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Monday, September 22, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: September 23, 12:52 PM UK
Islanders' dream season continues

Anne Ramzy

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 regular season wrapped up this weekend with the Puerto Rico Islanders winning their first league title. Teams that didn't make the playoffs saw increased interest from MLS teams wanting to sign their players, while teams that did make the playoffs get ready to do fierce battle over the season's last remaining hardware. A few take-homes:

1. Congratulations, Puerto Rico. Their 1-1 draw with the Atlanta Silverbacks at home this weekend was enough to see the Puerto Rico Islanders clinch their first USL-1 League title. The Islanders had a slightly rocky start to the season, but soared to the top of the standings after a six-game road trip in July that saw them win five of those games. Islanders coach and former Northern Ireland international Colin Clarke is largely credited with helping the Islanders' organization become successful and increasing the popularity of the sport in Puerto Rico.

2. USL in the CCL. The Islanders' run continues in spades this week, as they are also one of two USL-1 teams that has continued on to the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. This past week, both the Islanders and the Montreal Impact clinched their first group stage victories against Tauro FC and Joe Public. By playing against teams from all over Central America and other places, these USL-1 teams have the opportunity to pick up invaluable competitive international experience. Whether the depth of their respective squads can stand up to the pressures of competing in the USL-1 playoffs and the Champions League remains to be seen.

3. MLS bargain shopping. Before the MLS roster freeze hit last week, many teams were scrambling to get last-minute USL-1 (and USL-2) players to play for them. A few USL-1 teams, tired of being pickpocketed by some MLS teams, came up with unique arrangements. Miami FC's keeper Josh Saunders was allowed to go on loan to the L.A. Galaxy by signing a new 2009 contract with Miami. Miami's hesitation to let Saunders go is understandable -- although the Portland Timbers had a bad season for multiple reasons, the 2007 departure of keeper Josh Wicks to the L.A. Galaxy (where he has made four appearances) seemed to leave a psychological hole in the Timbers.

4. Portland in MLS? Despite Portland not making the USL-1 playoffs and finishing last, the attendance at Timbers games continued to be strong this year, and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson recently announced plans to apply for an MLS franchise. Although the city of Portland would have to fork over a considerable sum of money to relocate the Portland Beavers, with whom the Timbers share PGE Stadium, turning the Timbers into an MLS franchise is a viable move. The Timbers have a long history and huge fan base which could serve as a model for other MLS teams trying to cultivate a strong following.

5. Miami hopeful. Miami FC, also finishing near the bottom of the USL-1 table, has strong MLS intentions as well, with many fans wanting to bring the Miami Fusion MLS franchise back to Miami. Although the average attendance of Miami FC games is roughly half that of Timbers games, the recent visit of FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta to Miami -- after signing a five-year strategic partnership with MLS -- sent Miami FC tongues wagging. A move from Tropical Park stadium to Florida International University Stadium might help grow the fan base, but a jump to building a brand-new stadium should be looked at carefully. The Rochester Rhinos organization, with almost triple the average attendance of the Blues, nearly went under after building a new stadium last year, but luckily managed to find a new owner just in time.

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 anneramzy@gmail.com.


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