USL-1 season preview - part two
USL & Whitecaps FC
The second weekend of the new USL First Division season is upon us, and we take a look at four clubs who are aiming for a successful year.
In the second part of our preview to the 2008 USL-1 season, we see if Atlanta Silverbacks can repeat their fine end-of-season run from last term, and what Carolina RailHawks can expect in their sophomore year in the league.
We also assess the fortunes of Pacific Northwest rivals Portland Timbers and another surprise package from 2007 in Puerto Rico Islanders.
After surprising many with their run in last season's playoffs, Atlanta Silverbacks will hope there is more success in store this year. Despite a slow start to the 2007 campaign, Jason Smith's side came strong at the right end of the season to reach the USL-1 championship final before losing 4-0 to hosts Seattle Sounders last September. Their fourth-place finish saw them face Rochester Raging Rhinos in the playoff quarter-finals. A 3-2 aggregate win set up a semifinal clash with Portland Timbers, where they dispatched of their more favoured Oregon rivals on penalties to reach the league final.
Smith will have a very different looking squad at the RE/MAX Greater Atlanta Stadium this season, with a dozen new faces joining the Georgia-based outfit for 2008. While goalkeepers Ryan McIntosh and Felipe Quintero have returned, four defenders moved on from the Silverbacks – including centre back Omar Jarun to Vancouver Whitecaps. New defensive additions include Greg Chevalier and Zach Kirby from USL-2, Tate Parrish from Clemson University, and Chivas USA draftee Andre Sherard. Former Rochester players Mike Ambersley and Josh Bolton join former Minnesota Thunder winger Ansu Toure and former New York Red Bulls man Blake Camp in reinforcing the Silverbacks midfield, while former Whitecaps striker Jason McLaughlin returns to the club to help boost an attack in need of filling the void left by Dan Antoniuk's off-season move to Southern Derby rivals Carolina RailHawks. Joining McLaughlin in the forward ranks is former Seattle striker Nathan Knox and former Major League Soccer hit-man Jerson Monteiro.
Though the new additions will have key roles to play for Atlanta, Smith will look to last year's USL-1 Defender of the Year David Hayes, Chilean captain Rodrigo Rios, Senegalese midfielder Macoumba Kandji, and Atlanta native Warren Ukah to provide leadership in what looks likely to be a very competitive 2008 season.
Though they were a USL-1 expansion club in 2007, Carolina RailHawks could easily argue that they exceeded expectations last season. Not only did Scott Schweitzer's side make the playoffs on the final day of the regular season before being knocked out by eventual champions Seattle Sounders, they also emulated their Washington State rivals by reaching the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup before losing 2-1 to MLS club New England Revolution.
There has been plenty of turnover to the North Carolina-based outfit for 2008, with several players – including former Whitecaps striker Joel Bailey - not returning to WakeMed Soccer Park for the club's second season in existence. Last month, Chris Carrieri announced his retirement from the game, while former RailHawks teammate Jonny Steele has joined USL-1 rivals Puerto Rico Islanders. Strengthening the attack was a priority for Carolina, with Schweitzer adding former Atlanta Silverbacks striker Dan Antoniuk and two-time USL-2 Most Valuable Player Jacob Coggins to his forward ranks. Former Real Salt Lake man Steven Curfman joins former USL-2 standouts Chris Lemons and Matt Watson, and the Scottish pair of David Lilly and Ross Mackenzie in midfield department, while Honduran defender Richard Perdomo was a teammate of Whitecaps winger Vicente Arze at Mercer University. New signing Brian Levey, meanwhile, will challenge last season's number one Chris McClellan for the starting goalkeeping position.
The boost in firepower should improve Carolina's chances of building on their inaugural 2007 campaign, but like many of their rivals, the RailHawks will need to be strong at home in order to secure postseason soccer in 2008.
