Monday, March 25, 2013

Lower Divisions Preview – Part I: USL Pro

Part I - USL Pro     ||     Part II - MLS Reserves     ||     Part III - NASL 
The third tier of American soccer kicks off its third season since the ownership split that led to the second division NASL being formed, and is flying into the campaign on the wave of heightened national publicity courtesy of its new developmental partnership with Major League Soccer. The league will see the launch of two new teams on opposite sides of the nation and a schedule incorporating the 15 MLS Reserve League teams while the other four clubs have opted to individually affiliate with USL Pro sides and loan players.

The two new clubs, bringing the league field to 13, will kick things off right away, featuring prominently in the slow trickle of a start to the league schedule. Newcomers Phoenix FC Wolves travelled to Fullerton to take on the Los Angeles Blues in the league opener Saturday night, falling 2-0, and will return home to host fellow expansion side VSI Tampa Bay FC the following Saturday at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium. Tampa Bay then heads to LA for a Tuesday night contest before several other teams begin the season in earnest the third week of the league schedule.

There is a lot going on in the lower divisions (#LDsoccer) beyond just what is about to kick off on the field, therefore this series of previews will look at both the big picture as well as what lies ahead for the 2013 season. Here is a quick look at each of the teams heading into the 2013 USL Pro season…

Antigua Barracuda FC

2012 Record: 5-18-1
Season Opener: Apr 13 @ Charlotte || Home Opener: NA
MLS Reserve Opponents: FC Dallas & San Jose Earthquakes

Big Picture: The Caribbean club heads into its third season, a milestone year that seems to have play a big role for the island sides given the previous history of USL teams from the region. The Puerto Rico Islanders, after struggling for two years, reached the USL-1 postseason for the first time and also participated in the group phase of the Caribbean Football Union’s club championship for the first time. The Bermuda Hogges, meanwhile, were playing their final campaign in the professional league for the final time, electing to move down to the PDL for their fourth season.

Signs point most likely to the latter for a side that has a two-year record (14-31-3) that is only better than Pittsburgh (11-26-11) and Dayton (6-26-16).

One big issue for Antigua in 2013 is the immense burden their schedule will have on the team this season as they are playing entirely on the road in 2013.  According to the club’s CEO Roger Matthews, the decision was brought about because USL teams did not want to travel to Antigua and, as professional teams “play in front of 20 or 50 spectators.”

On top of that, the club is having trouble getting interested players this year. Speculation is that players are not trying out because the previous coach resigned after international defender George Dublin was promoted to player-coach by management. The most recent report, as far as the player pool goes, is that the team has enough to put a roster together, but Saturday’s story also revealed there have also been financial issues, apparently, all along as well.

What’s Ahead for 2013:  As of the last report, however, from the Antigua Observer, it appears the club was poised to submit a minimal list of rostered players as of March 15, but were still in search of a head coach despite a report in a previous story last month about the federation’s coaching search in which Matthews said they expected to have the position filled by the end of February. One known player, star striker Stefan Smith, will not be returning after opting to sign with the Charlotte Eagles after leading Barracuda in goals the past two campaigns.  

Charleston Battery

2012 Record: 12-10-2
Season Opener: Apr 13 @ Richmond || Home Opener: Apr 20 v Antigua
MLS Reserve Opponents: Houston Dynamo

Big Picture: Other than the possibility of finding an MLS affiliate over the course of the next year or so, the Battery don’t really have anything big on the horizon. After all, they already have their own stadium where they annually host a preseason tournament with MLS clubs.

What’s Ahead for 2013:  Defending the title. With their North Carolina rival Wilmington knocking off higher seeds, including two-time regular season and defending league champion Orlando City in the other half of the bracket, the Battery took advantage en route to claiming their fourth championship in 20 years. Leading scorers Nicki Paterson and Jose Cuevas are returning along with defensive leader John Wilson. The club, however, is sending midfielder Ryan Richter to Toronto FC on loan.

