This year in the NASL has been a wild one, to be sure. Just looking back a few months, it’s remarkable how much has changed on and off the field. But I have to say that I’m most interested in how we’ll all view this year in four months. Or a year. Or three years.
While the league approaches what ought to be a fun conclusion and postseason, all the meaningful action is off the field. As I’ve written, I have grave doubts about the NASL and its chances of survival. I think there’s a very good chance that this year represents the last year of stability for the league. Already, it seems that Tampa Bay and Ottawa are poised to jump ship. Oklahoma City still seems basically dead. Obviously Minnesota are heading to higher ground. Questions remain about Fort Lauderdale’s ownership. Indy, Jacksonville, and Carolina seemingly have few reasons to stay. Edmonton will feel the pull of the CPL, in spite of themselves. So as we head into the final week of the year, I guess all I have to say is, enjoy it while it lasts.
This is also probably my last NASL Power Ranking of the year. I haven’t usually done one after the league’s final day, when the table at last speaks for itself and the focus shifts to the playoffs. So on that note, it’s been a fun ride. I’ve watched a lot of NASL in this span. Here’s the first Power Ranking I wrote. All told, I’ve written seventy two editions (and Jeff Rueter guest wrote one). Five clubs have topped the ranking: (in order of appearance: San Antonio, Minnesota, New York, Ottawa, Carolina). I hope someone else takes this up next year.
Alright that’s all. Final ranking time:
The Cosmos won again, continuing their tremendous run of form. For a while this season, New York was solidly part of a pack of four, that included Indy, Edmonton, and Minnesota. But as the Loons dropped off, the Cosmos rallied and now hold a tremendous lead over the field. This is a good team, and they deserve the league championship to show for their hard work.
On Sunday night, meanwhile, the Red Bulls 2 decisively won the USL title. I’m sure many Cosmos fans would think it beneath them, but I’d personally love to see a match between the Baby Bulls and the Green and White. Both are excellent teams, both dominated their leagues, and both are based in New York. Could someone please make this happen? It’d be a great game.
The Cosmos will close out the season with a trip to Minnesota, where they lost in dramatic fashion early in the year. This is one of two matches to watch on the league’s final matchweek. The Loons must win to make the playoffs and potentially book a rematch back in Hempstead. New York would certainly be favored in that second match, but the dynamics of this coming weekend’s away match, with players potentially rested, will be different.
Indy have been incredible at home this year, but the odds are good they’ll have to play away in the league championship. On that score, it was a positive sign for the Eleven that they traveled to Tampa midweek and won fairly convincingly (they also thrashed Puerto Rico at home on the weekend). It was only their second win away from Indianapolis all year, but it came at a good time.
Now can the Eleven grab another away win in the final match of the season on Sunday in Oklahoma? They will likely opt to rest some players, but they did the same against Tampa as well, and still pulled out the win. Along with the Minnesota-New York game, this Indy-OKC match will determine the final playoff spot in the league. But for the Eleven, nothing changes. They’ll host FC Edmonton at IUPUI the Saturday afterwards.
The Eddies’ last minute (video assisted?) penalty and win against Jacksonville on Sunday would’ve been more dramatic had something actually been at stake. But at this point, it’s all been decided. The Eddies will take the league’s #3 seed, after an excellent season in which they seemed to follow the trail blazed by last year’s Ottawa Fury squad. For both unlikely playoff teams, the winning strategy was a simple, old fashioned, lock-tight defense.
Colin Miller’s men have been even stingier than last year’s Ottawa club (20 goals against in 31 games, compared with Ottawa’s 23 GA in 30), but far less prolific (just 25 goals scored, compared with Ottawa’s 42). As a result, these intrepid Eddies march into the playoffs with just a +5 differential, the same as OKC and Minnesota, and a full 24 goals behind New York. This begs the question: is Edmonton actually very good? Or are they just appallingly negative in a league where the players aren’t skilled enough to break them down?
The answer is probably a bit of Column A and a bit of Column B. While the Fury last season started their run by killing off games and sending fans home with 0-0 draws, they eventually found a delicate balance of attack and defense. Edmonton, for all of their defensive excellence, have not found that balance. That’s why, despite all their success, it’s hard to see them advancing past their first round playoff meeting.
