Editor's note: There are three divisions in the United Soccer Leagues: USL-1, USL-2 and the Premier Development League (PDL). USL is not affiliated with Major League Soccer.
The USL-1 semifinals went according to seed this week, but both finalist teams had to come from behind after losing their first games. Nearly all of the matches were tough, scrappy clashes with several bookings and a few ejections. A few take homes from the weekend:
1. Reserve steps up. Vancouver Whitecaps backup keeper Tyler Baldock might not have anticipated playing a huge role in the Whitecaps' semifinal games, but Jay Nolly's shocking red card in Friday's first leg certainly threw Baldock into the spotlight. For most of Sunday's game (a 2-0 win for Vancouver), Baldock wasn't threatened, but when Montreal Impact's David Testo rocketed a sharp 20-yard shot, Baldock was perfectly on guard and dealt with the shot well.
2. Defense excels. Part of the reason Baldock wasn't tested too often was because Vancouver's defense was incredibly tight and well organized. Wesley Charles, in particular, had a good handle on Montreal's Rocco Placentino, who kept threatening from the left wing. Considering Charles has only been with the Caps since mid-July, it's pretty remarkable how well he has sussed out his place in the team and on the field. The other Vancouver defenders also kept on their toes and were quick to close ranks whenever Montreal sniffed a chance.
3. Leadership by example. After Jay Nolly was thrown out of the game in Montreal, his teammates took their game to a new level of cohesion and performance. Although their success was obviously a team effort, once again veteran Eduardo Sebrango truly stood out among the Caps. His energy is phenomenal, even though at 35 he is several years older than most of his mates, and his work rate seems to serve as an inspiration to his team. It was fitting that it was his goal in Sunday's game that ultimately put the Caps through, since he was ejected from a semifinal match against the Impact in 2006 and unable to play in the final.
4. Dubious call. Although the Puerto Rico Islanders' 2-0 loss to the Rochester Rhinos in their first leg was a pretty physical and chippy affair, Edwin Miranda's 36th minute sending off was ridiculous. The elbow he threw into Rochester player John Ball was definitely a foul, and maybe in a strict game a yellow card. But to give a straight red card for that infraction was not the right decision, and if the referee was going to call the game that closely there were certainly other, more egregious infractions that could have been booked.
5. Made of sterner stuff. Coming back from an aggregate 2-0 loss is a difficult task, but considering the circumstances surrounding the Islanders, it almost seems like a miracle. They may have earned a bye to the semis, but they weren't exactly rested, having played a CONCACAF game the Wednesday before Friday's first leg game. Friday's game was obviously tough for both teams, but not only did the Islanders have two players ejected, but defender Nigel Henry also sustained a skull fracture from a collision with Matthew Delicate. That the Islanders were able to pull themselves together, win 3-0 in the second leg and qualify for the final shows great cohesion and depth, and exactly why they are top of the league.
Anne Ramzy is a freelance sportswriter based near San Francisco. She also is a frequent guest on the weekly soccer podcast on www.theoffside.com and can be reached at email@example.com.