By TRAVIS CLARK
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:
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.
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.
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
3. Puerto Rico*
5. Tampa Bay
*Denotes playoff team