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Islanders heavy favorites heading into the USL season

Puerto Rico coach Colin Clarke doesn't mince words.

"Everyone is going to be looking to take your heads off," midfielder Jonny Steele recalled Clarke telling his team recently about the upcoming USL First Division season (which kicks off Saturday with a game between Minnesota and Carolina).

Clarke knows his Islanders, who made waves in the offseason by reaching the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, are the team to beat. Puerto Rico lost last year's USL championship match 2-1 at Vancouver but won the regular-season title with a 15-6-9 record. Is late-season surge (8-0-5 from Aug. 3 to Oct. 3) was impressive in the parity-stricken USL.

The Isles return a dozen players, including all of last year's key performers, and have added two more weapons to help the maturing Steele, 23, the reigning league MVP. Nicholas Addlery, 28, a 6-foot-1 forward from Jamaica, comes to Puerto Rico via Vancouver (four goals last season) and 5-foot-5 midfielder Martin Nunez, 22, is a pint-sized playmaker (five goals, two assists with Carolina).

"They've given everybody a buzz," Steele said.

Puerto Rico also added midfielder Domenic Mediate, 26. Mediate spent the past four years in MLS with Columbus and D.C. United.

Steele's 11 assists led the USL last season. Veterans Petter Villegas and team captain Noah Delgado also are back along with two of the league's other top award winners, Defender of the Year Cristian Arrieta (seven goals, two assists) and Goalkeeper of the Year Bill Gaudette (10 shutouts).

Steele, who hails from Northern Ireland as his coach does, said Clarke developed and relied heavily on a deep roster. Clarke's split-squad strategy last fall, when Puerto Rico was wading through the early stages of the Champions League while also winning in the USL playoffs, showcased the Islanders' quality depth.

Steele, who admits he underperformed with three other previous USL clubs in Syracuse, Rochester and Carolina, credits Clarke for his 2008 emergence.

"He wants the best for us and he gets the best from us," Steele said of the reigning USL Coach of the Year, who coached Dallas in MLS from 2003 to '06. "It's about respect. Once he says something, I listen. In the past, myself or other players might answer back to coaches, but once he says something my head's between my legs."

The USL First Division opens play Saturday with Minnesota visiting Carolina and Charleston playing at Vancouver.

Five other USL story lines

1. Farewell Tour, part 2: The Seattle Sounders said goodbye to the USL last year and hello this season to MLS. The Portland (Ore.) Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps will do the same over the next two years, giving Major League Soccer a tradition-rich, three-way Pacific Northwest rivalry when they join in 2011.

MLS hopes Portland and Vancouver's fans follow the same pattern as Toronto and Seattle. Toronto drew crowds of barely 1,500 when it had a USL-1 team. But Toronto FC has averaged 20,000-plus in its first two years in MLS, and Seattle, a much better USL draw than Toronto, has an MLS-record 22,000 season-ticket holders.

To prepare for the departures, the USL-1 will add Long Island-based New York FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2010.

2. New, but improved? The 11-team league replaced Seattle and Atlanta, which is on hiatus indefinitely as it considers a possible jump to MLS, with franchises in Cleveland and Austin, Texas.

The Austin Aztex are owned by Phil Rawlins, a former board member with Stoke City FC of the English Premier League. The franchise, which has an affiliation with Stoke City, made the jump from the USL's Premier Development League (fourth division).

The Cleveland City Stars won last year's USL Second Division crown, but return only a handful of players. Coach Martin Rennie, 33, left for the Carolina RailHawks before Cleveland was elevated and took with him two-time USL-2 Defender of the Year, Mark Schulte.

3. Battery recharged: After a 9-4-4 start last season, no doubt aided by 12 home matches, the Charleston (S.C.) Battery ran out of juice, going 2-8-3 to finish fifth. But coach Mike Anhaeuser's club, which lost in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final to D.C. United, has 12 returnees and has scooped up some quality free agents, too.

Defender Matt Bobo and midfielder Scott Buete arrive from Atlanta while defender Frankie Sanfilippo and forward Daniel Antoniuk were casualties of Carolina's housecleaning. Watch out for Tsuyoshi Yoshitake, a playmaking midfielder/forward from Japan.

4. Two key changes: Look for more foreigners on the pitch at the same time. Previously, USL clubs could carry seven foreigners and use five in a match. The USL now allows teams to use all seven on its 18-player roster for matches.

The championship game format also has been changed. Instead of it being one 90-minute match, the championship will be a two-leg series just like the first two rounds of the playoffs.

5. Look at us: Puerto Rico and Montreal's success in the Champions League, along with Seattle's strong start in MLS, have USL players pounding their chest, saying, "Look at us."

Montreal would have reached the semifinals if not for a colossal meltdown. The Impact took a 2-0 lead into the second leg of its quarterfinal matchup with Mexico's Santos Laguna and was ahead 4-1 on aggregate headed into the final 45 minutes. But Santos Laguna pulled off a stunning rally with four goals in the final 36 minutes to advance.

About half of Seattle's players were Sounders last season, and midfield catalyst Osvaldo Alonso was the USL-1 Rookie of the Year. The 23-year-old Cuban, who has assisted on three of Seattle's seven goals, played for Charleston last year.

MLS scouts might be wondering: Is there another Alonso in the USL?

Five players to watch

1. David Hayes, Portland: After Atlanta announced last fall it would take this season off to assess whether it wanted to make a push for MLS, the 32-year-old was named head coach of the Silverbacks' W-League (women's) team on Jan. 23. A month later, the two-time USL Defender of the Year signed with Portland, quite a change of scenery after four seasons in Atlanta.

2. Eddie Johnson, Austin: Not many former Manchester United players end up in USL-1. Johnson, 24, is the exception. The forward signed with Man U in 2001 and saw time in one game against Leeds in 2003. After a stint in Belgium, he was loaned to Coventry City back in England. That's where he met then-assistant Adrian Heath, who's now the Austin head coach.

3. Martin Nash, Vancouver: With many from Vancouver's veteran cast gone, it falls on Nash to become more of a leader as the Caps continue to use their youth academy to develop MLS-ready players by 2011. His brother, NBA All-Star guard Steve, was a big part of Vancouver's landing an MLS spot, but Martin, 33, might have to force himself to be more of a vocal presence.

4. Eduardo Sebrango, Montreal: Many thought the ageless Cuban forward, who turns 36 on April 13, would finish his career in Vancouver. He helped the Caps claim USL titles in 2006 and '08. But in November he re-signed with Montreal, where he had led the Impact to the 2004 crown, to be closer to his children. Sebrango (12 goals last year) scored three times in his first two matches with Montreal in Champions League play.

5. Jonny Steele, Puerto Rico: Can the midfielder avoid being a one-hit wonder? Before last year's two-goal, 11-assist explosion, the reigning USL MVP had two goals and five assists in 46 matches over parts of four seasons with Syracuse, Rochester and Carolina. Steele, just 23, came of age last summer. Will he stay as sharp?

Jeff DiVeronica covers soccer for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle. He also writes a blog, Devo's Direct Kicks.

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