USL First Division Preview: Richmond’s Time To Shine

It’s not too often that a majority of players, coaches, and front office people from the same sports league can agree on something, but that seems to be the case for the USL First Division in 2005.

The verdict?

This year’s league is so wide open there is no clear-cut favorite.

"Everybody’s loaded," said Richmond assistant coach Jesse Myers. "Every team got better in the off-season, and a couple of them got considerably better."

The changes were not just on the field. Teams in the newly-named USL First Division come from last season’s A-League, which featured two conferences. That has changed for 2005.

"The new single table format helps keep the schedule considerably more balanced and competitive," said USL vice president Tim Holt. "At the same time, we’ll still feature the regional rivalries between clubs such as Seattle and Portland, and Richmond and Virginia Beach. It’s definitely going to be an exciting year."

Some teams made wholesale changes to personnel, including the coaching staffs, while others pretty much remained as they were last year. Look for the teams who made fewer changes to get a head start as the other teams learn to gel. However, it’s a long season. Remember, teams that exploded out of the starting gates last year, such as Atlanta, faded down the stretch and wound up not making the playoffs.

Of the twelve teams in the league this year, the top two will receive a first-round bye, while the third place team plays the sixth, and the fourth place team plays the fifth. In MLS, where eight of the twelve teams qualify for the postseason, teams can struggle for most of the season, then catch fire the last three weeks and still get in (like New England last year). Not so with the USL First Division this year. Teams can’t afford to get too far behind because it’ll only be tougher to catch up as the season progresses, due in large part to the parity, as well as the single table format.

"Nobody’s going to run away with anything this year," Myers said. "I don’t think you’re going to see that much of a difference between teams one through 10."

Of course, since this is a predictions column, my job is now considerably tougher. The team I pick to finish first might not even make the playoffs. That being said, let’s take a stab at it anyway.

2005 USL First Division Predictions (in order of projected finish)

1. Richmond Kickers – They had arguably the least amount of turnover as any team in the league. Consistency is hugely important when you’re talking about team chemistry, which is something Richmond usually has. Now they’ve got the horses to win the race (or at least the regular season). All the talk so far has been about the offense, with McColm Cephas, Matthew Delicate, Kevin Jeffrey, and newcomer Robert Ssejjemba. They’ll score goals, no question about it. However, the heart of this team is their defense, which returns the same back line and goalkeeper for the third year in a row. Ronnie Pascale will man the nets, while the central pairing of Kevin Knight and Peter Luzak (both of whom were called into the US National Team camp by Bruce Arena during that whole "ordeal") is arguably the league’s best. The ageless Richie Williams and New Zealand international Tim Brown will make up the center of the midfield, and there are plenty of role players who will battle for playing time on the flanks. The question is: can head coach Leigh Cowlishaw keep everybody happy when it comes to playing time? That’ll be tough for such a deep squad.

2. Montreal Impact – Like the Kickers, the defending champion Impact return a good chunk of their team from last year. The team with the league’s best defense last year should be solid again, led by goalkeeper Greg Sutton. Defender Nevio Pizzolitto is the heart and soul of the team, and was a key component in Montreal’s run to the championship last year, along with Gabriel Gervais, Adam Braz, and Mauricio Vincello, who has the ability to push up and help out with the attack. The midfield is led by the steady Ze Roberto, as well as Mauro Biello, who played predominantly as a forward last year. Head coach Nick DeSantis’s move puts the pressure on Frederick Commodore, Eduardo Sebrango, and a highly-touted newcomer in Sita-Taty Matondo, a member of the U20 Canadian team, to put the ball in the net. Antonio Ribero and Mesut Mert, the latter of whom played for Calgary last year, will also be key figures in Montreal’s quest to repeat.

3. Vancouver Whitecaps – Head coach Bob Lilley has reason to smile. The team that finished second in the Western Conference last year has remained largely intact (do you sense a theme here?), and the Whitecaps have one of the best soccer organizations in CONCACAF. Carlo Corazzin, Jason Jordan, and David Xausa should be able to carry the load offensively for the Whitecaps, as Jordan is one of the more underappreciated players in the league. Said Ali has had a very good preseason, and is another player to watch. Canadian international Martin Nash is the field general here, running things from the midfield spot. He’ll have help from veteran Steve Klein as the team has one of the better midfields in the league. The addition of well-traveled Mark Watson should improve the defense immediately, as he is very much the vocal leader teams need when organizing their defenses. This is a very good team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wound up in the final.

