North American Soccer League 2011 Season Preview
For the third year in a row IMSoccer News proudly brings you the Division 2 season preview. Eight previews of 8 teams written by 8 separate writers, each who follow D2 pro soccer closely and have good knowledge of their individual teams.
This year’s NASL teams are: Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks, Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, FC Edmonton, Montreal Impact, FC Tampa Bay, NSC Minnesota and the Puerto Rico Islanders.
The eight NASL clubs will each play a 28-game regular season and will face its league opponents four times, twice at home and twice on the road. The season will run from the second weekend of April until late September. The top six teams at the end of the regular season will advance to the playoffs, with the top two finishers receiving a first round playoff bye.
Opening weekend is on Friday, April 9th and sees a rematch of last year’s final. The Carolina RailHawks take on the Puerto Rico Islanders at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Also kicking off that evening are FC Tampa Bay who will play the Montreal Impact at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. The Atlanta Silverbacks go up against the NSC Minnesota Stars at Atlanta Silverbacks Stadium, and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers will take on newcomer FC Edmonton at Lockhart Stadium.
For the complete NASL season schedule go here.
Stadium: Atlanta Silverbacks Park: SSS – Artificial Turf (capacity: 5,000)
Last season’s record: 2-Year Hiatus (Last played 2008)
Head coach: Jose Manuel Abundis (1st season)
Key players: Ciaran O’Brien, Mario Perez, Emsad Zahirovic
by Chris Martz
Men’s professional soccer is back in Atlanta as the Silverbacks return to the field after a two-year hiatus. As a late entrant into the NASL, the front office has worked diligently to put a team on the field for the 2011 season. Owner Boris Jerkunica has returned, bringing with him former Mexican international Jose Manuel Abundis as the new head coach. This is Abundis’ first professional coaching job with former Silverback and 2001 MLS MVP Alex Piñeda-Chacón assisting him. Another former Silverback, Rodrigo Rios, has moved into the front office as Director of Soccer.
The two-year hiatus completely gutted the Silverbacks’ roster, leaving the team to start with a clean slate. In talks with local soccer community leaders, Jerkunica vowed to look closer at local talent than the team had done in the past, as well as focus more on developing young talent.
The team’s first signings reflect this direction, as only three of the 14 players under contract as of press time are age 26 or older. Former Mexican international Mario Pérez is the biggest name signing thus far for the Silverbacks. Coming to Atlanta from Atlas in the Mexican First Division, the defender with 10 senior caps should help generate a buzz in the large Latino community.
Another Mexican, GK Felipe Quintero, represents a link to the past on the field for the Silverbacks. Playing with the team in their last three seasons before the hiatus, Quintero remained in town playing on amateur teams. Though not projected to be the #1 keeper, his experience at the professional level should be key in helping bring along any young talent the team may acquire in the coming weeks.
The biggest question marks for the Atlanta Silverbacks on the field will be chemistry and experience issues. With such a short time frame from the re-introduction of the team to the start of the NASL season, Jerkunica and his staff have done an admirable job of constructing the team and preparing the facility.
However, the lack of play against elite competition in the leadup to the season should lead to a long season in Atlanta. What remains to be seen is whether any new fans the Silverbacks have gained will be patient enough to stick with the team through a tough opening season.
Stadium: WakeMed Soccer Park: SSS – Grass (capacity: 7,000)
Last season’s record: 13W-9L-8D (2nd Place Overall) (Lost in Championship Games to Puerto Rico Islanders)
Head coach: Martin Rennie (3rd Year)
Key players: Gregory Richardson, Brad Rusin, Jonny Steele
by Bart Barker – Tri Soccer Fan
After losing in the finals to Puerto Rico last year and an off season which saw the club cease to exist for a brief period of time, RailHawks fans are relieved to see the team return to the pitch in 2011 under new ownership but with the same club name.
The RailHawks have lost several key players from the team that won the NASL conference with a 13-9-8 record last year, including Daniel Paladini to the Chicago Fire, Josh Gardner to the Columbus Crew and fan favorite goalkeeper Eric Reed to the Charlotte Eagles. Those losses are expected to be countered by the additions of Kithson Bain, a Grenadian international, Stephen Glass from Scotland, Khano Smith of Bermuda and Brad Knighton, who saw time in goal last year for the Philadelphia Union. Another important addition to the team is Jonny Steele, a journeyman midfielder who returns to the RailHawks, last playing for the team in 2007.
Rusin returns to anchor the back line and serve as team captain this year. Also returning are Gregory Richardson, the fleet footed Guyanese international forward, and Kupono Low who’s played for the RailHawks since the team’s inception four years ago.
