With nearly two months of games under their belts this season, some USL teams, like the Vancouver Whitecaps, are beginning to hit their stride and have worked out which combinations of players find the most success on the pitch. Others, like the Portland Timbers, have hit tough patches and have sought out new signings to try to remain competitive. With the rough travel schedule of the USL and the multiple cup competitions that many of these teams are in, this past month marked just the beginning of how teams' depth will be tested. A few take-homes from the past couple of weeks:
1. The lone forward. It's hard to criticize a team that is very nearly on the top of the standings and has had an incredible season. But overreliance on a single forward can get you in big trouble, as Miami FC can attest. So when the Charleston Battery's Randi Patterson was frequently left alone up front in the Battery's 2-0 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps, it seemed rather curious. Despite his great pace and scoring ability, Aaron King is rarely part of the starting lineup, instead usually coming on as a second-half sub. Against strong defensive teams, like Vancouver, it would seem to make more sense to have a Patterson/King partnership up front from the get-go, rather than rely on a lone forward.
2. Thordarson making the right moves. Teitur Thordarson already had a fairly good team when he became the Whitecaps' head coach earlier this year. But the former Estonia national team head coach deserves some credit for helping to develop new players and giving the Whitecaps more depth and staying power. Although the Whitecaps have relied on talismanic forward Eduardo Sebrango for some time, Vicente Arze and Nicholas Addlery are now playing an active role up front and scoring goals. Defenders Omar Jarun and Chris Pozniak may be newcomers to the Whitecaps as well, but Thordarson has played them wisely -- giving both time on their own and under the guidance of experienced defenders like Lyle Martin and Adrian Cann. The result is a back line that looks like it's been playing together for years, and a team that may have the resilience to stay at the top of the standings.
3. What has happened to the Timbers? After a grimace-inducing run of bad form and several draws over the past month, Portland pulled out of its slide with a 1-0 win over Montreal Friday -- only to hand the Rhinos their first win of the season on Sunday. Coach Gavin Wilkinson has been trying several different starting lineups in an effort to produce more goals and has also brought in new talent Benjamin Totori. However, this constant change could be having an unsettling effect on the Portland offense. Obviously a coach wants all the players to be able to play with each other consistently, regardless of who is on the pitch. But in reality, how often does that happen? Portland may need some kind of change to get back to scoring goals, but too much change too often may have an ill effect on the team.
4. Leave Burse alone. Despite Portland's run of bad form, I'm not exactly sure what the criticism of goalie Ray Burse is all about. Granted there have been a few shaky moments for the new Timbers goalie, but what USL goalie hasn't had a few shaky moments? It may be hard for the Portland faithful to disengage their expectations from those of last year's standout keeper, Josh Wicks. But give Burse a break. He's had six shutouts in 10 games, and being scuttled back and forth to FC Dallas can't be easy on him. Frustration with the Timbers' current form should be directed elsewhere.
5. Heading to the Champions League. They might be languishing in last place in the USL standings right now, but the Puerto Rico Islanders are still doing big things for soccer in Puerto Rico. Last week the Islanders managed to qualify for a slot in this year's CONCACAF Champions League. So how will Puerto Rico fare in the Champions League this year? It's hard to say; the quality of the competition could vary widely, with some teams having current Olympians and national team players who are used to big-game pressure. Whatever the outcome, the Islanders' qualification could go very far in terms of raising interest in soccer in Puerto Rico and racking up some big-game experience that might give the team an edge in future USL league games.
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. She is also a frequent guest on the weekly www.theoffside.com soccer podcast and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.