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USSF Division 2 Season Preview: USL Conference


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When the USSF brokered the deal to ensure second-division soccer took place in 2010, adopting the leagues names as conferences seemed like a logical step. It was a way of paying homage to the two sides that supply the 12 teams that comprise the league. As a result, it would only seem logical that the remaining USL-affiliated clubs would participate in the conference of the same name.

Half the USL conference is comprised of new teams — Tampa Bay and NSC Minnesota will play their first-ever games over the next two weeks, while Austin begins a second year. Almost by default, Portland stands above the rest, though the Timbers are a deep team, preparing for this season with one eye on the impending move to MLS in 2011.

With eight of the 12 teams making the playoffs, a postseason spot is there for the taking. The other two more established clubs, Puerto Rico and Rochester, have made the USL playoffs on a regular basis, and even with a slightly different competition they'll want to produce the same results.

Here's a look at the USL Conference:

Austin Aztex

2009: 5-17-8, Did not make playoffs

Coach: Adrian Heath

Players to Watch: Miguel Gallardo, Eddie Johnson, Jay Needham

Bottom Line: Expansion teams almost always struggle in a debut season, and 2009 was no different in Austin. Winners of just five games, Austin finished second-to-last, only placing ahead of Cleveland City Stars, a club that no long exists. With one season under their belt, Austin is poised to take a step forward and compete for a playoff spot.

Some decent players were unearthed in '09, like goalie Miguel Gallardo and forward Eddie Johnson, a former Manchester United youth player. Johnson was Austin's leading goal scorer, but will need to finish with more than just five goals if Austin wants to make the playoff dream a reality.

Adding depth are a couple of MLS castoffs: Lance Watson and Leonard Griffin were added, along with Jay Needham, a former D.C. United draft pick with European (he spent two years with Alta IF in Norway). A number of harsh lessons were learned in the club's debut season, and Austin has a chance to show that they've picked up on the nuances of the league by competing for a playoff spot.

NSC Minnesota Stars

2009: Did Not Play

Coach: Manny Lagos

Players to Watch: Louis Crayton, Melvin Tarley, Johnny Menyongar

Bottom Line: Things didn't look good for soccer fans in Minnesota when the Thunder folded late in 2009. However, the National Sports Center acted quickly and have hastily assembled a professional squad in a little under three months. The Stars are in good hands and will be ready to go on Sunday, a remarkable feat considering the circumstances.

A trio of Liberian players — Louis Crayton, Johnny Menyongar and Melvin Tarley — bring more than 30 years of combined professional experience to Minnesota. Tarley and Menyongar both previously played for the Thunder and will play an integral role in the Stars' attack. Crayton gets the starting nod in goal after spending last season in D.C.

There's also Chinese midfielder LeiLei Gao, who's logged time with teams in his native China, New Zealand and Finland. Warren Ukah and South African striker Two-Boys Gumede provide depth up front, where Minnesota looks the deepest. While scoring goals may not be a problem up north, the ability to shut down the opposing attack will determine Minnesota's 2010 fate.

Portland Timbers

2009: 16-4-10, Lost in Semifinals

Coach: Gavin Wilkinson

Players to Watch: Steve Cronin, Mandjou Keita, Ryan Pore

Bottom Line: After a tremendous regular season for Portland last year, the defeat at the hands of the Vancouver Whitecaps in the semifinals was a stinging blow. Those returning from that bitter loss will want to erase the memory as soon as possible, and with a strong roster coming back, 2010 should be a triumphant one as Portland plays a last season of second-tier soccer.

The Timbers boast one of the league's deepest rosters from back to front. Steve Cronin is the foundation at the back, a solid keeper tested at both MLS and USL levels. Defense was key for Portland last year, as they conceded only 19 goals, and leading scorers Mandjou Keita and Ryan Pore return to provide the offensive firepower. The duo combined for a total of 21 from last season, and will look to best the old mark in the coming year.

With MLS beckoning, moves are being made to prepare the club for the step up in competition next year. Forwards Gabriel Obatola and Bright Dike recently signed with the club, and Quavas Kirk and Ian Joy were also added during the offseason, giving Portland a wealth of depth and players with MLS experience.

Puerto Rico Islanders

2009: 15-7-8, Lost in Semifinals

Coach: Colin Clarke

Players to Watch: Bill Gaudette, Marco Velez, Nicholas Addlery

Bottom Line: The Puerto Rico Islanders are hoping that this is the year when they take it to the next level. A USL playoff team for four straight seasons, the Islanders have failed to translate that into a postseason championship — the closest coming in 2008, when Puerto Rico lost 2-1 against Vancouver in the final.

Bill Gaudette's return boosts those chances, an uncertainty after the keeper spent time on trial with New York Red Bulls during the preseason. Defender and 2009 MVP Cristian Arrieta is up in the air, as the 30-year-old recently signed with the Philadelphia Union. Arrieta's departure makes Marco Velez all the more important in the Islanders' defense.

