NASL Fall Week 1 Preview: Playoff Push Turns From Sprint to Marathon

IMAGE, MINNESOTA UNITED FC

by JAKE NUTTING
NASL Beat Writer

Now that the 10-game Spring dash is in the rear view mirror, all eleven NASL teams are turning their focus squarely on the more extensive Fall Season.

Everyone will face off twice in the Fall, so their will be a home and away fixture for each pair of teams, which will provide a better balanced competition format compared to the Spring.

The New York Cosmos went unbeaten in the Spring Season to secure the title and first of two home playoff seeds. Now they have the unusual task of staying motivated for the bulk of the 2015 season. The Atlanta Silverbacks infamously dropped off and never regained their form after winning the 2013 Spring title. Minnesota managed things a bit better after taking the Spring title last year, finishing second in the Fall standings.

The fact remains, though, that a Spring title winner has still not taken home the ultimate prize of the Soccer Bowl.

Nipping at New York’s heels on the combined points table are the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who surged late to finish only one point behind the Cosmos. Truthfully, though, the entire playoff field is wide open to any of the teams. Only six points separate last place Atlanta from the final playoff spot. An epidemic of draws in the Spring Season has given a glimmer of hope to all teams that playoff qualification is still possible even if they do not win the Fall Season. After the Spring and Fall winners, the teams with the next two best overall records receive the final playoff spots.

Carolina RailHawks vs. Minnesota United FC, Saturday 5 p.m. ET

Carolina finished tied on 14 points at the end of the Spring Season, but the perception surrounding each team’s direction could not be more different. As one of the NASL teams that operate on limited resources, the RailHawks were a surprise contender that fought through a string of injuries in all areas of the field to finish in the top four. Minnesota, on the other hand, are somewhat of a disappointment after two of their high-profile signings Ibson and Jonny Steele failed to make an impact.

Minnesota’s task only gets tougher heading into the Fall as the club has lost attacking midfielder Miguel Ibarra to transfer. The Loons need to fill the hole left by Ibarra on the left wing quickly. Ibarra was the seed for much of the club’s dangerous attacks and provided a few assists to forward Pablo Campos. A new signing or the reemergence of last year’s Golden Boot Winner Christian Ramirez would help the Loons out tremendously going forward.

Meanwhile, Carolina reacquired stalwart keeper Akira Fitzgerald on a permanent earlier this week in preparation of the Fall campaign. The longtime RailHawk was on loan from New York City FC for the final weeks of the Spring Season and did not look like he had lost a beat. The signing is sure to make Carolina an even stronger competitor for a playoff spot.

Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Minnesota United FC, Saturday 6 p.m. ET

It was only less than a month ago that the Rowdies were putting a beating on the Silverbacks in St. Petersburg. It was the end of a three-game losing streak in league action from Atlanta to close out the Spring Season.

Both teams will be without players who are away on Gold Cup duty to start off the Fall Season. Rowdies’ midfielder Richard Menjivar is with the Salvadoran national team and Atlanta’s keeper Steward Ceus is with Haiti. Fortunately for the Rowdies, Menjivar wasn’t even needed for their 3-0 drubbing of Atlanta three weeks ago.

Ceus will be replaced by rookie C.J. Cochran, but the 23-year-old already has some valuable experience in the league. He started in Atlanta’s first three games while Ceus was recovering from knee surgery, allowed only three goals, helped the team earn a win in the U.S. Open Cup as well as their only league win so far this year.

Ottawa Fury FC vs. Jacksonville Armada FC, Sunday 3 p.m. ET   

Gold Cup call ups will also have an effect on Sunday’s matinee in the Canadian capital. Ottawa’s captain Julian de Guzman is away with Canada and Jacksonville attacker Pascal Millien is one of several Haitian call ups from the NASL. Both players have their virtues, but the loss of Millien is potentially the bigger absence. The attacker was on a terrific run of form in the final stretch of matches in the Spring and finished as the club’s leading scorer with four goals.

Ottawa made a move to resuscitate its impotent attack by acquiring veteran forward Aly Hassan from Fort Lauderdale, but he will not be available to play until after July 8. So, the Fury will once again rely on its defense to keep them in the match. The Fury defense, anchored by June’s NASL Player of the Month Romuald Peiser in net, is in the midst of a five-game shutout run.

The matchup between the physical and disciplined Ottawa side and speedy Armada attackers has potential to be a fun one for neutrals to watch. Peiser will likely need to work hard to keep the record shutout run going into the Fall.

FC Edmonton vs. San Antonio Scorpions, Sunday 4 p.m. ET

Edmonton had one of the worst drop offs of the back half of the Spring Season — and things are not looking up yet for the Eddies. According to head coach Colin Miller, winger Sainey Nyassi, forwards Tomi Ameobi and Frank Jonke, new signee Thiago de Freitas and midfielder Ritchie Jones are all working their way back from injury. Additionally, new midfielder Pablo Cruz is unavailable until after July 8 and Lance Laing will likely be gone for Gold Cup duty.

The Scorpions will be chomping at the bit to get another shot at the porous Edmonton defense that allowed 22 goals in the 10-game Spring Season. When the team’s last met, San Antonio’s Billy Forbes notched a brace and the league’s leading scorer Omar Cummings netted the game winning goal for San Antonio.

The prospect of lining up against Cummings and a potent San Antonio counter attack while missing much of your own firepower from Nyassi and Laing seems like a daunting task for the Eddies to say the least.

New York Cosmos vs. Indy Eleven, Sunday 7 p.m. ET

The New York Cosmos U.S. Open Cup run may have ended in deflating fashion against the New York Red Bulls earlier this week, but the club still has an opportunity to achieve something they never have before — albeit on a much smaller scale.

The Cosmos can get the monkey off their back as they face the notoriously frustrating Indy Eleven this weekend. In four previous meetings, New York and Indy have ended in stalemates. In this year’s Spring Season, it took Raul’s first competitive goal for the Cosmos to nab a 1-1 result.

A likely cause for the streak of draws is the solid goalkeeping the two sides have had both last year and this year. Indy keeper Kristian Nicht conceded only eight goals in his eight starts and Cosmos keeper Jimmy Maurer allowed nine goals while starting every match of the Spring Season.

  • Kevin

    Hey Dave any truth to the reports that Hartford might now also be joining the NASL? if nothing else it could give the cosmos a more regional rivalry.