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Jul 15, 2008

Islanders jump up in the standings

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.

As the USL-1 season nears the halfway point, the action has begun to heat up even more. The standings have started to go haywire, as some teams finally even out the number of games played. Several teams have made big trades over the past couple of weeks, and a few teams are finding success in other competitions.

The Montreal Impact leads Toronto FC and Vancouver in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship -- the winner getting a Champions League slot, and for the second year in a row two USL-1 teams have made the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. A few take homes from the weekend:

1. Upwardly mobile. Only in the USL-1, with its quirky scheduling, can a team go from second to last and back to second place, in the span of two weeks. But that's just what the Puerto Rico Islanders did. Three games into a six-game road trip, the Islanders have notched three wins, and have turned the standings upside down. Not only are the Islanders on an amazing winning streak, but they also defeated the Portland Timbers 2-0, in Portland, for the first time. Against the league-leading Charleston Battery on Saturday, the Islanders managed an amazing comeback for a 3-1 win. After going one goal down, they came back with three goals in 20 minutes.

2. Noel on fire. Islanders forward Fabrice Noel has taken Puerto Rico's road trip as an opportunity to launch his game to a new level. Critics might have thought that the Islanders would show up in Portland, and simply sit back and play defense -- happy to get a point. Not Noel. Whether it was the Timbers shoddy defense, or Noel's ingenuity, the Haitian international was constantly getting around the Portland defense. For Puerto Rico's first goal against Portland, Noel connected -- almost telepathically it seemed -- with a great Jonathan Steele cross at an odd angle in front of the Timbers goal. Two days later against Charleston, Noel supplied Steele with the ball to score the Islanders third goal of the night.

3. The art of crossing. Another key player for the Islanders, Northern Ireland international Jonathan Steele, represents an interesting trend in the USL-1 this year: awesome crossers. Whether it's due to the methods taught at the grassroots level in the U.S. or the complexity of the skill in general, quality crossers like Steele are not prevalent in the U.S. But this year in the USL-1 several good crossers have emerged, including Danny Earls of the Rochester Rhinos and Nick Addlery of the Vancouver Whitecaps. Considering Earles, Steele and Addlery have all only played a season or two with the USL, maybe this will mark the beginning of a new standard for the USL-1.

4. Stellar American goalkeepers -- on the other hand -- are not such a rarity, with the likes of Tim Howard, Brad Friedel and Marcus Hahnemann. But unfortunately for the Portland Timbers, after keeper Josh Wicks was picked off by the L.A. Galaxy, the Timbers have struggled to replace him. Ray Burse was quality, but he was recalled by FC Dallas. Jordan James has had a couple of games, but now New England's Brad Knighton and the Rochester Rhinos' Chase Harrison have both been brought in. As the fourth-place keeper for the Revs, Knighton is unlikely to be called back this season -- but will he become the keeper the Timbers are looking for? His debut 2-0 loss to the Timbers was not what they were hoping for, but he still had some good moments. There was little that Knighton could do against both goals, and he managed to hold onto the ball after a massive body check from defender John Krause, ultimately earning Krause a yellow card.

5. Trading places. Not to be outdone by their Canadian counterparts, three USL teams pulled off a four-player swap this week, with a few of the new additions making their debuts. Trades in the middle of the season are always a gamble, and sometimes the period of adjustment for a player outweighs any benefit they might have on their new team that season. Luckily for the Carolina RailHawks, though, they just might have lucked out in their acquisition. Well-traveled forward Hamed Diallo, who scored nine goals in 22 appearances for Rochester last year, made his debut for Carolina against the Minnesota Thunder for the team's 2-2 draw Friday. Diallo made an immediate impact for Carolina, assisting Santiago Fusilier with his goal against the Thunder and Dan Antoniuk with his goal on Sunday in Carolina's 1-1 draw with Vancouver.

Anne Ramzy is a freelance sportswriter based near San Francisco. She also is a frequent guest on the weekly soccer podcast on www.theoffside.com and can be reached at anneramzy@gmail.com.

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