Preview: NASL Championship Semifinal

Tommy Heinemann and the San Francisco Deltas are aiming for a spectacular rally in their last two matches to best Miami FC for the spring title. Image, NASL

nasl logoSunday brings the semifinal round of this year’s North American Soccer League postseason with games on both coasts. The odds are on a new team taking home the title as three of the four teams competing in The Championship, the league’s two-round postseason tournament, are doing so for the first time.

In only its second year of existence, Miami FC enters the postseason as the top seed, with the spring and fall titles secured, as well as numerous regular-season records. Under the stewardship of Coach Marc Dos Santos, the second-seeded San Francisco Deltas hope to become the first expansion side to capture the title since 2013. Although No. 3 seed North Carolina FC is a founding member of the league and Coach Colin Clarke has the most wins of any Modern Era NASL coach, the team has not tasted postseason action since 2012.

The most experienced postseason contender is the New York Cosmos, who are attempting to secure their third straight league title and their fourth in five seasons. This time, however, the Cosmos will have do it all on the road as the bottom seed.

Miami FC vs. New York Cosmos

New York’s attack found a nice groove in the final weeks of the season, notching 13 goals in its last three matches to secure the fourth seed. Coach Giovanni Savarese‘s side, however, will have to resolve its defensive woes if it intends to advance past Miami this weekend. Only Indy Eleven conceded more goals than the Cosmos, who allowed 51 this year. Nine of those concessions were to Miami, which has an embarrassment of riches in the attack. Jamie Chávez, Stefano Pinho, Kwadwo Poku and Vincenzo Rennella have all shown they’re capable of singlehandedly propelling Miami to a win.

Even with leading scorer Emmanuel Ledesma entering the postseason red hot with a hat trick last week and NASL Player of the Month honors, the Cosmos are unlikely to come away as winners if the match turns into a shootout given Miami’s depth. They’re best hope of victory would be to replicate their 2-0 win on April 8 (coincidentally, the only other teams to blank Miami are San Francisco and North Carolina). Even that impressive win in Miami, though, comes with an asterisk because took an outstanding eight-save shift from Jimmy Maurer to keep the shutout intact. Miami is bound to get its scoring chances on Sunday. The Cosmos must avoid self-inflicted wounds to keep them at a minimum.

The Match: Sunday, 5 p.m. Eastern; Riccardo Silva Stadium; beIN Sports/beIN Sport Connect (online)

San Francisco Deltas vs. North Carolina FC

Dos Santos is battling for a unique achievement this Sunday. A win for his San Francisco Deltas would place him in a league final for the third straight time with three different teams. Having lost in the NASL final with Ottawa in 2015 and the USL Cup final with Swope Park Rangers last year, Dos Santos is hoping this finally will be his year.

Standing in the way of a third finals appearance, though, is a North Carolina side that was not that far off San Francisco’s pace in the regular season. North Carolina outscored San Francisco  (46-41) and the expansion side only just edged North Carolina in goals allowed (35-37). The biggest difference between the two semifinal opponents was in the wins column, where San Francisco recorded 14 compared to North Carolina’s 11. San Francisco took the season series with two wins and two draws, but both of those wins were back in the Spring Season. Their last meeting on Oct. 21 ended 1-1 in North Carolina.

Dos Santos is once again riding Romuald Peiser and Tommy Heinemann into the postseason. The former Ottawa keeper is second in the NASL with 12 shutouts, while Heinemann leads San Francisco with 9 goals and should be fresh after sitting out the season finale for precautionary reasons. An interesting question for North Carolina is whether Clarke decides to start Lance Laing or bring him off the bench. Despite falling out of favor in the Fall Season, Laing still leads the team with eight goals and five assists. As a substitute last week, the winger contributed a last-minute assist to clinch the third seed. On the surface, a starting lineup with Laing and playmaker Nazmi Albadawi, who is second in the NASL with 56 scoring chances created, would seem to be a no-brainer. With Peiser in net, North Carolina should aim to get as a many chances on target as possible.

Match info: Sunday, 8 p.m. Eastern; Kezar Stadium; beIN Sport/beIN Sports Connect (online)