As the NASL season comes to its conclusion, three of the four playoff spots have been wrapped up. Minnesota United, the San Antonio Scorpions, and the New York Cosmos will play in for the 2014 Soccer Bowl. United will be the #1 seed. San Antonio and New York will probably play one semi-final in Texas.
The remaining drama focuses on that final playoff spot. Three teams could win it. We might know after this week, or it might come down to the final game. Either way, all eyes will be on Fort Lauderdale and Edmonton. You might not have pegged that match as a must-watch at the beginning of the season, but you’ve gotta love it all the same.
#1. Minnesota United FC (16-3-6, 54 points, No Change)
How to judge the Loons’ week?
Two games, four points, and one USMNT cap for Miguel Ibarra. With their home draw against the Cosmos on Saturday, Minnesota clinched the Woosnam Cup. On paper, not so bad.
But on the field, things were a bit mixed. There was the good, (the second half vs Tampa, the suffocating defense vs New York) and the bad (the first half vs Tampa, the missed chances vs New York). Things seemed to even out in a weird way, as United benefited from two debatable refereeing decisions at midweek and were sabotaged by the referee over the weekend.
In all, Minnesota heads into the playoffs with home field throughout and a long unbeaten streak at home. The team played their best ever game against the Cosmos and were extremely unlucky to not take the win. Their point total of 54 is tied for the most ever in the modern NASL. Miguel Ibarra is clearly critical to the team’s attack. Michael Reed may have played his way into a more regular starting/subbing role. Brian Kallman and Juliano Vicentini got their first assists and goal of the year respectively. The Loons didn’t dominate, but it’s been clear all year that they have the quality to grind out results even when not at their best. The disappointment of only netting a point vs New York should be tempered with the confidence of comprehensively beating the Cosmos in just about every aspect of the game.
This week, Minnesota’s “rivals” San Antonio come to down. United have won both meetings this season 2-0 and the Scorpions have faded of late. Lets see if the script changes up North.
#2. San Antonio Scorpions (14-7-4, 46 points, No Change)
For the second time in two weeks, a top team went to Indiana and was upset by a suddenly buoyant Indy Eleven. Last week, it was #1 Minnesota, this week, it was #2 San Antonio. Soccer is a weird, weird sport sometimes.
Like the Loons, San Antonio played pretty well against the Eleven, but they couldn’t turn the run of play into goals either. The Scorpions have had a great season, but they’re limping into the playoffs. They have not won consecutive games since July, and from August onward their record of five wins, five defeats, and two draws really isn’t good enough. Last week, we saw what the Scorpions could do in their 7-0 thrashing of Tampa. This week, we saw what they couldn’t do.
The Scorpions were undefeated in league play in July. That was the month that Rafael Castillo won Player of the Month, and when Billy Forbes was probably the runner up. But as we’ve consistently noted, neither has been as good for San Antonio as they were in the summer, and the Scorpions have waited in vain for someone else to step up. Cesar Elizondo only ever shows flashes, Tomasz Zahorski has done nothing, and Eric Hassli is Eric Hassli.
The Scorpions don’t intimidate anybody in this league. They may win quite a few games, but when they come to town, they never feel unbeatable. They’ve never dropped out of the top two in this ranking only because nobody else has stepped up.
#3. FC Edmonton (9-9-7, 34 points, Up 1)
You can pinpoint the exact moment at which FC Edmonton’s season turned around. Sunday, July 27th. Just about 4:00 PM MDT. 0-0 score between the Montons and visiting Indy Eleven. Stoppage time. A scrum in the box. The ball squirms out to Kléberson. The Brazilian pounces, slotting the ball into the corner. The Edmonton players fall to their knees.
After that shock defeat, in the third week of the NASL Fall Season, Edmonton had just nine points through twelve games (2-7-3) and were last place in the combined NASL standings. We ranked them dead last in our Power Ranking.
