NASL Fall Week 17 Preview: Pair of Wednesday Matches Could Bring Playoff Picture into Focus

IMAGE, NASL.COM

by JAKE NUTTING

All eyes will be focused squarely on the Sunshine State on Wednesday night as two matches will take place that could make the playoff picture much clearer before the weekend even starts.

Ottawa Fury FC (41 pts Fall, 52 pts Combined) needs only a point in Jacksonville to lock up the Fall Season title. An outright Fury win would move them even closer to the ultimate prize of home field advantage in the playoffs. Three points for Ottawa on Wednesday would pressure the New York Cosmos (30, 50) to win their match on Saturday just to stay relevant in the chase. In the event of a Fury win and a Cosmos loss, the Canadian side would clinch the top playoff seed.

Meanwhile, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (26, 37) can do a little house cleaning for the NASL and eliminate nearly half the field if they take down San Antonio on Wednesday. A simple draw would eliminate San Antonio and FC Edmonton from the hunt for the last playoff spot, and it would put Jacksonville Armada FC, the Carolina RailHawks, and the Atlanta Silverbacks on even thinner ice. A full three points for the Strikers would eliminate everyone but the Tampa Bay Rowdies (17, 36). Tampa Bay would be forced to win out and hope for a Fort Lauderdale stumble on the way to the regular season finish line.

Fort Lauderdale Strikers vs. San Antonio Scorpions, Wednesday 7:30 p.m. ET

The Strikers will be hoping to take advantage of their final home game of the season. After drubbing Carolina 4-0 over the weekend, the Strikers can put some serious distance between themselves and the Rowdies on the combined table with another three points. The productive Strikers attack did its job in the last match, but the defense was also buoyed by the return of centerback Jordan Graye from injury. Saturday’s result was the club’s fourth clean sheet of the Fall Season and fifth overall.

The Scorpions limp into South Florida with not only the weight of their entire season on the line, but the weight of nearly half the league. Only a win will do for San Antonio, who have been unable to defeat the Strikers in two previous tries at home this season (1D-1L). If the eleventh-place Scorpions do pull off the upset, though, they will somehow remain in the playoff chase, showing just how unpredictable this year in the NASL has been.

Jacksonville Armada FC vs. Ottawa Fury FC, Wednesday 7:30 p.m. ET

Jacksonville has been close to invincible at home in its first year of action, posting only one loss so far. Even the league leading Ottawa Fury were forced to settle for a scoreless draw late in the Spring Season. Notably, Ottawa keeper Romuald Peiser was called upon to make 10 saves to rescue the point in that match.

Luckily for the Fury, all they need to clinch the Fall Season crown is one point. A draw secures the Fall title, but with only a slim lead over the Cosmos for the top playoff seed, an outright win will likely be the ultimate goal on Wednesday. The Fury have been an unstoppable force on the road this year, winning six of their last seven away from home. Ottawa’s last road loss came all the way back on May 2nd against New York.

The Armada’s impressive home form will be put to the test by the absence of leading scorer Alhassane Keita and midfielder Lucas Scaglia due to suspension. It took some second half heroics from substitute attacker Akeil Barrett to pull off Saturday’s comeback over Edmonton. Given the bevy of attacking talent that Jacksonville possesses, expect Ottawa to stick to the gameplan of absorbing pressure and pouncing on the counter attack.

Indy Eleven vs. Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Saturday 7:30 p.m. ET

Despite dominating the playoff bound Minnesota United in nearly every phase of last week’s match, Indy Eleven still found themselves the first odd team out in the league playoff race. NASL Young Player of the Year candidate Dylan Mares scored the opening goal in that victory and has been dynamite for Indy since returning from the injury that kept him out of the lineup for a big chunk of the Fall Season. It may be too little too late for this season, but Indy can take comfort in knowing they have a potential star for the future.

Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Carolina RailHawks, Saturday 7:30 p.m. ET

The Rowdies are the only team with the benefit of knowing that they will remain alive in the playoff chase no matter how the Strikers fare in their Wednesday match. They will, however, have to win their final two matches no matter what happens around them to achieve a playoff berth.

That is tough to do, though, when you continually fail to score on a regular basis. The Rowdies have only netted two goals in their last five matches and are averaging an abysmal two shots on goal during that stretch. Former Golden Ball winner Georgi Hristov has disappeared off the face of the earth and attacking midfielder Freddy Adu has not yet been able to put together back-to-back solid performances. A draw would not eliminate the Rowdies, but a loss to the up and down RailHawks very likely would.

Minnesota United FC vs. Atlanta Silverbacks, Saturday 8 p.m. ET

Any realistic chance of the Loons sneaking by Ottawa and New York to capture the top playoff seed went out the window when they fell to the cellar dwelling Indy Eleven 3-1. Minnesota’ only shot now is the Fury somehow dropping their final two matches and also giving up their significant lead in the tiebreaking goal differential. Minnesota’s focus must now shift to finding the configuration that gives them the best shot at success for the playoffs. Head coach Manny Lagos has experimented with leading scorer Christian Ramirez in an attacking midfield role in recent weeks, rather than a traditional striker role. It worked for at least one half in the victory against the Strikers as forward Pablo Campos rose to the occasion when given a rare start, but the Indy match indicates that some kinks may still need to be worked out.

San Antonio Scorpions vs. New York Cosmos, Saturday 8:30 p.m. ET

The Cosmos are the only team with a feasible shot at grabbing home field advantage in the playoffs from Ottawa. They will have to find the necessary three points to keep pressure on the Fury in San Antonio, where they were ousted in the semifinal of last year’s playoffs. New York claimed victory in their two previous bouts with the Scorpions this year, but this will be their first trip back to the Lone Star State since the bitter 2-1 playoff loss. Most of New York’s roster should be fully fit for the weekend after sitting out last week’s league action. Head Coach Gio Savarese has an interesting decision to make up top. Forward Lucky Mkosana’s status as a regular starter is in doubt after Gaston Cellerino finally put in two productive performances in the club’s most recent matches.

FC Edmonton vs. Jacksonville Armada FC, Sunday 4 p.m. ET

Edmonton’s prospects looked great in early September when the club won three straight. However, the clock struck midnight on the Eddies and the exciting run up the standings ended as the club promptly dropped four straight matches, effectively ending any hope at making the playoffs. The Canadian side has a right to feel aggrieved as they lost three of those matches without their best player, Lance Laing, who was away with Jamaica’s national team. Laing is back in camp for Edmonton’s final game of the regular season, but supporters will always be left wondering what could have been this year.