[USSF D-2 PRO LEAGUE PREVIEW] The USSF D-2 Pro League kicks off this weekend with 12 teams -- eight from USL-1, one from USL-2 and three first-year teams. It's the last season for Vancouver and Portland before their move to MLS, and they begin the season as the favorites. For more on the D2 Pro League teams and all our predictions ...
1. Vancouver Whitecaps (NASL)
2. Portland Timbers (USL)
3. Montreal Impact (NASL)
4. Puerto Rico Islanders (USL)
5. Carolina RailHawks (NASL)
6. Rochester Rhinos (USL)
7. Miami FC (NASL)
8. Tampa Bay Rowdies(USL)
9. Austin Aztex(USL)
10. NSC Minnesota Stars(USL)
11. AC St. Louis (NASL)
12. Crystal Palace Baltimore(NASL)
1. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS
2009 Record: 11-10-9 in USL-1 (7th Place)
Coach: Teitur Thordarson.
Stadium:Swangard Stadium (capacity: 5,288)
Outlook:The Whitecaps, USL-1 champions in 2008, returned to the championship series after a strong postseason run. They've upgraded their backline with the addition of Greg Janicki (D.C. United) and Blake Wagner(FC Dallas) from MLS and all-USL-1 pick Nelson Akwari from the Charleston Battery and midfielders Ricardo Sanchez (Minnesota Thunder) and Jonny Steele (Puerto Rico Islanders), both USL all-stars. The Caps' big loss was 2009 USL-1 Rookie of the Year Marcus Haber, who moved to West Bromwich Albion.
2. PORTLAND TIMBERS
Coach: Gavin Wilkinson.
Stadium:PGE Park (capacity: 19,556)
Outlook:The Timbers won the 2009 USL Commissioner’s Cup but fell to Vancouver in the semifinals. They return largely intact with Steve Cronin back in goal after finishing the fall with D.C. United. Alex Nimo is also back, again on loan from Real Salt Lake.
3. MONTREAL IMPACT
2009 Record: 12-11-7 in USL-1 (5th Place)
Coach: Marc Dos Santos.
Stadium:Stade Saputo (capacity: 13,034)
Outlook:Coach Marc Dos Santos turned the Impact around after taking over in mid-season and led it to its third USL-1 title. The Impact was the first USL-1 team in a decade to sweep all its playoff games. Joey Gjertsen left for MLS's San Jose Earthquakes, but fellow Americans Tony Donatelli and David Testo return. The key addition is young Canadian midfielder Tyler Hemming.
4. PUERTO RICO ISLANDERS
2009 Record: 15-7-8 in USL-1 (3rd Place)
Stadium:Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium (capacity: 12,500)
Outlook:The Islanders won't be as deep as they have been in recent years when they played very well on two fronts -- USL and Concacaf Champions League. USL-1 MVP Cristian Arrieta won't return -- he's been training with MLS's Philadelphia Union -- James Marcelin (Portland) and Steele (Vancouver) moved to the Northwest, and former Florida star Fabrice Noel is now with Shanghai East Asia in China.
5. CAROLINA RAILHAWKS
2009 Record: 16-7-7 in USL-1 (2nd Place)
Coach: Martin Rennie.
Stadium:WakeMed Soccer Park (capacity: 7,000)
Outlook:The RailHawks were the most improved team in USL-1 last year when Daniel Paladiniearned all-league honors and Mark Schulte anchored the defense. Their 2010 signings include a rare Maltese import, forward Etienne Barbara.
6. MIAMI FC
2009 Record: 8-12-10 in USL-1 (9th Place)
Stadium:Lockhart Stadium (capacity: 18,500)
Outlook:Owner Traffic, the South American soccer agency, aggressively recruited during the offseason, signing former D.C. United star Christian Gomez. Also coming over from MLS is Abe Thompson.
7. ROCHESTER RHINOS
2009 Record: 11-9-10 in USL-2 (3rd Place)
Coach: Bob Lilley.
Stadium:Marina Auto Stadium (capacity: 12,500)
Outlook:Veteran USL-1 coach Bob Lilley has taken over the Rhinos, who return only three players. Among the offseason acquisitions are former Real Salt Lake forward Tino Nunez.
8. TAMPA BAY ROWDIES
2009 Record: first year.
Coach: Paul Dalglish.
Stadium:George M. Steinbrenner Field (capacity: 11,000)
Outlook: Paul Dalglish, son of Scotland and Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish, will lead the Rowdies in their first season. He's brought in former U.S. youth national team goalie Josh Lambo on loan from FC Dallas. New Zealand international Jeremy Christie will lead the midfield.
9. AUSTIN AZTEX
2009 Record: 5-17-8 in USL-1 (11th Place)
Stadium:House Park: (capacity: 6,500)
Outlook:The Aztex, who have a new home for their second season, haven't upgraded much from their last year. Leonard Griffin arrives from MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy and will be joined in Austin by his brother, Maxwell. Jamie Watson, the 2009 USL-2 MVP with Wilmington, also has moved to Austin.
10. NSC MINNESOTA STARS
2009 Record: first year.
Coach: Manny Lagos.
Stadium:National Sports Center (capacity: 12,000)
Outlook:When the USL-1 Thunder folded,the National Sports Center stepped up and started a new pro team. Hence, NSC in the name. Johnny Menyongar (a 2009 all-USL-1 pick with Rochester) and Louis Crayton (who spent time with D.C. United) join fellow Liberian Melvin Tarley, a long-time Thunder stalwart.
11. AC ST. LOUIS
2009 Record: first year.
Stadium:Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park (capacity: 6,000)
Outlook:Longtime MLS star Steve Ralston has returned home to finish his playing career. The rest of the team is largely untested at the D2 level. Among the young prospects signed is 20-year-old Hagop Chirishian, who helped the Ventura County Fusion to the 2009 PDL title.
12. CRYSTAL PALACE BALTIMORE
2009 Record: 6-9-5 in USL-2 (4th Place)
Coach: Jim Cherneski and Pete Medd.
Stadium:UMBC (capacity: 4,500).
Outlook:CPB had limited success at D3 level, so it's hard to believe it will do better in the D2 Pro League. Defender Andrew Marshall and midfielder Val Teixeira earned 2009 all-USL-2 second-team honors.