The perfect 16-0-0 Portland Timbers made history this year in the Premier Development League regular season, but the record books are stacked against them as they begin the playoffs as one of two unbeaten teams on the year. They are joined by the 11-0-3 Mississippi Brilla, the 12th team to go without a loss. Both face the daunting task of becoming the first unbeaten league champion.
Portland and Mississippi each have someone very familiar with the challenge ahead. The Timbers U23s are led, in part, by Director of Soccer Development Amos Magee, a member of the 1994 Minnesota Thunder side that was the first in league history to finish with a perfect record (18-0). For Brilla, Assistant Coach Todd Eason played for the second and last team to previously finish perfect, the 1998 Jackson Chargers.
Despite dominating their respective seasons, both finished in disappointment as Minnesota fell in a tiebreaker shootout to tournament host Greensboro Dynamo after a 1-1 draw and Jackson dropped a 3-2 decision to the San Gabriel Valley Highlanders.
For Magee, the memory brings out quite a bit of emotion, “I had a goal that was called offside that was not offside. I am still bitter about that.”
“This could exorcise those demons for me,” he said about Portland’s impending playoff campaign that could supplant Minnesota’s status as the only team to finish without a true loss (two defeats in shootouts) to remain the league’s best result. “There is still a tiny, little lingering disappointment from the ‘94 season.”
It is a surprising sentiment that Magee is still upset at missing out on the title considering he went on to win a USL First Division championship later with the Thunder and play in Major League Soccer, but it came after a fantastic debut season in which they dueled with the Milwaukee Rampage. Led by experienced French pro Pierre Morice and league MVP and future MLS player Manny Lagos, the Thunder swept a Milwaukee side fronted by future US internationals Brian McBride and Tony Sanneh, then a forward, for two wins during the season and defeated them twice more in the postseason. They were the only losses the Rampage suffered.
Jackson’s fate was probably the more shocking though. The defense was third-best in the league with 17 goals allowed, but the eye-opening figure was the tally of 104 goals, which was an amazing 42 more than the total of the next-best Spokane Shadow, who were led by PDL Rookie of the Year and future US international Brian Ching. In comparison to today, the dominant Timbers U23s led the league this year with six goals allowed and 53 scored.
“When we were in the Final it was hard to believe that we weren't going to win the game,” said Eason. “We had scored over 100 goals and conceded very few, so to think there was a team better than us, it was a stretch of the imagination.”
“I can mostly remember that I was out due to a hurt quad that I aggravated in the semifinal, so I was pretty bummed I wasn't involved,” continued Eason. “We played the San Gabriel Valley Highlanders, who I was not very familiar with, but had heard they were older and very talented.”
“Come to find out they were. They had many foreign players that were very talented on the ball and they made it difficult for us to gain possession, which we were known for. Our strength was in the final third and we had no good opportunities due to their experience in the back. It was very hard to break them down and we became very frustrated. This is where our youth showed. We had become accustom to scoring at will and that day we did not. Players lost their confidence quick and the mental aspect of the game became greater. We didn't handle adversity well and the end result was a second-place finish.”
In the 12 years since the Chargers’ shocking loss, the league has inevitably changed. Primary among the alterations is the league’s U23 rules that were adopted in 2000.
“The league has changed in many ways since 1999, and it is very difficult to pull off the perfect season. The reason it is so difficult is because of the parity in the league,” said Eason. “All the teams have gotten much stronger and it has become more difficult to get three points each game. This is the reason that there are many draws in each conference.”
“Also, when I played, there were more consistent teams in the league. Each team had its 25 players that remained on the team until the very last game,” Eason said, referring to the fact that overage players did not have collegiate obligations that created conflicts. “Now it seems that many more players are coming and going more often. Mississippi Brilla has also seen these kinds of changes throughout the year. We started with 28 players this year and we have seen 12 players leave and pursue other things. We have also added six players. So you can see the difficulties in forming a team when there are many changes. It’s hard to develop team chemistry and rhythm when the team is constantly changing.”
“Many kids end up leaving before the league final to go back to school or they leave early to get a week’s rest before university preseason starts,” added Eason. “You can look at every team and it would be far-fetched to say that every player that started the season is ending the season. I just think, again, the consistency plays a huge factor.”
Those difficulties have arguably contributed to remarkable trends that have seen the eight unbeaten teams since Jackson (all from 2002-09) fail to even reach the league semifinals and the league’s regular season champion making an early exit from the playoffs. The Central Coast Roadrunners of 1996 were the last team to win both titles with the 1998 Chargers, 2000 Michigan Bucks and 2001 Calgary Storm the only regular season champions to even reach the championship game. And since 2001, only the Orange County Blue Star of 2005 was able to advance to the final four.
While Magee had his experience in Minnesota available to call upon this season for the U23s run of perfection, the Timbers also had a more recent experience to refer to that has a more timely and obvious geographic relevance.
“I never talked to head coach Jim Rilatt or any of the players about it,” he said of 1994. “But we compared the current season a bit to the run of the first team last year.”
The Timbers set a USL professional club record with 24 consecutive league games without a loss last season in the USL First Division, garnering headlines around the country and capturing a lot of attention and praise. But in the end, the present proved too much like the past for Magee, an assistant coach for the first team.
“Despite what we accomplished, it was a bitter feeling considering we didn’t win the championship,” said Magee. “Discussion with the team about the streak and what happened was mostly done by Jim, but we discussed it in our coaches meeting, which included [first team coach and general manager] Gavin Wilkinson.”
“I think they realize, and have to recognize, that this, what they accomplished in the regular season means nothing at this point,” Magee added. “It is a whole new season. They are gonna be judged on how they navigate the next four games and not the last 16. The challenge now for them is to take that confidence into this game.”
