Future Stars from the USL PRO

USL PRO Championship, All-Stars, and the expansion Phoenix FC
by Daniel Casey   |   Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Minors - column on North America's lower division soccer leagues (NASL, USL PRO, CSL, NPSL, PCSL & USL PDL)

The conclusion of the USL PRO season over this last weekend was certainly an event. The Championship match between the Charleston Battery and Wilmington Hammerheads drew a crowd of nearly 5000 supporters. It was a rather improbable match-up given that Charleston was the third seed and Wilmington the fifth in the USL’s playoff structure. Wilmington had managed to defeat top-seed Orlando City, who had won the league with an amazing 17-1-6 record. Prior to their playoff game against Wilmington, Orlando City had made the Florida Citrus Bowl a fortress, going undefeated at home. Orlando’s one regular season loss came on the road…to Wilmington, so perhaps their loss to the Hammerheads in the playoffs wasn’t too much of a surprise. The same can be said for Charleston, who ran a gauntlet of Harrisburg City (a team who had a solid US Open Cup run) and the number two team in the regular season, Rochester Rhinos. However, Charleston was able to boast the USL Rookie of the Year, midfielder Jose “Chivas” Cuevas, and ‘keeper Andrew Dykstra (on loan from DC United). Cuevas added to his awards for the season by being named MVP of the Championship, as Charleston topped Wilmington 1-0. The win became Charleston’s fourth title (they won in 1996, 2003 and 2010 as well).

With the culmination of the Division III season, we bid farewell to summer and have to wonder if we are going to see some more of the USL’s stars. Orlando City has been throwing its weight around all season. Orlando dominated the USL regular season while constantly flirting with MLS for an expansion slot. And although it looks less likely that Orlando will win the coveted 20th MLS slot, seven Orlando players made the USL’s All-League Team: defenders Rob Valentino, Kieron Bernard, and Jerome Mechack; forwards Matt Luzunaris and Dennis Chin; and midfielder Kevin Molino. It can’t be argued that the attacking core of Orlando wasn’t a powerhouse—Chin registered 11 goals and 2 assists, Luzunaris 9 goals and 2 assists, and Molino 3 goals and 7 assists. We can add to that Jamie Watson’s 5 goals and 3 assists, and it’s apparent how Orlando was able to stand 16 points clear of second place Rochester.

Watson’s play was good enough to provoke the interest of the NASL’s Minnesota Stars. The Division II side is in need of some offensive punch as they make a last ditch playoff push. Watson isn’t the only USL player to have their time in the league spin off into more playing time in the higher leagues. Perhaps one of the few bright spots for the Portland Timbers this season is how well their rookie forward Bright Dike did on loan with the Los Angeles Blues (6 goals and 2 assist). But the USL also saw some brilliant play from players who were overlooked by the higher leagues. Although he couldn’t draw a contract with the Chicago Fire (due more to his dividing his time between finishing his degree at Dartmouth and MLS pre-season), forward Lucky Mkosana has been a star for the Harrisburg City Islanders. His teammates midfielders Jason Pelletier and Yann Ekra and forward Sainey Touray could certainly augment several NASL or MLS squads.

As mentioned, D.C. United’s number three goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra has been able to turn in an excellent season and has certainly increased his MLS value—especially given the disarray facing several MLS teams when it comes to their #1 spots. Wilmington’s young forward Corey Herzog is a name that should be monitored as well as Englishman Matthew “Deli” Delicate. And while forwards are sexy and midfielders the bread & butter of MLS, it’s defenders (specifically fullbacks) that are the most valuable players in North America. Players like Rochester’s Troy Roberts, Orlando’s Rob Valentino, Charlotte’s Josh Rife, and Richmond’s Luke Vercollone have all proven their worth to their team and league and are deserving of the chance to move up the ladder.

Fortunately, there will be more options come 2013 for players. The USL will welcome a new franchise in Phoenix FC next season. The Wolves as they’ll be nicknamed will hold their first tryouts in the metro Phoenix area later this month. Phoenix has been a market that all North American pro soccer leagues have been looking to land. The USL beat out the second division NASL to land the jewel of the Southwest first. Phoenix FC will be lead by former Rangers and Leeds United defender David Robertson, so they will be starting out under the right influence. The USL is taking its time expanding with Phoenix FC slated to be just the twelfth team in the league. But this shouldn’t suggest a lack of ambition for the league. The USL’s fourth division counterpart, the PDL, has already announced the addition of the Southwest Florida Soccer Club (Florida and Texas are quickly becoming the hotbeds of lower division soccer in the US) for next year. And it can’t hurt that teams from last year that are looking to grow are eying the USL. The PDL’s Michigan Bucks ownership hold the rights to bring a USL team to Detroit and given the energy and success that followed the debut season of Detroit City FC in the NPSL (the PDL’s fellow Division IV league) it would certainly seem that growth is on the horizon.

Daniel CASEY

Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.