The Battery are already displaying a quality squad, posting impressive results in the 10th edition of the Carolina Challenge Cup. The club narrowly lost its first two matches against MLS opposition, rallying back from three down in a 3-2 loss to Vancouver in the opener and taking Chicago to stoppage time before allowing a heartbreaking 2-1 Fire winner. They capped it off, however, with a 2-1 victory against Houston on the final night with goals from Dane Kelly and Austin Savage.

Charlotte Eagles

2012 Record: 11-10-3
Season / Home Opener: Apr 13 v Antigua
MLS Reserve Opponents: Chicago Fire

Big Picture: Well, the big picture has, for obvious reasons, been the same one since the club was founded in 1991.

What’s Ahead for 2013: The Eagles, after playing one match at the facility last year, will utilize Dickson Field at Queens University of Charlotte as its new home ground.  As for the team, goalkeeper Eric Reed leads a contingent of veterans returning to the club, but the big news is the additions of Antigua standout Stefan Smith, former Harrisburg City Islander Drew Yates and Matt Gold of the San Antonio Scorpions. Another addition is assistant coach Dave Dixon, who comes from fellow faith-based side Mississippi Brilla after a successful five-year stint in the PDL with a 47-18-17 record, three conference titles and a nod as Coach of the Year finalist.

Dayton Dutch Lions

2012 Record: 4-10-10
Season / Home Opener: Apr 20 v Pittsburgh
MLS Reserve Opponents: Columbus Crew

Big Picture: Similar to Antigua, the Dutch Lions are in the fourth year of the Dutch-style experiment, heading into their third season in USL Pro after their PDL debut in 2010.  The PDL side had some marginal success at 8-3-5 for the year, but as a third tier pro club the Dutch Lions have struggled mightily to show well and have the worst record, 6-26-11, over the past two years, recording nearly half as many wins as the next closest, Pittsburgh (11-26-11).

What’s Ahead for 2013: Perhaps addressing the issue, the club has appointed a new coach, promoting Patrick Bal to the head position. Not surprisingly, he is the third Dutch coach of the club succeeding Sonny Silooy (PDL 2010) and Ivar van Dinteren. Returning from last season is second leading scorer for the team Thomas Garner, a rookie that impressed in their Open Cup win over the Columbus Crew, and starting keeper Matt Williams along with Shane Smith, Eric Kissinger, Kyle Knotek, Taylor Lord and Gregory Preciado. The team also heads to its third home stadium in three years in USL Pro, switching to Beavercreek High School stadium, another turf field.

Harrisburg City Islanders

2012 Record: 10-7-7
Season Opener: Apr 13 @ Pittsburgh || Home Opener: Apr 27 v Rochester
MLS Reserve Opponents: Colorado Rapids
MLS Affiliate: Philadelphia Union

Big Picture: Harrisburg is one of four USL Pro teams to be a direct affiliate of an MLS team in the first year of the new agreement between the leagues, but their partnership with the Philadelphia Union is anything but new as they head into their fourth year of formally working together.

What’s Ahead for 2013: Defender Dustin Bixler retired almost immediately after the season and a couple other players have moved on, but the City Islanders have routinely found replacements.  Leading scorers Luckymore Mkosana and Yann Ekra are returning as is leading assist man Sainey Touray.  Both goalkeepers are also slated to return for the City Islanders.

Los Angeles Blues

2012 Record: 9-12-3
Season / Home Opener: Mar 23
MLS Reserve Opponents: Los Angeles Galaxy

Big Picture: After two years as one of the league’s bottom teams (combined 17-19-12), the club, which is no longer the lone western team, is making big changes. Women’s coaching standout Charlie Naimo, who helped launch both the W-League team and later the USL Pro side, stepped down from his coaching and management posts early in the offseason, allowing the club to make big moves by bringing in Warren Barton, a former EPL defender and current Fox Soccer analyst, at the GM and technical director and later appointing Jesus Rico-Sanz as head coach. Barton, in particular, brings a wealth of close relationships with LA soccer contacts, including those at the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA, whom the Blues have already scrimmaged this year. The club could very well become an affiliate of one of the two clubs – more likely the Galaxy – over the next year.

