Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Trailing teams gain ground on the leaders
Thankfully the USL-1 this week didn't have nearly the huge number of ejections that it did last week. But the teams that had ejections had to make do without a few of their key players and settle for draws instead of wins. For the top two teams, Vancouver and Charleston, these draws let the rest of the pack inch closer and crowd the field even more. A few take-homes:
1. Road warriors? Most USL-1 teams don't have very good away records, so when the RailHawks battled to a 3-3 tie with Rochester -- with only 10 men -- it was a bit of a surprise. Their five-game road trip seemed to have gotten off to an even worse start than usual with three ejections in only two games. After the fourth ejection, though, Carolina kept going full steam ahead against the Rhinos, running the show for the better part of the game. Martin Nunez in particular kept the Rhinos' defense on its toes, darting around and pickpocketing the ball. The RailHawks made good use of an awkward gap in the Rhinos' midfield and at one point were even up 2-1. Their form, evidently, might have been just a fluke, as they were promptly beaten 3-0 by the Montreal Impact just two days later.
2. On a roll. Montreal's victory against Charleston Battery last weekend evidently was not a fluke as the Impact have now won their last three games. Was the change in coaches behind the move toward winning ways? Maybe, but in addition to several injured players coming back into the fold for Montreal (including striker Roberto Brown), recent signing Rocco Placentino has also made a strong impression. In three of the past four games Placentino has played, he has either scored or assisted with a goal. The continued combination of Brown and Placentino could cause havoc for Impact opponents.
3. Miami breached at last. It was beginning to look like no one would ever score on Miami FC again, after the team went over 540 minutes without conceding a goal, but Vancouver Whitecaps defender Chris Pozniak finally managed to hit the back of the Miami net on Sunday. Despite Pozniak's goal, Miami's defense is still in great shape and helping them climb slowly back up the USL-1 standings. In addition to the solid back line and goalkeeping, it's the unexpected defensive awareness from some of the other players that makes the Blues defense so solid. Late in the game when backup keeper Sam Reynolds came out to meet a challenge from Vancouver's Eddie Sebrango, midfielder Sean Fraser instinctively knew to cover the goal and raced back to clear Sebrango's shot just inches from the goal line.
4. In the doldrums. After their 3-0 hammering from the Rochester Rhinos last week, the Vancouver Whitecaps have hit a bit of a losing streak, with two league losses and one Canadian cup loss this past week alone. The Whitecaps are not exactly prolific scorers, usually only managing to net one goal per game. But their defense, with keeper Jay Nolly in particular, has been solid -- only conceding four goals in 10 games before the Rhinos meeting. So what happened in the past three games? Hard to tell. There doesn't seem to be any obvious problem with the back line, and coach Teitur Thordarson has largely kept the same defensive line up for most of the season. It might just be taking the Whitecaps a bit longer to get their groove back. However, considering only two points separates them from the second-place Battery, Vancouver needs to get it back soon.
5. Back in action. After a prolonged two-week break from USL-1 action, the Timbers will pick back up with a couple of games on the road this week before going on yet another big (10-day) break from the USL. It will be interesting to see if the Timbers break has a positive effect on them, considering that other teams with erratic USL scheduling have experienced some negative effects. Rochester started its season later than the other teams and lost its first four games struggling to play catch-up. The Puerto Rico Islanders, who have only played nine games at this point, while most have played 11 or 12, have only managed to take 9 points. Despite the USL has trying to be as accommodating as possible, it looks like the figurative playing field may not quite be level.
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.
Anne Ramzy is a freelance sportswriter based near San Francisco. She also is a frequent guest on the weekly www.theoffside.com soccer podcast and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.