NASL Preview: Is Smaller Better in 2017?

IMAGE, MIAMI FC

by JAKE NUTTING

Only eight teams will compete in the seventh season of the North American Soccer League’s modern era. Despite the diminished number, the Division II league will be sticking to a 32-game regular season, which will be split into Spring and Fall Seasons. For the first time, however, the NASL’s season will be split evenly into 16-game competitions.

The league tottered on the brink of extinction in the off-season. It lost Tampa Bay and Ottawa to the USL. Rayo OKC and Fort Lauderdale suspended operations, for now. Minnesota jumped to MLS. The league will run Jacksonville this year. And Bill Peterson was dropped as the league’s commissioner.

Once again the winners of the Spring and Fall titles will earn the top two seeds in the Championship, the league’s four-team postseason tournament. The two teams directly below the spring and fall winners in the Combined Standings will earn the third and fourth postseason seeds. (Snarky observation … in an eight-team league that has the word “Soccer” in its title, more than half cling to an “FC” designation. There’s a similar affectation among teams in Major League SOCCER!)

FC Edmonton

2016: 15W-8D-9L (3rd Spring, 3rd, Fall, 3rd Combined)

Out: Matt Van Oekel, Shamit Shome, Adam Eckersley

In: Dean Shiels, Adam Straith

After seeing the Eddies to the postseason last year for the first time since 2011, Coach Colin Miller is aiming to finish in one of the top two spots in the league.

He will have to do so without one of the keys to Edmonton’s success — goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel has moved on to MLS after a career year in 2016. Chris Konopka, Tyson Farago and Nathan Ingham are all competing to take over from Van Oekel.

A possible wrench in Miller’s plans is on offense — the Eddies scored the fewest goals (25) besides Puerto Rico, which entered the league in the Fall Season. The only forward added to the roster in the off-season was Northern Ireland’s Dean Shiels, who was with Rangers for three recent championships in Scotland’s lower leagues. The Canadian international Ben Fisk, 24, could be poised for a breakout year — the attacking midfielder found his footing quickly and scored twice after joining the Eddies last July.

Indy Eleven

2016: 15W-10D-7L (1st Spring, 2nd Fall, 2nd Combined, lost in Championship final)

Out: Duke Lacroix, Greg Janicki, Dylan Mares

In: Ben Speas, Tanner Thompson

Indy Eleven did well in the off-season to retain the bulk of last year’s team, which lost to the Cosmos in a penalty shootout in the final. Leading scorer Èamon Zayed and back line anchor Colin Falvey are key returnees. Still, losses are inevitable and the departures of attacking midfielders Dylan Mares and Duke Lacroix could diminish Indy’s offensive output. Indy has brought in playmaker Ben Speas and the promising local product Tanner Thompson. Speas started last year in Minnesota with some highlight reel goals until injuries derailed him.

It didn’t take long for Coach Tim Hankinson to win over the supporters in the Circle City. It’s not the first time Hankinson has been in this position. He led the San Antonio Scorpions to the top of the table in their inaugural NASL season only to crash out and be dismissed before the end of the next season. Unlike the situation in San Antonio, Indy’s financial resources have allowed Hankinson to build on a successful 2016 campaign.

Jacksonville Armada FC

2016: 6W-12D-14L (10th Spring, 11th Fall, 11th Combined)

Out: Miguel Gallardo, Tyler Ruthven, Alhassane Keita, Matt Bahner

In: Drew Beckie, Aaron Pitchkolan, Zach Steinberger (on loan last year)

While fans in Jacksonville have their fingers crossed that assurances from Rishi Sehgal, the league’s interim commissioner, that the league is speaking with multiple groups interested in buying the league-run club, there are concerns on the field. The supporters have had a rough go in the club’s two years in existence — five different coaches, a churn in the front office and on the field.

Coach Mark Lowry, who replaced Tony Meola last year, received high marks in his few months in charge. Not all the results went his way, but Lowry’s tactical and personnel adjustments did make Jacksonville a more competitive team.

With limited resources, Jacksonville has turned to NASL journeymen to fill out its roster. The former Ottawa Fury and Carolina RailHawks defender Drew Beckie, and longtime Minnesota United center back Aaron Pitchkolan will join Haitian international Mechack Jérôme on the back line.

Jacksonville is short on forwards, but a number of attacking options in midfield could make up for that. Fan favorites Zach Steinberger and Danny Barrow will provide the engines in the midfield.

Miami FC

2016: 10W-10D-12L (11th Spring, 5th Fall, 7th Combined)

Out: Dario Cvitanich, Pablo Campos, Wilson Palacios

In: Stefano Pinho, Dylan Mares, Tyler Ruthven, Michel

Much of Miami’s success in the latter half of its inaugural season was the result of the team going all out to acquire top talent. So it shouldn’t come as a shock to see the team has done the same in the off-season. Miami signed last year’s MVP candidates Michel (from Rayo OKC) for its midfield, two-time NASL Young Player of the Year candidate Dylan Mares (from Indy), 2015 NASL MVP and Golden Boot winner Stefano Pinho (from Minnesota) to play up top, as well as standout defender Tyler Ruthven (from Jacksonville).

