Coming back to the Islanders for the 2011 USL season is what many would consider the backbone of the team. Captain Dustin Bixler returns to anchor the center of defense complimented by ball-winner Jason Pelletier and creative force Brian Ombiji in midfield. David Schofield returns to apply pressure from the wings and fullback Anthony Calvano will look to maintain a sharp edge on a defense that gave away a few too many goals last season. Utility-man Geoff Bloes returns as well, as does last year’s newcomer in defense, Jeritt Thayer. Thayer proved a strong addition to the backline for Harrisburg and threatened offensively with a solid aerial game. Veteran attacker Jason Hotchkin is also back and will surely provide firepower for a team that simply needs to score more goals. This collection of veterans maintains the spirit and discipline of the club from season to season – even with lots of new faces, there should be plenty that look familiar to Islanders’ fans.
The professionally proven off-season acquisitions for the team are former Islanders’ goalkeeper Chase Harrison and former Crystal Palace Baltimore defenders Stephen Basso and Andrew Marshall. Harrison returns to City Island after spells with Charleston, DC United, and Columbus and ended the debate before it began about the team’s starter in net. Basso and Marshall should provide valuable experience to a young team and reinforce the defensive unit that Coach Bill Becher will run out. These three represent solid additions to the returners in Harrisburg’s backline and will look to make the defense the strength of the team. Former US U-20 forward and 2009 Colorado draft pick Jordan Seabrook also has two years as a professional under his belt, and will look to compete for time in the forward rotation.
Unproven acquisitions are much harder to characterize. The highest profile player coming in is likely Maryland forward Jason Herrick, who was unable to latch on with the Chicago Fire after this year’s draft. Herrick will likely play a significant role in the attack and will be expected to provide good hold-up play and passing from the front of the formation as well as punch in more than a few goals.
Local and regional products Drew Yates and Andrew Welker will look to fill in where they are needed, but likely look to get time in the Harrisburg midfield. Welker actually played for the Philadelphia Union reserves this past Sunday in a 2-1 win over the New York Red Bull Reserves – he reportedly lined up as a center back. Yates is another Maryland product drafted by Chicago and comes off one season with FC Tampa Bay. Trials around MLS proved unfruitful, as did an adventure to Europe’s lower divisions. If Yates and Herrick have any chemistry left from their days in College Park, that familiarity would be a huge asset to the team. Other newcomers are backup goalkeeper Phil Tuttle, forward Jose Angulo, and midfielders Nelson Becerra (St. John’s) and Morgan Langley (Swarthmore).
A few more signings can be expected as the early season progresses, but the Islanders have said goodbye to many of the trialists with which they started camp. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the signing of former Messiah stand-out Geoff Pezon as a potential late coming reinforcement for the forward pool, as I still have my concerns about their ability as a unit to provide consistent goal-scoring.
As with last season, it would not be strange to see the Philadelphia Union lend a player or two to the Islanders for home games, as Harrisburg wants for additional attacking ability and Philadelphia seeks minutes for its developing players. Speedsters Levi Houapeu and Chris Agorsor would be the most mutually beneficial loan players in my mind, bringing the Islanders another dimension to their relatively young attack and helping the Union find time in a young and deep forward pool. The MLS reserve league may impact this tendency to loan players during stints of the season, but expect to see loanees throughout April, May, and June, as the only two reserve matches between now and July 4 are dates on May 16 hosting DC and on May 29 away to Toronto.
USL PRO is the latest incarnation of lower division professional soccer in America and one that will hopefully foster a greater emphasis on regional competition. The turmoil and uncertainty of the realigned league cause the withdraw of recent rivals Real Maryland, but many familiar clubs are back for the 2011 season, including the recently revived Wilmington Hammerheads. Newcomers to the league include FC New York, the Los Angeles Blues, Orlando City (formerly the Austin Aztexs of the USSF D-2 league), and the Dayton Dutch Lions, as well as a host of Caribbean teams not appearing on the Islander’s regular season schedule. Charleston, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Richmond, and Rochester return for what is likely to be a very strong league with two teams (Rochester, Orlando City) moving down from a higher level of competition last season.
Look for the Islanders to be competitive and stingy. Proven keeper Chase Harrison should provide excellent support and leadership to a veteran backline with strong off-season reinforcements. Averting danger should not be the Islanders problem so much as finding a consistent group of goal scorers. The promise of young talent is there and if the Islanders’ attack can gel, they will prove a difficult team to beat. We will hope that the Islanders fail to notice the improved quality of their competition and keep bagging goals as they did in preseason college exhibitions versus Saint Francis (2-0), Villanova (1-1), Robert Morris (3-0), Temple (4-0), Towson (7-0), and Penn State (6-0).
The Islanders open their season at home to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on Saturday, April 16 at 7:00 PM. For more coverage of the Islanders and pre-season game reports, check out http://www.pennlive.com/cityislanders/.