But the key return is that of Coach Martin Rennie who has taken the team from bottom-of-the-table obscurity into the playoffs the past two seasons and to the finals last year. The only way to improve upon last season will be to win the trophy.
Stadium: Foote Field: Multi-use – artificial turf (capacity: 3,500)
Last season’s record: Expansion Team
Head coach: Harry Sinkgraven
Key players: Shaun Saiko, Niko Saler, Chris Lemire
by STEVEN SANDOR – the11.ca
FC Edmonton despite being the new club on the block, feels it is entering the season on more solid footing that almost all of the other NASL teams, with the exception of Montreal and Puerto Rico. It had 20 players signed before it broke its Arizona training camp. Dutch coach Harry Sinkgraven preaches a pressing, 4-3-3 system.
Last season, under then-coach Dwight Lodeweges, FC Edmonton played a series of friendlies in order to audition players for the 2011 season. But, before the 2011 season, Lodeweges took a better-paying job with Japanese second-division side JEF United.
Despite not playing a meaningful game last season, FCE has two key losses. Lodeweges brought Dutch midfielder Sander van Gessel with him, and then acquired Matt Lam, the local product who was the club’s best player in 2010, on a one-year loan deal. Ironically, Lam was back in Edmonton in March, sitting on the sidelines as Japanese soccer was on hold in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.
While Lam is gone, another local product will be key. Midfielder Shaun Saiko spent time in Middlesbrough’s youth system before coming back to Canada. He was the linchpin of the offence throughout the preseason.
Teenage fullback Niko Saler could make the starting 11: He was summoned to Canada’s U-20 camp because of some impressive preseason performances.
There are many in the Canadian soccer establishment who feel the gap between Canadian schools and the NCAA isn’t that pronounced. If the gap, as FC Edmonton feels, isn’t that great, it might have some diamonds in the rough. Former Canadian University player of the year Paul Hamilton will play on the backline. Striker Paul Craig, a standout at the University of Prince Edward Island before transferring to the University of Saskatchewan, showed great scoring touch in the preseason.
The team returns only one player from the 2004 Aviators, which declared bankruptcy halfway through its only USL season. Edmonton native Chris Lemire, returns to pro soccer and will feature at the head of the three-forward attack.
As for the foreign contingent Dan Antoniuk, a veteran of Div.-2 soccer, had a successful trial with FCE and will be looked to bring some experience to what is a very young team.
Fort Lauderdale Strikers
Founded 2006 (Formerly Miami FC Blues)
Stadium: Lockhart Stadium: Multi-use – Grass (capacity: 18,500)
Last season’s record: 7W-11L-12D (9th Place)
Head coach: Daryl Shore (2nd Year-Took over midseason 2010)
Key players: Zach Kirby, Abe Thompson, Matt Glaeser
by Joel Delgado – Sports Director FIU Student Media
With a new name, new colors and a new image, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (formerly Miami FC) are also looking for some new fortunes as they try to make the postseason for the first time in five years.
Head coach Daryl Shore returns at the helm for the Strikers after taking over near the halfway point of the 2010 season.
After a slow start in 2010 the team finished strong, going unbeaten in its last five games of the season and appears to be building its 2011 roster around capitalize on that late season run.
The Strikers retained Abe Thompson, who finished last year as the D-2 Player of the Month in September 2010, and Brian Shriver. Both played major roles in the team’s offensive production towards the latter parts of the season and the addition of Aaron Wheeler, who scored four goals in an injury-shortened season with FC Tampa Bay, should also help add a spark to this front unit.
The Strikers also added some other major pieces, such as former River Plate midfielder Eduardo Coudet, who recently played with the Philadelphia Union. The team also added Christian Arrieta, a defender who played alongside Coudet with the Union in 2010. Both players add valuable depth and experience to the roster for the upcoming season.
Team captain Zach Kirby returns on defense after sitting out most of last season due to injury and the team also brought back Aaron Hohlbein and Martyn Lancaster to provide some continuity to the back line that was very strong with Kirby in the lead. But needs to improve on its 49 goals allowed last season (second highest in USSF D-2) and the addition of Arrieta should help.
One of the interesting things to watch will be the situation at goalkeeper. The team resigned Matt Glaeser, allowing just four goals and posting a shutout in his five starts at the end of last season. The Strikers are hoping that Glaeser can reproduce similar numbers this season.
Overall this is a team with a lot of promise, adding a number of players around a solid core that was successful last season. The key for this team will be getting off to a fast start with a majority of their games during the opening part of the season being played at home. If the team comes out slow out of the gate, they could be in for another long season.
