By Simon Fudge/whitecapsfc.com
This Saturday sees the curtain raised on the 2009 United Soccer Leagues First Division (USL-1) season.
Vancouver Whitecaps enter the new campaign as defending league champions, though the likes of Montreal Impact and Puerto Rico Islanders will aim to dethrone Teitur Thordarson's side after extensive preseason campaigns and competitive action in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Two new clubs from Austin and Cleveland enter USL-1 in place of Seattle Sounders (now in Major League Soccer) and Atlanta Silverbacks, while several other clubs will be new-look sides on the pitch this year.
As part of our build-up to the new season, whitecapsfc.com takes a closer look at the ten clubs that the Whitecaps will face in USL-1 in 2009.
Stadium: Nelson Field (capacity: 8,800)
Last season's record: USL-1 expansion club
Head coach: Adrian Heath
Key players: Miguel Gallardo, Eddie Johnson, Gifton Noel-Williams
One of two new clubs to be joining USL-1, Austin Aztex make the jump from the USL Premier Development League (PDL) for the 2009 season. Based in the state capital of Texas, the Aztex have a partnership with English Premier League side Stoke City FC. Aztex owner Phil Rawlins is a member of the board at Stoke City.
Though it is Austin's inaugural season, English coach Adrian Heath had the advantage of studying USL-1 last season after being appointed Aztex head coach in February 2008. His squad includes several members of last year's Aztex PDL side, including the club's first signing in 2008 PDL Goalkeeper of the Year Miguel Gallardo. Experienced English striker Gifton Noel-Williams will be looked upon to score goals for Austin, while Heath has also brought in former Manchester United trainee Eddie Johnson and former Milton Keynes Dons midfielder Alex Tapp from England. Welsh defender Gareth Evans also has English league experience following a spell with Wrexham.
Stadium: WakeMed Soccer Park (capacity: 7,000)
Last season's record: 9W-11L-10D (8th Place)
Head coach: Martin Rennie
Key players: Gavin Glinton, Marcelo Romero, Matt Watson
A second-straight eight-place finish brought many changes to Carolina RailHawks at the end of last season. After missing the playoffs by two points, the North Carolina outfit replaced Scott Schweitzer with 2007 USL Second Division Coach of the Year Martin Rennie. The Scotsman is a promising coaching talent, having led Cleveland City Stars to the USL-2 championship title last season.
The 34-year-old Rennie has assembled a competitive squad that could surprise a few people in USL-1 this year. Returning players include Hamed Diallo, Kupono Low, Caleb Norkus, and Matt Watson. Rennie has also signed seven players that were in MLS in 2008. They include experienced striker Gavin Glinton, who played for San Jose Earthquakes last season. In midfielder Marcelo Romero, Carolina have a player of real pedigree. The 32-year-old played in the Spanish Primera Liga with Málaga CF and appeared in the 2002 FIFA World Cup for his native Uruguay.
Stadium: Blackbaud Stadium (capacity: 5,117)
Last season's record: 11W-12L-7D (5th Place)
Head coach: Mike Anhaeuser
Key players: Dan Antoniuk, Stephen Armstrong, Randi Patterson
After making a bright start to the 2008 season, Charleston Battery were left disappointed by a fifth-place finish in the USL-1 standings and a first-round playoff exit to Rochester Rhinos. They did enjoy an impressive run to the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup final last season, but MLS club D.C. United denied them the silverware after a 2-1 victory last August. Head coach Mike Anhaeuser will have to do without Cuban midfielder Osvaldo Alonso after he joined MLS expansion club Seattle Sounders FC, and centre back Marco Reda, who moved to USL-1 rivals Vancouver Whitecaps.
The South Carolina club will have several returning faces. Stephen Armstrong, Ian Fuller, Dusty Hudock, Randi Patterson, and Darren Spicer are all back with the Battery, while new additions include experienced USL-1 striker Dan Antoniuk, former Atlanta Silverbacks midfielder Scott Buete, former Seattle Sounders player Kenji Treschuk, and former Carolina RailHawks defender Frankie Sanfilippo. Tsuyoshi Yoshitake also joins Anhaeuser's squad after playing in Japan's J.League Division One with Tokyo Verdy 1969. There is also some Canadian content in Charleston. Assistant coach Mark Watson is a former Whitecaps player, defender Chris Williams hails from Toronto, while Tyler Hemming played for MLS club Toronto FC last season.