Puerto Rico suffered a couple of key losses this offseason — Jonathan Steele and Fabrice Noel — meaning that uncertainty reigns about the coming season. Losing Arrieta would be another blow, and test Colin Clarke's coaching ability. With the departure of Steele and Noel, striker Nicholas Addlery must shoulder more of the offensive load, while the club will also look to veteran midfielder Noah Delgado.

Rochester Rhinos

2009: 11-9-10, Lost in Quarterfinals

Coach: Bob Lilley

Players to Watch: Isaac Kissi, Frank Sanfilippo, Darren Spicer

Bottom Line: Rochester is a club used to postseason play. Since their debut in 1996, the club has qualified for the playoffs, no matter the league — A-League, USISL A-League, USL First Division — Rochester made it a point to ensure qualification. Last season Rochester couldn't build on a semifinal appearance in the U.S. Open Cup and sputtered out in the quarterfinals of the USL playoffs.

New coach Bob Lilley was brought in at the end of 2009, bringing with him sweeping changes through the organization. Under Lilley, numerous personnel changes have been made, leaving Rochester with only a few players left from last year's squad.

In an effort to build a quicker, younger, and faster attacking club, players like Isaac Kissi, Tino Nunez, Darren Spicer and Anthony Hamilton were brought in. MLS combine All-Star Andrew Hoxie also signed with Rochester, rounding out the young and talented attack. No forward is over 26 years old.

Whether the youth movement pays off will be the measure of the season, as Lilley and general manager Pat Ercoli are both responsible for building the squad. They decided to let leading goal scorer Johnny Menyongar sign with Minnesota, while re-stocking with a youthful emphasis. Troy Roberts and Frank Sanfilippo are two defensive additions that bring depth to the back line.

FC Tampa Bay Rowdies

2009: Did Not Play

Coach: Paul Dalglish

Players to Watch: Jeremy Christie, Adam Nowland, Takuya Yamada

Bottom Line: As one of four clubs debuting in the USSF Division 2 League, Tampa Bay is a particularly enigmatic team. Former Houston Dynamo player Paul Dalglish was named coach earlier this year, and he'll be hoping to bring Tampa Bay year one success. The team assembled is an interesting mix of young American talent with some unknown but experienced international talent.

Takuya Yamada, a former Japanese international with more than 400 club appearances brings the most experienced resume, though it's unclear how he'll make the transition after spending 13 years playing in Japan. Adam Nowland is an English midfielder who has bounced around between the Championship and League One — he'll team up with Yamada in the center of the park. The Rowdies also have a player who has a chance of representing his country at the World Cup — New Zealand international and midfielder Jeremy Christie was with the All Whites at the Confederations Cup in 2009 and will hope to impress the New Zealand technical staff between now and the end of May.

Dalglish will have to bring it all together on the field, and it's not going to be easy. New teams take time to mesh, though a playoff spot is within reach if Dalglish is up to the task.

Projected order of finish

1. Portland*

2. Rochester*

3. Puerto Rico*

4. Minnesota*

5. Tampa Bay

6. Austin

*Denotes playoff team


  1. I’m wondering how the Tampa humidity will affect results for the Rowdies. Only three of the players are from Florida. The others can’t possibly acclimatize by June-July-August. Will, though, they be better prepared than the opposition? Heat is one thing, heat and humidity another entirely. Not just that, but the pitch will most often be wet (after an afternoon’s summer rain) for four months of the season! No elevation to deal with though! Any thoughts?

  2. All three Puerto Rican teams made it through the first group stage of the Caribean Cup. The Islanders had a bye and the other two finished top of their groups. The Islanders should get a Champions League slot and Bayamon should win their second round group. We might see two Puerto Rican teams at CONCACAF.

  3. Speaking of Euro snobbery, why is the crown jewel of the 2010 WC called Soccer City Stadium? I thought we were the only ones stupid enough to call it soccer. All the Euro kids said so.

  4. FC Tampa Bay Rowdies? Why aren’t they just the traditional NASL name Tampa Bay Rowdies? This FC and AC thing has gone waaaaaaaaaay too far. Same thing with MLS. Real Salt Lake? Seattle Sounder FC?

    We’re losing our identity on the alter of eurosnoberry.

  5. Leilei Gao from what I understand is much much better than Long Tan.

    Tampa Bay has made some interesting signings but seems too new to really win anything. I think Minnesota finishes ahead of them.

  6. House park was a great place to play soccer before they put in field turf. Why does HS football have to ruin everything.

  7. The Rhinos will be solid this year. And I am glad I can follow them with online TV this year. Also, Rhinos fans are still top notch.

  8. Watch out for Tampa this year. They drew FC Dallas and beat Philly in the preseason (Tampa led both games at half; Dallas and Philly played their starters for the first half then pulled them). Wouldn’t be surprised at a 2nd or 3rd place finish behind Portland.