While the 2007 season was a complete turnaround for Portland Timbers, there will be higher expectations for the Oregon club to make a more serious push for the USL-1 title in 2008. Head coach and general manager Gavin Wilkinson earned the USL-1 Coach of the Year award during his first season in charge of the Timbers last year, as The City of Roses outfit went from finishing second from bottom in 2006 to a second-place finish last term. After disposing of the Whitecaps in the playoff quarter-finals, Portland just missed out on last season's USL-1 championship final after a penalty shoot-out defeat at home to Atlanta Silverbacks in the semifinals.
Former New Zealand international Wilkinson has brought in several new faces to PGE Park. They include two new goalkeepers from Major League Soccer in former Houston Dynamo back-up Jordan James and on-loan FC Dallas shot-stopper Ray Burse. Both men will have big shoes to fill after last season's USL-1 Goalkeeper of the Year in Josh Wicks was transferred to MLS club Los Angeles Galaxy, along with Timbers team-mate Bryan Jordan. Former Charleston Battery man Tim Karalexis and on-loan LA Galaxy player Scott Bolkan join the returning defensive quartet of Leonard Griffin, Cameron Knowles, Justin Thompson and Scot Thompson in Portland, while former Ivory Coast youth international Arsene Oka, former Miami FC man Miguel Guante, and on-loan LA Galaxy player Vardan Adzemian are the new faces in the Timbers midfield. The strike-force includes Portland native and former MLS forward Chris Brown, as well as highly-rated Japanese international Takayuki Suzuki. Wilkinson has also returned to his native New Zealand to add to his 2008 roster, with Scottish midfielder Bryan Little arriving from Auckland City and Solomon Islands international forward Benjamin Totori coming in from Waitakere United.
Some of the recent player movement may affect how observers see the Timbers may fare in 2008, though most USL-1 fans should expect a strong showing from Wilkinson's squad. With the help of the 'Timbers Army' supporters group and the old-style turf surface to play on, Portland usually made life very difficult for visitors to PGE Park. This season, however, a change in the playing surface to FieldTurf may act as a bit of a leveler for visiting clubs, as a handful of USL-1 sides also play on the artificial surface in their home stadiums. One notable absentee from Timbers games this year will be the club's beloved mascot and ambassador in 'Timber Jim' Serrill, who retired from his role at the club this past January.
PUERTO RICO ISLANDERS
One of the surprise packages of the 2007 USL-1 season, Puerto Rico Islanders will aim for more success in their fifth season in existence. After replacing Toribio Rojas as head coach last May, former Northern Ireland international striker Colin Clarke helped the Caribbean outfit to a second-straight postseason appearance, with the Islanders just missing out on the USL-1 championship final after a penalty shoot-out defeat to eventual champions Seattle Sounders in the semifinals. Last November, Puerto Rico also reached the semis of Caribbean Club Championship before losing 1-0 to Trinidad & Tobago club Joe Public FC.
There has been plenty of change in personnel in Puerto Rico, with several players leaving the club during the off-season. They include defender Marco Velez making the jump to MLS with Toronto FC, while goalkeeper Josh Saunders has become first choice at USL-1 rivals Miami FC Blues. Clarke's new arrivals include former California Victory and Vancouver Whitecaps striker Josh Hansen, former Carolina RailHawks midfielder Jonny Steele, and former FC Dallas players Sandi Gbandi and Scott Jones. Former Columbus Crew goalkeeper Bill Gaudette, meanwhile, is expected to be the Islanders' number one this season. Those returning to the Tropa Naranja (Orange Troop) include English forward Taiwo Atieno, Haitian international Fabrice Noël, and Ecuadorian-born attacker Petter Villegas, who has been recently capped at the international level by Puerto Rico.
The Islanders season will face disruption with Puerto Rico's World Cup qualifying campaign, as Clarke not only serves as the club's head coach, but as manager of the national team. Under his stewardship, Puerto Rico have reached a two-leg qualifying tie with Central American giants Honduras on June 4 and 14. A handful of Islanders players in Villegas, Rafael Ortiz, Alexis Rivera, and Noah Delgado are likely to miss a least two USL-1 games as a result, and should Puerto Rico defeat Honduras over two legs, they could potentially meet Canada in the semifinal stages of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for South Africa 2010.