4. Rochester Raging Rhinos – I don’t think I’ve ever seen them ranked this low in a preseason preview before, which goes to show just how balanced and deep the league is in 2005. The biggest change is in the coaching ranks, where the tremendously successful Pat Ercoli resigned, and in came Laurie Calloway, who spent the previous two seasons coaching the now-defunct Syracuse Salty Dogs. Calloway took advantage of the Rhinos’ deep pockets and brought in several of his Syracuse players to combine with the already established veterans in Rochester. The offense should be okay, with Kirk Wilson, Doug Miller, Ian Fuller and Jamel Mitchell all having the chance to lead the way. Attacking midfielder Pato Aguilera came over from Virginia Beach at the midway point of last season, and should be one of the league leaders in assists for the 2005 season. Also look for mainstays Stoian Mladenov and Lenin Steenkamp to contribute midfield support on both the offensive and defensive ends. Scott Schweitzer, Craig Demmin, and the newly-signed Tenywa Bonseu will anchor one of the league’s best defenses. The big question with Rochester is whether this very experienced (i.e. older) team can stand up to the rigors of a full season, as every game looks to be a challenge.

5. Portland Timbers – The team has new ownership, which, as is the case with any team in transition, should help keep distractions within the team to a minimum. It’s hard to be focused on your job when you’re not sure the job will be there for you the next day. That’s no longer an issue. However, the team will have to replace Mr. Offense, Alan Gordon, who is now with the LA Galaxy in MLS (although there is the possibility Gordon could be loaned back to the Timbers rather than sit on the bench in LA), as well as the reliable Andrew Gregor, who went to Seattle. However, the team does return a good deal of the players who led the team to the regular season title in the Western Conference last year, such as defender Lee Morrison and goalkeeper Josh Saunders, whose rights are owned by the Galaxy but agreed to loan him to the Timbers. Byron Alvarez and Fadi Afash will be counted on to pick up the scoring slack from Gordon, and the arrival of New Zealand international Aaran Lines should give the team a tremendous midfield boost.

6. Atlanta Silverbacks – Dave Vaudreuil seemed to a be a shoo-in for last year’s coach of the year award until Atlanta faded down the stretch and failed to make the playoffs. Don’t worry, ‘Backs fans, a majority of the team is back, and they’ve added a few more players to make this team better than the 2004 version. The addition of Christian Fegler, a goalkeeper brought in from IFK Hasselholm of the second division in Sweden, gives the team an anchor in goal. Also new are David Hayes from Richmond, who should be dangerous on the flank, Antonio de la Torre, who played last year for the Colorado Rapids and Tony McManus, who spent last year with Virginia Beach after being drafted by Chicago. Atlanta also returns key players such as Alex Pineda Chacon, who will guide the midfield, along with Leslie Fitzpatrick and Devlin Barnes. Mac Crozier will look to continue his goal-scoring ways, and it looks like he’ll be getting help this year from Jamaicans Machel Millwood and Kris Stone. This is a very dangerous team, the one everyone will be looking to avoid going down the stretch.

7. Charleston Battery – Anything is an improvement on last year’s first to worst scenario, which saw the team tumble to the bottom of the standings just one year after winning the A-League Title. Out is Chris Ramsey, and the new coach is Michael Anhaeuser, who was an assistant with the team during the previous six years. The Battery will be much improved, but are probably still a year or so away from contending for anything more than a playoff spot. The team had a large turnover, and will depend on veteran leadership from new signing Alan Woods (Atlanta), who’ll lead the defense, and other Battery mainstays like midfielder Justin Evans and forward Greg Simmonds, who is a tremendous physical presence, but has never quite lived up to his billing. How two of Charleston’s imports from Paraguay–forward Jesus Martinez and defender Andres Perez-Matto, who was signed from Club Olimpia in Paraguay’s First Division–perform will be key for Charleston to do well. Martinez scored just once in 1,093 minutes last season. Nigerian defender Ugo Okoye also needs to produce.

8. Seattle Sounders – How does the team that represented the Western Conference in the Championship last year fall so far this year? Well, not every team makes the playoffs, and when you combine the losses Seattle has had with the gains the other teams have made, things might not be as good for the Sounders this year as in the past. Still, though, with a little luck and the good performances of the returning veterans, coach Brian Schmetzer’s team will contend for the playoffs. Losing Leighton O’Brien to MLS was a huge blow, and coming on the heels of that, team captain and All A-League defender Danny Jackson injured his knee in training and will be out at least six weeks. However, the Sounders still have the veteran Preston Burpo in goal, have picked up Andrew Gregor, who can play in defense and the midfield, and have other experienced players in Welton, CJ Klaas, Billy Sleeth, and Kevin Sakuda. If Jackson’s recovery doesn’t encounter any setbacks, the team should be okay. If the injury is slow to heal, the Sounders will desperately need someone to step up and be a leader.