The additions join a Miami roster that already boasted the most dynamic attack and one of the more seasoned defensive units in the league. With Pinho and Michel joining with attackers, such as forward Jaime Chavez and midfielder Kwadwo Poku, the loss of last year’s leading scorer Dario Cvitanich should not be a hardship.

With the type of firepower Miami will field this year, it’s difficult to imagine Miami not making the postseason. The big question is if Coach Alessandro Nesta is up to the task of fulfilling the team’s potential. Nesta was on a steep learning curve last year and it will be interesting to see what he has learned.

New York Cosmos

2016: 20W-5D-7L (2nd Spring, 1st Fall, 1st Combined, Championship final winner)

Out: Juan Arango, Lucky Mkosana, Adam Moffat

In: Eugene Starikov, Amauri, Walter Restrepo, Irvin Herrera, Javi Marquez

It’s no secret that Coach Giovanni Savarese has had a short time to re-form the roster that will defend New York’s second straight championship. He’s succeeded in convincing a number of his regulars to return as the team tries to forge a new path under owner Rocco Commisso. The defense should be in good hand with captain Carlos Mendes, keeper Jimmy Maurer, left back Ayoze and right back Ryan Richter all returning.

The biggest loss for the Cosmos during their turbulent off-season was last year’s league MVP Juan Arango. His 19 goals and 9 assists will be hard to replace, but the Cosmos will look to make up the difference with Italian veteran forward Amauri, Salvadoran international Irvin Herrera and former U.S. youth international Eugene Starikov. Herrera has the best recent track record of the three given his status as one of the best finishers in the USL last year, but past evidence suggests offensive productivity in that league does not automatically translate to the NASL.

Savarese’s midfield has always been a source of strength for the Cosmos, though that could be in question this year. The team is crying out for leaders to take hold of that area of the field after the loss of Arango and Adam Moffat.

North Carolina FC

2016: 11W-7D-14L (7th Spring, 7th Fall, 8th Combined)

Out: Omar Bravo, Simon Mensing, Matt Watson

In: Lance Laing, Matias Reynares, Marcel Kandziora,

The team formerly known as the Carolina RailHawks is hoping that a new name can help it break out of its streak of mediocrity and retake its spot in the NASL’s upper echelon. North Carolina FC hasn’t been particularly active in the off-season. The biggest change was the departure of the Mexican former international Omar Bravo. When healthy, he was a catalyst for Brian Shriver and Matt Fondy, who both struggled with consistency last year.

North Carolina has the potential to be one of the most potent midfields in the league. If left wing Lance Laing can recapture the magic he had for Edmonton two years ago, it might open up opportunities for Tiyi Shipalane, who had an uncharacteristic down year in 2016. Additionally, central playmaker Nazmi Albadawi is coming off a career year that established him as one of the NASL’s best.

A solid, championship-level defense has eluded North Carolina and Coach Colin Clarke for years. This year’s defensive crop has many of the same returning NASL veterans, yet none of them will strike fear into the heart of opposing teams.

Puerto Rico FC

2016: 5W-9D-8L (9th Fall, 12th Combined)

Out: David Meves, Chris Nurse, Ramon Martin Del Campo

In: Walter Ramirez, Yuma, Jordi Quintillà

There weren’t some positives to take away from last season, when Puerto Rico FC entered the league for the Fall Season. The veteran forward Hector Ramos showed he can be a dominant attacker, along with the team’s other option up top in Sidney Rivera. It’s a bit surprising to see that Coach Adrian Whitbread has signed four forwards in the off-season and will carry six at the position.

Former Rayo OKC midfielder Yuma, 31, has been added to offer a stable option in the center of the field for the team in its second year. The La Liga veteran appeared in 18 matches for Rayo OKC last year. Puerto Rico conceded a shocking 31 goals in just 22 matches. The team hasn’t added much experience on the back line, instead recruiting the relatively inexperienced American twosome of Seth Moses and Jake Stovall.

San Francisco Deltas

In: Romuald Peiser, Tommy Heinemann, Nana Attakora, Danny Cruz

Expansion San Francisco, the league’s only addition for 2017, is banking the savvy and experience of Coach Marc Dos Santos, keeper Romuald Peiser and forward Tommy Heinemann. In Ottawa, Dos Santos showed knows how to build a team from the ground up before he moved to the Swope Park Rangers, taking that club to the USL championship final. Peiser last year showed he still has some of the best shot-stopping skills in North America while playing with an inferior defense in front of him. Heinemann, though, wasn’t nearly as fruitful. The attacker failed to match his career year after moving to the Tampa Bay Rowdies and ended up scoring an underwhelming four goals.

Of course, defense also played a huge role in Ottawa taking home the Fall Season title in 2015. Dos Santos started by building out of the back before increasing his aggressiveness in the counter attack later in the fall. Hard-nosed NASL veteran Nana Attakora was recently signed to solidify the back line, joining Brazilian veteran Reiner and former New York Red Bull Karl Ouimette.

Predictions

Spring Season: Miami FC

Fall Season: New York Cosmos

Combined Standings:

1) New York
2) Indy
3) Miami
4) Edmonton
5) Jacksonville
6) San Francisco
7) North Carolina
8) Puerto Rico