    The Rowdies have some explosive speed up front in their 4-2-3-1. Watch out for these two names if Dalglish starts them: Pascal Millen and Long Tan. Pascal made Philly look silly with the moves he was putting on them, and Tan has been making great explosive runs from the wing in the 3 games I’ve seen him play so far. Gonna be a fun team to watch.

  9. Yeah, but like Minnesota and Tampa Bay, Austin is almost a new team.

    The jay Needham signing lloks like a great one.

    Also, you guys should keep an eye out for the Cuban kid, Yordany Alvarez. When that kid is on, he is a joy to watch. he really impressed me in some games last year.

  10. I am always surprised by those who define the success of a season soley in terms of the playoffs. I would rather be first over a whole season, esp. setting a new record for consecutive games without a defeat, than be ordinary or worse and happen to have a good playoff round. RSL last year and NYRB the previous year were impossible to watch for the whole season, but succeeded very well in the playoffs. After all there are 30 games in a season and only 5 or 6 in the playoffs. Just think of the playoffs as a seperate cup competition and enjoy the season. It works for me in baseball, as well.

  11. On paper, Portland is filthy. I wish marcelin the best, but I am not so sure that he will be an MLS player. He had some dreadful moments for the Islanders but he had a lot of very good ones as well and his light was really shining for Haiti during last year’s Gold Cup.

  12. Surely, ok the logo isn’t so hot, I can admit that. I have learned to live with it. I don’t even think about it anymore.

    You memory must be kind of short. Mutiny. Clash. Burn. Let’s see. That is just MLS and since 96.

    Surely, you were exaggerating. Which is always a lot of fun…

    Fortunately, the logos don’t play or my boys would get crushed.

    Like someone else said, if FCNY actually ever steps on the field to play a meaningful match, islanders will be out of the basement. heck. You could argue that our logo looking pretty good next to that of the team formerly known as the Raging Rhinos…

    Speaking of the Rhinos: Lilley is often accused of being “boring” but all that guy does is win. It kind of cracks me up that he and Clarke get pummelled for boring football when they get pretty good results.

  13. Portland is insanely deep this year.

    They could field two teams in this league.

    New players of note: James Marcelin (will be a MLS player), OJ (Obatola), Ross Smith, Steve Purdy, Ian Joy

    They are carrying 28 players

  14. yes to the move to House Park

    RE: Heat- the other team had to play in it and invariably found a way to score late. There had to be a reconrd number of goals given up in the last 5 minutes and extra time. I get your point about training, but they trained in the mornings at times to avoid the heat.

    I think their experience will solve some of the late give away issues.

  15. No doubt…

    Someone at SBI – I am extremely interested to get a behind the scenes look (as much as possible) at the operating budgets of all of the Division 2 clubs. If the crew there can sneak in a few questions here and there and compile it by the end of the season it would be a great feat. How secretive are the owners/operators of these clubs about budgets outside of players salaries? I would love to see the financial statements for these clubs.

  16. Don’t think Austin will finish last this year. They were missing their keeper Miguel Gallardo for almost half the season last year with a broken leg. They have a live wire in Sullivan Silva and have picked up some good players that will add depth to the squad. Not to mention they will be moving to downtown Austin this year to the newly renovated House Park. It will be a better pitch, and in a central location will attract more fans to the game giving the players a little extra fan support.

  17. I think better weather this year might go a long way in helping the Aztex. Last year Austin had a brutally hot summer with almost seventy days above 100 degrees and the team dropped an awful lot of points in the final minutes of games. I think training in slightly cooler weather week in and week out might give the team that extra help they need to hang on for a full 90 minutes.

    I hope so anyway.

  18. Double bonus!!

    NSC Minn. Stars jerseys features the Schwans “Nessie” logo. Choice of colors for Home/Away is kind of a head scratcher, tho.

  19. 1- Rochester
    2- Portland
    3- Austin
    4- Tampa Bay
    5- Minnesota
    6- Puerto Rico

    The Islanders are a victim of their success. All the strong CONCACAF runs have led to the team being raided.

    Rochester will be very strong under Bob Lilley.

  20. No chance Tampa and Minnesota finish ahead of Austin

    Club has making the playoffs as a priority and cleared the roster after last year’s failure.

    They will do what it takes to win

  21. I’d have to imagine that the Portland players are treating this season as an extended tryout to try and get a contract in the move up to MLS similar to Le Toux in Seattle.

  22. glad to see Division 2 get some time in a big soccerblog like this. hope the local fans in these cities will represent this year…

  23. These logos look like they were drawn in Paintbrush.

    Why do U.S. clubs feel the need to feature a cheesy soccer ball or animal in their crest?

    Hope the league does well, but this certainly isn’t going to attract the premier league watching cool kids.

  24. Like the USL coverage. Glad to see my Rhino’s got an overhaul, they were getting pretty old. Should be an interesting season…


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