CLEVELAND CITY STARS
Stadium: Middlefield Cheese Stadium (capacity: 8,000)
Last season's record: 10W-3L-7D (3rd Place in USL-2; USL-2 champions)
Head coach: Rod Underwood
Key players: Leo Gibson, Musa Otieno, Godfrey Tenoff
Entering their third year as a professional club, Cleveland City Stars make the jump to USL-1 after winning the USL Second Division title in 2008. There was also a change at head coach, as Rod Underwood left his position as Portland Timbers assistant coach to take the role that was vacated by Martin Rennie, who joined Carolina RailHawks. Rennie's move also saw goalkeeper Eric Reed and two-time USL-2 Player of the Year Mark Schulte join him at the Railhawks from Cleveland.
The Ohio-based club have a handful of returning players for 2009. They include Kenya international defender Musa Otieno and team captain Godfrey Tenoff, who has prior USL-1 experience with Minnesota Thunder. Another former Thunder player in Leo Gibson is one of the City Stars' new faces, while Underwood has players with MLS experience to choose from. They include midfielder Gordon Kljestan, who is the brother of USA international star Sacha Kljestan. Cleveland also have a defensive option in former Trinity Western University star and Vancouver Whitecaps reserves player Paul Ballard. The New Westminster, BC, native joined the City Stars following a spell in South Africa.
MIAMI FC BLUES
Stadium: Lockhart Stadium (capacity: 20,450) *Other home stadiums to be confirmed.*
Last season's record: 8W-12L-10D (9th Place)
Head coach: Crizam Cezar de Oliveira Filho (Zinho)
Key players: Cristiano Dias, Walter Ramirez, Diego Serna
After owners Traffic Sports left their decision to commit Miami FC Blues for the 2009 USL-1 season until March 18, the South Florida club have left themselves only three-and-a-half weeks to prepare for the new campaign. Since March 25, Blues head coach Zinho has been looking for players by holding open tryouts. Though they had the league's top goalscorer in Alex Afonso last season, it is unlikely that the Brazilian marksman will be returning for a second season.
Cristiano Dias, Leo Inacio Nunes, and Walter Ramirez do return for the 2009 season, with Miami FC in real need of trying to put things right after missing the playoffs the past two years. Their latest additions include experienced striker Diego Serna. The Colombian comes to the Blues after spending time in MLS with Miami Fusion and Los Angeles Galaxy. Argentine defender Facundo Erpen also joins the club after spells with MLS clubs D.C. United and Colorado Rapids.
Stadium: National Sports Center Stadium (capacity: 8,500)
Last season's record: 10W-11L-9D (7th Place)
Head coach: Donny Gramenz
Key players: Jeremiah Bass, Nicolas Platter, Ricardo Sanchez
After ending a three-year playoff drought in 2008, Minnesota Thunder will hope to build on making the postseason last year. Donny Gramenz became the club's third head coach after initially replacing Amos Magee on an interim basis last July. Not only did Gramenz lead the Thunder to their first playoff berth since 2004, they gave Vancouver Whitecaps a real scare in their two-leg quarterfinal series before losing 5-4 on aggregate.
Gramenz has proceeded to put his own stamp on the side for 2009. Gone are the likes of Stephen deRoux (Montreal Impact), Leo Gibson (Cleveland City Stars), and Kevin Taylor, while Luchi Gonzalez decided to hang up his boots in March. Minnesota's reinforcements include the former D.C. United pair of Rod Dyachenko and Quavas Kirk, former Seattle Sounders midfielder Youssouf Kante, and former Portland Timbers man Lawrence Olum. Former Canadian youth international Andres Arango is one several Thunder players that are back for the new season. This also includes top USL-1 goalkeeper Nicolas Platter, captain Jeremiah Bass, and Mexican set-piece specialist Ricardo Sanchez.
Stadium: Stade Saputo (capacity: 13,034)
Last season's record: 12W-12L-6D (3rd Place)
Head coach: John Limniatis
Key players: Roberto Brown, Matt Jordan, Nevio Pizzolitto
An eventful 2008 season made way for an equally memorable start to the 2009 campaign for Montreal Impact. John Limniatis enters his first full season in charge of the Quebec club after leading the Impact to Nutrilite Canadian Championship glory and the quarterfinals of the 2008-09 CONCACAF Champions League. Despite starting preseason in early January and beating Santos Laguna in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal in front of 55,571 fans at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, a stunning second-leg turnaround by the Mexican club denied Montreal a place in the semifinals.
