso received the 2008 Rookie of the Year award for his play with the Charleston Battery. Three days after teammate Lester More defected in New Jersey, Alonso left the Cuban national team competing at the 2007 Gold Cup. He was with teammates at a Wal-Mart in Houston when he simply walked out the front door and walked several blocks until he was offered a cell phone to call a friend in Miami. Alonso followed Galindo to Chivas USA but was only offered a developmental contract. At 22, he should get another shot at MLS.
CRISTIAN ARRIETA. The Florida-born Arrieta won USL-1 Defender of the Year honors in his first season, helped lead the regular-season champion Puerto Rico Islanders to the best defensive ranking in the league with only 23 goals allowed. He also led the Islanders with seven goals in the regular season and added an eighth with the semifinals against Rochester. The 29-year-old Arrieta had previously spent his entire career in the lower divisions of Italian soccer — Mestre, Alessandria, Ivrea Lecco and Lecce — but he earned celebrity status after winning the soccer reality show "Campioni: Il Sogno" (Champions: The Dream) and earning a tryout at Inter Milan.
TONY DONATELLI. Rarely does a trade help both teams, but the deal that sent Donatelli from Vancouver to Montreal for Charles Gbeke was a win-win trade. Gbeke helped the Whitecaps the 2008 USL-1 title, while Donatelli has been outstanding for the Impact in the Concacaf Champions League with three goals in its first four games. The 24-year-old striker arrived in Vancouver from Temple University in 2006 and helped the Whitecaps win their first USL-1 championship, scoring three goals in four playoff games.
ETHAN GAGE. At 17, Gage enjoyed a mercurial rise. He moved from Calgary, where he played for the Elbow Valley Villains, to Vancouver, where he entered the Whitecaps' residency program. He made his debut for the Whitecaps' first team on Aug. 3 but for the first six weeks played without a name on his jersey. Gage is nameless no more. He became the youngest player to win the USL-1 championship when he started for the Whitecaps in their 2-1 win over Puerto Rico in the final.
CHARLES GBEKE. The USL-1 championship MVP with both Vancouver goals in its win over Puerto Rico, Gbeke is well-traveled. He moved from Ivory Coast to Montreal when he was 11 and has hopped around six USL-1 teams — with two stints apiece at three clubs — ending up a second time at Vancouver in late June. He has also spent time at clubs in France, Brazil, Croatia and Denmark. Gbeke's favorite place is the Brazilian state of Parana, where he spends the offseason doing community work with a church.
DUSTY HUDOCK. Hudock was a big reason Charleston reached the U.S. Open Cup final, stopping the penalty kick that gave the Battery the shootout victory over the Seattle Sounders in the semifinals. Hudock's career dates back to the days of the Sounders in the old APSL. He started out as the backup goalie behind Marcus Hahnemann in 1994. After playing for Colorado in MLS's inaugural season, he returned to Seattle, where was named the 1997 APSL Goalie of the Year. The 36-year-old Hudock had three more short stints in MLS at Colorado, Chicago (backup to Zach Thornton at MLS Cup '98) and Miami (three appearances). With the exception of one year at Rochester, he has spent the last nine years in the USL-1 with the Battery.
MATT JORDAN. The 33-year-old American has been sensational in goal for the Montreal Impact in its improbable run in the Concacaf Champions League, recording shutouts in its first four games. Jordan played 114 games for MLS's Dallas Burn after winning the starting job from veteran Mark Dodd in 1999. But the arrival of highly touted D.C. Countess led to Jordan's move to Danish club OB in 2003. Jordan lasted just one season at OB and returned to MLS, where he served as a backup at Columbus and Colorado. Jordan moved to Montreal in 2007 and was named the USL-1's second-team all-league goalie, behind Puerto Rico's Bill Gaudette, in 2008.
MACOUMBA KANDJI. In a little more than a year, Kandji went from an unknown on the Atlanta Silverbacks' under-23 team to one of the USL-1's prized prospects. The Silverbacks loaned the former JC star (Georgia Military) to the New York Red Bulls until the end of the 2008 MLS season with an option to buy his contract. Only a month after making his pro debut, the 23-year-old Kandji helped the Silverbacks reach the 2007 USL-1 championship game. In 2008, he earned first-team all-league honors. Jandji was born in Senegal, raised in Gambia and finished high school in North Carolina.
SEBASTIAN LE TOUX. The 24-year-old Le Toux didn't make it as a defender in France, but he's excelled up front for the Seattle Sounders. He was named the USL-1 MVP in 2007 when he led the Sounders to the USL-1 title and he was the first player signed by the MLS Sounders FC in May. Le Toux started in France at Rennes, where he won the Coupe Gambardella (U-19), but he was not offered a pro contract and moved to Second Division Lorient, where he played 15 league games in two seasons. The Sounders' Adrian Hanauer discovered Le Toux at a tryout for French players during MLS Cup 2006 in Frisco Texas. Le Toux has fallen in love with the Seattle area, recently opening the French Soccer Academy for young players.
JONATHAN STEELE. Steele was 18 when he signed with the now-defunct Syracuse Salty Dogs and jumped around between USL-1 teams (Syracuse, Rochester and Carolina) and MISL teams (Kansas City, Baltimore and Philadelphia) before making it big with the Puerto Rico Islanders in 2008. The 22-year-old midfielder was a finalist for USL-1 MVP honors.
(This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)