by Gerald Barnhart
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Who is the best? That is always the question debated endlessly in every sports circle whether it is at the team or league level. With the passing of the first decade of the millennium, we will take the next 10 weeks to review who have been the best and most influential players in the history of the USL First Division and USL Second Division.
It must be noted that this list is subjective, although the All-League honors were weighed heavily in the consideration considering they are determined via general managers and coaches each year. The emphasis is primarily on who the players in the league have been the best and most influential from 2000-09 in context of the league. No doubt there have been numerous players who spent one or two seasons in the league and have moved on elsewhere, but this list is dedicated to those who have made a lengthy or lasting impact on the competition.
Heading into the list, the most difficult aspect was the splitting of accomplishments. For instance, the dominance of the Rhinos spread from 1998-2001 with many of the best players leaving the fold rather quickly, making their contributions primarily in the previous decade. Similarly, the pair of Richmond and Charlotte both split time between USL-1 and USL-2 in the decade, making the selection of which list to place the players on more difficult.
We kick off the presentation of the Top 25 list with the first five players.
USL-1 Top 25 Players of the Decade
# 25: Mauricio Salles
The Puerto Rico Islanders were born in 2004, and it was the Brazilian Salles who helped make the Islanders, a club that was struggling to find victories at the end of 90 minutes, a team that everyone still wanted to watch. He pumped in 11 goals in his first season (2004). He added another 14 in 2005, but rather than the numbers, it was the spectacular nature of many of the strikes that became hot views online. Numerous 30-yard blasts and a surprising bicycle kick earned Salles Goal of the Week honors. His efforts also earned All-League honors in his sophomore campaign and helped make Puerto Rico a place top players wanted to come and play. He was eventually lured away by Montreal in 2006, where he helped lead the Impact to the regular season championship. Salles would miss the 2007 season, but returned to the league in 2008 with the Rochester Rhinos before heading abroad midway through the 2009 campaign.
# 24: Steve Klein
Klein is the definition of a blue collar midfielder if there ever was one. He quietly went about building quite a resume over the course of the decade, picking three All-League selections before wrapping up his career in Vancouver from 2005-07. Klein, who began playing in the league in 1998, was a member of the Hershey Wildcats from 1999-2001 and helped lead the team to the championship game in 2001. After missing the 2002 campaign he became a key member of the Charleston Battery midfield as the team finally captured its first league championship in 2003. He stayed with the Battery one more season before moving to Vancouver under his former Hershey coach ,Bob Lilley. There, he helped the team win its first league championship in 2006.
# 23: Zinho
Sure, the best of his career was behind him by the time he came to the USL First Division in 2006. But the Brazilian World Cup champion was the engine of the Miami squad, running the play from the middle of the park. Zinho helped his former World Cup teammate Romario capture a share of the goal scoring title while simultaneously finishing as the league assist leader. Romario moved back to Brazil to finish his quest for 1,000 goals, but Zinho remained and earned a second All-League selection in 2007 and eventually became the club’s head coach.
# 22: Ze Roberto
Similar to Klein, Ze Roberto was a bit of a Bob Lilley disciple. The quick and crafty midfielder, who worked well with Klein, began his USL-1 career with the Hershey Wildcats in 2000 and helped guide the team to the USL-1 Final the following year. He moved on to join the Montreal Impact with Lilley in 2002 and posted career highs in points in 2002 and again in 2003 before helping lead the team to the league championship in 2004. The Impact went on to capture regular season titles the next two years before he moved onto Vancouver to rejoin Lilley. The stay was short-lived though as Lilley was out after the season. The 2003 All-League selection found a new home back east with the Rochester Rhinos, where he has spent the past two years.
# 21: Scot Thompson
Defenders typically do not get a lot of love when it comes to best-of lists in sports. But as you will see over the coming weeks, there have been quite a few veteran backs in USL-1 that have had a long-term presence in the league. Thompson is arguably the staple of the Portland Timbers back line. He came into the league in 2004 and helped lead the Timbers to their best record (18-7-3) and best defensive performance since joining the league in 2001, capturing the regular season championship. He has remained with the club throughout and most recently helped lead the defense to a league record unbeaten streak (24 games) in 2009 as well as another regular season championship. He nearly had a third regular season title in 2007, falling three points shy of Seattle in 2007. Thompson was honored twice as an All-League selection, earning the award in 2005 and 2007.
A list of the Top 15 of the Decade for the USL Second Division will kick off with its first five players later this week. Then stay with USLsoccer.com to see the Top 20 in USL-1 and Top 10 in USL-2 each week as the individual players are unveiled.