Since then, Edmonton have been the second best team in the league, short only to Minnesota United. They have 25 points (7-2-4), and a +7 differential. Their only losses came away at the Loons and at the Scorpions. They won their home fixtures against both teams. Besides Minnesota, there may be no scarier team in the league right now.
It’s astonishing, given this run, that Edmonton may not actually make the playoffs. That’s how terrible their start to the season was. But with their decisive win at Ottawa this past weekend (check out this corner kick), and the stumbles of their rivals, the Montons now improbably control their own destiny. It looks as though it will all come down to this week’s match against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Who would’ve guessed that this game would prove so crucial? Edmonton has won their last two, with a combined score of 5-0. The Strikers are at home. Both teams are fast and predisposed towards the counter-attack. It should be a great game.
#4. Fort Lauderdale Strikers (10-9-6, 36 points, Down 1)
While Edmonton took care of business this past weekend, Fort Lauderdale blew a critical chance to all but lock down the final playoff spot. While their draw against Carolina lengthened the RailHawks’ odds considerably, it also opened the door to the surging Montons. Now, as advertised above, the Strikers face a second must-win match in a row against playoff rivals.
For a long time, we’ve pegged the Strikers to be the fourth playoff team, based on the ease of their end of season schedule. But with Edmonton playing so well, we’re not so sure anymore. The Strikers have been one of the most consistent teams in the league, but they lack a certain ruthlessness, and it has really cost them of late. In the last two weeks, they drew Atlanta (thanks to a late own-goal), and then drew Carolina (and were bailed out by a blind referee). Three points from either game would’ve all but secured the final playoff spot. Instead, Fort Lauderdale are still having to fend off their rivals.
The Strikers are a dangerous squad. Their veteran goalkeeper, Kamil Čontofalský has been excellent (as was Ola Nikolov in the Spring). Their attack is spearheaded by three very different players; the speedy Fafà Picault, the technical Martín Núñez, and the artillery captain Mark Anderson. Their coach, Günter Kronsteiner, is the league’s most experienced and perhaps its best. Considering their budget and level of support, it’s remarkable how well they have done. With the new ownership, they should be a huge threat next season. But there is still work to be done this season, and the Strikers must step up to prevent this year from falling out of their grasp.
#5. New York Cosmos (11-6-8, 41 points, No Change)
With their squad “the healthiest it has been all season” the Cosmos headed to Minnesota and got thoroughly worked. The green and white never mustered a real threat to their host’s goal. A late Christian Ramirez penalty miss spared them defeat.
At this point, there’s really nothing left to be said about the Cosmos that hasn’t already been said. This is a team that has lost the spark that made them so unbeatable last year (and in the Spring). Whether it’s locker room chemistry, poor play, age, luck, or a combination of all those factors, the Cosmos are just an ordinary team this season. They may still #RallyToRepeat, and few teams will feel confident against this team in the playoffs. But nobody will count themselves out either.
The Cosmos welcome Tampa Bay to Hofstra next week. If there’s any cure for what ails them, it’s probably beating up on the current league whipping boys. Then, on the final week of the season, a free playoff preview against San Antonio.
#6. Carolina RailHawks (10-11-4, 34 points, No Change)
To their credit, the Carolina RailHawks showed a lot of fight this weekend after going down 0-1 with their season on the line against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. It just wasn’t good enough. Thanks to a bit of class from Nacho Novo, they drew level. But with just a bit more class from others, (Ty Shipalane comes to mind) they could well have gone up a goal.
The final nail in the coffin was hammered in by the referee, who didn’t see a foul in this play. While it seems as though every NASL team had a complaint about the refereeing this week, Carolina have the best case. With that penalty non-call, the RailHawks playoff hopes are probably done. They are now two points back of Fort Lauderdale and tied with Edmonton in points. But the RailHawks must play Minnesota to end the season, while the Strikers and Montons play each other, then relatively easy opponents at home to end the year. It’s not looking good.
