Nine days from now, the race for the North American Soccer League 2014 Spring Season title kicks off.
Every offseason brings with it the buzz of the transfer market. Players change clubs, new signings enhance the roster and every club goes into opening weekend confident of having a squad capable of winning the championship. Here's a look at one key signing at each of the 10 NASL clubs, made during the countdown to kickoff.
If anyone knows that hitting the target is the key to victory, it is Silverbacks Technical Director Eric Wynalda. The former U.S. Men's National Team striker made one of the most intriguing and potentially exciting signings of the offseason when he brought in Belize striker Deon McCaulay.
Not many players are mentioned in the same breath as Barclays Premier League greats Robin Van Persie and Luis Suarez, but McCaulay rubbed shoulders with the Manchester United and Liverpool strikers in the record books. The new Atlanta forward struck 11 goals in World Cup qualifying, equaling the tallies of the Dutchman and Uruguayan.
McCaulay might not be heading to Brazil this summer since Belize did not progress beyond the qualifying stages, but great things will be expected of the new signing from the Belmopan Bandits of the Premier League of Belize, who has also played professionally in Honduras.
"I've had my eye on Deon for a long time, and I got a chance to see him up close at last year's Gold Cup," said Wynalda. "His talent, speed, explosiveness, and knack for scoring goals is exactly what our team needs. After the departure of many of our top attacking players from last season, there were some question marks as to how we would replenish the offense. Those questions have been answered in the form of Deon McCaulay, and we couldn't be more thrilled to have him."
Jun Marques Davidson returns to the Carolina RailHawks in 2014 after two seasons with the Vancouver Whitecaps. In 2013, the Japanese-American midfielder was one of the most accurate passers in MLS, completing 85.75% of his passes.
Davidson first joined the RailHawks in 2010 and appeared in 23 matches helping the team to the USSF-D2 NASL Conference Title. In two seasons with Vancouver, Davidson appeared in 54 matches and played 4,436 minutes. He began his professional career in the J-League, appearing in 133 regular season matches.
"It's not every day that you are able to add a player with the experience of Jun," said RailHawks head coach Colin Clarke. "He has a wealth of experience in the J-League and MLS and fits in well with the rest of our squad."
Had FC Edmonton been able to turn a string of draws into wins last season they might have been strong contenders to advance to NASL Soccer Bowl. Looking to remedy that goal drought Eddies coach Colin Miller has brought in striker Frank Jonke, who has spent the last four seasons in Finland playing for FF Jaro, AC Oulo, and FC Inter Turku, scoring 33 goals in 110 match appearances. His last season saw him ranked as one of the best strikers in the Finnish Premier League and named to the league's Best XI.
"Frank gives us a big, strong target player," said Miller, who called up Jonke to the Canadian national team during his interim time in charge. "Someone we can build off and keep us in possession, he gives us that stronger, physical presence up top, something that we've been lacking."
Fort Lauderdale Strikers
Potentially one of the most influential signings this offseason is Chris Nurse, the uncompromising midfielder who brings a wealth of experience to the Strikers. Nurse was born in England of Guyanese descent captained of the Guyana National Team in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification matches. He has 47 National Team caps with Guyana, scoring 5 goals.
Nurse made his NASL debut in 2010 with the Puerto Rico Islanders has been influential for the Carolina RailHawks and FC Edmonton, and last season was named North American Soccer League Player of the Month for the month of August.
"Chris is an experienced player who has already won a championship in this league and is going to help us in many ways," said Strikers Head Coach Günter Kronsteiner. "He's a solid player and a leader both on the field and in the locker room."
Predictably, Kleberson gets the nod as the offseason signing to watch at Indy Eleven, and as a World Cup winner and former Brazilian international, the 34-year-old midfielder is a capture who has made headlines and is expected to make many more.
Kleberson gained worldwide notoriety during the 2002 FIFA World Cup Finals in South Korea and Japan, when his standout performance for Brazil helped win a fifth world championship. After coming off the bench in Brazil's last group stage and Round of 16 matches, he was inserted into the starting XI for Brazil's final three matches and assisted on Ronaldo's second goal in a 2-0 victory over Germany in the Final.
"It goes without saying that Kleberson's technical ability and vision gives our midfield some added dimensions," said Indy Eleven Director of Soccer Operations / Head Coach Juergen Sommer. "His first training sessions have shown that the quality and class he has always possessed are still there. Our fans will be in for a real treat when they get the chance to see how he operates on the field."