Oklahoma City’s run at the end of this year has been nothing short of spectacular. As every other playoff contender hemmed and hawed, the Scissortails have been simply on fire in a way that I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted. The turnaround, unbelievably, came in the week where the team’s minority owner removed half of the turf panels that make up their field in the dead of night. That was right before the team played Minnesota and lost 0-1. But after that result, OKC won the next match, drew the next four, and have now won four in a row, including this past weekend in Fort Lauderdale. Undefeated in nine, the team everyone, including me, had written off as dead, is now the heavy favorite to take the league’s final playoff spot.
I’d estimate that OKC has about a 80-85% chance of sealing the deal. A win or a draw, or a loss and a Minnesota draw or loss would be enough. This being said, there are enough factors in play to give some pause. OKC have been better on the road this year than at home. They’re playing Indy, who are bad on the road, but a good team overall, and are coming off an away win. Meanwhile Minnesota (more on this below) are playing a match-up that they won in the spring.
Oklahoma City have had to be nearly perfect just to get into this position. Now, they’ll almost at the point of an improbable underdog achievement, with just one more step to go.
One funny addendum. On Sunday, it’ll be 87 days since Rayo’s Spanish repo men entered the country to strip the copper wire from their Midwestern affiliate. At the time, I speculated (without any real evidence), that the team would be bundled up and the Spaniards would be gone in time to not overstay their 90 day tourist visa. The idea that OKC could surprisingly make the playoffs and delay that timeline is pretty ironic. Had the front office even prepared for the possibility that their season would go at least one week longer? Did the Spaniards even know there were playoffs?
Minnesota have been the league’s most disappointing team in 2016 without exception. The Loons have stumbled badly in the second half of the year, and they weren’t even that great in the first half of the year to begin with. Only the relentless mediocrity of the rest of the field have kept them afloat, but you’d have to say that missing the playoffs is a deserved result for this United squad.
Case in point was Saturday’s dreadful 0-1 defeat to Carolina. Minnesota came out of the game playing excellent soccer, but they couldn’t break through. Then Carolina fired a shot across their bow (saved spectacularly by Sammy Ndjock), followed up with a horrible looking injury to Jeb(!) Brovsky, and the Loons came unglued. They looked dispirited and hapless in the game’s final hour, and inevitably Carolina broke through and scored a goal which held up as the game winner. There are a host of possible explanations for the Loons poor year, from a never ending spree of bad injuries, to the distraction of MLS, but ultimately there’s no escaping the fact that this team was more than good enough to compete, and it never really did.
United could still prolong their season this coming weekend. They play host to the New York Cosmos, while OKC host Indy. Minnesota are 4-4 against the three playoff teams this year, and have beaten each of them at the NSC Stadium. Should they repeat the feat against the Cosmos, who can be expected to give some players a bit of rest, they could make the playoffs with an OKC loss (not unreasonable). As I wrote above, I’m giving this a 15-20% chance.
But if they make the playoffs, it’s hard to see them getting past New York in the semi-finals. That might be even less likely than getting there at all.
My fault guys.
I met a fortune teller at an abandoned amusement park, and I wished for the Rowdies to miss the playoffs in the funniest way possible. #NASL
— Alex Schieferdecker (@alexschief) October 23, 2016
No, there wasn’t a single punch line, but the Rowdies 2016 season was an entertaining rip-off of Minnesota’s ugly decline. The green and gold spent the big bucks to fix their striker problem with Tommy Heinemann, which virtually everyone knew wasn’t going to work (four goals). Everyone’s favorite vacuum salesman, Freddy Adu, was re-signed with the aim of adding some serious creativity to the attack (he played 46 minutes TOTAL). The Rowdies’ excellent 2015 defense was preserved (they were injured and poor this year). What could go wrong with the latest edition of the #OneYearPlan?
As a matter of fact, quite a lot went right for Tampa. To state the obvious, the signing of Old Man Joe Cole turned out brilliantly. The former England midfielder did just about everything that could’ve been asked of him. Last Wednesday, his incredible play singlehandedly made the match against Indy close. Then there’s Georgi Hristov, who started the year surplus to requirements (as he does every year) and ended it as the starting striker and leading the team in goals (as he does every year). You think the club would figure out this pattern already and play him up front from the start, but then again, Tampa’s worst enemy remains Tampa.
We’ll see what happens. Perhaps before you read this, the Rowdies will have announced their move to USL for next season. If they can retain many of their players, they’ll really have a field day in that league. Or at least, they will… in theory. Knowing Tampa Bay, you can never be sure.