9. Virginia Beach Mariners – Although the team returns a large chunk of last year’s squad, it lost offensive leader Dante Washington. No single player in the league over the past two years was as valuable to their team as Washington was for the Mariners. Now that he’s returned to MLS, head coach Shawn McDonald will rely heavily on Jakob Fenger and Hamisi Amani-Dove to provide the goals for the team this year. Two new forwards to keep an eye on are Teofore Bennet, from the Jamaican national team, and Kormac Valdebenito from Chile. The midfield and defense are the strong points of this team, as several players from the past two years have returned. Among the notables are midfielders Jeff Bilyk, Jose Gomez, and Tim O’Neil, a solid player who played in Syracuse last year. The defense should be a cohesive unit, as Steve Danbusky, Russell Hutchinson, Steve Shak, and Joe Morelli all return, as does Matt Nelson in goal. Another question is attendance. The Virginia Beach Sportsplex is one of the better soccer stadiums in the country, yet the support for the team has lagged, despite the fact that the Mariners play entertaining soccer. Will Mike Field’s third year of ownership see some gains both on the field and in the stands?

10. Minnesota Thunder – Like the Timbers, Minnesota also showed the strength of the organization by announcing the team would begin year-round soccer operations. Head coach Buzz Lagos looks to rebuild a team that lost several players from last year’s squad, most notably an on and off-field leader in Marco Feruzzi, who retired and joined the coaching staff of the Dallas Burn. Lagos will depend heavily on the attacking group of Johnny Menyonger, Melvin Tarley, and Amos Magee to score enough goals as the defense will probably take a few games to gel as a cohesive unit. Joe Warren is back in goal, and will be counted on continue the good form he’s shown the past few seasons. Freddy Juarez and Kevin Friedland will try to keep the pressure off Warren, while Chris Brunt and Jeff Matteo will hold things down in the midfield. Offensively, this team looks like it will score some goals. Will they be able to keep enough out of their own net?

11. Toronto Lynx – The Lynx are a great mystery going into the season, basically because the team is still in the process of being put together as of this article. The team conceded 50 goals last year, and head coach Hubert Busby, Jr. essentially purged most of the roster in an attempt to shake things up. His biggest addition so far is probably the signing of former Canadian national team defender Carl Fletcher. Fletcher’s presence will be vital to getting the team organized in the back, something they were unable to do in 2004. Rumba Munthali also returns to Toronto, as does Joe Mattachione. Both players can play as defenders and midfielders, which will give Busby a good deal of flexibility when putting together a lineup. Offensively, look for new signing Conrad Smith, who played in Calgary last year, and the returning Ali Gerba to account for most of the goals this season. If Toronto’s defense isn’t any better, they’ll both need to score 20 this year in order for the Lynx to have a chance.

12. Puerto Rico Islanders – Although I don’t really believe they’re the worst team in the league, somebody has to finish last. However, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Islanders contended for a playoff spot either. Even though they had a disappointing first-year record of 5-17-6, they were considerably more competitive last year than most observers thought they’d be, and they’ve made some moves in the off-season to make a run this year. The addition of forwards Corey Woolfolk and Drew McAthy will give the team considerably more size and strength up front, which should allow them to possess the ball better in the offensive third of the field. Mauricio Salles and Josef Miso will also battle the tandem for playing time up front in head coach Hugo Maradona’s (yes, he is the younger brother of Diego) new offense. Team captain Chris Gores returns to anchor the team’s defense, which looked good at times last year, but had a habit of giving up late goals which cost the team a few ties and even a win or two. Another newcomer, Alejandro Gonzalez from Chile, has looked good in preseason so far and will be counted on to contribute right away. The team, on paper, looks considerably better than last year’s, but then again, so do most of the other teams in the league. They’re probably still another year from contending for a playoff spot, but don’t be surprised if they finish eighth or ninth in the final standings.

Playoffs:

1st Round: Richmond and Montreal – Bye

#3 Vancouver over #6 Atlanta

#4 Rochester over #5 Portland

Semifinal Round:

#4 Rochester over #1 Richmond

#2 Montreal over #3 Vancouver

USL Division 1 Championship:

#4 Rochester over #2 Montreal

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