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Apr 29, 2008

Veteran striker duo key strong start for Timbers

Some interesting trends are starting to emerge in USL-1 as we enter Week 3. A few United Soccer Leagues teams that have high expectations, like the Portland Timbers, are finding early success and have emerged in the standings with a big lead. Others, such as the 2007 USL-1 league champion Seattle Sounders, have found themselves in the unfamiliar spot of third from the bottom. Surprise contender Miami FC has emerged as a strong side but is now struggling with several injury setbacks. A few other things to note:

1. The Portland Timbers' offense gets sharper and sharper with each game. There have been rumblings that the veteran Takayuki Suzuki/ Chris Brown combination doesn't have the speed that an attacking offense should have. However, lack of pace aside, they get the job done, and right now Portland has one of the best offenses in the USL-1. A former Real Salt Lake man, Brown has now scored two goals in three games, with an assist to Suzuki in the last game against Seattle. Suzuki somehow managed to send a 25-plus-yard shot over the heads of five Seattle players for a spectacular opening goal.

2. Miami's offense took a particularly hard hit over the past week and the cracks were beginning to show on Sunday. The Blues traveled down to Bayamon without several injured players, including key defender JP Rodrigues, for two consecutive matches against the Puerto Rico Islanders. On Friday, Miami managed to eke out a 2-0 win, but the following game on Sunday seemed to bring Miami down another peg. Brazilian star Alex Afonso has been trying to hold up the front line, especially after Sean Fraser dislocated his elbow last week. It didn't help matters that midfielder Sean Cameron was ejected from Friday's match. Afonso's skill lies in his aerial ability, and if he's not getting good service, his threat is reduced. The Blues have pinned much of their offensive hopes on Afonso, and when he's received support, he has delivered.

3. Compounding the Blues' woes on Sunday was the ridiculous condition of the field. Although Friday's game was also a rain-soaked affair, Sunday's looked absolutely miserable for the players. The pitch was completely waterlogged, the goal areas were muddy pits, and many of the players understandably had short tempers. Nearly every pass spun pathetically on the field, with so many puddles that even the Islanders' announcers named one rather large one "Murray" and dubbed it the "12th player" for its defensive capabilities. Why in the world was play allowed to go on? What would it take for the game to be canceled -- a hurricane? Perhaps it had something to do with the the possible difficulties in rescheduling a game in Puerto Rico, but the game had pretty much turned into a farce by the end.

4. God bless the USL organization, but there are some strange things going on with the schedule. Why, in particular, do some USL teams -- like Puerto Rico and Miami this past weekend -- play each other back to back, often staying at the same venue for both games? Last year the California Victory played the Timbers five times, two of them back-to-back consecutively in Portland. At some point, factors such as an obvious difference in skill, weather conditions or lack of a home crowd can have a demoralizing effect on visiting teams. Also, why have some teams, like Miami, already played four games, while the Rochester Rhinos have yet to play one? The USL organization may be trying hard to accommodate the various franchises with flexibility in scheduling games and cutting travel costs, but is it the best thing for the league as a whole? For one, it tends to skew the league standings. Yes, the Timbers are a strong team and are sitting in the top position now, but when will it even out so that we can see if they are that much better than the Rhinos?

5. Puerto Rico may have managed its first win on Sunday, in those lovely conditions, but the Islanders are treading a very thin line with regard to cautions, suspensions and dangerous play. Taiwo Atieno, who was ejected from the Islanders' opening game against Portland for an elbow to the jaw of Justin Thompson, picked up yet another yellow card Sunday. Atieno was given a three-match ban for his Portland stunt and has already sat out one match. Since he has an appeal pending, though, Atieno was able to play against Miami on Sunday. Picking up two cards in two matches may not be that eye-raising for a defender ... but for a forward? As for Minnesota midfielder Ricardo Sanchez, his season is off to a predictably petulant start. Evidently Sanchez thought it would be fun to smack the ball out of the hands of a Timbers player attempting a throw-in, and then had the temerity to protest to the ref when he got booked.

The Islanders have a startling way of making themselves known to the ref when a call is made against them. After Atieno was booked in Portland and Cristiano Dias was booked in Puerto Rico, several Islanders players surrounded the ref. Osei Telesford even thought it would be OK to pull the ref's hand down when he gave Islanders defender Christian Arrieta a straight red card in Sunday's game. True, the Islanders are not the only team that has this problem, and it seems almost commonplace in some leagues around the world. But rules are rules, and the intimidation and disrespect toward the refs needs to stop.

Note: There are three divisions in the United Soccer Leagues: USL-1, USL-2 and the Premier Development League (PDL). USL is not affiliated with Major League Soccer. For more information, you can visit the USL Web site.

Anne Ramzy is a freelance sportswriter 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.