While we’re talking about awkward late season collapses, what on earth happened to Miami FC? One moment, they were charging up the table, closing fast on Minnesota and the final playoff spot. For a while, they even had an outside chance at the #2 seed by winning the fall title. And then, as quickly as this team built itself up, they collapsed right back to where they’d been before the midsummer buying spree.
It’s tempting to say that they never really did get the defense right, despite buying Hunter Freeman and pairing him with Rhett Bernstein (or playing three at the back). Injuries also hurt. The team recently gained Richie Ryan back, but they lost the services of Michael Lahoud. Dario Cvitanich was also something of a bust. The Argentine couldn’t score reliably from anywhere but the penalty spot. And there are reasons why Kwadwo Poku or Jonny Steele have never stuck at the top level. Inconsistency was always going to be a problem but it became the character of the whole team.
Even then, it’s been quite a bit of a fall for the teal and tangerine. This week, they lost 2-3 away to Jacksonville, then 0-4 away to New York in a match that was done and dusted within ten minutes. They had the same chances that everyone else had to take the #4 spot, but they were the only team that, for a while at least, seemed to have things figured out.
Let’s just cut to the chase: I have no idea what this team will do at any given point in time. All I knew is that they were definitely going to find a way to beat Minnesota this past weekend. But that’s more my lack of faith in the Loons than any newfound understanding about Carolina. To sum up their playoff push: they looked completely out of it, they recovered strong, and then they dropped the ball in the final weeks, only to pop up briefly and crush Minnesota’s hopes. Go figure.
While Tampa and Ottawa bolt the NASL for USL, I continue to think that it’s probably in Carolina’s interest to do the same thing. With many nearby rivals, including a team in Charlotte, and no real obvious gain from being in the NASL, the RailHawks could have an offseason to remember. There’s the persistent talk about a rebrand as well, which might actually happen this year. Who knows. Certainly not me.
The Strikers were on an OKC-esque run not too long ago, but they ran out of steam, and were used as fuel by the Scissortails on Saturday. So it goes. Credit to the players and management of this team, who did better than I expected, despite all of the off-field drama. I haven’t given this team a lot of credit this year, but in the end, their respectable mid-table finish is more than could’ve been asked of them. This team is a complete tire fire off the field, but on it, they carried themselves respectably, especially in the second half of the season when they cut down on the ridiculous red card fouling and theatrical complaining from the players and bench. Somehow, despite basically not trying at all, Fort Lauderdale are just a point behind Tampa Bay, who try harder than almost anyone else. Life ain’t fair.
#10. Ottawa Fury – (7-10-14, 30 pts) – No Change
I’ve had very little new to say about Ottawa this year. Their course has been set from very early on, and they’re finishing more or less where you would expect. And now they’re presumably off to USL for a year, maybe two, and then the Canadian Premier League after that.
Best of luck Ottawa. I’ve always had a soft spot for you. I liked the way you played this year.
Jacksonville have assured that they will not finish in last place this year, thanks to their ten game advantage over Puerto Rico FC. They are last in the fall standings, however, unless they can change that fact in the final week of the season.
There’s no team I got more wrong this year than Jacksonville. I thought the Armada had assembled a killer attack, with the likes of Matt Fondy, Charles Eloundou, Pascal Millien, Jamal Johnson, and Alhassane Keita. Instead, they scored just two goals more than FC Edmonton, and two of those players are no longer with the club. Coach Tony Meola was also sacked after a horrible start to the season. He was the wrong hire at the wrong time. While Indy Eleven found success with an experienced hand and a “just win, baby” attitude, the Armada tried to get fancy and it failed spectacularly. Another year, another high-profile failure in Duval.
New Head Coach Mark Lowry isn’t a flashy hire, but he has more experience than Meola and has done decent work since taking over. The Armada ought to completely retool their roster this offseason and start fresh.
#12. Puerto Rico FC – (4-9-8, 21 pts) – Down One
Puerto Rico will finish last in the combined table, as most would’ve expected. I wonder to what extent this club will ever be truly relevant. Will the ownership spend enough to compete? Will the fanbase respond in more sustained fashion next season? How will trips to Edmonton and San Francisco go over?
In part because of the language difference, it’s hard to get a read on Puerto Rico FC as an organization. I thought they were not good, but better than I feared, in their first year. That’s not an inspiring recommendation, but it is a start.