For the majority of this winter, it looked like second division soccer in the United States was extinct. Squabbling between the newly-formed NASL and established USL left the second tier hanging in the balance.
Fortunately, the U.S. Soccer Federation stepped in and put an end to the mess, bringing the two sides together and brokering a one-year truce that set up a league ready to open play this weekend.
The league will be split into two six-team conferences — each named after one of the existing leagues — with play running from April through October, and each club playing 30 matches. Eight teams make the postseason, with the winner of each conference earning a playoff spot, and the top six qualifying after in a single-table format.
The revolving door of clubs will play a prominent role in 2010. Two teams, Portland and Vancouver, are in a state of transition with MLS beckoning next year. Meanwhile, A.C. St. Louis and the Tampa Bay Rowdies signed on for 2010, and a new team emerged in Minnesota as the Thunder folded. Crystal Palace Baltimore joined from USL-2, while the Charleston Battery relegated themselves down a level.
With the season set to get underway April 10, here's a look at the NASL Conference:
2009: 16-7-7, Lost in Quarterfinals
Coach: Martin Rennie
Players to Watch: Daniel Paladini, Gregory Richardson, Mark Schulte
Bottom Line: A playoff team a season ago, Carolina kept most of their team intact after a second place finish in 2009. That didn't translate to success in the USL playoffs, as the Railhawks were upset by the Vancouver Whitcaps in the quarterfinals, going losing 1-0 over a two-leg aggregate series.
The core is led up by veteran defender and team captain Mark Schulte, who anchors the defense along with Matt Bobo. Up front, Gregory Richardson leads the attack, with the former Joe Public striker entering his first full season after joining the Railhawks halfway through 2009.
An interesting tactic Rennie employs is a starting goalie rotation. Caleb Patterson-Sewell and Eric Reed each played 15 games last year, and new signing Nic Platter will likely jump in the rotation for Patterson-Sewell. The expectations are high in Carolina, and they'll want to improve on last season's disappointing quarterfinal loss.
Crystal Palace Baltimore
2009: 6-9-5, Did not make playoffs (USL-2)
Coach: Jim Cherneski and Pete Medd
Players to Watch: Mathew Mbuta, Gary Brooks, Tsuyoshi Yoshitake
Bottom Line: Crystal Palace face the difficult task of making a smooth transition from the third division (USL-2) to the second tier of the USSF Division 2 league. Soccer in Baltimore is starting to flourish with talk of a stadium, and it'll be worth watching to not only see how Crystal Palace does on the pitch, but also how many people show up in the stands.
The club has never enjoyed much success in the third tier, so making the playoffs in an even deeper, stronger, league is going to be too much for this club. A name familiar to New York fans is Matthew Mbuta, who returned to the Baltimore after getting cut loose by the Red Bulls. Joining Mbuta in a return to Crystal Palace is Gary Brooks, a leading attacker back in 2007-2008, who returns to his old club after a year with inter-state rival Real Maryland.
Several new additions, including Japenese players Tsuyoshi Yoshitake and Takuro Nishimura who were previously with Charleston and Portland respectively, bring the experience Palace needs if it has any legitimate hopes of contending. The unusual co-head coaches Jim Cherneski and Pete Medd will have their hands full trying to get this team into the playoffs.
2009: 8-17-5, Did not make playoffs
Coach: Victor Pastora
Players to Watch: Christian Gomez, Abe Thompson, Edward Santeliz
Bottom Line: After a lackluster performance in 2009, Miami's front office rang the changes, with the biggest move bringing in former D.C. United star Christian Gomez. The attacking midfielder had an up-and-down season for D.C. last year, and whether or not the 35-year-old has anything left in the tank is debatable. If he can recapture his 2007 form, it'll be the signing of the season in the second division, and have Miami poised for a playoff run.
Joining Gomez in the former-MLS ranks is Abe Thompson. Formerly of Kansas City and FC Dallas, Thompson will look to provide a consistent goal-scoring threat up front. Another new acquisition, Edward Santeliz, a former El Salvador U-20 International, has shown a real nose for goal in preseason games. Of course that can't count for much if he can't turn it on once the regular season is underway.
Former MLS players Kyle Veris, Chris Gbandi, Mike Randolph and Zach Kirby will battle for playing time at the back. A lot of Miami FC's chances in 2010 will depend on Gomez, and if the midfielder can jump start the attack on a consistent basis.
2009: 12-11-7, Defending Champions
Coach: Marc Dos Santos
Players to Watch: Leonardo Di Lorenzo, Roberto Brown, Nevio Pizzolitto
Bottom Line: The defending champs return the core of last season's victorious squad, with the only notable subtraction the loss of Joey Gjertsen to the San Jose Earthquakes.
Bringing back midfielder Leonardo Di Lorenzo and last year's leading goal-scorer Roberto Brown ensured that the right players returned to Montreal. Coming in are the likes of Reda Agourram, a 19-year-old member of the Canadian U-20 team, Portuguese midfielder Helder Filipe Da Costa Soares, and French midfielder Philippe Billy to add depth. Brown was the only consistent striker last year, so Montreal will need another younger player to step up and give the club's offense another option.
While the onus is on Montreal to repeat as champions, the constant speculation about a move to Major League Soccer in 2012 draws a number of headlines. Once the season gets underway, that will likely take a backseat as the Impact begin their title defense.
A.C. St. Louis
Coach: Claude Anelka
Players to Watch: Steve Ralston, Luke Kreamalmeyer, Alec Dufty
Bottom Line: A brand-new club, A.C. St. Louis made some noise earlier this year with the signing of former New England Revolution midfielder Steve Ralston. However, Ralston's health remains a concern, while many questions surround his new team.
Coach Claude Anelka has a rather mysterious background, and even less coaching experience. The brother of Chelsea striker Nicolas once paid a lower-tier Scottish club £300,000 to manage them back in 2004. After earning one point in 8 matches, he left his post, resurfacing six years later as the head man of this brand-new expansion team.
Luke Kreamalmeyer brings some of the most second-tier experience, but with a team littered with younger players, don't be surprised if A.C. St. Louis hovers near the bottom of the table for most of 2010.
2009: 11-10-9, Lost in Final to Montreal
Coach: Teitur Thordarson
Players to Watch: Jay Nolly, Martin Nash, Marlon James
Bottom Line: Vancouver will spend much of 2010 with one eye on the future, as next season will mark their MLS debut. After finishing 7th during the regular season, the Whitecaps went on a run that culminated with a 6-3 defeat over two legs in the USL Final against Montreal.
Vancouver has made it a habit of making the playoffs, and even with MLS just one year away, finishing out their second division stay in style. Starting goalie Jay Nolly will have his say in that, as he'll look to build on an impressive 2009.
The departures of Lyle Martin and Charles Gbeke leave holes to fill, as the latter set the pace up front. Veteran forward Marlon James will be relied upon to make up for their departures. Captain Martin Nash, one of the league's all-time best,is another key midfield cog. Vancouver's Residence Academy will also get a chance to show what it's made of, as academy products Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Dever Orgill and Cornelius Stewart will vie for playing time.
Projected Order of Finish
4. Miami FC*
5. Crystal Palace Baltimore
6. A.C. St. Louis
*Denotes playoff team