Breaking Down the Melee for the Final NASL Playoff Spot

IMAGE, ROB KINNAN/CAROLINA RAILHAWKS

by JAKE NUTTING

Narrow 1-0 victories by Rayo OKC and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on Wednesday night have added even more intrigue to what was already promising to be an exciting race to find out which team will join the New York Cosmos, Indy Eleven and FC Edmonton in The Championship.

Only three weekends of action remain in the NASL’s Fall Season, and it looks as if every one will be necessary as six teams are currently embroiled in a fight to claim the fourth spot. A mere three points separate the current fourth-place Minnesota United FC from ninth-place Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

Minnesota United FC, 38 pts Combined

  • Home Record: 9W-1D-4L, Away Record: 1W-7D-7L
  • Goal Differential:+4
  • Last Five: L, L, L, D, D
  • Remaining Matches (3): host Edmonton, at Carolina, host New York

Minnesota’s struggles are probably the biggest reason why almost half the league is in an all out melee for the fourth playoff spot. The final spot appeared to be Minnesota’s for the taking just over a month ago, but the club has had tremendous difficulty finding a three-point result. With just one win taken in their last nine outings, the Loons are now level on points with Rayo OKC in the standings.

Fortunately, their high scoring volume has given them an edge in goal differential over Rayo OKC and every other team looking to leapfrog them in the standings. Their +4 goal differential could come in handy if this year’s tight playoff race comes down to a tiebreaker. That positive differential could be in danger, though, if leading scorer Christian Ramirez’s ankle injury keeps him on the sideline. The team has listed the forward as day-to-day after he missed last week’s scoreless draw in Puerto Rico.

While the Loons only have three matches left on their docket, they do benefit from having two of them at home. Those home matches do come against the top two teams in the standings, though. Edmonton could be hoping to take one last stab at grabbing the top spot this Saturday, while the Cosmos may or may not be looking to lock up the top seed in the season finale.

Rayo OKC, 38 pts Combined

  • Home Record: 4W-6D-6L, Away Record: 5W-5D-5L
  • Goal Differential: +1
  • Last Five: D, D, D, W, W
  • Remaining Matches (3): host Ottawa, at Fort Lauderdale, host Indy

Arguably the hottest team in the postseason race, Rayo OKC made a significant move up the standings with a pair of 1-0 road wins over Miami and Carolina in the last week. The versatile Brazilian Michel has come through with four goals — three from the penalty spot — in the last five matches to help his side go unbeaten in seven straight at a critical point in the season. Along with placing his team in the thick of the playoff chase, Michel’s recent productivity has leveled him with Juan Arango for third most goals in the league (12).

While Edmonton’s netminder Matt Van Oekel has taken much of the spotlight this year, Daniel Fernandes’ quiet sturdiness in net has also helped put Rayo OKC in their current advantageous position. Fernandes is third in the league with 89 saves and has eight shutouts under his belt, three of which have been posted during the team’s current unbeaten streak.

Rayo OKC may only have three games remaining, but two of those fixtures are matchups with teams below them in the standings — Ottawa and Fort Lauderdale. On top of that, their season finale against Indy very well could see the Spring Season champions rest players in preparation for the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Rowdies, 37 pts Combined

  • Home Record: 6W-6D-2L, Away Record: 3W-4D-7L
  • Goal Differential: +1
  • Last Five: W, W, D, D, L
  • Remaining Matches (4): at Miami, host Indy, host Ottawa, at Jacksonville

Tampa Bay looked poised to take hold of the fourth spot as they headed into last week with a three-match winning streak, but after taking just two points from three matches, they remain stuck in the trenches with a host of others. Even after squandering last week’s opportunity, though, the Rowdies still hold an edge as one of just two teams with four matches left. Apart from having a game in hand on most of the competition, the Rowdies also won’t have to worry about any more long road trips as all of their remaining matches will be played in the Sunshine State.

Scoring consistently has been a nagging issue for the technically sound Rowdies throughout the year. Joe Cole has been an undeniable positive influence since joining in May, but the team still struggles to put away the many scoring chances he helps create. On a promising note, four of Georgi Hristov’s team-leading nine goals have come in the last few weeks. However, three of Hristov’s tallies came in a single match.

Friday’s primetime showdown with Miami and next Wednesday’s meeting with Indy look to be the toughest challenges remaining for the Rowdies. Obtaining positive results in those matches would not only likely put them in a solid position on the table, it would also give the team a momentum boost for the final two matches.

Carolina RailHawks, 37 pts Combined

  • Home Record: 7W-5D-3L, Away Record: 3W-2D-9L
  • Goal Differential: -9
  • Last Five: W, L, D, W, W, L
  • Remaining Matches (3): at Indy, host Minnesota, at Puerto Rico

Wednesday’s late loss to Rayo OKC at home is a definite heartbreaker for the RailHawks, who now face a tough stretch to close out the season. First they must travel to Indy where the Spring Season champions have not dropped a match all year, then they host a Minnesota side that will also be desperate for all three points before ultimately closing out on the road against the streaking Puerto Rico FC.

The biggest hindrance to the RailHawks in the scrum to finish fourth is their abysmal -9 goal differential. This number means they must push to win the playoff spot outright given they would surely lose any potential tiebreaker.

Carolina’s attacking firepower could also be in question for their final three matches. Nazmi Albadawi recently set a new modern era record with 10 assists this year, but his dangerous passes have a better chance at going into the net if Omar Bravo is on the field. The veteran forward has missed the last two matches with a thigh injury.

Miami FC, 37 pts Combined

  • Home Record: 5W-3D-6L, Away Record: 4W-6D-4L
  • Goal Differential: 0
  • Last Five: L, L, W, D, L
  • Remaining Matches (4): host Tampa Bay, at Jacksonville, at New York, host Edmonton

As the only team on this list with a mathematical shot at surpassing the Cosmos for the Fall Season crown, Miami should have some extra motivation to string together wins in their final four matches. Winning will be difficult if the team’s two most formidable attackers, Dario Cvitanich and Kwadwo Poku continue their cold streaks. Cvitanich has not bagged a goal in five matches, while Poku has gone without a goal in seven straight.

Keeper Daniel Vega’s part in Miami’s rise up the table during the fall should not be overlooked. Vega leads the NASL with 96 saves and has nine clean sheets to his name. A steady presence in net could prove to be the difference for a team in a playoff race as close as this one.

It might seem as if Miami has the upper hand as hosts of their vital match with the Rowdies, but the expansion side actually has the most losses at home this year. It’s safe to say that Friday’s encounter with the Rowdies is the most important home match the young club has faced so far.

Fort Lauderdale Strikers, 35 pts Combined

  • Home Record: 5W-6D-3L, Away Record: 4W-2D-9L
  • Goal Differential: -10
  • Last Five: L, L, L, L, W
  • Remaining Matches (3): host Puerto Rico, host Rayo OKC, at Ottawa

Proving just how unpredictable this year’s playoff race, Fort Lauderdale is somehow still alive and kicking despite recently going on a four-game losing streak in which they were outscored 11-2. The Strikers took full advantage of a rotation squad from Edmonton on Wednesday and found an early winner in the opening minutes to climb right back into the fray.

They have a chance to build on that momentum with two straight home matches, but their opposition in each match should be fierce. While already eliminated from playoff contention, Puerto Rico is possible the hottest team in the league at the moment. Their other opponent, Rayo OKC, has also proven to be one of the best road teams in the NASL. While they have newfound hope with the Edmonton win, having just three matches left means the Strikers likely have the smallest margin of error of any of the teams chasing the fourth spot.