When a preseason injury ruled striker Pablo Campos, the leading scorer in the NASL modern era, out of the spring campaign, Minnesota United FC had to act swiftly and added veteran Brazilian-born striker Daniel Mendes on a season loan.
"It's an important position to address," said United head coach Manny Lagos. "We certainly have to react to the injury to Pablo and the reality that we don't have a lot of forwards on the roster now. Daniel is a proven forward and has seen success for many years in Sweden. We feel like this is a great opportunity to add another veteran goal scorer to the roster."
The 5'9" Mendes is a 33-year old striker with extensive experience in Sweden's top professional league, the Allsvenskan, primarily with Kalmar FF and AIK and becomes the fifth Brazilian on the Minnesota roster.
Before playing in Sweden, Mendes learned his craft in the youth academies of Corinthians in his native São Paulo and Juventus. He is a proven goal scorer, with 55 goals in 165 games in Sweden.
New York Cosmos
One of the first and headline-grabbing signings of the offseason was Dutch striker Hans Denissen heading east from San Antonio, swapping life as a member of the Scorpions to join the reigning NASL champion New York Cosmos.
Denissen, 29, was a contender for the NASL Golden Boot award throughout the 2013 season for the Scorpions as he made 25 appearances and was named to the NASL best XI.
The Dutchman scored 12 goals in 2013, tripling his tally from 2012. Denissen was named to the NASL Team of the Week seven times during the course of the year and was named NASL Player of the Month for June.
"Hans will be a great addition to our forward line next season," Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese said. "He is a very dynamic and smart player who will provide a different dimension to our team. We are excited to include another great professional in our club."
Mason Trafford joined the Fury from Chinese League One side Guizhou Zhicheng, having begun his professional career with the Vancouver Whitecaps and spent two-and-a-half years in the Finnish Premier League with IFK Mariehamn.
Trafford, 27, is an imposing 6-2 defender who was capped for Canada last January when he featured against Denmark. After a season with the Real Maryland Monarchs in 2010, he impressed at a trial with IFK Mariehamn earning a six-month contract that included a two-year option, which the club would exercise. Trafford then left for China for the 2013 season featuring in 29 games for Guizhou Zhicheng.
"After spending the last four seasons abroad, I am extremely excited and honored to be returning to North America and play in my nation's capital," said Trafford. "I have followed the club's development over the past months, and I believe Fury FC is building something special in Ottawa, and I am very much looking forward to being a part of that building process."
San Antonio Scorpions
The Scorpions have been adding proven NASL talent to their roster during the offseason and captured American-born Salvadorian international midfielder Richard Menjivar from the Atlanta Silverbacks.
Menjivar was named to the 2013 NASL Best XI after starting 21 of 24 games, scoring two goals and two assists on the way to playing in NASL Soccer Bowl 2013.
The 23-year-old has also excelled internationally as a member of the Salvadorian national team. He started in all four of El Salvador's games in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup and appeared in all but one of the team's international matches the same year. Prior to international play with El Salvador, the 5-foot-8 defensive midfielder represented the U.S. at U-18 level in 2008 before being called into El Salvador's Olympic qualifying squad in 2012.
"Menjivar is the quintessential type of player we are looking to add to our roster; a very driven, young player coming off of a Best Eleven year in the NASL, and with the experience of winning a championship in our league," said Scorpions head coach Alen Marcina. "He's a dynamic box to box player who not only generates and facilitates attacks, but also astutely reads the game defensively. He's a fantastic signing for our organization."
Tampa Bay Rowdies
The Rowdies bringing 2013 NASL Golden Boot winner Brian Shriver back home to Florida made the early offseason transfer headlines, but the signing of goalkeeper Matt Pickens to replace injured stopper Diego Restrepo will be just as crucial to their title aspirations.
Pickens has played 11 professional seasons, including 10 in Major League Soccer. He spent the last five seasons with the Colorado Rapids, where he made 116 appearances for the club, including a 2-1 MLS Cup victory over FC Dallas in 2010. Pickens holds the Rapids' franchise records in career games in goal (116), shutouts (29), and wins (41). He has had 40 shutouts and a career goals-against average of 1.25.
"This is a marquee signing that will add a great deal of quality and experience to our squad," said Rowdies general manager Perry Van Der Beck. "Our goal is to win another championship this season, so we're excited to have a player of Matt's caliber on our roster. His size and agility is imposing at his position and I think he will be a great asset for us."