It’s rare that a week’s results actually match our expectations, but everything fell into place this past weekend, with the higher seeded team (the away side, interestingly enough) emerging victorious in three of the four contests. The exception was a draw between closely ranked FC Edmonton and the New York Cosmos.
Making matters more simple, Tampa’s match against Fort Lauderdale was rained out and postponed.
The playoff race and Woosnam Cup races actually became less competitive this past week, thanks to the results actually going as predicted. Still, with every team in the home stretch of their season, there remains plenty of room for some surprising twists and turns.
Let’s hop into the ranking.
#1. Minnesota United FC (14-2-5, 47 points, No Change)
It’s a cliché that good teams find ways to win games, but it may as well be Minnesota’s modus operandi. The Loons were played to a stalemate for the third time this season by a very game Ottawa Fury team. But for the third time this year, they found a way past their Eastern neighbors to grab the three points.
The star of the show was unquestionably Miguel Ibarra. A week after sweeping the Player of the Week and Play of the Week honors in the NASL, Ibarra went out and all but assured that he would do it again. His equalizing goal was a study in poise. His game-winning assist was a flash of pure speed and determination.
It bears repeating:
Miguel Ibarra is simply the best player in the league. Paired with Christian Ramirez, the most rapidly improving American striker shy of Gyasi Zardes, and veteran attacking midfielder Daniel Mendes and you have a trio that have scored more combined goals (33) than any whole team has scored. All three scored on Sunday to ruin a spirited effort by the home side. Just further evidence for why Minnesota United are running away with the league.
Some powerful people have taken notice.
#2. San Antonio Scorpions (13-6-3, 42 points, No Change)
We were looking for San Antonio to re-assert themselves this past week with a dominant performance against a team we ranked at the bottom of the league.
The Scorpions didn’t impress, but they did do just enough to earn a much needed three points. The credit goes to Cesar Elizondo, who struck a splendid curler to put San Antonio ahead. Goalkeeper Josh Saunders was also as sharp as you can be while still looking about 50 years old to preserve the lead.
Regardless of the result, the manner in which it was earned didn’t spark the imagination. The Scorpions offense has seemed woefully out of sync in three consecutive games now, and the pressure is on Head Coach Alen Marcina to find some answers. Perhaps it might come from the pick-up of ex-Chicago Fire forward Giuseppe Gentile. Then again, considering that he apparently wasn’t good enough for Chicago, it might not. But as we highlighted last week, Billy Forbes and Rafael Castillo are no longer carrying this team. Elizondo stepped up last week, but Tomasz Zahorski and others are AWOL.
With five games left, the Scorpions have a six point edge over New York for second place in the overall table. It would take a spectacular collapse to see that order change. But just because their playoff position is secure doesn’t mean the Scorpions should feel any less uncomfortable with their current form.
#3. Carolina RailHawks (10-9-3, 33 points, Up 3)
We’ve been down on Carolina for a long time. It’s time that they get some respect.
The knock on the RailHawks has long been their breathtaking inconsistency. We’ve known for a while that Carolina is capable of playing up to their potential against teams at the top of the league. It’s been the teams that they should beat who have usually posed the biggest challenge.
We were also impressed with the form the RailHawks showed by defeating Indy in comfort and the fact that they did it without either Devon Sandoval or Zack Schilawski, thanks to this great effort from Nazmi Albadawi. Three wins in a row against three different opponents in three different types of games is a hard run of form to ignore. Perhaps the RailHawks have finally, finally finally, turned the corner.
Or, hey, perhaps not! As the current holders of the coveted fourth playoff spot, the RailHawks will be looking over their shoulder until the final week of the season. A series of absolutely crucial ‘six point’ games are looming. They will play Fort Lauderdale away this week. Edmonton away after that. Then Fort Lauderdale at home. These two teams are their two primary rivals for playoff contention. We will know for good and all what this RailHawks team is made of at the end of this stretch.
#4. New York Cosmos (10-6-6, 36 points, Down 1)
The New York Cosmos have been serving up equal portions of good and bad ever since the Fall Season kicked off. We got a good long look at both sides of the Cosmos in Sunday’s match away at Edmonton. New York dominated their hosts for the first 51 minutes of the game, controlling just about every aspect of play, eventually leading to a deserved goal off a flicked on corner that found the head of Danny Szetela.
Literally the moment that happened the Cosmos shut off completely. For the remaining 39 minutes, it was all Edmonton. The hosts battered the Cosmos, neutered their attacks, and equalized through the intervention of Tomi Ameobi. It was all the Cosmos could do to hang on to the draw, but hang on they did.
It might be approaching panic hour for the green and white. They have dropped four points in the last two weeks and Carolina (of all teams) has taken full advantage. Indy visits Hofstra Stadium next week. In the Spring, the Cosmos ended up drawing the Eleven at home, presaging their Fall slump. New York has almost completely exhausted their generous playoff cushion and can ill afford yet another let down.