What’s Ahead for 2013: As co-owner of the San Diego Flash, which has won the last two NPSL division titles, Barton is importing a number of the team’s top players – at least seven are already on the roster for the upcoming Blues season. The team also added former Orlando City midfielder Rodrigo Lopez Alvarez. Among the returning players are midfield stalwart Allan Russell and defensive standout Cory Miller.

Orlando City 

2012 Record: 17-1-6
Season Opener: Apr 7 @ Phoenix || Home Opener: Apr 14 v Rochester
MLS Reserve Opponents: Seattle Sounders
MLS Affiliate: Sporting Kansas City

Big Picture: At this point, continuing to be the best team in the league on the field could hardly matter, other than having some of the best players in their back pocket for what they really want to do, move up to Major League Soccer. To that end, there has been a significant amount of movement over the past six months with that goal in mind.

First off, the team created an affiliation with Sporting KC following the partnership between MLS and USL. The relationship, while it will provide some up-and-coming talent for the roster, is aimed more at a knowledge-sharing relationship as Orlando City consults with the young, successful ownership of the Midwest club on how they transitioned the formerly named Wizards playing at cavernous NFL stadium Arrowhead to the Sporting Club playing at a newly-constructed soccer stadium. Why? Because Orlando City is in the midst of a campaign to build a new soccer ground. The city is in the midst of a big move to acquire a large expanse of land for the stadium construction, snaring $8.3 million dollars worth of land that a city commissioner deemed was mostly vacant lots and warehouses in the immediate vicinity of the Amway Center, which is home to the Orlando Magic NBA franchise.  Stadia are a big issue for the Lions, who will also have to exit the Citrus Bowl in 2014 while the venue undergoes a two-year renovation process.

To further push their move to MLS, the club also added a major investor in mid-February, introducing Brazilian Flavio Augusto da Silva, who launched a language-teach company that was recently valued at $450 million during its recent sale, as a new member of the ownership group. Meanwhile, recent news in the past week out of New York is that MLS Commissioner Don Garber is placing more focus on expansion in Florida than they have previously, in large part, due to the advancement in the Orlando City situation while the league pushes through its battle to get a stadium of its own built in Queens for a second franchise in NY City.

What’s Ahead for 2013:  With coach Adrian Heath locked up for another three years as head coach, the Lions already have a foursome from KC in hand, one player at each position, while seeing defender Mechak Jerome go in the other direction.  Returning to the squad are veteran keeper Miguel Gallardo, leading scorer Dennis Chin, reigning league MVP Kevin Molino and Jean Alexandre, who signed with the club after spending 2012 in Orlando on loan from the San Jose Earthquakes. New to the squad are Long Tan, who played for DC United last summer, and Bryan Burke, a leading defender for the LA Blues a year ago. The side is already off to a decent start to the year with good performances in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic against MLS sides. They opened with a 1-1 draw against Philadelphia before falling to 3-0 to Toronto and rebounding for a narrow 3-2 loss to Columbus via a late penalty.

Phoenix FC Wolves

2012 Record: NA – Expansion franchise
Season Opener: Mar 23 @ Los Angeles || Home Opener: Mar 30 v Tampa Bay
MLS Reserve Opponents: Real Salt Lake

Big Picture: Getting off the ground is always the biggest task for an expansion side.  The team started things off by naming former Aberdeen, Rangers and Leeds standout defender and a six-time Scottish Premier League champion David Robertson, a brief Scottish international, as the head coach. The team also had big plans by playing at nearby Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Soccer Stadium, which they were going to help invest in by bringing in additional seating to make the capacity around 5,000. Those plans, however, have been humbled with the team reducing the number of seats available to about 2,200 for unexplained reasons, though longtime broadcaster and writer Kenn Tomasch postulates (showing photos) it may be that they could not fit them in, don’t have enough time to install them all or just plain lack ticket demand.

