By JOHN BOSCHINI
It's been almost 27 years since the North American Soccer League last saw a game, but that will change this Saturday when the storied league returns to action under the USSF umbrella with eight franchises.
The NASL was scheduled to begin last April, but a bitter and protracted feud with the United Soccer Leagues, from which the NASL drew a handful of its teams, led to a denial of sanctioning by the USSF and the formation of a temporary USSF Division 2 league. Then, with several clubs facing severe financial difficulties, the league rescinded sanctioning for 2011 before reinstating it in February. The NASL will have to meet certain financial benchmarks in order to retain its sanctioning from the USSF in 2012, but those benchmarks have not been made public.
The league faces an uphill battle for survival, but, for now, the focus is back on the soccer. Eight teams made up of expansion and former USL clubs will participate with the top six teams making the playoffs. Teams will play each other four times for a total of 28 games for each team.
A few small but substantial changes also bring the NASL more in line with a traditional soccer league. Last year, it was not uncommon for a team to play three games in a week, but this year no team can play more than once in a given week. The NASL has also taken its permitted level of substitutes per game down from five to three, in compliance with FIFA guidelines.
Here are SBI's NASL team previews:
Players to watch: Mexican Mario Perez is a veteran on a team full of youth and inexperience. The 28-year-old fullback is the team's oldest outfield player and will have to develop some leadership skills to get Atlanta through some inevitable hard times. Junior Sandaval from the Puerto Rico Islanders will lead the Silverbacks' attack and former Colorado Rapids' veteran Ciaran O'Brien will anchor the midfield.
Outlook: Unless Atlanta's young players develop at a lightning-quick pace, Atlanta is in for some growing pains. Fans should treat this as an expansion season, where notable progress will be more abundant than results. If the Silverbacks' management can be patient and let the team develop of grow as a unit, this could be a dangerous side down the road, but it's too big of a mountain to climb in 2011.
How they did last season: 13-9-8, lost in the finals of the USSF Division 2 playoffs.
Players to watch: The cavalcade of newcomers in Carolina is led by veteran Scot Stephen Glass. Glass, now 36, has bounced around the top divisions of British soccer, playing for clubs like Aberdeen and Newcastle along the way. If he can keep fit, Glass can organize Carolina's midfield. Leading the attack is Brazilian Pablo Campos, while former Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Brad Knighton can keep Carolina in games should the defense lapse.
Season outlook: The dissolution of the Railhawks' ownership last season thrust the club's future into serious doubt and led to some wholesale changes on their roster. However, Carolina has done a good job of bringing in some veteran players, and if they can keep off-field distractions out of the locker room, Carolina could be a serious threat.
How they did last season: Did not play (expansion)
Players to watch: The inaugural Edmonton roster has a distinctly Canadian flare to it (15 of the 28 registered players hail from the Great White North), but there are few non-Canadian stars to look out for. Dutch midfielder Paul Matthijs, 36, should provide some experience and stability in central midfield, while forward Dan Antoniuk has a history of solid, albeit not spectacular, goal production in the lower leagues of American soccer.
Outlook: Edmonton's roster is full of youth supplemented with a few players who have bounced around the lower leagues of Canadian soccer. There are no stand-out young prospects, though, and reliance will be heavy on some aging veterans. A learning curve is to be expected for any expansion team, and Edmonton is very much a work in progress.
Ft. Lauderdale Strikers (formerly Miami FC)
How they did last season: 7-11-12, failed to qualify for the USSF Division 2 playoffs.
Players to watch: Abe Thompson, formerly of the Houston Dynamo, scored nine goals for Ft. Lauderdale/Miami last season and will be expected to produce again. Providing service for Thompson will be Argentinian Eduardo Coudet, while fellow former Philadelphia Union player Cristian Arrieta anchors the defense.
Outlook: Ft. Lauderdale added a number of key pieces that could spell success in 2011. The Strikers missed out on the playoffs last season, but that shouldn't be a problem with 75 percent of teams making the postseason this year. The Strikers are by no means the favorite, but if they play up to their potential a top-four finish should be the expectation.
How they did last season: 12-11-7, lost in the semifinals of the USSF Division 2 playoffs
Players to watch: Keep an eye on former Toronto FC striker Ali Gerba, who scored 13 goals in 17 appearances last season and could be a serious contender for top scorer in the NASL this season. Montreal padded its defensive resume with the addition of Puerto Rico Islanders goalkeeper Bill Gaudette and French defenseman Kevin Hatchi.
Outlook: It's all about the future for the Impact. Will an NASL title in Montreal be much of a goal considering the move up to MLS next season? Fans would like to think so, but Montreal is definitely building for the future rather than trying to win right now. That being said, Montreal has more than enough talent to stay competitive, and some of its younger players will need to impress in order to make the jump next season. The San Antonio Scorpions are expected to replace the Impact in the NASL in 2012.
NSC Minnesota Stars
How they did last season: 11-12-7, lost in the quarterfinals of the USSF Division 2 playoffs.
Players to watch: Goalkeeper Joe Warren, 36, will need to stand tall behind a back line that is completely unfamiliar with each other. Up front, Simone Bracalello could be one of the top offensive players in the division while Kentaro Takada fills in for standout midfielder Daniel Wasson who is out with a torn ACL.
Outlook: As with most teams in the NASL, continuity is not a given, but this is a group with experience. The back line is patchwork and the strike partnership of Devin Del Do and Bracalello could be dynamic. Minnesota should be one of the more consistent teams and a deep run in the playoffs is possible.
Puerto Rico Islanders
How they did last season: 9-11-10, won the USSF Division 2 title.
Players to watch: The Islanders boast some promising replacements following a bit of an exodus following last year's championship season. Captain Noah Delgado returns for his sixth season with Puerto Rico and is the undoubted leader of a talented side. Also be on the lookout for returning striker David Foley to partner with newcomer Matthew Bouaree.
Outlook: The Islanders did a solid job of replacing some of the players they lost during the off-season while retaining some core components. An early favorite to win the title, Puerto Rico will also be playing in the CONCACAF Champions League, where it famously knocked off the LA Galaxy last season. The Islanders may be talented, but with NASL squads being far from robust, will they tire and slip up down the stretch?
FC Tampa Bay
How they did last season: 7-12-11, failed to qualify for the USSF Division 2 playoffs.
Players to watch: A reformed defense is led by veterans Andres Arrango and Frankie Sanfilippo, who should provide some stability. Versatile midfielder Takuya Yamada is the team's standout player, while Aaron King, who scored 12 goals in 2010, leads what could be a potent attack.
Outlook: Consistency was elusive for Tampa Bay last season, combining for one point in the months of June and September. A completely gutted and rebuilt squad may or may not prove to be successful. Most likely, Tampa Bay will struggle early and get better down the stretch, but fans may be in for difficult spring.
What do you think of the NASL this season? Which team do you think will win the title? Is having six teams in the playoffs overkill?
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