Revamped Blues starting to roll
A few leaders are beginning to break away from the pack in the USL-1 standings, with three of the top four teams earning solid wins by wide margins this weekend. But due to the quirky nature of the USL schedule, with some teams having played seven games while others have played 13, a lot still remains to be evened out in the middle of the pack. A few take-home observations from the weekend:
1. Zinho has been working on the midfield. Determined to sort out the chaos of its midfield, Miami has recruited several new talents -- and seems to be having moderate success. During the Blues' 0-0 draw with the Rochester Rhinos, Miami coach Zinho packed the pitch with five midfielders, causing several problems for the Rhinos. Making their Miami debuts were midfielders Bruno Menezes and Leo Inacio, who helped to confound the Rhinos' offense and to frequently pin the Rhinos' midfield in their own half.
2. Blues riding high. Having lost four of their six games in May, the Blues not only have stocked up on midfielders but also have put at least a temporary end to losing. Miami has posted four straight shutouts, and the defensive back line looks stronger with each game. The arrival of former Trinidad and Tobago World Cup player Avery John has helped solidify the back line, along with Chris Williams and Cristiano Dias. Moving Walter Ramirez from the midfield back to a defense role also seems to work better for the Blues.
3. Rhinos' defense appears solid. The Rhinos defense also did well on Saturday to cope with what Miami threw their way. Veteran player and assistant coach Steve Guppy continues to be an invaluable asset for the Rhinos, deftly maneuvering the ball when pinned back and sending accurate passes from the back. Leslie Fitzpatrick dealt with Miami FC's creative forward Sean Fraser well, while Nate Craft and Alfonso Loera helped keep the Blues from getting many shots on goal. Keeper Scott Vallow also made a fantastic deflection with his hip from a close range Alex Afonso shot.
4. Mixed performances from Seattle. The Seattle Sounders, future MLS team and last year's league champions, have had a strange hot-and-cold run over the past few games. After big back-to-back wins over Atlanta and Vancouver, the Sounders lost to Carolina and drew with both Puerto Rico and Miami. They came back with a huge 3-1 win over Minnesota on Saturday, but whether the Sounders can find some kind of winning consistency remains to be seen. What sets Vancouver and Charleston apart from the rest of the pack in the standings is their consistent ability to score, whether or not they are missing injured players. Last year, the Sounders really hit their stride in the latter half of the season, but if they don't get going soon this year they may not be able to move past Vancouver.
5. USL depth. The depth of most USL squads will get tested this week; the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Championship begins this week, and many USL teams also have exhibition games during this time. Almost like an English FA Cup, in the sense that teams from all competitive levels take part, this year's U.S. Open winner has the added bonus of being eligible to compete in the 2009 CONCACAF Champions League. It's been almost a decade since a non-MLS team won the title, but the memory of the Rochester Raging Rhinos beating out the Colorado Rapids in 1999 still lingers in the memory of many USL fans and should provide for an exciting competition.
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.
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.