Stadium: Stade Saputo: SSS – Grass (capacity: 13,034)
Last season’s record: 12W-11L-7D (6th Place)
Head coach: Marc Dos Santos (3rd year)
Key players: Ali Gerba, Philippe Billy and Bill Gaudette
Team Website English – French
by Steven Beauregard – Soccer Montréal
Hopes were high for the Impact going into the 2010 season and supporters expected a good showing in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship and another run at the Division 2 title. It didn’t work out that way, their NCC performance was dismal and after a great run in the last 2 months of the season, the Gulls were ousted in the semi-finals in a controversial loss to the Railhawks.
The 2011 campaign will be a transition year, a season long tryout of sorts, with most of the players setting their sights on making the squad for the club’s much awaited MLS debut in 2012. Most key players will be returning, including Ali Gerba , who went on a scoring tear in the 2nd half of the season with 13 goals in 17 appearances, French defender and 2010 club MVP Philippe Billy and midfielders Antonio Ribeiro and Leo Di lorenzo. There will be a lot of new faces ,including former Algerian Division 1 forward Idriss Ech-Chergui, French journeyman and defender Kevin Hatchi and most notably defensive midfielder Hassoun Camara, who trained with Olympique Marseille.
The biggest question mark heading into training camp was the goalkeeper position. Matt Jordan’s surprise retirement gave the club the opportunity to bring in former Puerto Rico Islanders GK, the much loved/hated Bill Gaudette. He has made a name for himself as something of a “giant killer” with wins over quite a few Mexican and MLS teams in the Concacaf Champions League, including a 2009 preliminary round victory over rival Toronto FC. The Impact FO and supporters are hoping he can repeat those performances when they kick off this year’s Canadian Championship with a home and away “semi-final” with newly minted MLS team the Vancouver Whitecaps, at Saputo Stadium on April 27th.
Expectations will be high once again in 2011, as they always are in Montreal. The main focus for most of the hardcore supporters will be without question the Canadian Championship and a strong showing is hoped for. It remains to be seen what kind of chemistry we will see on the field from the Impact. The club is definitely one of, if not the most talented teams on paper in Division 2 footy, but as we all know too well in Montreal that doesn’t always translate into results on the pitch. With many players trying to earn [maybe] a few available spots for MLS in 2012, the internal competition within the dressing room will be intense. It remains to be seen whether this will result in success in the NASL standings.
Bonne saison a tous!
Stadium: National Sports Center Stadium: SSS – Grass (capacity: 12,000)
Last season’s record: 11W-12L-D7 (7th Place)
Head coach: Manny Lagos (2nd year)
Key players: Kyle Altman, Devin Del Do, Joe Warren
by Brian Quarstad – IMSoccer News
The 2011 NSC Minnesota Stars are in their second season. The club is now league-owned after 1 year of ownership by the National Sports Center, who launched the Stars after the Thunder’s demise.
This season marks head coach Manny Lagos‘ sophomore season and all eyes will be on the the former MLS player to see if he can repeat his success of 2010. Lagos took a group of players, most whom had never played together, and assembled a team that by midseason was operating as a unit. By season end they were one of the most successful teams on the field and were the only expansion team to make the playoffs. Lagos has brought back 16 players from last year’s squad which means it will be one of the most cohesive teams in the league.
However, not everything has been positive in the offseason for the Stars. Last year’s team captain and IMS/du Nord futbol player of the year Andres Arango signed with FC Tampa Bay. Losing a center back of his caliber will be a hard hole to fill. So Lagos has acquired central defender Cristiano Dias from [formerly] Miami FC to fill that gap.
Also gone this season is stalwart central midfielder Daniel Wasson, who logged in the third highest amount of minutes in 2010. Wasson tore his ACL before the Stars training camp opened. Defensive midfielder Kentaro Takada and new signing Sandy Gbandi, picked up from the Islanders, will have to pick up the slack. Takada, who showed improvement throughout last season, has looked solid in preseason with sharp passes and reads the game exceptionally well.
A key return for the Stars is goalkeeper [Papa] Joe Warren whom Lagos convinced to come out of retirement for a second time in two years. The 6′ 4″, 35-year-old Warren will be a stabilizing factor with a young team that averages 25 years of age.
Perhaps the greatest amount of pressure to perform will be on Kyle Altman who last year was converted from midfield to play central defense with Arango and did so admirably. The partnership between Dias and Altman will be critical to Minnesota’s success.
The Stars’ late season success in 2010 could be directly related to a [finally] healthy Devin Del Do. His energy and dangerous runs at goal created fits for defenses and gave his strike partner, Simone Bracalello, a chance to tally some late season goals.
