[NASL] Finally granted provisional sanctioning by U.S. Soccer as a Division 2 league for 2011, North American Soccer League kicks off its first season this weekend. David Downs, who headed the USA's bid campaign to host the 2022 World Cup, has been brought as commissioner, but the league faces many challenges. Here's a look at how the eight teams rank in our preseason rankings ...
First and foremost, the NASL faces the prospect of losing its most solid club in 2012 when Montreal joins MLS.
How big a difference is there between the Impact and the five other NASL teams that also played in the D-2 Pro League? Well, Montreal's average attendance of 12,397 was more than the combined average attendance of the other five teams in 2010.
Both Carolina and Minnesota lost their owners in the offseason. The RailHawks almost folded before Traffic USA came in and took over for Brian and Selby Wellman. (It had to go on eBay to purchase the RailHawks' trademark.) The NASL is operating the NSC Minnesota Stars.
Atlanta returns after a two-year hiatus. In the their 10 seasons in the USL-1, the Silverbacks averaged more than 2,500 fans only three times.
And while FC Edmonton hopes to emulate the success pro soccer has recently had in other Canadian markets, it lost its general manager and head coach before it played its first competitive game.
Here how the eight NASL teams rank:
1. MONTREAL IMPACT. This is the last season at the second division level for the Impact before it joins MLS in 2012. Ali Gerba, who early all D-2 Pro League honors with 13 goals in 17 appearances, heads the nucleus of returning players. Puerto Rico Islanders star Bill Gaudette has been brought to replace the retired Matt Jordan in goal. Frenchmen Hassoun Camara (Bastia), Kevin Hatchi (Olympiakos Nicosia) and Idriss Ech-Chergui (JS Kabylie) have also been signed.
2. PUERTO RICO ISLANDERS. In his fifth season, Coach Colin Clark has consistently gotten the most out of the Islanders. They won the 2010 USSF D2 Pro League title after making the playoffs at the eighth seed. They also won the Caribbean Club Championship and reached the group stage of the Concacaf Champions League for the third year in a row. David Foley, Nicholas Addlery and Josh Hansen give the Islanders the best frontline in the NASL. Richard Martin takes over in goal for Gaudette.
3. CAROLINA RAILHAWKS. The RailHawks won the NASL Conference regular-season title and fell to the Islanders in the final of the D-2 Pro League last year. The price of success: Daniel Paladini, Josh Gardner, Tom Heinemann and Daniel Woolard all landed contracts with MLS teams and won't be back in 2011. Despite the major losses, the RailHawks should challenge for the title. Coach Martin Rennie has a proven track record at the D2 level. Offseason signings include former MLS players Brad Knighton, Khano Smith and Paulo Campos. Also of note: former Kansas City Wizards GM Curt Johnson has taken over as president.
4. FC TAMPA BAY. Tampa Bay began its first season with a 5-1-3 record but then slumped and finished last in the D-2 Pro League's USL Conference. Aaron King (12 goals) and Mike Ambersley (nine with AC St Louis) gives Tampa Bay plenty of offense, and New Zealand World Cup player Jeremy Christie will lead the midfield. The question will be whether Coach Ricky Hill can turn around the defense. Veterans Frankie Sanfilippo (Rochester), JP Rodrigues (Miami) David Hayes (Carolina) and Omar Jarun (Pogon Szczecin) have been signed to man the backline.
5. FORT LAUDERDALE STRIKERS. This is the third incarnation of the Strikers, who played in recent years as Miami FC Blues, Traffic USA's flagship franchise. They hope to draw 5,000 for their home opener Saturday at Lockhart Stadium -- which would be four times their 2010 average of 1,254 fans a game. Tim Robbie, son of the late Joe and Elizabeth Robbie, and general manager of the old NASL Strikers and former president of the NFL Miami Dolphins, is the new club president, replacing Aaron Davidson, who will remain CEO of the NASL and vice president of Traffic Sports. Daryl Shore, who starts his first full season as Strikers coach, has brought in former USL-1 star Cristian Arrieta and Argentine Eduardo Coudet from MLS's Philadelphia Union. Miami's best player, Paulo Jr., has joined MLS's Real Salt Lake on loan.
6. NSC MINNESOTA STARS. The NASL took over ownership of the club from the National Sports Center. The Stars fell to Carolina in the D-2 Pro League quarterfinals, but Coach Manny Lagos has lost Andres Arango, to FC Tampa Bay, and Daniel Wasson, sidelined with a knee injury. New signings include Sandy Gbandi from Puerto Rico and Cristiano Dias from Miami.
7. ATLANTA SILVERBACKS. The Silverbacks return to action after taking off 2009 and 2010 and have brought in former Mexican international Jose Manuel Abundis as head coach. Aiming to attract Atlanta's big Mexican-American community, the Silverbacks have signed former Mexican national team defender Mario Perez. Players with MLS connections include midfielders Raphael Cox (six games for Real Salt Lake in its 2009 championship season) and Ciaran O'Brien (No. 5 pick in 2008 SuperDraft).
8. FC EDMONTON. FC Edmonton has yet to play its first competitive game and turnover is an issue. Former Edmonton Driller Dwight Lodeweges was brought in to coach FC Edmonton last summer when it played a series of exhibition matches. Unfortunately, the Dutchman was lured away to coach J-League second division club JEF United and took with him two of Edmonton's better players, Sander van Gessel and Matt Lam. Last month, Mel Kowalchuk resigned his position as general manager. Another Dutchman, Harry Sinkgraven, will coach FCE, and Alberta soccer fixture Joe Petrone heads up the team's soccer operations. As far as players go, Edmonton will be young and inexperienced. One of its top prospects is 21-year-old midfielder Shaun Saiko. For 30-year-old forward Dan Antoniuk, Edmonton is his sixth outdoor club to go along with six indoor teams.