NASL Week 9 Preview: USOC a Factor as Spring race tightens

Kevin Venegas - Minnesota United FC

by JAKE NUTTING

Teams across the North American Soccer League will be facing tough decisions in week nine. Competition in the Spring Season is as fierce as ever, but every team in contention for the title must divert at least some of its focus over the next week to the U.S. Open Cup.

U.S.-based NASL teams enter the 2016 edition of the cup next week, facing off against a mixture of teams from the USL and PDL. Most teams in the league speak highly of the value of the single-elimination competition that potentially offers them the opportunity to showcase their quality against teams from Major League Soccer.

With Open Cup matches scheduled for Wednesday, though, the depth of many NASL teams will be put to the test. Some teams with slim odds of capturing the spring crown may elect to take their foot off the gas this weekend and focus their energy on the Open Cup during the week. That’s not an option for teams like the New York Cosmos, Minnesota United, Indy Eleven or Carolina RailHawks, who are all vying for the coveted home playoff spot that comes with the spring title.

Ottawa Fury FC host Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Friday May 27, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN3)

Thanks to a late goal in each of their last two outings from Canadian international Marcel de Jong, Ottawa has been able to extend their positive run at home over the last month. Following a dramatic 2-2 draw with Minnesota, Ottawa knocked off Jacksonville outright with a 1-0 result last week.

Ottawa’s opposition appears to be much more formidable this week. Fort Lauderdale has taken seven of their last nine available points. Attacking midfielder Ramon Nunez has shown himself to be a tremendous addition to the roster after signing a month ago. After appearing in only five of Fort Lauderdale’s seven matches, Nunez already leads the team with 12 scoring chances created. Nunez also picked up NASL Player of the Week honors from the team’s win at Rayo OKC last week.

Jacksonville Armada FC host Indy Eleven, Saturday May 28, 7 p.m. ET (ONE World Sports)

The wheels have come off for the first-time under head coach Tony Meola and Jacksonville in the spring. The second-year club has been held scoreless in four straight losses and has failed to show any signs of life in that stretch. Jacksonville’s lone win of the year came against expansion side Miami FC, the only team lower than them on the table.

Indy head to Florida as the only unbeaten team left in the NASL, with the confidence that comes with dispatching a lethal Minnesota side in a decisive 4-2 result. Last week’s offensive explosion appears to be an outlier as Indy was only averaging one goal per match in its first six outings. Forward Eamon Zayed has picked up a respectable three goals, but the defense has largely kept the team afloat as the attack has struggled with consistency.

New York Cosmos host Rayo OKC, Saturday May 28, 7 p.m. ET (ONE World Sports)

Cosmos head coach Gio Savarese selected a roster mostly lacking in regular starters for the team’s friendly with La Liga’s SD Eibar in Las Vegas on Wednesday, so fatigue shouldn’t play too much of a factor in their first Saturday night home match of the year. Forward Yasmani Duk has departed to play for Bolivia in the Copa America Centario in June, but veteran Jairo Arrieta should be crisp and ready to go after sitting out the team’s last league match and only picking up minutes in the second half of the Eibar friendly.

Saturday’s encounter at Shuart Stadium will be a battle between an immovable home team and an unbeatable road side. The Cosmos have picked up every point in all four home matches, while the NASL newcomers have notched two wins and a draw in all three of their road matches. Rayo OKC fields the league’s leading scorer in midfielder Michel (5), but has questions at the forward position. Greek veteran Georgios Samaras is reportedly up for sale after struggling to make an impact and the team released MLS veteran Ryan Johnson on Thursday.

Minnesota United FC host Tampa Bay Rowdies, Saturday May 28, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN3)

After last week’s letdown in Indy, the Loons cannot afford to drop points at home if they hope to stay relevant in the tight spring race. Fortunately, the Loons have won all three of their home fixtures this season. Playmaker Ben Speas is questionable again thanks to his ankle injury, but the team has inked former Nottingham Forest defensive midfielder Jack Blake to hopefully help plug some of holes that led to them conceding four goals last week. The Loons will be without captain Justin Davis for sure after the left back picked up two yellow cards against Indy.

The Rowdies will feel miffed after having a valid equalizer called off at New York last week, but they must quickly shift focus to stymieing Minnesota’s attack. Apart from a momentary lapse late in the second half, the Rowdies did a fine job shutting down the Cosmos attack. Tampa Bay may be without a main piece of its own attack. Forward Tommy Heinemann was forced out last week with an upper leg injury and his status is unknown heading into the weekend.

Miami FC host FC Edmonton, Saturday May 28, 8 p.m. ET (beIN Sports)

No one will accuse Miami of being content with its position as the only winless team in the NASL. The expansion side has splashed some serious cash to bring in top performers Riche Ryan and Michael Lahoud from Jacksonville and New York respectively. The two holding midfielders will need to adjust on the fly, as they’ll be thrown in and asked to improve the squad as leaders immediately.

After winning three straight league matches, the Eddies are alone in second in the Spring Season title race, only one point off the Cosmos in first. Head coach Colin Miller has once again put together a defensively organized side, but one that also appears to be slowly gaining momentum in the attack.