KENYA BROWN - Tuesday, March 31, 2015
The top leagues in Europe are approaching the home stretch, but teams in Norway looking forward to the start of the new Tippeligaen season this weekend.
Last season ended with Molde walking away comfortably with the division crown and the Norwegian Cup, while U.S. international Mix Diskerud and Rosenborg settled for second place and a spot in the Europa League along with Odd and Stromsgodset. Head coach Bob Bradley and Stabaek made a strong return to the top division with a mid-table finish and a semifinal run in the domestic cup competition.
As for the promotion/relegation playoff, a man of the match effort by defender Rhett Bernstein saw Mjondalen pull off a shock defeat of Brann to send them back up to the Tippeligaen for the first time in 22 years.
The offseason has been quite busy for all the teams as they gear up for the start of the season on April 6, with the contenders especially strengthening their sides as they look to knock off a strong Molde team looking to retain their title.
As for the American contingent, Diskerud, Michael Stephens, Andrew Jacobson and Jeb Brovksy have left, but players such as Cole Grossman and A.J. Soares will make their debuts this season and hopefully help their respective teams improve on last season's performances.
Here is a rundown of the team's the Americans will play for in this season.
Last season's northernmost team in the Tippeligaen had a huge struggle as they staved off relegation with 35 points. This season Glimt will be looking to make a big improvement and they have made a few moves in the winter transfer window to ensure that they will not be going through another relegation battle.
One of those signings is winger Danny Cruz who joins the team on loan from the Philadelphia Union. The former Houston Dynamo draftee will have a good chance of making his way into the starting lineup.
The player to watch will be Zarek Valentin as he he makes a return to the Glimt side after missing most of last season due an Achilles injury - he came on as a substitute in the team's final game in November last year. The team allowed 60 goals last season, tying them with Start for the most allowed. Valentin, 23, will be relied on heavily this season along with his teammates in the back to make sure they keep that goal tally to a minimum.
Glimt will not be a title challenger, but they will be good enough to finish mid-table.
Two seasons ago Mjondalen were in the promotion playoff race, but lost out at the first hurdle for a chance at promotion. Last season most critics would not have bet on them to come through the promotion/relegation final against Brann. However, they shocked many as they easily handled their foes over two legs in November last year.
Now the team will try to make an impression in the Tippeligaen.
Defender Rhett Bernstein returns to the team after playing a key role in their promotion bid against Brann.
It was a quiet transfer window for Mjondalen, but they have brought in midfielder Michael Stilson and forward Tim Andre Nilsen.
It will be a tough transition for Mjondalen, but they may just do enough to survive their first season back in the Tippligaen.
The reigning league champions enter the new season brimming with confidence and as the odds on favorites to retain their crown, but it will not be easy.
The team have retained a number of players from last season, with Nigerian international Daniel Chukwu being the only significant loss as he was sent to Shanghai Shenxin in China during the winter transfer window.
As for the American contingent, it is unclear how much playing time goalkeeper Ethan Horvath or forward Ben Spencer will get as both could be sent out on loan in addition to being named to the U.S. Under-20 roster for the 2015 U-20 World Cup. Joshua Gatt will be the one every U.S. soccer fan will follow this season as he tries make his return to the first team after recovering from another knee injury. No time table has been set for the 23-year-old's return, but there has been speculation that he could possibly return to action after the start of the season.
Molde will have their hands full this season with league, cup and Champions League qualifying games. Barring any serious injuries from key players, they do have what it takes to repeat as champions in 2015.
It can be said that the Blue Ones had somewhat of a successful season in 2014. Picked as one of the teams for relegation last season, they proved their critics wrong by finishing a respectable ninth place in the standings and as semifinalist in the Norwegian Cup.
Now, Stabaek head coach Bob Bradley will try to build on last season and guide his team further up the standings. He will have to do it without the services of Ivory Coast international Franck Boli and Fredrik Brustad who were the team's top two scorers with 13 and 10 goals respectifully. In addition, the return of Michael Stephens and Andrew Jacobson to Major League Soccer has left a void in the midfield.
Despite the losses Bradley still has goalkeeper Sayouba Mande in his ranks as the 21-year-old from the Ivory Coast made some big saves to keep Stabaek in games last season.
As for new recruits, the team will be looking to Ernest Asante and Adama Diomande to fill the goal scoring void left by Boli. Cole Grossman comes in as the sole American representative for the team and will be expected to provide a strong midfield presence that his predecessors left behind.
On paper Stabaek looks to have a much stronger team compared with last season, but it may not be enough to challenge for the title. However, they could pull off another good cup run and put pressure on their rivals for a Europa League place.
Start was another team that struggled last season and teetered on the brink of relegation. This season they hope their fortunes will change.
The transfer window saw a number of players return from loans as well as few new signings. One the new players to the team is U.S. defender Alex DeJohn. The 23-year-old arrives at the Kristiansand-based team after spending the previous two seasons in Finland - he last played for TPS. It was not a great season for DeJohn and his former team as they were relegated from the Veikkausliiga, so he will hope things are brighter now that he is with Start.
Despite the changes made in the offseason, it could be another fight to avoid relegation.
Last season can be considered a downer for Viking as they finished tenth in the standings compared with their fifth place finish in 2013. This season the Stavanger-based side will be looking to get themselves back in the title picture and the changes they have made in the team during the offseason could see them back there.
One of those new players that could help Viking move back up the standings is A.J. Soares. After much talk on the Internet about him signing with Italian Serie A side Verona, the former New England Revolution man signed a two-year deal with the Dark Blues. The San Diego native will provide much needed experience to Viking's back line, but his league debut will have to wait as he suffered a knee injury. He is expected to miss six to eight weeks of action.
Viking should bounce back from a disappointing last season and challenge for a Europa League place.
In Norway's First Division, a group of Americans will be looking to help their teams make the move up to the next level.
Bobby Warshaw will once again try to help Baerum in their effort to gain promotion to the top division. They fell to Mjondalen 4-1 in the playoffs last season.
Goalkeeper Alex Horwath has made the move from Sweden to join relegated Brann. They will be trying to make their return to the Tippeligaen on the first attempt.
Paul Torres has also made the move from Sweden to sign with Sandnes Ulf, which was also relegated last season.