By TRAVIS CLARK
A second division soccer league is on the verge of kicking off, a moment many U.S. soccer observers thought impossible earlier this year.
With the NASL-USL hatchet buried (for the time being, at least), the 12 clubs that comprise the USSF-run league will leave controversies behind and get down to the business of competing for a championship.
Two brand-new teams will see action for the very first time this week. A.C. St. Louis travels down to WakeMed Soccer Park to face the Carolina Railhawks, while NSC Minnesota makes the journey west to visit the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Here's a look at this weekend's match-ups:
A.C. St. Louis at Carolina Railhawks, 7pm
As newcomers St. Louis visit Carolina, championship talk abounds in Railhawks camp. A strong and confident team last season, Carolina's stingy defense anchored their second place finish in USL. A.C. St. Louis will have a tough go of it in their first-ever match. With Gregory Richardson leading the line up front, the Railhawks should have little trouble with St. Louis.
Rochester Rhinos at Miami FC, 7:30pm
Two teams with entirely new looks heading into 2010 meet in South Florida. The buzz surrounding Miami is driven by Christian Gomez, and the former D.C. United midfielder leads Miami's attack against a Rochester squad ripe with change. Rochester's high rate of roster turnover, coupled with Miami's home field edge, gives the Blues the slight advantage. And if Gomez brings his A game, the home team should have no problem with a Rhinos squad that is still coming together.
Montreal Impact at Austin Aztex, 7pm
Home side and second year Austin will be up against it when they host Montreal on Sunday. Defending champions a season ago, Montreal's established core returns and will put Aztex goalie Miguel Gallardo to the test early and often. While a result for Austin is a tall order, getting a point or even a win against the Impact would be a real signal of intent that the Aztex are ready to contend this year.
NSC Minnesota Stars at Vancouver Whitecaps, 7pm
Another new side opening play this weekend, Minnesota's hastily-assembled club travels to take on established power Vancouver. The Whitecaps will challenge the thin defensive corps of Minnesota, with veteran Roberto Brown leading the charge. Any chance that Minnesota has in this one will boil down to the performances of Johnny Menyongar and Melvin Tarley. Getting even a point in British Columbia would be a rousing success for the Stars.