But confidence itself can be a tricky thing according to Eason.
“We have seen time and time again top-seeded teams struggling,” said Eason. “I think it goes back to how we felt when we were in it. Sometimes being confident can hurt you if you don't know how to handle it. I think many top-seeded teams always have their head in the clouds without their feet on the ground.”
While looking back upon the past can be difficult, often times the memories can also be pleasant.
“That was unbelievable team with Manny - and his brother Gerard, - Pierre, and Tony Pesznecker,” said Magee. We played against Milwaukee featuring McBride and Sanneh, who we beat four times. Then we lost to a very good Greensboro Dynamo team in Greensboro. We were a very well-balanced team, well put together by [head coach and USL Hall of Famer] Buzz Lagos. It was as good a team that I have played for, and that was an amateur team. It was a great group and I remember that team fondly.”
“I think the similarities more come from very nice balance,” Magee added about how the Timbers U23 squad compares to the 1994 Thunder. “There are a couple players back with leadership like Tracy Hassan, Jordan Crasilneck and Brent Richards. We also have some outstanding players new to the group who have really excelled. They really enjoy playing and succeeding. There is a real joy to the way that they play. I can’t say enough about the job Jim has done. I expect several players will be snapped up to pro contracts after the season and a number of those still in college will be at a later date.”
The change of the league from teams mixed with amateurs and professionals to one full of amateur sides due to changes in NCAA regulations was not the end of the evolution. The league recently adopted a PDL-Pro option that allows clubs to operate with professional rosters, albeit under the U23 rules. In a way, it brought the landscape back to one similar to what Magee experienced in 1994 as USL began to grow from one league into a system of professional and amateur leagues.
“There are actually some similarities with amateur teams playing with pro teams,” said Magee, referring to the presence of two within their own division and a third, Hollywood United Hitmen, coming up in their playoff opener hosted by the division runners-up Kitsap Pumas. “Kitsap, Vancouver and Hollywood are pro teams. And Ventura County are the defending champs. All four teams in the Western Conference are very, very good. It is gonna take a heck of a lot to get to the final four.”
“We’re likely gonna have to deal with some very strong teams we know nothing about just like we did with Thunder,” Magee depicted of the road ahead in the playoffs. “The regional aspect of the PDL means playing teams you know nothing about.”
Operating out of Clinton, a city situated in the greater metropolitan area of Jackson, Brilla are very similar to the Chargers of Eason’s past, a team that featured future MLS players Richard Mulrooney and Dominic Schell as well as Kenya internationals Boniventure Maruti and Paul Oyuga, who are currently both stars for their Norwegian second division sides Follo FK and Algard FK, respectively.
“We had a couple African players that played at the University of Mobile who led our team that year, and in the same way Brilla is led by the same influence,” said Eason. “Mike Azira and Moses Aduny are both from Lindsey Wilson College and have done a tremendous job leading this team. Moses is the leading goal scorer for Brilla who has the speed, strength and understanding to carry this team to the championship and also play at the next level. He has been a great addition. Mike Azira, who we first pegged as our defensive mid, is another player that we were very lucky to have. He is capable of playing any position on the field and has most recently had to play left back due to injury. I would have to say that Azira is one of the best players I have ever had the privilege to coach.”
“Unfortunately for us, Azira is another player that had to leave to head back to Uganda to visit family before school,” continued Eason. “This will be a huge loss for us but I think we have enough talented players to make a good run at the championship.”
“We also have a couple other players on this team very similar to those on the Jackson Chargers. Micheal Brown, who is a local from Clinton, is a player that gives you a close comparison to Richard Williams, who played with me for two years and graduated from Belhaven College.”
“We also, as a whole, compare well to the Chargers based on the make-up of our team. Many of our players, like the Chargers, are players who play for NAIA and Division II programs. Some of our best players come from small schools. Throughout the season we have had only two Division I players that have played consistently for us. We have relied on finding the best players in small schools to lead us. We have players like Lucas Paulini, Nick Rich and Anteneh Lemma from Tusculum College, Willie Hunt from Francis Marion College, David Lilly from Milligan, Ahmad Ihmeidan from Midwestern College and Nathaniel Foster from Montevallo. All of these players are responsible for our success.”
While disappointment lingers from 1994 and 1998 amidst this season’s success for Easton and Magee, the next 15 games, starting with the Conference Semifinals that begin Friday and ending with the PDL Champions August 7, could take things to another level by registering a historic moment for the PDL.
“Well there is no doubt that a championship would be great,” said Eason. “Ever since I have been here that has been the focus, and there would be nothing greater than to capture a title for this organization.”
The only problem is that in the way for perfect Portland and unbeaten Brilla are 14 other clubs who care more about raising the cup than history.
By The Numbers
Previous Unbeaten PDL Campaigns [Team (record) Result]
1994 Minnesota Thunder (18-0) Lost in Final by shootout
1998 Jackson Chargers (16-0) Lost in Final
2002 Des Moines Menace (15-0-3) Lost in Conference Semifinal
2004 South Jersey Barons (14-0-4) Lost in Conference Final
2004 Chicago Fire (17-0-1) Lost in Conference Final
2006 Carolina Dynamo (14-0-2) Lost in Conference Semifinal
2006 Cape Cod Crusaders (14-0-2) Lost in Conference Final
2007 Hampton Roads Piranhas (14-0-2) Lost in Conference Semifinals by PKs
2009 New Orleans Jesters (5-0-11) Lost in First Round
2009 Ottawa Fury (12-0-4) Lost in Division Final