What’s Ahead for 2013: The team tried to make a splash with its first signing, bringing in former Aberdeen striker Darren Mackie.  Robertson’s Aberdeen ties also defender Scott Morrison, who also previously played for Dunfermline and Ross County. The two aren’t the only foreign signings by the club with Diego Faria, a former Brazilian youth international, and Ghana senior and youth international Anthony Obodai, who played for Houston Dynamo, Ajax and was captain for Sparta Rotterdam, leading a group that also includes Brazilians Netinho and Renan Felipe Boufleur, who both previously played for Santos. The club also signed Charlotte Eagles defender Devin Grousis, Tampa Bay Rowdies striker Aaron King, Sporting KC draft pick Cyprian Hedrick, Real Salt Lake’s first homegrown signing Donny Toia and goalkeeper Andrew Weber, a longtime pro in USL and MLS.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds

2012 Record: 4-15-5
Season Opener: Apr @ Richmond || Home Opener: Apr 13 v Harrisburg
MLS Reserve Opponents: Toronto FC

Big Picture: This year is all about the opening of newly-constructed Highmark Stadium, a long-awaited moment for a Riverhounds franchise which saw previous stadium efforts fall flat. The soccer stadium was largely finished in late fall (photos), enabling them to install the turf in November. Since then, the multi-purpose facility opened its ice rink, Penguins Pond, to the public over the winter.

What’s Ahead for 2013: The club lost leading scorer Matt Kassel to the Philadelphia Union, but standout goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap signed on for two more years and second-leading scorer Darren Amoo is returning. The excitement of the new stadium, though, is attracting a lot of new quality signings to a club that has had the second-worst record over the past two years (11-26-11). In the midfield the team has added former Seattle Sounder Michael Seamon, ex-New England Revolution player Ryan Kinne and Alfonso Motagalvan, who previously played for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Rochester Rhinos. In defense the club picked up Andrew Marshall from Harrisburg and Anthony Vasquez, a Puerto Rican international who played for the Islanders as a rookie last year. Up top the club signed 2011 league scoring leader Jhonny Arteaga, who spent last year with the New York Red Bulls.

Richmond Kickers

2012 Record: 11-8-5
Season / Home Opener: Apr 6 v Pittsburgh
MLS Reserve Opponents: Vancouver Whitecaps
MLS Affiliate: DC United

Big Picture: A USL fixture, the Kickers are still working on big projects, including a soccer-specific stadium to accompany the Ukrop Park complex, also looking to be further developed, they unveiled a few year’s ago. On that note, the 2013 campaign could be the final year as head coach for Leigh Cowlishaw, who told local writer Vic Dorr he may turn his focus toward his Director of Soccer duties to work on larger scale needs for the club after 14 years as head coach.

What’s Ahead for 2013: Kickers legendary goalkeeper Ronnie Pascale finally officially retired, as did longtime Japanese pro Nozomi Hiroyama, who spent the last two years in Richmond. The club has a lot of veterans returning though, and is adding some quality new young talent, some out of college and others via their affiliation with DC United. The big question right now is between the posts as Ryan Jones, who was the backup to Ronnie Pascale last year, is out on loan in England, leaving the club in a search for a starting keeper with no history with the team.

Rochester Rhinos

2012 Record: 12-7-5
Season Opener: Apr 13 @ Tampa Bay || Home Opener: May 4 v Harrisburg
MLS Reserve Opponents: Montreal Impact
MLS Affiliate: New England Revolution

Big Picture: With the idea of being an MLS expansion location long gone, the excitement and buzz that used to surround the franchise has fallen flat in recent years despite the completion of their soccer-specific stadium. Restoring the team as the pinnacle of lower division soccer is the lone goal that seems to be the only goal available, a difficult task given the hype of Orlando City and a handful of NASL clubs, including the newcomers in their own state, the Cosmos.

What’s Ahead for 2013: The regular season runners-up a year ago, the Rhinos are bringing back plenty of their standout players, including the USL Goalkeeper of the Year Kristian Nicht and Defender of the Year Tory Roberts along with team MVP JC Banks, who was unable to finish the 2012 season due to an ACL tear. The club lured All-League selection Matt Luzunaris from Orlando City and added former New England Revolution and DC United striker Blake Brettschneider along with ex-Colorado Rapid Ross LaBauex.

