The 2012 USL PRO season begins this weekend. USL PRO is the third division of association football in the United States, and this league also includes a team from Antigua and Barbuda, Antigua Barracuda FC.
As the defending champions, Orlando City are at the top of the preseason power rankings. Let's take a look.
Florida's golden lions, Orlando City, top the preseason power rankings for USL PRO. Orlando are full of firepower and are led by Maxwell Griffin (19 goals), Jamia Watson (24 goals) and Ian Fuller (15 goals).
Notable additions to the club include John Rooney, the younger brother of Manchester United ace Wayne Rooney, former San Jose Earthquake Matt Luzunaris and Irish international James O'Connor.
Orlando finished 2011 with a 15-6-3 record (51 points) and defeated the Harrisburg City Islanders 3-2 in the USL PRO Championship.
Orlando City open 2012 against the Charlotte Eagles on Saturday, Apr. 7. Kickoff at Charlotte Christian School Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET.
Last season, the Wilmington Hammerheads finished with a 14-3-7 record (45 points) and were second in the American Division. Their season ended on penalties to the Richmond Kickers, 5-4, after a scoreless draw that went the distance in the Divisional Semifinals.
A key player who will figure to be a factor in the Hammerheads' hopes is Gareth Evans, a Welshman who packs a punch.
“I just think if people are enjoying themselves, they’re going to play a lot better than if they’re not enjoying themselves, so I always try to have fun, have a bit of banter with the guys and stuff,” Evans told USLProSoccer.com. “We all kind of hung out together off the field as well as on the field, and we got on really well.
"That’s something that definitely helped, and it’s something we’re definitely looking to continue this year.”
Wilmington opens their season on Apr. 15 against Orlando City. Kickoff at the Florida Citrus Bowl is scheduled for 6 p.m. ET.
One of a few holdovers from the old USL Fire Division, the Richmond Kickers ended 2011 with a 12-5-7 record (41 points) and were eliminated in the Divisional Finals by Orlando City 3-0.
A longtime player for the Kickers, goalkeeper Ronnie Pascale, puts his time with Richmond in perspective.
“I’m excited to play one more season with the Kickers and finish my professional career here in Richmond,” Pascale told Jimmy LaRoue of the Potomac Soccer Wire. “It’s been an amazing journey, and to be able to play my last year while celebrating the Kickers’ 20th anniversary means a lot.”
The Kickers open the year on Saturday against the Charleston Battery. Kickoff at City Stadium is scheduled for 5 p.m. ET.
The Rochester Rhinos topped the National Division of USL Pro with a 12-4-8 record (40 points) before bowing out of the playoffs by the Harrisburg City Islanders.
Rochester have a new manager in Jesse Meyers, and his fresh approach to the game may leave an indelible mark in the chances for the Rhinos to make the postseason.
“I think the locker room is loose, probably a little looser than last year,” Meyers told Jeff Diveronica of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “I’ll let individuals be individuals as long as they stay within the framework.
“What I’m really looking for is some veterans to keep everybody accountable.”
Rochester open up the season on Apr. 14 against the Los Angeles Blues at Titan Stadium on the campus of California State University, Fullerton in Fullerton, Calif. Kickoff is scheduled for 10:30 p.m. ET.
The Harrisburg City Islanders did enough to finish runners-up to Orlando City in the USL PRO Championship, but in 2011 they finished with a record of 10-7-7 (37 points), good enough for second place in the National Division.
Last year, Sainey Touray was the revelation for Harrisburg, recording seven goals and six assists in league play. This year, he is looking for more.
“Being around so many good players, you get to feel like they’re great players, but you’re good too,” Touray told USLSoccer.com. “You can be working with people out there who you think are the best, but when you get to kick the ball around with them you know you’re good too.
"I learned that they are great and good players, but we’re good too, and we have an opportunity to be out there.”
Touray and the City Islanders open up the 2012 season against the Charlotte Eagles. Kickoff at Charlotte Christian Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET.
The Charleston Battery ended the 2011 USL PRO regular season with a 10-5-9 record (35 points) and were promptly eliminated in the division semifinals by Orlando City 3-1.
One of the key players to watch for in the Battery is center back Colin Falvey, one of the best defenders in the league when teamed up with veteran John Wilson.
“I think we complement each other very well," Falvey said of the chemistry in the back to USLSoccer.com. "Even despite his age, John is still pretty quick, and anything that gets over my head he goes and deals with it.
“The two seasons we’ve been together, we’ve been pretty strong, and hopefully this year we can continue it. If you can keep clean sheets, you’re going to be there or thereabouts, and we’ve got some good young players this year, so hopefully they’ll jell in quickly and we’ll have another good season.”
