This year's USL First Division playoffs look like a Who's Who of the USL's perennial powerhouses.
But there's only one team in this parity-stricken league that coaches fear, and it's the one without a championship on its résumé. In fact, until last year the Puerto Rico Islanders hadn't even won a playoff match. But after a 1-3-3 start, the fourth-year franchise went 14-3-6 to make the league and opponents elsewhere take notice.
"They're an absolutely fantastic team," Rochester coach Darren Tilley said, calling the Islanders "hands down" the best team in the USL.
Puerto Rico has gone 6-0-6 since Aug. 1 (eight shutouts in that stretch) to capture its first regular-season title, the top seed in the playoffs and a much-needed first-round bye. But the Islanders haven't been resting this week while the rest of the USL prepares for the playoffs to start Friday.
On Tuesday, they stunned Mexico's Santos Laguna 3-1 in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League, improving to 3-0-1 overall in the international competition. One of three Caribbean teams to qualify, they must try to balance the playoffs amid the Champions League. No. 3 seed Montreal, which qualified as Canada's representative, faces the same challenge.
But second-year Puerto Rico coach Colin Clarke left no doubt about his top priority. "For me and for everybody else the most important one is our league," he said. "That's the one we'll judge ourselves on at the end of the year. We want to win the championship."
The Islanders are certainly well-equipped to do so.
Despite lacking a big-time scorer -- defender Cristian Arrieta leads Puerto Rico with seven goals, Fabrice Noel has six and midfielder Josh Hansen five -- and losing nearly its entire defense from last year, Puerto Rico led the USL in goals scored (43) and fewest allowed (23).
As the No. 6 seed last season, the Islanders nearly upset No. 1 Seattle in the semifinals. But after knocking off No. 3 Montreal in the first round (7-6 aggregate goals) and pushing the No. 1 Sounders to penalty kicks, they lost 4-2. Seattle pounded Atlanta 4-0 in the title match.
"We probably deserved to beat Seattle in the semis last year, so we knew we were close," Clarke said. "We had a lot of good pieces."
But Puerto Rico lost goalie Josh Saunders, USL Rookie of the Year Jay Needham and second-team all-league pick Marco Velez in the offseason. Clarke, however, found dynamite defensive replacements to complement returning center back John Krause.
Nigel Henry, 32, a Trinidadian who had played in the USL with Hershey, Montreal, Toronto and helped Charleston win the league in 2003, has led the team in minutes. Right back and Florida native Arrieta, 28, arrived from Italy, and second-year pro Scott Jones, 25, a developmental player for FC Dallas last year, has been solid.
Veterans Petter Villegas, Noah Delgado and Edwin Miranda have anchored the midfield, but two newcomers have made a huge impact.
Jonathan Steele is just 22, but he's in his fifth year in the USL and has finally matured into the left-footed midfielder teams in Syracuse (2004), Rochester (2005-06) and Carolina (2007) thought he would be. His 11 assists lead the league and now Steele, a Northern Ireland native that Clarke first brought to the U.S. in 2004 when Clarke coached Dallas (MLS), is being mentioned as a league MVP candidate.
Clarke said goalie Bill Gaudette has been just as valuable.
The 27-year-old, who spent 2005-07 with the Columbus Crew (MLS), has 10 shutouts, tied for second in the USL.
"A lot of games when we've been under pressure, Bill has come up with big saves at the right time," Clarke said.
Puerto Rico (15-6-9) will play the lowest remaining seed in a two-game, aggregate-goal semifinal series next week. Here's a look at the other first-round matchups that take place Friday-Sunday:
No. 2 Vancouver (15-7-8) vs. No. 7 Minnesota (10-11-9)
Seven starters from the 2006 title team remain the backbone for Vancouver, which has a first-year coach in Teitur Thordarson but is anchored by captain Jeff Clarke (defender), veteran midfielder Martin Nash and top-scorer Eduardo Sebrango, who finished third in the USL in points (27) and goals (12).
Jason Jordan (two goals and two assists), the 2005 league MVP, and Charles Gbeke give the Whitecaps two more veterans up top.
They went 1-1-1 against Minnesota, which was just 5-8-3 in late July (with six one-goal losses) before replacing third-year coach Amos Magee with assistant Don Gramenz. He also played for the Thunder's 1999 champions. Minnesota is only 5-3-6 under Gramenz, but went 3-0-3 down the stretch and crushed Charleston 4-0 and Montreal 3-1 in its last two matches to get into the playoffs. Forward Melvin Tarley (10 goals) and midfielder Ricardo Sanchez drive the attack.
No. 3 Montreal (12-12-6) vs. No. 6 Seattle (10-10-10)
Montreal also made a coaching change, kicking fifth-year man Nick DeSantis up to the front office June 10 in favor of his former Impact teammate, John Limniatis. Just 2-6-2 under DeSantis, Montreal is 10-6-4 under Limniatis and has regained some of its swagger at home despite a rough start at Stade Saputo, which opened in the spring and regularly packs 13,000-plus crowds.
After going an uncharacteristic 3-4-2 at home, Montreal is 4-0-2 and, like Puerto Rico, has been buoyed by its Champions League success.
Despite playing its final seven matches at home, Seattle slumped, going 2-3-2. That included a 2-1 win Sept. 10 by Montreal, whose midfield includes three players -- Tony Donatelli, David Testo and 2006 league MVP Joey Gjertsen -- that helped Vancouver capture the crown two years ago.
Forward Sebastien Le Toux, who has signed to play for the Sounders FC club in MLS, leads Seattle with 14 goals (second in the USL) and four assists and goalie Chris Eylander has 10 shutouts.
No. 4 Rochester (11-10-9) vs. No. 5 Charleston (11-12-7)
Charleston swept three regular-season meetings by a 6-1 margin, but these teams have been going in different directions since their last matchup June 28. Rochester is 9-5-4 and Charleston is 4-9-4, including a 1-6-3 slide (outscored 18-7) since Aug. 7.
Veteran goalie Dusty Hudock can still carry Charleston and played brilliantly in helping the Battery past two MLS sides and into the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship match, a 2-1 loss to D.C. United on Sept. 3, but the Battery has shut out only two of its last 10 foes.
Tilley knows USL playoff success well. As a forward, he helped the Rhinos capture their first crown in 1998. This year, he guided his first club back from a disastrous 0-4-3 start that included just two goals scored.
Forwards Johnny Menyongar (six goals, five assists) and Matthew Delicate (five goals, three assists) have clicked over the last half; midfielder Luke Kreamalmeyer (nine assists) has been consistent all season; and veteran goalie Scott Vallow (10 shutouts) has a steady defense in front of him featuring veterans John Ball and Scott Palguta, USL newcomer Ross Smith and rookie Danny Earls, a 19-year-old from Ireland.
"When we play at our best, I don't think there are many teams that can stay with us," Tilley said. "But we've only done that in parts of games."
Jeff DiVeronica covers soccer for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle. He also writes a blog, Devo's Direct Kicks.