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. Today we'll cover the National Division:
The National Division consists of teams in the Northeastern part of the United States. The division consists of 2 teams in New York, 2 in Pennsylvania, and 1 club in Ohio. The teams are much closer, and this set up is perfect for creating local rivalries in both New York and Pennsylvania. Here's how I think the teams will place:
5. FC New York: The expansion squad will have the toughest time of any team in the league. 37 year old Englishman, Paul Shaw, will be the captain of the otherwise young squad. He has played many years in England, including a successful stint at Millwall where he scored 25 goals in 109 games. The rest of the team consists of mostly former PDL players. Bright spots include defenders Troy Cole, Josiah Snelgrove, and Karsten Smith, who all will have to lead a very young back line. This team could be feisty, but not a major contender at any point during the season.
4. Dayton Dutch Lions: Dayton has been "promoted" to the USL Pro for the 2011 season, after playing last season in the PDL. A few players, including Julius Wille, Brett Jones, and 2010 PDL Defender of the Year Joe Tait, move up to the USL Pro with the Lions. The attack is lead by Kolby LaCrone, who has played with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Cleveland City Stars, and is a talented indoor soccer player, scoring 21 goals in 14 games for the Louisville Lightning last indoor season. This is another young team, but I think having some players coming up with the team will help the Dutch Lions make a playoff run late in the season.
3. Harrisburg City Islanders: Harrisburg is coming off a disappointing season in 2010. They failed to make the playoffs in the USL Second Division. The loss of Sheanon Williams to the Philidelphia Union will hurt the back line of the Islanders, as he was a great defender as well as a bit of a goal-scoring threat out of the back field. Their captain Dustin Bixler returns for his seventh season with the Islanders, and he brings the leadership and quality to an otherwise mediocre back-line. Last year, they were the worst in the USL-2 last season, and goalkeeper Chase Harrison and defender Andrew Marshall have been brought in to address this problem. I wouldn't have Harrisburg finishing this high, if it weren't for the two expansion teams that are in their division.
2. Pittsburgh Riverhounds: Coming off a successful 2010 season, where they were knocked out in the semi final of the USL-2 playoffs. Pittsburgh set a good foundation for a successful season this year. The club has lost, get this, not one player from last years team. This blows my mind. But anyway, the USL-2 Keeper of the Year Hunter Gilstrap returns to the Riverhounds, along with USL-2 Defender of the Year, Shintaro Harada who will lead what looks to be the league's best defense. Last year they Riverhounds gave up exactly one goal per game. South African Thabiso Khumalo comes to Pittsburgh from DC United, and looks to add some punch to this young Riverhound attack.
1. Rochester Rhinos: Rochester was one of the most successful lower division teams in the early years of lower level soccer in the US, and are looking to add another piece of hardware to the trophy case. Their last major championship was in 2001, when they won the USL A-League championship. Tony Donatelli is a good addition to the squad. He brings experience, and talent to the club, having played successfully with the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps. He scored 19 goals in the 132 games he played with these two clubs. Troy Roberts and Tyler Bellamy lead a defense that took hits this offseason, losing Aaron Pitchkolan and Frankie Sanfillipo, as well as goalkeeper Scott Vallow.
If you need to contact me, e-mail me at SCSoccerblog@gmai.com