The first year of the USL Pro will definitely be an interesting one. With the 15 team league being divided into 3 divisions, I will cover each one separately in the lead up to the first game on Saturday, April 2nd. The final division we will look at is the American Division:
The American Division looks to be the best out of the three divisions in this year's USL Pro. The division is based in the Southeast, and contains 3 teams in the Carolinas, 1 in Florida, and 1 in Virginia. Here is how I think they will finish:
5. Wilmington Hammerheads: After a season off where it looked like the team would dissolve, the Hammerheads are back and ready to get back out on the pitch. They've already won the biggest battle, but can they come back with a full head of steam into the USL Pro? I think not. The Hammerheads lost most of the players from their 2009 USL-2 Regular Season Champion Team, and are basically starting over. Two players that are returning from that 2009 team are Chris Murray and Jyler Noviello. Murray was one of the brightest young stars for the Hammerheads in both 2008 and 2009. Noviello had 8 goals and 5 assists in 33 appearances for Wilmington in 2008 and 2009. Their main hope on attack seems to be Andriy Budnyi, who played well for the Carolina Railhawks in the 2010 season. The defense is fairly young, and goalkeeper Kyle Polak will have a huge task in keeping the goals out.
4. Charlotte Eagles: Last season, Charlotte finished 4 in the 6 team USL Second Division, 7 points out of the playoffs. Charlotte returns a lot of their team from last year's squad, in fact all 11 starters are returning. The depth was hurt a little, but that may not be a problem for the Eagles. Their two main losses were midfielders Chris Klotz and Chris Lemons. Former PDL Goalkeeper of the Year, Eric Reed will be in goal for Charlotte, and should put on good performances, assuming that the backline can stand strong in the toughest division of the USL Pro. Charlotte will have to see Orlando City fall out if they plan on making the playoffs, but this is unlikely.
3. Orlando City SC: Orlando comes into the league after making a move from Austin, Texas, where they were the Austin Aztex. They finished 2nd in the USL division of the USSF D2 Pro League. They brought many of the players from that team down to Florida, but Eddie Johnson, who scored 14 goals last season, moved on up to the Portland Timbers of the MLS. Jamie Watson and Maxwell Griffin will lead Orlando's attack, and scored a combined 20 goals last season. Or 10 each. The team is experienced, former Battery player Ian Fuller will be one of the leaders of the young team. One player that I'm excited to see is Devorn Jorsling, who has scored 13 goals in 24 games for the Trinidad and Tobago Senior National Team, including a hat trick against Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
2. Richmond Kickers: Last year, the Kickers fell to Charleston in the USL Second Division Championship game. Richmond comes into this season looking for revenge, and didn't lose a starter from last year's runner up squad. The Kickers bring Nozomi Hiroyama to the squad this year. Hiroyama is the most experienced player on the squad, and even played 2 games for the Japanese National Team in 2001. Last year he played for the Japanese club, Thespa Kusatsu, scoring 3 goals in 73 appearances. They added Ryan Heins, who scored 5 goals for the Rochester Rhinos last year. Goalkeeper and Captain Ronnie Pascale returns to the Kickers for a 12th season. He has made 242 appearances in his career for Richmond, and will be the biggest leader on the team.
1. Charleston Battery: Now I may be a little bias, but I think that Charleston is the strongest team in the Division and one of the strongest in the league. Charleston won the USL Second Division Championship last year, over the Richmond Kickers. The Battery lost a lot of keys to that team, including forwards Tom Heinemann and Lamar Neagle, who both moved on to the MLS. Stephen Armstrong returns for the Battery for a 6th season, will be the captain of the team, and will take on assistant coaching duties as well as his playing duties. They add young promising players such as Dane Kelly and JC Mack, and I can easily see the Battery not only winning the American Division, but the whole league. The Battery have a good head coach in Mike Anhaeuser, giving them all the attributes to make a playoff run.
Tomorrow, I'll be doing a wrap up of the USL Pro, including my playoff predictions and how I think the league table will end up.
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