By Simon Fudge/whitecapsfc.com
The settings for the first round of the 2009 United Soccer Leagues First Division playoffs were completed during the final weekend of regular season action.
The top seven clubs had all assured of their postseason berths the weekend before. All that was required was for the final regular season placings to be decided before the quest for this year's USL-1 championship began this week.
The action started on Thursday, with USL-1 regular season champions Portland Timbers heading into their bye week in positive fashion with a 2-1 home victory over Cleveland City Stars. George Josten scored twice for the Commissioner's Cup winners at PGE Park.
Friday proved to be the decisive evening, in terms of the league's playoff picture. Carolina RailHawks secured a club-best second-place finish and their first-ever winning record as a USL-1 club following a 2-0 home win over Montreal Impact. A Daniel Paladini penalty and a late goal by Brian Plotkin gave Martin Rennie's side their 16th victory of the campaign. The RailHawks then learned that their first-round playoff opponents would be the defending USL-1 champions in the Whitecaps, as Rochester Rhinos' 0-0 home draw with Charleston Battery gave the Upstate New York club a sixth-place finish. In Vancouver, the Whitecaps completed their regular season schedule with a 2-1 victory over Cleveland City. An early Charles Gbeke goal and a penalty from Marlon James meant the Whitecaps finished the 30-match campaign with a winning record, while the Stars had to settle for last place in the league standings.
On Saturday, Puerto Rico Islanders claimed third place with a 3-1 victory at lowly Miami FC Blues. Nicholas Addlery, Jonny Steele, and Josh Hansen scored for the Islanders in South Florida. Miami FC have now missed the playoffs for a third-straight season.
The final match of the regular season took place on Sunday, with Charleston heading into the playoffs on a winning note after a 3-2 win at Minnesota Thunder. Daniel Antoniuk scored the winner for the Battery, while Japanese import Tsuyoshi Yoshitake had a goal and an assist for the South Carolina outfit.
As a result, the first round of this year's USL-1 playoffs sees second-place Carolina take on seventh-place Vancouver, while third-place Puerto Rico battle sixth-place Rochester. Fourth-place Charleston will meet fifth-place Montreal in the third first-round match-up. As regular season champions, Portland have received a first-round bye and will play the lowest remaining in the playoff semifinals. The first round will be played as a two-match, aggregate score series, with the first legs going Thursday and the second legs taking place on Sunday.
The playoff semifinals will also be a two-match, aggregate score series, with matches taking place between the dates of Thursday, October 1, and Sunday, October 4. The 2009 USL-1 Championship Final is also a two-match, aggregate score series. The first leg takes place on Thanksgiving Saturday (October 10), while the second leg is set for Saturday, October 17.