VSI Tampa Bay FC

2012 Record: NA – Expansion franchise
Season Opener: Mar 30 @ Phoenix || Home Opener: Apr 13 v Rochester
MLS Reserve Opponents: Portland Timbers

Big Picture: The club has been all about the big picture since day one. Owned by English soccer development company VisionPro Sports Institute, the group behind the team partnered with a local youth club to launch an entire pyramid of teams directly from the start with PDL and W-League teams kicking off play in 2012 in advance of the USL Pro team’s debut. With the pro side about to kick off its debut campaign, the larger projects are the biggest tasks at hand is an ambitious list of venue plans that the club has announced, ranging from a modular stadium, to a complex, a sports medicine facility and, ultimately, a large-scale stadium for a potential MLS team. The club made a splash back in November with the announcement of the stadia plans, which virtually came out of the blue in regards to MLS expansion possibilities. Future stadia aside, the club has yet to unveil where it will play in 2013 with their home opener just a few weeks away.

What’s Ahead for 2013: The club appointed former Ipswich Town player Matt Weston as its first head coach after guiding local PDL side Ocala Stampede to a division title last year, but it may be Director of Soccer appointee Clay Roberts that has had the biggest influence on the team’s first roster. The long-time pro from the Charlotte Eagles helped lure former Eagles to the squad in Darren Toby, Mauricio Salles, Sallieu Bundu and Josh Rife, who will also serve as an assistant coach. His knowledge of the league has also guided an aggressive signing campaign to a number of standout lower division and MLS players such as Tony Donatelli, JT  Noone, Andriy Budnyy, Alexander Horwath and Shawn Chin.

Wilmington Hammerheads

2012 Record: 10-7-7
Season / Home Opener: Apr 19 v Antigua
MLS Reserve Opponents: New York Red Bulls

Big Picture: A once proud club, the Hammerheads are only in their third season since their resurrection in 2011 after having been shut down by the league after the conclusion of 2009. Looking at the numbers, going dark may have been a positive as it allowed previous owners from the past to come in and restore the franchise for its re-launch, which has seen them bring in nearly twice as many fans as when they were leading the league on the field. Since their return they have worked their way back into the competitive picture, making a playoff run last fall to their third championship game appearance, the first since winning the title in 2003.

What’s Ahead for 2013: With a new general manager in place, the promoted Matt Sadler is taking the team into the new season with a deliberate pace. Only a handful of players have been announced, most of them returning players. Missing among last year’s standouts though is goalkeeper Alexander Horwath, who is now with VSI Tampa Bay and leading scorers Andriy Budnyy (VSI Tampa Bay), Corey Hertzog, who has moved onto the Vancouver Whitecaps and Bryce Taylor, whose status is unknown, though he was in the lineup for a recent preseason contest. The only signed newcomer thus far is San Diego State University product Jamel Wallace, who returned to Southern California last year for the NPSL with San Diego Boca after playing for the Richmond Kickers in 2011 and a season with the Kitsap Pumas after being drafted by nearby Seattle Sounders. Among others in camp with the club are former Colorado Rapid Steven Emory, who is returning from the Finnish third division, and Uriah Bentick, a former Trinidad & Tobago youth international.

Sacramento 2014

Big Picture: The ownership behind the future expansion team is led by Warren Smith, who has a successful track record in the city as a co-founder of the River Cats minor league baseball franchise. He helped lead the team in construction of a baseball stadium that resulted in what was at the time the largest naming rights sponsorship in the minors. The $46.5 million stadium opened in 2000 and the team has posted the best attendance in the nation each year for the first eight years.

The team, hoping to get their feet wet with friendlies in 2013, is planning to play at Sacramento City College’s Hughes Stadium. But even before the first ball has been kicked the yet-to-be-named club already has competition with neighboring Elk Grove unveiling earlier this month that it is hoping to build a major soccer stadium and tournament fields for either an MLS expansion franchise, which is why the news made a national splash, or potentially an NASL franchise, though it seemed the latter was merely a smaller backup concept.  Fabian Nunez, a USSF board member and former state Assembly Speaker, is leading the group, Northern California Soccer, and appears to be headstrong for an MLS franchise and stadium, which was approved by a city council vote to investigate the options.

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