Defender Fuseini Dauda (above), who played with the Rochester Rhinos from 1996-98, is back after a stint in Belgium.
It's hard to bet against them.
In the last five years, the Rochester Rhi nos have made it to the A-League final four times and won the championship twice. They're also won one U.S. Open Cup title and finished second another time.
The 2001 season could prove the most challenging yet for the Rhinos, who lost several key players. Defender Craig Demmin, midfielder Yari Allnutt and striker Onandi Lowe are all gone.
Yet Rochester has managed to fill the holes.
The Rhinos welcome back defender Fuseini Dauda, who played in Rochester for three years before heading to Belgium.
In midfield the Rhinos have added Bulgarian Atanas "Nasho" Kirov and Carlos Parra, who bounced around MLS.
Up front Rochester has brought in Trinidad & Tobago international Mickey Trotman, who played for the Dallas Burn and the Miami Fusion. And Rochester further beefed up its frontline by acquiring 25-year-old striker Jamel Mitchell (13 goals in 2000) from Hershey.
With the return of Canadian goalkeeper Pat Onstad, who helped the Rhinos win the '98 A-League championship and the '99 U.S. Open Cup, all seems primed for Rochester to roll to another title.
ROLLING THUNDER. The chief challenger to Rochester will once again be the Minnesota Thunder.
Head Coach Buzz Lagos brings back the majority of the team that has met the Rhinos in last year's three finals.
The Thunder will again have an electric attack featuring Liberian Johnny "the Tiny Ticket" Menyongar, recently called up for his international debut, and Swede Marcus Zeba. The imminent return of forward Amos Magee, who was released by the Tampa Bay Mutiny, gives the Thunder even more fire power.
The Richmond Kickers return goalkeeper Mike McGinty, who led the A-League with 19 wins and 11 shutouts.
Of concern for Coach Leigh Cowlishaw was the loss of Canadian striker Dwayne DeRosario to the San Jose Earthquakes, but Richmond has signed Kevin Jeffrey and Josh Henderson, who both hit the net to lead the Kickers past Charleston, 2-1, in the A-League opener.
Scoring shouldn't be too much of a concern for the Milwaukee Rampage, who returns A-League MVP Digital Takawira, who tied for the league lead with 42 points.
Charleston has solidified its defense with the acquisition of MLS castoff Dan Calichman and the return of John Wilson, who spent the 2000 season with MLS champion Kansas City.
HIGH EXPECTATIONS. The expansion Portland Timbers have high expectations. Coach Bobby Howe has collected one of the top forward lines in Mark Baena, Darren Sawatzky and Greg Howes.
The Toronto Lynx made it a priority to re-sign the core of the team that advanced to the semifinals last season. The team's top defender, Adrian Serioux, returns after being looked at by several MLS clubs.
The Vancouver Whitecaps are working on signing forward Domenic Mobilio to go with Darren Tilley, who led the team with 12 goals last season.
A new owner and a new coach has done wonders for the Atlanta Silverbacks, who may be the most improved team in the league.
Coach John Dugan, who coached the Raleigh Capital Express last season, has brought in several players who played for him in Raleigh, including forward Ihor Dotsenko and defender Edmundo Rodriguez.
The Hershey Wildcats will have a tough time replacing the goalscoring output of Mitchell and Greg Simmonds, with the Miami Fusion, but Bob Lilley has the foundation for a solid team.
The rumors surrounding the Montreal Impact swirl. Will Toto Schillaci be wearing Impact colors? Will Lowe return to Montreal? Only time will tell.
The Portland Timbers' move into the Northwest will be a boon for the Seattle Sounders, who can market those games as an NASL rivalry reborn. But it's cost them, too. Gone to the Timbers are the two leading scorers - Sawatzky and Howes.
CORE RETURNEES. The Long Island Rough Riders have brought back the core of the squad that won the 2000 Northeast Division, including English veteran Gary Ablett.
The El Paso Patriots were another team that changed coaches, jettisoning Greg Petersen in favor of Alfredo Solares, who has brought in Esmundo Rodriguez and Carlos Farias.
Another team to be hit hard by losses to MLS was the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, who saw defender Tenywa Bonseu (Columbus) and midfielder Justin Evans (Chicago) jump.
San Diego almost went under before the season started. Taking over management of the club, which will be called San Diego FC, is the San Diego Nomads, one of the country's premier youth clubs.
The Connecticut Wolves, Cincinnati Riverhawks, Indiana Blast and Nashville Metros have all made moves to strengthen themselves but will be hard pressed to make the playoffs.
Still, they're all in better shape than the D3 champion Charlotte Eagles, who make the move up to the A-League with few changes to the roster.
by Soccer America associate editor Poul Swain