In its second year of existence, the North American Soccer League can only hope to build upon last seasons on-field successes and storylines. The off-field situations have already improved from a year ago, as this offseason went by without the turbulence and uncertainty as ones from the previous two seasons.
The NASL was quietly approved for sanctioning for the 2012 season without much hubbub, and the focus remains on the pitch, where the Minnesota Stars FC will try to defend the NASL crown after eliminating the regular-season champion RailHawks in last years semifinals.
Gone is the Montreal Impact, as the RailHawks most hated rival over the past three seasons is now playing in Major League Soccer, and taking its place in the eight-team league are the San Antonio Scorpions, an expansion franchise.
While no team had to account for as many players leaving for MLS as the RailHawks, other league rivals re-tooled in hopes of unseating Carolina as last years top team in the regular season. Atlanta Silverbacks:
No NASL team was in more need of a makeover than the Silverbacks, who were dead last in the league last season with a 4-20-4 record and gave up 63 goals while only scoring 25.
And so Atlanta did just that, overhauling its coaching staff and roster even making changes to its jerseys.
New coach Alex Chacon was once a MVP of MLS in his playing days.
Many of the additions to the Silverbacks were older players with experience in foreign leagues, but Atlanta did return 10 players from last year, including leading scorer Matt Horth (eight goals). FC Edmonton:
Based on a few controversial finishes and chippy contests, perhaps FC Edmonton (10-12-6 last year) is next in line to replace Montreal as the RailHawks top rival. Edmonton returns most of its top players, and the team will be playing in a new stadium on a new surface field turf instead of artificial turf, which created numerous problems for all who played on it.
Midfielder Shaun Saiko, 22, returns after earning all-league status after leading the team in goals (nine) and assists (five). Fort Lauderdale Strikers:
The Strikers were one of the hottest teams down the stretch last season, and a big reason was the teams top-notch back line. Outside back Lance Laing and center back Toni Stahl were each named to the leagues Best XI at seasons end, and both return this year.
That group might even be improved this season with the signing of former RailHawks player Jack Stewart, who spent last year with Minnesota as well as FC Dallas of MLS.
The Strikers will have a much different look at the top of its formation after losing three of its top four goal-scorers, returning only veteran Abe Thompson (seven goals, two assists). Minnesota Stars FC:
This is a slight name change from last year, when the team was the NSC Minnesota Stars the NSC referring to the stadium where the team played. Minnesota was the last team into the postseason, but was red-hot at the time and kept that going in its run to the NASL title.
The biggest boost to the Stars might be their consistency from last year.
Almost everyone returns, as does well-respected coach Manny Lagos.
Not one Stars player made last years all-league team, but the whole was greater than the sum of its parts as it ended the 2011 regular season at 9-10-9 overall. Minnesota brings back its top four goal-scorers and top five in minutes played and adds Martin Nunez (five goals, two assists) from Ft. Lauderdale.
Minnesota finally said farewell to goalkeeper Joe Warren, who at 37, had been a part of the states professional soccer scene since 1996. Tampa Bay Rowdies:
In December, the team officially secured the rights to the Rowdies name, which was the title of the old Tampa franchise that played from 1975-1993.
Tampa Bay (11-9-8 in 2011) will be helped by the addition of Luke Mullholland, the USL Pro (third-division) rookie of the year whose late-season addition to Minnesota helped put the Stars over the top. Tampa also returns captain Frankie Sanfillippo, one of the original RailHawks.
The attack of the Rowdies could be strong, as Tampa returns all-league selection Mike Ambersley (11 goals, seven assists), Tsuyoshi Yoshitake and adds Daniel Antoniuk (two goals with FC Edmonton). Puerto Rico Islanders:
Though the Islanders lost coach Colin Clarke to the RailHawks, longtime Clarke assistant Adrian Whitbread takes over one of the most talented teams in the NASL.
The Islanders (15-6-7 last year) return Jonathan Fana, who had 12 goals last year, and all-league midfielder David Foley, who had seven goals and six assists.
Puerto Rico brings back 10 of its top 11 players in minutes played from last season, so there are sure to be plenty of familiar faces when Clarke visits his old stomping grounds later this month. San Antonio Scorpions:
The new team in the league has made quite the impact in its community, having sold more than 5,000 season tickets already.
The Scorpions have the leagues top returning goal-scorer in former RailHawk Pablo Campos. Campos 15 goals were second to only teammate Etienne Barbara, who is now with Vancouver in the MLS.
San Antonio picked up some other league veterans in goalkeeper Daryl Sattler and defender Greg Janicki. Midfielder Kevin Harmse comes aboard after four years in MLS.