Midfielder Mark Anderson key player for Fort Lauderdale Strikers in second year as pro

Mark Anderson didn’t know what to expect.

He was successful at Barry University, winning 2011 National Player of the Year honors, but that was in Division II.

At this time last year, he was an uncertain rookie playing for the North American Soccer League’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

“I was just looking to get some playing time,” said Anderson, who started the season on the bench and didn’t score a goal in his first month as a pro. “I didn’t know what the level was like.”

As it turned out, the level was no problem for Anderson, who scored a team-high 13 goals in 28 games, including 22 starts. He was named an All-Star and finished fourth in the voting for the league’s Player of the Year honor.

Saturday night at 7:30, the Strikers will open their 2013 spring season against Edmonton at Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium, and Anderson is expected to play a major role on a team that was eliminated in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.

Strikers coach Daryl Shore uses a use a 4-2-3-1 formation with three attacking midfielders and one forward up top. When everyone is healthy, the three midfielders are set: Anderson, David Foley and Walter Restrepo. The forward is Stefan Dimitrov, and the depth includes Carlos Salazar and Andy Herron.

But Anderson has battled a quad strain and is questionable for Saturday, and Restrepo, an NASL All-Star last season with six goals and eight assists, is coming off ACL knee surgery.

“Walter played 60 minutes in our last [exhibition] game, and we think he is pretty close,” Shore said. “Anderson has been limited in training this week.”

The Strikers also have some visa-type issues to solve regarding Salazar, 31, an attacking midfielder from Colombia who has more than 50 career goals in 250 matches.

Herron, who had eight goals and two assists for the Strikers last season, is battling for playing time with Dimitrov, who is on loan from the New York Cosmos.

If it all clicks, the Strikers could be dangerous on offense. They scored 40 goals in 28 matches last season, good for third in the eight-team league.

“I don’t think we will have any trouble scoring,” Anderson said.

That could be especially true if Foley, who had 13 goals and nine assists the past two years and was an NASL All-Star in 2011, gets going.

The Strikers picked him up when the Puerto Rico Islanders suspended their operations for 2013, and he just so happens to come from Anderson’s home town of Durham, England.

“Foley is a mate of mine, and I knew straight away that once Puerto Rico had their issues, that we should bring him in,” Anderson said. “I played against him last year — he causes massive problems for the defense.”

New playoff format

Instead of one long season in which six teams make the playoffs, the NASL this year switches to spring and winter seasons. The winners of each season will play in the Soccer Bowl on Nov. 9. If the same team wins both halves, then the opponent will be the squad with the next-most combined points.

The Strikers’ spring season runs through July 4, with six home matches and six on the road. There will then be one month off before the winter season begins.

Dimitrov will return to the Cosmos for the winter season. But by then, the Strikers will get back Aly Hassan, who scored six goals last season and is now on loan to a pro team in Bolivia.

NASL expansion

Commissioner Bill Peterson was at Lockhart Stadium earlier this week for Strikers media day and said the NASL will be up to 12 teams by next year — with more on the horizon.

The expansion teams already set for next year are Indianapolis, the Virginia Cavalry and the Ottawa Fury. Puerto Rico will also return for 2014.

After that, California could be in play.

“I just came back from the West Coast,” Peterson said, “and I think there are opportunities to put three or four teams out there in the next couple of years — San Francisco, Los Angeles and possibly other locations.”

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