Minnesota’s biggest question mark will be the back line. If Lagos can meld a back four in quick order, the team has the ingredients to create a very successful season.
Stadium: Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium: SSS – Grass (capacity: 12,500)
Last season’s record: 9W-11L-10D (8rd place)(League Champions)
Head coach: Colin Clarke (5th season)
Key players: Nicholas Addlery, David Foley, Richard Martinez
Team Website: English – Spanish
by Kristian Vázquez – Pasion Naranja!
2010 saw the Puerto Rico Islanders crowned champions of the league as well as of the Caribbean. Having tasted success, the club now enters a more mature phase in which it needs to redefine its end goals. If we are to believe the chatter, the Islanders are building a team to be successful on 3 fronts: NASL, Caribbean (CFU) Club Championship, and the CONCACAF Champions League. 2011 is shaping to be the most ambitious year in the club’s short history.
This year the Islanders will once again have a considerable number of new faces. Some key players of the team from 2008-2010 have now moved on – Bill Gaudette (Montreal Impact), Sandy Gbandi (NSC Minnesota Stars), and Kendall Jagdeosingh (Rochester Rhinos).
Returning to the team is Jay Needham while some new and promising talent includes Richard Martin (GK – England), Aaron Pitchkolan (DF – USA), Tyler Wilson (MF – Puerto Rico), and Matthew Bouraee (FW – USA).
While the new player signings look promising, the Islanders have yet again waited until the last minute for much of their preparations and so far have not had any meaningful pre-season engagements. The team has played several amateur teams in Puerto Rico and one pro team, Sevilla PR (USLPro), who had only one day of training before playing the Islanders.
With many new players in key positions, as well as the league opener and CFU competition only a few weeks ahead – it is hard to feel confident in the team’s preparations. The Islanders could struggle yet again through the first third of the season because of issues that could have been addressed with a proper pre-season schedule.
In addition the team will likely face a tough schedule – particularly towards the end of the season – with league competition, Caribbean competition, and later on CONCACAF competition (assuming the team advances). While this would be a cause of concern for many clubs, the Islanders are used to these challenges. Simply consider that last year was one of the worst starts for the club in their history yet they managed to not only win the championship in the Caribbean, and battle from an 8th seed in the playoffs to become D-II champions, but also were just 1 win away from advancing in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Look for the team to stumble a bit out of the gate but overall, the 2011 Islanders look poised once again to be serious contenders in all 3 of their competitions.
Founded 2010 (Modern Era)
Stadium: Al Lang Stadium: Multi-use – Grass (capacity: 7,227)
Last season’s record: 7W–12L–11D (10th Place)
Head coach: Ricky Hill (1st Year)
Key players: Takuya Yamada, Andres Arrango, Jeremy Christie
By Steve Holler – (Ralph’s Mob)
Plagued by an inability to keep a clean sheet, FC Tampa Bay began the 2010 season 5-1-3 and then proceeded to win only two games the rest of the year. This included spells where the side took no points in the month of June, only one in the month of September, and allowed 28 goals in its last 12 games. This defensive meltdown caused a complete restructuring of the back line (not one defender from last year will be active this season) and the firing of the team’s first-year coach, Paul Dalglish. Only six players from last year’s roster will be in uniform on opening day, evidence of the dramatic revamping of the roster as the team attempts to evolve from expansion franchise to title contender.
To revamp the defense the team has signed former Minnesota Stars captain Andres Arrango and former Rochester Rhinos captain Frankie Sanfilippo. Using these two as an anchor, the team looks to rebound from a disappointing debut season.
The offense will aim to overcome its power failures as well with the signing of Mike Ambersley. Ambersley, who was tied for sixth in goals the USSF Division 2-Pro League last season with nine, joins Aaron King, who was third in the league with 12 goals. With four of the top eight goal-scorers all moving to other leagues, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers’ Abe Thompson and the Montreal Impact’s Ali Gerba the only other players in the NASL to finish in that group with nine goals, Tampa Bay’s offense should be able to succeed where their predecessors failed.
The majority of the returning players are in a midfield designed around internationals Takuya Yamada and Jeremy Christie. Yamada played nearly every position last year, while Christie, who was missing for most of the year playing for New Zealand at the World Cup and recovering from an injury sustained in it, provided veteran leadership among the youthful midfield with an average age of 23.
Luton Town hero Ricky Hill makes his return to coaching after a seven-year absence. His focus on smooth, offensive play has inspired hope and confidence among the players and fans in search for the inaugural NASL Championship.