What a weird team the RailHawks are. As Neil Morris wrote this past week:
Anytime the RailHawks appear on the verge of falling out of a possible berth in the NASL’s four-team postseason tournament, the team will reel off two or three unexpected victories to again grab the reins of their destiny. Then, just as promptly, Carolina will squander their reacquired fortunes, placing themselves back on the precipice of heartbreak.
The RailHawks have been as high as third and as low as eighth on these rankings. Only Tampa and Edmonton have swung more violently, but it was mostly one way traffic (pun not intended) for both teams. For the RailHawks, it’s been up and down, up and down, since the beginning.
#7. Indy Eleven (5-12-8, 23 points, Up 1)
After twelve games winless at home to start their existence, the hapless Eleven have suddenly won twice in a row at home. Even better, both wins have been clean sheets against the two best teams in the league.
Why the hell couldn’t they have done this earlier?
Well, never mind, Indy fans probably won’t want to question the success. In both games, the Eleven didn’t have the run of play, but it didn’t matter. Charlie Rugg, on loan from the LA Galaxy is the team’s newest signing, but he might have earned a statue in Indianapolis after assisting Indy’s winner vs Minnesota and scoring the winner against San Antonio (thanks to Mike Ambersley). Meanwhile, Indy’s porous defense has suddenly firmed up, (possibly thanks to NASL-reject Cory Miller, of all people) and they are now riding a streak of 307 minutes without conceding a goal.
The Eleven have been at the bottom of the NASL standings almost uninterrupted since the start of the year (with one jump early in the Fall where they passed Edmonton, see above), but now they are ahead of Atlanta in the combined table and on their way to a respectable finish in the Fall.
Not a bad way to go out.
#8. Ottawa Fury (7-13-5, 26 points, Down 1)
The Fury are a decent team, and we’ve sung their praises in the past, but they too are limping towards the finale. After a heartbreaking loss to New York the past week, they were soundly beaten by Edmonton at home this weekend.
The playoffs are out of reach, and like Indy, this is now about building for the future. The two teams will meet this coming week, a match-up that should be pretty loose and hopefully fun. Last time the Fury defeated the Eleven at home, but this time the Eleven come in with the momentum. In that prior meeting, both teams were in the league basement. This time around, they’re getting off the mat.
Also neat: FIFA has produced a nice video about the perspective of the Fury coaching staff, front office, and players towards their first year. You should give it a watch here!
#9. Tampa Bay Rowdies (7-11-7, 28 points, No Change)
The Rowdies have played five games in the past two weeks, and at the worst possible time. Before, Tampa controlled their playoff destiny. Then, the Rowdies were outscored 6-15 during that stretch. Now they are eliminated from playoff contention and have a small chance of placing last in the league.
We’ll see what happens the Tampa during the offseason. The Rowdies are too expensive a team to perform so poorly. There will doubtless be an inquest. Even before their collapse over the past two weeks, the green and gold were struggling. They haven’t won since August and have three points in eight games during that stretch. The team has gaping holes all over the field. Ricky Hill’s seat is surely the hottest in the league, and General Manager Perry Van der Beck will have much to answer for as well. With likely stadium renovations next season, the Rowdies ambitious ownership will demand success next season. Will this season be a blip, similar to how Minnesota struggled last season? Or is it the canary in the coal mine for a larger failure.
#10. Atlanta Silverbacks (6-14-5, 23 points, No Change)
The Silverbacks have tied their last two games, which is improvement when you consider that they had lost six straight and not scored in four before that. New Head Coach Alejandro Pombo has had what surely qualifies as a dream start with a team this dire.
It probably won’t last. Atlanta hosts Carolina next, and then they travel to Edmonton. The goal for the Silverbacks will be to just avoid last place in the table. It’s been a long, hard fall from the 2013 Spring Season championship.
Why, oh why did they fire Brian Haynes?
Last week’s rankings: October 13, 2014