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.
The home stretch of the USL-1 season is shaping up to be one of the closest ever. The current top two teams, the Puerto Rico Islanders and Vancouver Whitecaps, are both on 37 points and separated only by goal difference, with the Charleston Battery just two points behind them. With Charleston's U.S. Open Cup semifinal match against the Seattle Sounders tonight, the Battery have a chance to achieve a treble: the league title, league playoffs, and U.S. Open Cup. However, the league race is far from over, and just about anything can still happen. A few take homes from the weekend action:
1. One-man show. For Minnesota Thunder midfielder Ricardo Sanchez, games can often be contentious carded affairs or they can contain a stroke of brilliance from a set piece. Sunday's 3-1 win over the Seattle Sounders was of the latter variety, and in a big way. His first shot hit the post, but Sanchez found his way to the rebound which he promptly headed in -- a rarity for him. His second goal, an improbable free kick from 40 yards out, had serious Bend-It-Like-Beckham quality.
2. On the rise. Not to be outdone, Minnesota forward Melvin Tarley had a goal of his own for the Thunder, after several close shots. The former Colorado Rapids player has been a bit hot and cold for the Thunder this season, with some critics complaining of laziness on the field. But Tarley's work rate against Seattle on Sunday was impressive, and showed why -- despite being in the middle of the standings -- Minnesota is not out of the title race by any means.
3. Epic showdown. Both U.S. Open Cup semifinalists Charleston Battery and Seattle Sounders went winless this weekend, but neither team can be blamed for holding back; The semifinal is shaping up to be one of the most hotly anticipated match-ups in the Cup. Charleston and Seattle are two of the most entertaining USL-1 teams to watch, and both have great forwards that constantly require attention from the opponents' defense. Charleston's midfield, with players like Osvaldo Alonso and Lazo Alavanja, has continued to improve with each game. Although Seattle has a somewhat leaky defense, keeper Chris Eylander is among the best of the best. Expect this match up to be a highly charged and memorable affair.
4. Islanders' high hopes. Interestingly enough, the Puerto Rico Islanders have a chance to do their own treble as well -- the league title, league playoffs and the CONCACAF Champions League. While winning the Champions League may sound like a lofty goal for the Islanders, it would be wrong to count them out of the action. Considering that they were at the bottom of the USL-1 league for several weeks and then rocketed to the top, the Islanders may just have more surprises up their sleeves. Their most recent games have sent a message as well: they crushed the Rochester Rhinos 4-0 at home on Friday and have won seven of their past 10 games.
5. Scheduling shenanigans. Chalk another one up for the strange USL-1 scheduling. After playing only three games in July, the Atlanta Silverbacks are making it up by playing 11 league games in August, with just over half of those games on the road. Five games into those 11, the Silverbacks have managed three wins, a loss, and a draw. It looks like Silverbacks have finally come to terms with having the leakiest defense in the USL-1, though, and have added former Trinidad and Tobago defender Brent Sancho to their squad. If Sancho can help hold up the back line, Atlanta could soon be near the top of the standings.
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 email@example.com.