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May 13, 2008

Portland and Rochester hit speed bumps

A few observations from another weekend of USL action:

1. The Rochester Rhinos are having a rough season so far. Extremely rough. With four games played in the space of a week -- on the road -- the Rhinos have lost three and drawn once and have yet to score their first goal. There seems to be a fair amount of shuffling and experimentation going on with the lineup. Sometimes the Rhinos have a lone forward, sometimes there are two. Mauricio Salles was played as a midfielder against Portland, but as a striker against Charleston Battery and Minnesota. It can't be easy for a team with a new manager and several new players to play its first five games on the road. But if the Rhinos have any hopes of getting back to the position they were in last year, they will need to get some vital points at their first home game Saturday against the Charleston Battery.

2. Portland seems to have hit a speed bump. Maybe it was the nearly two weeks the Timbers went without playing a game, or maybe it was playing their first game on the road this season, but whatever the cause, Portland has lost a little bit of its shine. Two goalless draws this week have left the Timbers just two points ahead of their second-place competitors, the Carolina RailHawks. The Timbers tweaked their offensive lineup a bit this past week, keeping Takayuki Suzuki up front but trying different combinations in the midfield. Whatever combination they choose next, the Timbers will need to get some of their scoring groove back to secure a first-ever away win in Puerto Rico on Friday.

3. Thunder strong on D. It's not that Minnesota's offense is all that spectacular, managing a modest four goals in four games, but the main reason for the Thunder's recent success is their outstanding defense. Each week, the Thunder have either been leaving the scoring until late -- as in Saturday's 90th-minute win over Montreal -- or to set pieces like Ricardo Sanchez's penalty kick in the 1-0 victory over Vancouver. But during nearly every game, the Thunder have been solid at the back with Kevin Friedland, Kevin Taylor, Brian Kallman and Jonathan Greenfield. During Minnesota's 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact on Saturday, shots were cleared well and Montreal's offense was chased down. When Montreal's Charles Gbeke did manage to break through the defense, keeper Nick Platter was there to anticipate and deal with each shot. One goal per game as their modus operandi might not be all that exciting for Thunder fans, but combined with a leakproof back line, it's effective.

4. Top Gun. He has played for five teams in four years, but striker Daniel "Dizzy" Antoniuk has a reputation in the USL-1 as a top scorer, and his recent form with the Carolina RailHawks is no exception. He scored the late game-winning goal against Miami and knocked in an interesting rebound against his former team, the Atlanta Silverbacks, this past weekend. Despite his success, Antoniuk is often on the move and is rumored to have attracted interest this season from some European clubs. Only time will tell if he moves on from the RailHawks, but regardless, it's a pretty safe bet that he will keep moving up the USL-1 goal leader standings.

5. Atlanta has options. Usually when a team on the road has been socked with a bunch of injuries, the last thing you expect is for them to play an attacking game ... and come close to winning. During the Silverbacks' 2-2 draw with the Carolina RailHawks, Atlanta was without the scoring duo of Macoumba Kandji and Warren Ukah as well as Mike Ambersley, but midfielder Ansu Toure was simply on fire. Toure had several dizzying runs, weaving in and out and confounding the RailHawks' defense. When the defense tried to put the clampdown on Toure, Atlanta was awarded a spot kick -- taken by David Hayes -- that required a full-body parry from RailHawks keeper Chris McClellan. Several times, Toure managed to beat the defense, only to find that he was too quick for the rest of his teammates and no one was around. Although the Silverbacks are in eighth place in the standings, their performance on Sunday showed they have the depth to hang around and get the vital results.

Editor's 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.

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