Falvey, Wilson, former Toronto FC star Amadou Sanyang and the rest of the Battery open the year on Saturday against the Richmond Kickers. Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. ET.
The Charlotte Eagles missed out on the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, finishing with 9-6-9 record (33 points) in the American Division.
Two key losses for the Eagles include the departure of forward Sallieu Bundu to Charleston and Brady Bryant, who tore his ACL playing in the MISL for local side Norfolk SharX.
However, they do receive the services of forward Brad Stisser and former Carolina RailHawk Joseph Kabwe.
"As a team we always want to win the championship, of course," said manager Mark Steffens to USLSoccer.com, "but in order to do that, so we set those type of goals, that we need to be a playoff team, and to do that, every touch counts and every training session counts.
"Being a playoff team happens in training, not in games, and if you don’t do it in training, it’s not going to happen in games.”
The Eagles open the year on Saturday against Orlando City at Charlotte Christian Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET.
Early in the season, hopes were high for the Los Angeles Blues, with the acquisition of Walter Gaitan. However, his time was cut short, and the team struggled to produce, posting an 8-9-7 record (33 points), and they were eliminated from the Division Semi-Finals by the Harrisburg City Islanders 3-2.
A roster overhaul had to be made, and numerous players from different nationalities and persuasions were picked up. One of those international players: goalkeeper Jose Miranda, who played for the Cuban National Team before defecting to the United States.
“You just sense that the Blues are headed in a good direction and that everyone in the club is on the same page, from (owner) Ali (Mansouri) to (manager) Charlie (Naimo) and the entire rest of the staff,” Miranda told Gunnar Berndt of LABluesProSoccer.com. “I like that they want to win, and I think that has to be the players’ mindset too.
"Given the team we have, we need to aim to get to the final. My personal goal is to be the starter and really gel with the backline."
With all the new acquisitions that Charlie Naimo is acquiring, the question is simple: will they result in victories across the board?
Los Angeles will answer that question on Apr. 14, when they host the Rochester Rhinos at Titan Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. PT/10:30 p.m. ET.
Is this Antigua Barracuda FC? Or is this the Antigua and Barbuda national team moonlighting as Antigua Barracuda FC? Whatever the answer, the Cudas put on a brave campaign but finished dead-last in the American Division with a record of 9-2-13 (29 points).
Still, Antigua Barracuda were a smash hit back at Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium, and they look to build on their efforts this year.
Players like George Dublin, Peter Byers, Stefan Smith, Ranja Christian and Keita DeCastro are household names in Antigua and Barbuda, and with the speed and skill possessed by this side, the Barracudas will be out fishing for W's.
“This is a talented bunch with the right attitude to succeed," manager Tom Curtis told USLSoccer.com. "They have shown me a commitment to hard work and a willingness to perform as a unit.
"That’s the message we want to send. They have looked sharp and ready, and we are confident in our own abilities."
Antigua Barracuda open the year on Friday, Apr. 6, against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET.
One of two teams that open up the season on Friday, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds finished the 2011 USL PRO regular season with a record of 7-6-11 (27 points) and were shut out by the Rochester Rhinos 4-0 in the divisional semifinals.
Forward Jason Yelsley has been lost to the Richmond Kickers, and Matt Fondy is now with the Los Angeles Blues. Great teams don't have much turnover in terms of defensive talent, and the core of the defense returns: goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap and defender Louis Rolko.
Former Real Salt Lake star Tino Nunez are among a set of new additions to the club, including three former Rhinos in Dawyne Smith, Darren Amoo and Richie Costanzo.
"I just think it’s getting the right mix of guys, which I think we have right now, and then on a weekly basis keeping those guys happy and enjoying their soccer," manager Justin Evans told USLSoccer.com. "We’ve got a lot of different styles that we can bring in on any given night, which I think will make it very interesting for us."
Pittsburgh opens the season against Antigua Barracuda on Apr. 6. Kickoff at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET.
Holding up the rear are the Dayton Dutch Lions, who finished dead last in the National Division with an abysmal 2-6-16 record (12 points).
George Davis IV, who was stellar for Dayton, is now with the LA Blues. Manager Ivan van Dinteren did sign a couple of players with promise in goalkeeper Matt Williams and North Carolina Tar Heel Eli Garner.
“I think all the players who are returning are important for me, because they know how I work, they know how I want to play with my team, so I don’t have to tell the new players myself what they have to do," van Dinteren told USLSoccer.com. "They can help me out now, so all the players...all the guys are very important for me as they come back.”
Dayton open the season on Apr. 13 against the Charlotte Eagles at Charlotte Latin Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET.