NASL Spring Season Week 1 Preview: Debuts for Rebuilt Rosters Across the League

IMAGE, NASL.COM

by JAKE NUTTING
NASL Beat Writer

The 2015 NASL season is finally here.

Once again the season will be split into Spring and Fall competitions to determine the top two seeds in the playoffs. The two teams directly below the Spring and Fall champions on the combined points table also qualify for the postseason. New York, Minnesota, and Edmonton are returning the most intact rosters while others have totally rebuilt — either by choice or necessity. The league is only adding one expansion team this year but that market appears ready to follow the excellent examples set by Indy and Ottawa in 2014. The only team not in action for opening week is Minnesota United, who get a bye week right out of the gate.

Jacksonville Armada vs. FC Edmonton, Saturday 7:30 p.m. ET

Jacksonville is poised to kick off its inaugural season in style by breaking the modern NASL’s single game attendance record of 14,593 set by Ottawa Fury FC last year. They host Edmonton, who were one of the hottest teams in the league by the end of the Fall Season. Eddies winger Lance Laing will need to build upon his breakout 2015 performance if the team has any chance of making the playoffs. Under head coach Colin Miller, the Eddies have always been one of the toughest defenses to break down and that shouldn’t change this year. Jacksonville will look to forward Keita and midfielder Marcos Flores to get the job done. Keita had a terrific start to the preseason but had to miss much of camp for international duty. Flores was highly touted but has yet to show the flare that earned him A-League Foreign Player of the Year in 2011.

San Antonio Scorpions vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies, Saturday 8:30 p.m. ET

Last year’s Soccer Bowl champions San Antonio Scorpions and the totally retooled Tampa Bay Rowdies had very different approaches to the preseason. The Rowdies played 11 matches in the preseason – the most of any team in the league – while the Scorpions only played 3.With 26 players, the Rowdies have the largest roster in the league while the Scorpion have one of the smallest with only 19. New Rowdies Head Coach Thomas Rongen will be the first to say that you shouldn’t put too much stock into the preseason. The match up should be an entertaining one, with both coaches as proponents of proactive attacking styles. San Antonio conceded the fewest goals in the Fall Season but that will be tough to achieve after losing Greg Janicki and giving new defenders Nana Attakora and Eduar Zea so little time to gel. However, the Scorpions do have the Soccer Bowl MVP Rafael Castillo and NASL assist leader Billy Forbes returning to ignite the midfield attack. The Rowdies have a new midfield general, Brazilian Marcelo Saragosa, who will be tasked with shielding the revamped back line. Last year’s leading goal scorer Georgi Hristov is shifting to a midfield role to feed new forward Maicon Santos.

Fort Lauderdale Strikers vs. New York Cosmos, Saturday 7:30 p.m. ET

The newest star to the Cosmos family, Raúl will make his league debut on the road against fellow NASL heritage club the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. At 37, the way Raúl is utilized and how many minutes he gets will be key to watch all season. At the moment, expectations from fans are high that his presence will spark an improvement to the Cosmos attack that includes Mads Stokkelien and newcomer Haji Wright. In defense, the Cosmos have been a bit snake bit by injuries throughout the preseason. For the Strikers match, they will be without defenders Samuel Cáceres and Hunter Freeman. Unfortunately for New York, the Strikers attack looks more than capable of exploiting any defensive vulnerabilities. The new Brazilian owners have secured the return of underrated forward Aly Alberto Hassan and brought in Stefano Pinho on loan from Fluminense. Pinho, 24, had four goals in the preseason. Feeding them the ball will be longtime Flamengo captain Leo Moura who is shifting from left back to a creative role in midfield.

Atlanta Silverbacks vs. Indy Eleven, Saturday 7:30 p.m. ET

 Arguably no coach has had a more difficult task than Gary Smith has had completely rebuilding Atlanta. After finishing dead last in the combined points table in 2014, fans got even worse news that the NASL would have to take over operations of the club to keep it afloat. With severely limited financial resources, Smith – who won a MLS Cup with the Colorado Rapids in 2010 – has managed to piece together a promising roster. He first secured the return of two key contributors, forwards Matt Horth and Jaime Chavez. Former NASL Best XI forward Hans Denissen was even convinced to sign up. After an injury plagued season with New York, Smith envisions Denissen switching to a playmaking role in the midfield. After finishing on a five game unbeaten streak, Indy Eleven elected to return two-thirds of their roster, including a season long loan for forward Charlie Rugg from LA Galaxy. The youngster showed well in his short loan with the club last year. To tighten up a back line that lacked composure throughout 2014, Indy brought in San Antonio veteran center back Greg Janicki.

Carolina Railhawks vs. Ottawa Fury, Saturday 1 p.m. ET

Carolina will be relying heavily on experience to carry them through the new season. The Railhawks hope that 31-year-old center back Futty Danso is remedy for their perpetually leaky defense. Up top, the only scoring threat is 36-year-old Nacho Novo who joined the team late last season. Head coach Colin Clarke has always managed to make the most of limited resources, but with increased spending across the league, that task has gotten tougher. Heading into their second year in NASL, Ottawa are also looking for answers up top. No forwards established themselves for the club in 2014 and the club elected to focus on solidifying the midfield and defense in the offseason. For the back line, they pulled in players with experience in North America’s lower leagues like Mike Randolph and Colin Falvey. The biggest signing, though, was Canadian national team captain Julian de Guzman. As the shepherd in midfield, de Guzman will provide the leadership that was lacking last year.