[HEADLINERS]The USL PRO season begins Friday night, and here's a look at some of the players who could have a big impact on the 2012 race. They include 2011 USL PRO Goalkeeper of the Year Miguel Gallardo and his new Orlando City teammate, James O'Connor, who once played in the English Premier League. Other players, like Richmond's Matthew Delicate and Charleston's John Wilson, have service to their teams dating back more than a decade and players.
MILTON BLANCO (Charlotte).The 2011 PDL Most Valuable Player has joined the Eagles from the Fresno Fuego. He had a league-leading 38 points and 14 assists to go along with 12 goals. He played five games for Chivas USA in MLS in 2005.
PETER BYERS (Antigua Barracuda FC).The Antiguan international forward has returned home to play for Barracuda FC, which features a nucleus of national team players preparing for the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying that will start against the USA on June 8. Byers played last season for the Los Angeles Blues.
SALLIEU BUNDU (Charleston).Born in Sierra Leone and moved to Guinea at the age of 15 when his father was murdered in the Sierra Leone civil war, Bundu moved to the United States when his brother won a green-card lottery. He's bounced around from the Cleveland City Stars to the Carolina RailHawks and Charlotte Eagles and now the Charleston Battery. He had seven goals in USL PRO a season ago for the Eagles.
MATTHEW DELICATE (Richmond). Born in England and raised in Wales, Delicate came to the United States to attend in VCU and settled in Richmond, where he enters his 11th season with the Kickers. He tied for second in the USL PRO scoring charts with 10 goals in 2011 to rank in second place on the Kickers' all-time scoring list with 60 goals.
GARETH EVANS (Wilmington).At 24, the Welsh defender has already played on six clubs in Wales and England and four in the United States, settling in with the Hammerheads. In the first year of USL PRO, Evans stood out as one of the league's top attacking defenders and was named to the all-league first team.
MIGUEL GALLARDO (Orlando City).Gallardo was named the 2011 Goalkeeper of the Year after the champion Lions allowed a league-low 16 goals in the regular season. His association with the club dates back to its days in Austin, and he was named team captain last season.
JAMES O'CONNOR (Orlando City).Having lost 2011 USL PRO MVP Yordany Alvarez to MLS's Real Salt Lake, Orlando City needed help in midfield and got it with the signing of 34-year-old Irish midfielder, who joined the Lions on a free transfer after playing the last three and half seasons at Sheffield Wednesday. “There’s huge potential here,” said O’Connor, the Stoke City Player of the Year for the 2002-03 season. He also played in the EPL with Burnley and holds a UEFA "A" coaching license.
SAINEY TOURAY (Harrisburg).Fellow striker Jose Angulo moved to MLS's New York Red Bulls, leaving Touray to head the City Islanders' attack. The 22-year-old Gambian finished second on the 2011 runners-up with 20 points (seven goals, six assists). He first came to the USA in 2008 to play for the Red Bulls, then returned to the United States two years later with the Carolina RailHawks before moving to Harrisburg.
ROB VALENTINO (Orlando City). The 2011 Defender of the Year was a first-round MLS draft pick out of the University of San Francisco in 2008, but he never played a league game in three seasons with New England and Colorado. He played for FC Tampa Bay in 2010 and moved to Orlando last season.
JOHN WILSON (Charleston).Wilson reversed a retirement decision prior to the 2011 season and became the first field player to reach 200 games in the Battery's history. He began his pro career in 1999 and played on the Battery's 2003 A-League championship team. He also spent three seasons in MLS with D.C. United.
GUSTAVO ZAMUDIO (Rochester).The 26-year-old Chilean is one of the few imports this season into USL PRO, signed from Universidad Catolica on the recommendation of Jorge Alvial, Chelsea's chief scout of the Americas. Zamudio will run the Rhinos' midfield. “The first thing that impresses you about Gustavo is his technical ability," said Rochester coach Jesse Myers. "He’s very good on the ball."