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Apr 7, 2008

Big-name signings add spice to USL dynamics

The USL-1 Season kicks off this week (April 12) with several notable changes in the finances of some of the clubs. The viability of some USL clubs often has been in question, but this year the USL-1 has several clubs that run the gamut of different financial situations.

After just one year, the California Victory expansion team folded when Spanish parent club Deportivo Alaves withdrew its support. The Victory had had a very tough year, losing quality players and games quite often, and finished last in the league.

At the other end of the spectrum, the league champs, the former USL Seattle Sounders, became a full MLS Franchise at the end of the season. Although the Sounders' situation may seem similar to the promotion and relegation systems in Europe and other areas of the world, the U.S. system does not yet have it in place, nor is it on the horizon. The USL-1 franchise rights for Seattle remain undetermined for post-2008.

The Rochester Rhinos, formerly the Rochester Raging Rhinos, survived a franchise scare earlier this year when they went into insolvency. Although the Rhinos have been notching high average-attendance turnouts at their games, between 10,000-11,000 during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, the Rhinos found themselves unable to pay for their new $35 million stadium, PAETEC Park. Businessman Rob Clark and his firm Adirondack Sports Club LLC bought the Rhinos and reached an agreement on the lease of the park, so the Rhinos are once again back in action.

Aside from the financial gains and losses of some of the USL clubs, this season should be quite interesting with the departure of some players to the MLS and the addition of some former World Cup and international players. Historically strong teams like the Montreal Impact and Seattle Sounders could still reign at the top of the league standings, but creative new signings to teams like the Charleston Battery and Miami FC could turn the tables.

Five players to watch

1. Takayuki Suzuki. The Portland Timbers landed themselves a huge signing in Japanese forward Takayuki Suzuki. The 31-year-old is a veteran of the Japanese national team, with 55 appearances and 11 goals. He took part in all four matches of the 2002 World Cup, scoring an important equalizer in the 2-2 group stage game against Belgium. He's earned his stripes racking up experience playing for teams in Brazil, Serbia, and Belgium. Look for Suzuki to help turn an already strong team into the possible league champion.

2. Tighe Dombrowski. The Minnesota Thunder could receive a huge defensive boost with the return of left back Tighe Dombrowski. Dombrowski was on loan to the Thunder from the San Jose Earthquakes for the 2005 season. For the past two seasons he has been playing for Swedish side IK Sirius, appearing in 55 out of a possible 58 games. With the USL's second-to-last-ranked team conceding 35 goals and drawing 11 out of 28 games, Dombrowski at the back could help turn those ties into wins.

3. Lester More. Cuba's all-time leading scorer in international play has found a team and a contract with the Charleston Battery. After defecting from Cuba while on international duty at the 2007 Gold Cup in Houston, More trained with Chivas before signing with the Battery. While More has not yet had the MLS success of his other compatriots, such as Maykel Galindo, More could thrive in the USL-1 environment, and is definitely one to watch this season.

4. Alex Afonso. Miami FC Head Coach and fellow Brazilian Zinho has managed to lure Afonso from Brazil's Sao Paolo First Division. Currently one of the top five leading scorers in that division, Afonso also played with Palmeiras and with Portimonense in Portugal. If Afonso's success in domestic Brazilian leagues translates well in the USL, then the Blues could have a bumper crop of goals this year.

5. Luis Aguilar. It was much to the chagrin of the ill-fated California Victory fans when Luis Aguilar was acquired by the Montreal Impact midway through the season last year. But if the number of games the stalwart defender played in last year is any future indication of his value as a player, the Montreal fans won't be thinking about letting him go anywhere else this year: In 19 games played for the Victory he started all 19, and in 7 games for the Impact he started 4 times.

Five story lines to follow

1. PDX's coach. After a dismal 2006 season, the Timbers found a great replacement coach in their former player, Gavin Wilkinson. In his first year as Portland's coach, the former defender led the Timbers to a second-place league finish and bagged one of the USL's highest honors as well: coach of the year. Now that the former New Zealand international has signed a two-year contract with the Timbers, great things could keep happening to a very strong side. No doubt the Timbers Army -- one of the biggest (unofficial) supporters groups of the USL-- is closely eyeing the new MLS franchise of its rival, the Seattle Sounders.

2. Raging Rhinos' new everything. The Rochester (formerly Raging) Rhinos have cleaned some major house for the upcoming season. After defaulting on their stadium agreement, the Rhinos went into insolvency earlier this year, but escaped via new ownership. Adirondack Sports Club LLC and owner Rob Clark have now changed the name and brought in a new head coach. Former Rhinos player Darren Tilley will be the franchise's third coach in thirteen years. A new assistant coach/player, Steve Guppy, also has been named. Having come second in the league three times in the past five years, these wholesale changes could finally put some more silverware in the Rhinos' hands.

3. Old World Cuppers. Similar to the MLS fad of snagging older World Cup and international players (David Beckham, Juan Pablo Angel, Galindo), several USL teams have found their own gems: Suzuki of the Timbers, More at Charleston Battery, Takashi Hirano with the Vancouver Whitecaps and Zinho (now coach) at Miami FC. Will these players be able to pass on their world-class abilities to their teams and teammates? Will the experience of being under pressure in huge games really bring much to the USL teams? Time will tell if these former stars can still shine, and if their shine will rub off.

4. The Crazy (good) Canadians. Our neighbors up north have lots to boast about in the USL-1. For starters, they have the chance to enter the CONCACAF Champions League unlike their American USL counterparts; they then can gain valuable international experience. (Canada has a three-team playoff to decide its entrant, the only other USL team that is eligible is Puerto Rico via Caribbean qualifying.) What's more is that the Montreal Impact, which lost out on first place in the league by only four points last season, can boast several members of its roster on both the current Canadian national team and the U-23 national team. The Impact players' experiences in these competitions shows: They were league champion in both 2005 and 2006, and just missed out in 2007.

5. USL viability. The USL divisions have a tricky position in the world of U.S. soccer. Many people have never heard of USL, and that lack of knowledge can make life tough on new franchises. But with Beckham mania, the new USL expansion into Austin, Texas (the Aztex), and the Seattle Sounders USL-turned-MLS franchise, soccer in the U.S. could be on the up. Could there be a new movement in the U.S. to stir interest in professional soccer on a local level? With many British fans bemoaning the loss of their beloved local clubs to international interests, can that sort of passion be stirred up in the U.S. with local USL franchises?

Anne Ramzy is a freelance sports writer based near San Francisco, Calif. She is also a frequent guest on the weekly www.theoffside.com soccer podcast and can be reached at anneramzy@gmail.com.

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