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.
This year the USL-1 not only had a number of exceptional players come out of the woodwork, but also had several seasoned players find new successes with new teams. The Puerto Rico Islanders showed just how far they've come as a team and as an organization by winning their first league title, and the success of USL-1 teams in competitions like the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League reflected the changing quality of the league as a whole. A few notables from the season:
Alex Afonso. Despite Miami FC's rather dismal season, Brazilian newcomer Afonso -- a USL-1 MVP finalist and the league's leading goal scorer -- adapted very well to the USL-1 and impressed us all with his aerial skills.
Macoumba Kandji. It was only a matter of time before this lightning-quick striker was picked off by an MLS team (the New York Red Bulls) but he still managed to put in an amazing season with the Atlanta Silverbacks this year. In 21 games, Kandji notched 11 goals -- the fourth highest total in the league -- and was also an MVP finalist.
Hamed Diallo. With nine goals in 22 games last year, the Rochester Rhinos' 2007 team MVP oddly seemed to have been lost in the shuffle of the new Rhinos management in 2008. After being transferred to the Carolina RailHawks in July, though, Diallo got his groove back and scored seven goals in 16 games.
Portland Timbers. It had all the makings of a great season for the Timbers: Gavin Wilkinson was coach of the year in 2007, Japanese star Takayuki Suzuki, a former World Cup player, was on board, and the Timbers Army was out in full force. Somewhere along the line, however, not having much scoring power and a regular goalkeeper forced the Timbers machine off the tracks and Portland finished at the bottom of the table.
Silverbacks defense. For the second year in a row the Silverbacks had the leakiest defense in the USL-1. A fantastic offense for most of the season helped cover this up, but once again at the end of the road, they find themselves at the tail end of the table.
The Miami midfield saga. The Blues may have found themselves a first-rate striker in Alex Afonso, but for much of the season there was not a cohesive midfield to set him up. Miami's pockets evidently have depth, as they brought in a load of new players, but unfortunately by the time they got it figured out it was too late to save the season.
Osvaldo Alonso. After defecting from the Cuban national team last year, Alonso faced an uncertain time in a new country with few friends or family. But the 2008 USL-1 rookie of the year took his opportunity with the Charleston Battery and showed just what he is capable of. The midfielder showed great composure, racking up seven goals and two assists and helping to solidify a strong Charleston midfield.
Randi Patterson. Although Patterson was sidelined with a knee injury toward the end of the season, he was instrumental in attack for the Battery for much of the year. Rarely afraid to take on any defenders, Patterson dazzled with his adept dribbling skills and notched 10 goals.
Jonathan Steele. The Puerto Rico Islanders midfielder was the USL-1 2008 MVP. Steele is one of the most uncannily accurate crossers to play in the USL in a long time. With 11 assists on the season, Steele proved to be a vital element to the Islanders' success.
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.