USL-1 season preview - part three

USL & Whitecaps FC Three clubs that had contrasting fortunes in 2007 and over this past off-season are aiming for a memorable 2008 campaign. In the third part of our preview to the 2008 USL First Division season, we see if a new-look Minnesota Thunder will be one of the league's most improved sides and if Rochester Rhinos can put a turbulent winter behind them by getting positive results on the pitch. We also take a closer at the current USL-1 champions Seattle Sounders and their quest to end their 15-year stay in the league by defending their title before making the leap to Major League Soccer. MINNESOTA THUNDER After missing the USL-1 playoffs by six points in 2007, Minnesota Thunder will hope a new look to their squad and new ownership will help turn around the fortunes of the Minneapolis-St. Paul outfit. Amos Magee's side have missed out on the postseason the past three years, with the club finishing second behind Vancouver Whitecaps with 11 draws in the league last term. Minnesota's 11th-place finish last season brought huge turnover to Magee's squad, as the Thunder parted ways with as many as 18 players. Freddy Juarez (Carolina RailHawks) and Darren Spicer (Charleston Battery) both found new homes, while Ansu Toure was traded to Atlanta Silverbacks for fellow midfielder Dayton O'Brien. With several positions to fill, Magee has brought in 13 new faces to the Twin Cities club. They include former Vancouver Whitecaps striker Alen Marcina, former Miami FC forward Luchi Gonzalez, and former California Victory midfielder Ricardo Sanchez. Three former Montreal Impact players have also moved to Minnesota in defenders Andres Arango and Paul Moran, and striker Frederico Moojen. New Zealand international Andrew Barron, former San Jose Earthquakes defender Tighe Dombrowski, and former DC United man Stephen deRoux have also joined Magee's side for 2008. Despite several new faces arriving, the Thunder have eight players returning from last season. They include goalkeeper Nicolas Platter, defender Kevin Taylor, midfielders Kevin Friedland and Jeremiah Bass, and forward Aaron Paye. With new owners in the Belgian-based WingField Corporation, Minnesota's future looks bright. Magee will hope his side's improvement on the pitch is immediate following the struggles of the last three seasons. ROCHESTER RHINOS For a club with a huge tradition of excellence in USL-1, Rochester Rhinos enter the 2008 season with a sense of relief after much upheaval with the club's ownership during the off-season. Many throughout the league watched with wary, as the uncertainty over Rochester's existence grew in Upstate New York. By late March, Rob Clark's Adirondack Sports Club claimed control of the PAETEC Park outfit and set about making swift changes to the squad. Former Rhinos and Whitecaps striker Darren Tilley succeeded Laurie Calloway as head coach, with the Englishman being tasked with making Rochester a competitive outfit again after the club's disappointing 2007 campaign. The Rhinos finished fifth in the USL-1 regular season standings before being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by Atlanta Silverbacks. Change was not limited to Rochester's coaching department in the off-season, as only a dozen players were retained by the club for the current season. The likes of Josh Bolton and Mike Ambersley were two of 14 players to move on from Rochester in the winter, with the pair making a switch to Atlanta Silverbacks. New additions to the Rhinos include former England international Steve Guppy in a player-assistant coaching role, while former Whitecaps and Montreal Impact midfielder Ze Roberto and former Portland Timbers man Luke Kreamalmeyer have also joined the Flower City outfit, with Kreamalmeyer joining the Rhinos for an undisclosed fee from Charleston Battery. In Trinidad & Tobago native Leslie 'Tiger' Fitzpatrick, Rochester have a player with experience of Major League Soccer, while another T & T player to arrive is centre back David 'Atiba' Charles from W-Connection in his native country. Ecuadorian Juan Pablo Reyes comes to Rochester having spent the 2007-08 Major Indoor Soccer League season with Orlando Sharks, while Brazilian forward Mauricio Salles has three seasons of USL-1 experience with Montreal and Puerto Rico Islanders. There is also some Canadian flavour in Tilley's squad, with former Simon Fraser University star Leigh Sembaluk joining former Toronto FC reserve player Evan Milward at PAETEC Park. Despite having some talented new additions, Tilley has several experienced players making their return for the new season. They include goalkeepers Scott Vallow and Chase Harrison, as well as defenders Tenywa Bonseu, Nate Craft, Alfonso Loera, and Scott Palguta. Returning midfielders include John Ball, Rey Angel Martinez, and Johnny Menyongar, while forwards Matthew Delicate, Hamed Diallo, and Chad Severs are also in the reckoning for 2008. With Rochester not starting their season until a visit to Charleston on Friday, May 2, it remains to be seen if the disruption of the past few months, and the many changes to the squad, can be overcome in what many are predicting to be the most competitive USL-1 season in history. SEATTLE SOUNDERS The 2008 USL-1 season will the 15th and final campaign for defending champions Seattle Sounders. In 2009, Seattle Sounders FC will become the 15th franchise to enter Major League Soccer, and although this year will a swansong season for the Washington State club, head coach Brian Schmetzer will want to go out on a high with a successful defense of their league title. 2007 was an impressive campaign for the Emerald City outfit, as Seattle recorded an 11-game unbeaten run to finish top of the regular-season standings. After disposing of Carolina RailHawks in the first round of the playoffs, the Sounders needed penalties to dispose of a plucky Puerto Rico Islanders side in the semifinals before making easy work of Atlanta Silverbacks in the final with a 4-0 win at home last September. Seattle also came within two wins of a unique league and cup double, as Schmetzer's side reached the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup after wins over Pacific Northwest rivals Portland Timbers and MLS clubs Chivas USA and Colorado Rapids. FC Dallas eventually ended their hopes of reaching the final with a 2-1 extra-time win at Seattle's Qwest Field. The quality and experience of the Sounders has prompted Schmetzer to retain 17 members of last season's championship squad. 2007 USL-1 MVP Sebastien Le Toux is back, while strike partner Roger Levesque is entering his sixth season with the club. Jamaican forward Craig Tomlinson, meanwhile, is back for his eighth season with Seattle. Sounders captain Danny Jackson leads a veteran backline that includes Taylor Graham, Zach Scott, and Kevin Sakuda, while Seattle's midfield has real potency, with Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar, Josh Gardner, Leighton O'Brien, and Kenji Treschuk all returning. In Chris Eylander, Schmetzer has arguably one of the best goalkeepers in USL-1. There are also three new additions to the Sounders squad, with Seattle University products John Fishbaugher and Jason Cascio impressing Schmetzer enough in preseason to earn professional contracts, while French midfielder Youssouf Kante has also joined the club. The former Paris Saint Germain youth trainee recently had trials with MLS sides Toronto FC and Kansas City Wizards. Having played last season's USL-1 championship game at Starfire Sports Complex, the Sounders hope the cozy confines of the Tukwila, Washington-based stadium will give the club a distinct advantage this season after moving from Qwest Field. It should be widely expected that Seattle will be one of the teams to beat in USL-1 this year, but few in Western Washington should expect their title defense to be a simple task.