With most clubs at or near the midway point of the USL First Division season, it is proving to be arguably the tightest race in the history of the league with only seven points separating last from third place. In a season of ups and downs for every team, former league powers Montreal and Rochester find themselves at the bottom of the table, but representative of how the season has transpired; the last-place Rhinos downed second-place Vancouver 3-1 Saturday in a dramatic match.
Fresh off their 1-0 victory in Toronto Tuesday against the MLS side in a Canadian Championship match, the Whitecaps went on the attack from the opening whistle in Rochester and scored just 10 seconds into the game when Justin Moose intercepted a pass and found Nicholas Addlery for the go-ahead strike.
Stunned from the opening goal, it took Rochester much of the first half to recover from the whiplash and regain control of the game. They would go into the break down 1-0. The Rhinos stole the Whitecaps playbook during the intermission and returned the favor with a goal 43 seconds into the second half when Luke Kreamalmeyer won the ball in the box and dropped it off to Ze Roberto, who buried a low shot from just outside the box inside the post. Newcomer Danny Earls would send a cross into the box in the 71st minute that would drop to the foot of Johnny Menyongar for a volley past Jay Nolley and the Rhino lead. Ze Roberto would seal the match with a second goal in the 89th minute.
The Rhinos moved back within a point of Puerto Rico and Montreal, who were tied for ninth.
USL First Division
Thursday, July 3
Seattle Sounders 2 at Carolina RailHawks 2
The fireworks started a day early in Carolina with a back-and-forth affair featuring the defending champions and the second-year RailHawks. Carolina found the back of the net first via Jacob Coggins 12 minutes into the match, but Sebastien Le Toux put things on level terms in the final moments of the first half. Kenji Treschuk put the visitors in the lead in the 69th minute only to see a win thwarted three minutes from time by defender David Stokes.
Minnesota Thunder 2 at Atlanta Silverbacks 3
In a battle of mid-table sides, the Silverbacks built a three goal lead in the first half on a pair of goals from Macoumba Kandji in the 19th and 45th minutes as well as a tally from Jason McLaughlin in the 24th. The Thunder cut into the deficit with a goal from Tighe Dombrowski three minutes into the second half and made a late thriller of the game with an 89th minute strike from Melvin Tarley that made the hosts nervous they might lose what looked like a lock three points.
Friday, July 4
Puerto Rico Islanders 0 at Miami FC Blues 1
In a contest of two clubs trying to climb out of the bottom half of the table, Miami took advantage of a seventh minute penalty kick and held onto the 1-0 lead on Alex Afonso's conversion to down the surging Islanders. Josh Saunders posted five saves to help guide Miami to its seventh shutout in the last eight games.
Saturday, July 5
Seattle Sounders 0 at Charleston Battery 1
The Battery helped secure their spot at the top of the table with the victory over the defending champs as second-place Vancouver were unable to earn points on the night. Defender Nelson Akwari connected with Lazo Alavanja in the 10th minute and held on for the victory.
Sunday, July 6
Puerto Rico Islanders 1 Montreal Impact 0
Aside from their 3-0 loss in Puerto Rico that eliminated them from the postseason last year, the Impact have dominated the all-time series without having ever lost in 12 regular season meetings (9-0-3). The Islanders ended that run five minutes into their first match at the new Stade Saputo when Josh Hansen's header snuck inside the post. Two goal-line saves by defenders, a shot off the crossbar and a point-blank save by Bill Gaudette prevented Montreal from finding an equalizer despite outshooting the visitors 18-4.
USL Second Division
Brian Cvilikas scored three to help the Wilmington Hammerheads push their unbeaten run to seven games with a 5-1 victory over Bermuda Thursday. The run would come to a halt two nights later against league leading Charlotte. Jorge Herrera set up both Dustin Swinehart goals as the Eagles won 2-0. Richmond moved into a tie for second with a pair of road wins, downing Real Maryland 3-0 Friday and Bermuda 7-1 Sunday.
Richmond pulled level in the table with Cleveland, who downed Western Mass 3-1 Friday. The Pioneers would turn around the next night and suffer another loss, falling on the road, 2-0, to winless Pittsburgh, who pulled within two points of Real Maryland to move out of the basement. The Monarchs were unable to expand the difference Sunday, dropping a 2-0 decision against visiting defending champion Harrisburg.
Premier Development League
With just over two weeks left in the season, the first playoff qualifiers became official on the weekend with the 2006 champion Michigan Bucks punching their ticket with a 3-1 victory over Cincinnati Saturday and the expansion Austin Aztex edging Mississippi 1-0 Sunday to secure the title in the Mid South Division, which is home to the defending champion Laredo Heat.
Other playoff contenders were not as fortunate on the weekend. Thunder Bay's nine-game win streak came to an end in Des Moines Saturday, 5-1, and Toronto was dealt a heavy blow with a 2-1 defeat in Cleveland. Cape Cod was held to a 1-1 draw in Ottawa by the second-place Fury and Chicago battled Indiana to a scoreless draw that allowed Kalamazoo to remain in first.
All three nights of the holiday weekend finished with a playoff qualifier in the W-League, all via different circumstances. Atlanta was dealt a blow in its chase for the regular season title and bye to the W-League semifinals with a 0-0 draw in Tampa Friday, but did qualify for the playoffs with the tie. On Saturday, Pali remained the lone perfect team with a narrow 1-0 victory over Seattle, securing the regular season Western Conference title. On Sunday, a 1-1 draw by Tampa against Hampton Roads put the Charlotte Lady Eagles into the postseason.
Ottawa posted key wins over Laval, 3-0, Friday and Hamilton, 2-1, Sunday to move closer to another playoff berth while Jersey found themselves missing critical points with a 1-0 loss at home to Connecticut Saturday and a 1-1 draw in New York Sunday. Northeast Division leaders Long Island and Boston battled to a 3-3 draw Saturday. In a similar much-anticipated match-up between Minnesota and FC Indiana, who previously played to a draw, it was FC Indiana sending a message across the league with a resounding 6-0 victory.