USL First Division honours its finest

By Simon Fudge/ United Soccer Leagues honoured the First Division's finest when it held its Championship Media & Awards Banquet at the Hilton Vancouver Metrotown in Burnaby, BC, on Saturday afternoon. Ahead of Sunday's USL-1 Championship Final between hosts Vancouver Whitecaps and regular season champions Puerto Rico Islanders at Swangard Stadium, both clubs and USL officials gathered to celebrate a highly-successful 2008 campaign. The festivities began with a series of speeches from various dignitaries, including Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, Islanders co-owner Stuart Clapper, and USL executive vice president & chief operating officer Tim Holt. Both captains in the Islanders' Noah Delgado and the Whitecaps Jeff Clarke also spoke on behalf of their teams ahead of the award presentations. The first accolades to be presented were the USL-1 All-League First and Second Team honours. Four Whitecaps in Martin Nash, Eduardo Sebrango, Wesley Charles, and Takashi Hirano received their awards, as did Puerto Rico's Bill Gaudette, Cristian Arrieta, and Jonny Steele. Gaudette received further acknowledgement after being named USL-1 Goalkeeper of the Year late last month. The first individual award of the day was presented to Charleston Battery midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, as the Cuban was named USL-1 Rookie of the Year ahead of Whitecaps winger Vicente Arze and Martin Nunez from Carolina RailHawks. The remaining league awards all went to members of the Islanders, with Arrieta named USL-1 Defender of the Year for 2008. The Italian was delighted with his accolade. "It's very nice to be acknowledged as the best defender in the league, but my thoughts have now turned to tomorrow's game," Arrieta told "My season has been 99 per cent good, but there's one more per cent to earn on Sunday." Puerto Rico were also honoured with the league's Coach of the Year award after Colin Clarke earned the nod ahead of Montreal Impact head coach John Limniatis. The former Northern Ireland international hopes a USL-1 title will follow for his side on Sunday. "Our goal this year was to win a championship," he said. "The individual honours are good, but the main prize will be awarded tomorrow." The Most Valuable Player award also went to a member of the Islanders, as Steele was voted the top player of the 2008 season by the coaches and general managers of USL-1. Though delighted to be named league MVP, the former Northern Ireland youth international admitted his focus is on the final. "We're a new franchise in the league, as we're only five years old," Steele said. "To win the final tomorrow would be a huge achievement for the club." With one game left in the 2008 season, Holt reflected on the many positive developments seen throughout USL-1 during the year. "The 2008 season has been the best season we've ever had in the USL First Division," he said. "We continue to make great progress in every measurable way. The on-field product has never been better, both in terms of the highest-level teams that are competing successfully on a continental level, as well as parity in terms of the balance of the league. That's a credit to the individual organizations that have gone out and scouted to bring in good players. The off-field developments have also been positive, with new stadiums being built like Saputo Stadium and attendance going up for the 11th straight season to almost 5,000 fans per game. There's increased stability among our teams, which is great to see."