#5. FC Edmonton (7-9-6, 27 points, Down 1)
Edmonton scuffed a golden opportunity this week. While the Cosmos are never an easy out, the Montons had previously defeated both Minnesota and San Antonio at home. With the game level, they had New York totally at bay but could not find a winner to erase memories of their poor start to the game. The result was a disappointing tie and a single point that really staunches Edmonton’s playoff momentum.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so harsh. After getting worked for 50 minutes, the Montons responded well once they went down a goal. Their equalizer was the result of a good bit of pressure and some really shameful ballwatching from the New York defense. But as the game wound down, Edmonton had serious opportunities to take all the points, and given their station in the Woosnam Cup table, they really could’ve used them. Now a full six points behind Carolina, Edmonton will need some help if their late charge is to ultimately result in a postseason berth.
#6. Fort Lauderdale Strikers (8-9-4, 28 points, Down 1)
Fort Lauderale drops a point this week only thanks to the rise of the RailHawks. But in truth, it was a great week for the Strikers. They traveled to Tampa Bay and their bus did not catch on fire.
#7. Tampa Bay Rowdies (7-8-5, 26 points, No Change)
Ditto for the Rowdies, whose pitch was more suited for a slip n’ slide than for soccer on Saturday. The Coastal Cup finale has been rescheduled to October 8th.
In and of itself, that reschedule really hurts the green and gold. They are already scheduled to play a midweek match vs Minnesota the following Wednesday, which means the Rowdies will play five games in two weeks. We’ve frequently mentioned the Rowdies’ game in hand as an advantage, but now it looks like it might just wear them out.
Although given the spooky relationship we noted last week in which the Rowdies and RailHawks achieve opposite results each week, it’s probably best that Tampa did not play in light of Carolina’s victory.
#8. Ottawa Fury (6-11-4, 22 points, No Change)
It certainly hasn’t escaped Ottawa fans that their team has gone head-to-head against Minnesota United on three occasions and come up short by a late goal on all three. The Fury may be a distant eighth on the combined table, with playoff hopes nearly extinguished, but they surely have played better than their record indicates.
On an NASL scale, the Fury’s failings this season have mirrored the global downfall of possession based teams at the hands of fast, counter-attacking sides. While nobody is confusing Ottawa with Barcelona or the Spanish National Team, the Fury have undoubtedly tried to impose a pressing and possessing style upon the league with more determination than other teams. Their repeated losses to Minnesota underscore the upsides and downsides of such an approach. Ottawa gamely worked against their opponents press and returned the favor on defense. The result was a midfield bloodbath that largely ended up in a draw. Ottawa got their points from set pieces (including Richie Ryan’s wicked free kick) while United struck from deep aerial passes. Ultimately the visitors worked their magic one more time than the hosts could muster.
While NASL squads undergo a good deal of turnover from year to year, we would like to see much of this Ottawa team return. Cohesion and trust are the building blocks of a team that plays this style, and the Fury may simply need some time to see it come to fruition. While the front office should certainly not hesitate to shore up problem areas (we’d take a look at adding more clinical forwards and pace in defense) they spine of this team seems solid.
#9. Indy Eleven (3-12-7, 16 points, No Change)
Don’t be fooled, soccer is a cruel game. Exhibit A must be Indy Eleven’s continued futility at home. While the expansion side have won on the road and had occasional moments of good play at home, they have routinely disappointed their faithful. Just about everyone in the league is cheering for Indy to finally break through—except of course when their team visits.
This past weekend, it was the Carolina RailHawks turn to break hearts. The 0-1 result was a fair one on the balance of play, although questions can be asked of the referee, whose discretion did not favor Indy on several occasions. These are the kind of breaks that Eleven fans must surely be frustrated seeing go against them time after time.
This coming week, Indy travels to New York, a team they have drawn twice this season. The Cosmos are in a desperate situation, and the spotlight (for better or worse) will be directly on the home side. Having been completely eliminated from playoff contention this week, perhaps the Eleven will now relish their role as a spoiler. But will Indy fans truly care? At this point in the season, away matches might all be wins but we suspect the BYB might trade them all for a single win to celebrate at home.
Minnesota and San Antonio are the only teams left to visit.
#10. Atlanta Silverbacks (6-12-3, 21 points, No Change)
Last week the Silverbacks made their first appearance in the basement of this ranking and they apparently liked it so much they decided to stay.
How else to explain Atlanta’s comical performance against San Antonio this past weekend, including this absolutely remarkable miss by Alex Harlley? No doubt the Silverbacks have lost whatever will they had to continue.
Is that overly dramatic? The Silverbacks actually played a decent game against the Scorpions. But it felt as much a story of the visitor’s lack of sharpness than anything special that Atlanta did. The Silverbacks have issues from back to front and the talent underneath the surface that once seemed poised to explode has gradually expired. We’re not betting on a resurgence. With their play on the field faltering and their future in question thanks to the coming of MLS, the NASL’s longest oldest club seems destined for a sad exit stage left.
Last week’s rankings: September 22, 2014