USL & Whitecaps FC
This weekend sees the 2008 United Soccer Leagues First Division season begin with two games on Saturday.
Miami FC Blues, and their new head coach in Brazilian World Cup winner Zinho, host Charleston Battery at Tropical Park Stadium to raise the curtain on the new campaign. Later on Saturday, Canada's two USL-1 clubs meet in Vancouver, as the new-look Whitecaps host rivals Montreal Impact.
In the first part of our preview to the 2008 USL-1 season, we look at three of the clubs that begin their regular-season campaigns with the Whitecaps on Saturday.
With only one playoff appearance in the last four seasons, Charleston Battery will hope several new faces can improve their prospects of post-season action in the autumn. Mike Anhaeuser's side missed last season's playoffs by two points, as the South Carolina outfit had to settle for a tenth-place finish in the USL-1 standings after an 8-14-6 record. Their only consolation was reaching the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup quarter-finals before bowing out of the competition to Major League Soccer side FC Dallas.
The off-season brought an overhaul of the Battery squad, with several new faces coming to Blackbaud Stadium. Forward Darren Spicer has arrived from Minnesota Thunder, while former Charleston defender John Wilson has returned after leaving MLS side DC United. There is also some Canadian flavour, as former Toronto FC defender Marco Reda joins Victoria, BC, native Jordie Hughes in Anhaeuser's squad, while former Cuban internationals Osvaldo Alonso and Lester More come to the club after defecting from their country's national team during the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Former New York Red Bulls striker Randi Patterson, meanwhile, could prove to be a handful for USL-1 defenders this season.
Among those returning to Charleston this season are Lazo Alavanja, Chris Corcoran, Ian Fuller, and Stephen Armstrong. Goalkeeper Dusty Hudock, meanwhile, will be entering his 13th season in the USL-1 and ninth with the Battery. The club had a positive preseason, with the Battery having drawn and beaten MLS sides New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC respectively as hosts of the 2008 Carolina Challenge Cup tournament.
MIAMI FC BLUES
After an illustrious playing career that included winning the 1994 World Cup, former Brazilian international Zinho makes the move into coaching after taking charge of Miami FC Blues in October 2007. The 40-year-old – full name Crizam Cezar de Oliveira Filho – was unable to lead the south Florida club to the playoffs in his last season as a player in 2007, as Miami FC missed the postseason by a single point after recording a 9-15-4 record.
The first-year coach will have a mix of new and returning players for 2008, with Zinho recruiting talent from South America during the off-season. American-born Venezuelan striker Juan Pablo Galavis has joined a pair of Brazilian playmakers in Cauê Santos Da Mata and Leandro Bispo de Souza at Tropical Park Stadium, while striker Alex Afonso was a top-five leading goalscorer in Brazil's Sao Paulo state championship or Campeonato Paulista. Jamaican forward Sean Barrett and New Jersey native Jarryd Goldberg have also joined Zinho's squad, as has former Puerto Rico Islanders goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who signed for Miami FC a day before their season-opener against Charleston.
The Blues also have a solid core of returning players in Sean Cameron, Sean Fraser, Stephane Guillaume, John Pulido, Walter Ramirez, JP Rodrigues, and Eric Vasquez. With Zinho now to patrol the sidelines as a coach, the challenge for the former attacking midfielder will be to transfer his playing success to his new role.
With an extensive preseason campaign under their belts and the new Saputo Stadium built and ready for action, Montreal Impact are sure to expect big things from the upcoming campaign. Nick De Santis' side will be looking to complete some unfinished business after abrupt exits in the playoffs the last two seasons. After finishing third in the USL-1 standings with a record of 14-6-8, Montreal were stunned in playoff quarter-finals by Puerto Rico Islanders last September.
Montreal boast one of the most settled sides in USL-1 for 2008, with 17 of the 24 players in De Santis' squad all returning from last year. With the second lowest number of goals conceded in 2007, the Impact's defensive backline has been hit by the retirements of Jason DiTullio and Mauricio Vincello. This will see the club rely on the likes of three-time USL-1 Defender of the Year Gabriel Gervais and Nevio Pizzolitto to patrol the defence, while Adam Braz has returned to the Impact after spending 2007 in MLS with Toronto FC. The Quebec club have also acquired Italian lower division journeyman Stefano Pesoli and Frenchman Cedric Joqueviel to boost their defensive ranks, while other new faces include Montreal native Cristian Nunez, who played last season for Toronto FC reserves, and Brazilian attacker Severino Jefferson. Striker Dwight Barnett and Bolivian midfielder Pato Aguilera have also arrived this preseason, with Aguilera having initially been on trial with Charleston Battery last month.
Of course, the strength of the Impact is in those that have returned for 2008. Striker Charles Gbeke shared last season's USL-1 goalscoring title with Seattle Sounders hit-man Sebastien Le Toux, while midfielder Mauro Biello is entering his 15th season with Montreal, and 16th in USL-1. Argentine Leonardo Di Lorenzo was the club’s second leading goalscorer last year, while the likes of Patrick Leduc, Matthew Palleschi, and Antonio Ribeiro have plenty of league experience. In the American duo of Matt Jordan and Andrew Weber, the Impact have two proven goalkeepers, while three members of the Whitecaps 2006 USL-1 championship side in Joey Gjertsen, Sita-Taty Matondo, and David Testo have returned for 2008.
With their first six games on the road to start the season, Impact will have to wait until Victoria Day Monday, May 19, when Vancouver is the first-ever visitor to the brand-new Saputo Stadium. Montreal have also been tipped by some observers as favorites to win Canada's CONCACAF Champions League qualifying tournament versus the Whitecaps and Toronto FC in the summer.