NASL Fall Final Week Preview: Photo Finish for Top Seed, Final Playoff Spot

IMAGE, MATT MAY/TAMPA BAY ROWDIES

by JAKE NUTTING

This is it. There are no more second chances after this weekend. After one of the most unpredictable and tight playoff races in the short of history of the modern NASL, only the Tampa Bay Rowdies (20 pts Fall, 39 pts Combined) and Fort Lauderdale Strikers (27, 38) are in contention for the fourth and final playoff spot. Win, lose or draw, one of those clubs will earn the coveted spot and take their chances in The Championship, the NASL’s single elimination  postseason tournament.

The Rowdies hold the edge heading into the weekend thanks to a one point lead over their intrastate rivals. A win on Saturday night guarantees them a postseason berth regardless of how things shake out for the Strikers on Sunday in Jacksonville. A loss or tie on the other hand leaves the door wide open for the Strikers to slide into that final spot. Fort Lauderdale’s considerable lead in goal differential gives them the advantage in any tiebreaker scenario.

To best their rival in the standings race, the Rowdies will need to outperform another historic rival with plenty on the line. The New York Cosmos (33, 53) will host the Rowdies on Halloween for the crucial match, with a chance to swoop in and steal the top playoff seed for themselves on the final weekend. A win from Ottawa Fury FC (44, 55) in Atlanta would dash any hopes of New York taking the top spot, but a loss or draw for the Fall Season champions would leave the Cosmos with a strong opportunity to take home field advantage.

Carolina RailHawks vs. Indy Eleven, Friday 7:30 p.m. ET

After being officially eliminated from playoff contention last weekend in Tampa Bay, this week’s motivation for the RailHawks is solely about salvaging as much dignity as they can while closing out the year in front of their loyal home crowd. In three previous seasons under head coach Colin Clarke, Carolina has never finished lower than fifth in the overall table. A fifth-place finish is already out of reach, but the club can reach sixth through winning on Friday by a three-goal difference to surpass Edmonton.

Indy is concerned about pride as well in their finale. The club has surprisingly knocked off Minnesota and Fort Lauderdale since being eliminated from the postseason. After finishing their inaugural season ninth in the combined standings, Indy can secure sixth-place with a win over Carolina. A three-game winning streak to close out the season could also go a long way toward Interim Coach Tim Regan earning the full time position next year.

Atlanta Silverbacks vs. Ottawa Fury FC, Saturday 4 p.m. ET

Ottawa will be without a key cog for Saturday’s pivotal match as head coach Marc dos Santos stated earlier this week that star keeper Romuald Peiser will sit out the regular season finale. The off week guarantees Peiser the NASL Golden Glove award, but it raises some questions about Ottawa’s ability to clinch the top seed outright before the Cosmos even kick off their match. Back up keeper Marcel DeBellis is set to make his NASL debut after riding the bench for the past two years. The 24-year-old netminder shouldn’t be too rattled heading into the match, though, with one of the most consistent defenses lining up in front of him and an attack that has scored multiple goals in five of their last seven. The Fall Season champions have also not dropped a road match since May.

The Fury will be putting their stellar road form against an Atlanta Silverbacks side that is winless in its last five. The Silverbacks will have an even more serious pall over them on Saturday as the match could very well be their final one in the NASL. The long term future of the league-operated franchise is in doubt after no suitable investors stepped up to save it this year.

New York Cosmos vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies, Saturday 7 p.m. ET

This weekend’s Halloween night showdown at Shuart Stadium is likely the most high stakes bout between the Cosmos and Rowdies in the modern era. New York’s hopes for the top seed depends upon how Ottawa fares in their afternoon match, but the Rowdies will be pushing for a win no matter what in order punch their playoff ticket themselves.

New York took the first match 2-0 in week three of the Spring Season, and the Rowdies responded with a convincing win by the same scoreline in August. A lack of consistent results has been the major hindrance to the Rowdies in a turbulent Fall Season. While the Cosmos have taken three points in three straight matches, the Rowdies have yet to win back-to-back games in the back half of the year. Tampa Bay will also need to overcome New York’s artificial turf after being plagued by the surface all year long, which has caused them to go winless on the road since the opening week of the season.

The midfield could likely be where this match is decided. Future retirees Raul and Marcos Senna outclassed Tampa Bay’s midfield in the Spring Season, but the Rowdies have made positive strides in that area since Head Coach Stuart Campbell took over. Midfield pillars Marcelo Saragosa and Juan Guerra have been struggling with injuries, though Richard Menjivar and Justin Chavez have shown well in recent weeks.

Minnesota United FC vs. San Antonio Scorpions, Saturday 8 p.m. ET

Minnesota will be looking to put on a show for their home supporters in what will, in all likelihood, be their final match in the Twin Cities this year.

The Loons would need to prevail in their semifinal match and have the fourth seed upset the top seed in the other semifinal leg to host the Soccer Bowl final. Minnesota’s 52 goals this year is a new NASL single-season record, so the home crowd has decent shot at seeing some fireworks on Saturday. Coincidentally, the Loons will be facing off against the leakiest defense in the league in San Antonio. Last year’s Soccer Bowl winners have allowed 50 goals this year and sit dead last in the combined standings. A win this weekend is their best shot at avoiding the dubious honor of going from first to worst.

Jacksonville Armada FC vs. Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Sunday 4 p.m. ET

This is not the position that Fort Lauderdale wanted to find themselves in for their final match. On the one hand, the Strikers already wrapped up the Coastal Cup weeks ago, but they could still end up losing lose out on the final playoff spot to their instate rival Tampa Bay Rowdies. The South Florida side needs to hope the Rowdies falter in their match somehow to even have a shot at the postseason. The Strikers have been hampered by the absence of attacker PC in their previous two matches. A return from the NASL Young Player of the Year Candidate would drastically increase their chances of a playoff berth. One of the few positives for the Strikers is they’ve beaten Jacksonville twice already this season. To their credit, though, the Armada have been a tough nut to crack at home in their inaugural year, losing only two matches thus far. The nascent club will no doubt aim to keep that excellent form in front of a raucous home crowd in the finale.