Looking to defend their Canadian title and win their first USL-1 championship since 2004, the Impact have a squad full of experience. This includes five former Vancouver Whitecaps players in Srdjan Djekanovic, Tony Donatelli, Joey Gjertsen, Eduardo Sebrango, and David Testo. Former Minnesota Thunder man Stephen deRoux and former Seattle Sounders midfielder Kevin Sakuda have also arrived in Montreal, while Limniatis will have several experienced players to choose from. They include goalkeeper Matt Jordan, captain Nevio Pizzolitto, midfielders Sandro Grande and Leonardo Di Lorenzo, and Panamanian striker Roberto Brown.
Stadium: PGE Park (capacity: 19,556)
Last season's record: 7W-13L-10D (11th Place)
Head coach: Gavin Wilkinson
Key players: Steve Cronin, Johan Claesson, Takayuki Suzuki
The optimism that stemmed from the 2007 season gave way to disappointment in 2008, as Portland Timbers missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons after finishing last in the regular season standings. Most surprising was their less than impressive home record of five wins, five defeats, and five draws in one of the most intimidating atmospheres in North American professional soccer - PGE Park.
Timbers head coach Gavin Wilkinson wasted no time in rebuilding his squad for the new season, with only six players retained from last year's 28-man squad list. Cameron Dunn, Shaun Higgins, Cameron Knowles, Tom Poltl, Takayuki Suzuki, and Scot Thompson are the remaining half-dozen, with Wilkinson boosting his roster with six former MLS players. They include former Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper Steve Cronin, who should be the Timbers number one this season. David Hayes and Tony McManus arrive from former USL-1 club Atlanta Silverbacks, while defender Takuro Nishimura is the club's second Japanese import in as many seasons. Swedish midfielder Johan Claesson may be a player to look out for this season, while former Vancouver Whitecaps man Jason McLaughlin is one of Wilkinson's striking options.
PUERTO RICO ISLANDERS
Stadium: Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium (capacity: 12,500)
Last season's record: 15W-6L-9D (1st Place - Commissioner's Cup winners)
Head coach: Colin Clarke
Key players: Noah Delgado, Bill Gaudette, Jonathan Steele
With a squad rich in talent, Puerto Rico Islanders aim to go one better than last year when they lost the USL-1 Championship Final to Vancouver Whitecaps. Colin Clarke deservedly won the league's Coach of the Year award after leading the Caribbean outfit to the Commissioner's Cup title as regular season champions. They have also flown the flag high for USL-1 and Caribbean club soccer by their remarkable run to the semifinals of the 2008-09 CONCACAF Champions League.
Clarke's squad includes 2008 Goalkeeper of the Year Bill Gaudette, last season's Defender of the Year Cristian Arrieta, and the reigning USL-1 Most Valuable Player Jonathan Steele. In Nigel Henry, the Islanders have one of the best defenders in the league, while Kendall Jagdeosingh and Fabrice Noel are two potent strikers in the Puerto Rico squad. One of their new additions is former Whitecaps forward Nicholas Addlery. The Jamaican has already had a positive impact in the club's Champions League campaign, with three goals in the knockout stages to date. Puerto Rico's strike force also includes another former Whitecaps player in Josh Hansen and former Miami FC Blues man Sean Fraser.
Stadium: Rochester Rhinos Stadium (capacity: 12,500)
Last season's record: 11W-10L-9D (4th Place)
Head coach: Darren Tilley
Key players: John Ball, Johnny Menyongar, Scott Vallow
Though a change of ownership brought a rushed start to last season's plans, Rochester Rhinos maintained their tradition of being one of the league's more competitive outfits in 2008. Led by former Vancouver Whitecaps striker Darren Tilley, the Rhinos were full value for their fourth-place regular season finish, with the Upstate New York club unlucky to miss last season's USL-1 Championship Final after being edged by Puerto Rico Islanders in their semifinal series.
Tilley has a number of players returning for the new season. They include starting goalkeeper and captain Scott Vallow and talented midfielder Johnny Menyongar. John Ball provides a wealth of experience to the Rhinos squad, while young Irishman Danny Earls impressed many with his performances on the left-hand side of midfield. Brazilian Ze Roberto, meanwhile, had a spell with the Whitecaps in 2007. Those to depart the Rhinos include former player/assistant coach Steve Guppy, who left to become assistant coach with MLS club Colorado Rapids. Defender Scott Palguta followed Guppy to Colorado, while Ross Smith (heart surgery) and Luke Kreamalmayer (Carolina RailHawks) have also moved on. Rochester's new additions include Brent Sancho (Atlanta Silverbacks), Kwame Sarkodie (Cleveland City Stars), and Taiwo Atieno (Puerto Rico Islanders).