Backline: USL - Islanders And Impact Are Favorites

The USL First Division is getting a lot of respect.

MLS tapped Portland and Vancouver as expansion teams in 2011 to join Seattle, another former USL-1 market, in the Pacific Northwest. In all three cases, the owners of USL-1 clubs were included in the MLS ownership groups.

On the field, the USL outdid MLS, sending two teams (Puerto Rico and Montreal) to the quarterfinals of the inaugural Concacaf Champions League. (The Houston Dynamo was the only of the four MLS teams to make the final eight.) The Islanders were the only non-Mexican team to reach the semifinals.

USL-1 Rookie of the Year Osvaldo Alonso, a Cuban defector, was sensational for Seattle in the first month of the 2009 MLS season.

As MLS teams have cut down their rosters, USL-1 teams have loaded up on MLS castoffs. They've also loaded up on players from abroad. Look for MLS clubs to target the top USL-1 prospects later in the year as they make their playoff push.

Here's a look at the USL-1's 11 teams, in order of their projected finish.

1. PUERTO RICO. The success of the Islanders, the 2008 USL-1 regular-season champions, in the Concacaf Champions League touched off soccer fever in baseball-crazy Puerto Rico. They drew a capacity crowd at Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium for the first leg of the semifinals.

Coach Colin Clarke returned MVP Jonny Steele, Defender of the Year Christian Arrieta and Goalkeeper of the Year Bill Gaudette. Offseason acquisitions included Nicholas Addlery from Vancouver, former Galaxy defender Kyle Veris, who spent the 2008 season in Norway, and former D.C. United midfielder Dominic Mediate.

2. MONTREAL. The Impact drew a crowd of 55,571 fans - a Concacaf Champions League record - at Olympic Stadium for its 2-0 win over Santos in the first leg of the quarterfinals. The Impact then traveled to Mexico, where it fell, 5-2, going out on two goals Santos scored in stoppage time.

The Impact, which opened Stade Saputo in 2008 and regularly drew capacity crowds, has added to what was a solid lineup. All-league picks -goalie Matt Jordan, defender Nevio Pizzolito and midfielder Leonardo Di Lorenzo - all return, as does the frontline of Panamanian Roberto Brown, Antiguan Peter Byers and American Joey Gjertsen. Cuban forward Eduardo Sebrango arrived for the 2008 champion Vancouver Whitecaps, and Stephen deRoux was an all-league pick at Minnesota.

3. VANCOUVER. The Whitecaps, the oldest club in the USL-1, won four titles in a row in the old Canadian Soccer League and have won two of the last three USL-1 championships.

The Caps traded top scorers Addlery and Sebrango, leaving them with a big hole up front. The lone returnee is 31-year-old Ivorian Charles Gbeke. Vancouver has converted Canada youth international Marcus Haber, who spent two seasons in the Netherlands with Groningen, from defender to forward.

4. CHARLESTON. The Battery is the third oldest team in the USL-1, behind only Vancouver and Minnesota. It won the USL-1 title in 2002 but failed to make the playoffs three of the next five years. It reached the 2008 U.S. Open Cup final.

The loss of Alonso left a big hole in the Battery midfield, but it added Kenji Treschuk (USL Sounders), Tyler Hemming (Toronto FC) and Japanese Tsuyoshi Yoshitake (Tokyo Verdy). Other acquisitions included Jamaican international O'Brian Woodbine and Cuban U-23 defector Yeniel Bermudez, who should both patrol the backline.

5. CAROLINA. The RailHawks underwent a major reshuffling after the 2008 season, their second in the USL-1. Gone were President and General Manager Chris Economides and Coach Scott Schweitzer. Brian Wellman, whose family owns the RailHawks, took over as president.

Martin Rennie, who coached the Cleveland City Stars to the USL-2 title, has made wholesale changes. The starting lineup on opening day consisted entirely of first-year players. Rennie loaded up on former MLS players, including Gavin Glinton, and brought in Sallieu Bundu, Mark Schulte and Eric Reed with him from Cleveland.

6. PORTLAND. The Timbers went from second place in 2007 to last in 2008. In the offseason, owner Merritt Paulson (son of former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) was awarded an MLS franchise.

Wholesale changes were also made in the offseason. Notable additions included Steve Cronin, who started in goal for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2008, and Ryan Pore from the Kansas City Wizards. Former U-17 star Alex Nimo returned home to Portland on loan from Real Salt Lake.

7. MINNESOTA. Last season marked the first time since 2004 that the Thunder, the USL-1's oldest American team with one USL-1 title and four appearances in the final to its credit, made the playoffs.

Mexican Ricardo Sanchez led the USL-1's second highest scoring team with 10 goals and four assists, and Liberian Melvin Tarley also scored 10 goals. Thunder coach Don Gramenz added midfielders Quavas Kirk and Rod Dyachenko from D.C. United.

8. CLEVELAND. The City Stars were "promoted" from the USL-2 after winning their first title in 2008. Following the season, Rennie was lured away by Carolina.

Rod Underwood, who took over for Rennie as the City Stars head coach, faced a major rebuilding job. Several signees spent time with MLS clubs: Gordon Kljestan, Ricardo Pierre-Louis, Troy Roberts and Arsene Oka. Ghanaian Joshua Boateng, a third-round pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft out of Liberty University, should boost the Stars' attack.

9. ROCHESTER. Early in the 2009 season, the Rhinos should make USL history when they draw their 2 millionth fan. They are arguably the most successful team in the league, having reached the playoffs every year since its launch in 1996 and won three championships.

The Rhinos have suffered from financial problems in recent years, however. Its longtime ownership group lost its franchise rights on the eve of the 2008 season, and new owner Rob Clark has been forced to make significant cuts for 2009.

Veteran Rhinos Scott Vallow, Johnny Menyongar and John Ball provide a decent nucleus.

10. AUSTIN. The Aztex, who are playing at a local high school stadium, are only the USL-1's second foray into Texas. They are owned by Austin businessman Phil Rawlins, who was born in England and is on the board of English Premier League club Stoke City.

Austin got a head start, fielding a U-23 team last summer in the PDL, and 2008 PDL Goalkeeper of the Year Miguel Gallardo and Kieron Bernard return for the debut USL-1 season. The Aztex are coached by Adrian Heath, who has brought fellow Englishmen Alex Tapp, Eddie Johnson and Gifton Noel-Williams.

11. MIAMI FC. A bid for an MLS expansion team was abandoned by FC Barcelona and Bolivian businessman Marcelo Claure, leaving Miami FC as the face of pro soccer in South Florida. The Blues moved from Tropical Park, where they played their first three seasons, to Lockhart Stadium in Broward County and FIU Stadium, where they will split time.

Alex Afonso, who led the USL-1 with 15 goals in 2008, returned to Brazil, where he plays for Ituano. Coach Zinho's first signings of note were Argentine defender Facundo Erpen and Diego Serna, the former Miami Fusion star.

(This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)     

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