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2016 NASL Preseason Power Rankings

by on 27 March 2016

Another NASL season is just a week away, and that means it’s time for another season of NASL Power Rankings! They are very popular. As was the case last year, the plan is for the PR to run each week on Monday. This week’s preseason rankings will be followed by in-depth interviews with fans of each team in the league leading up to opening day on the 2nd!

The 2016 NASL season offers plenty of intrigue. Two teams are no longer with us, but three new teams are; Miami FC, Rayo OKC, and Puerto Rico FC who join in the summer/fall season. New faces are everywhere. Just three teams return with the same head coaches they had last year at this time. Players have been swapped, and more than a few teams are almost completely rebooted. All of this makes the preseason PR especially hard. Essentially at this stage, the PR is more than just a ranking of who’s the best at the current time, but it’s also something of a projection of how the final league standings might look.

To that end, I have a general theory about the league. Last year’s NASL season was remarkable to the extent that the top three teams distanced themselves from the rest of the league. 2015’s fourth place team was closer in points to 11th place than they were to 3rd. I don’t see that changing in 2016, with the exception that I see Ottawa dropping out of the elite ranks. I think defending champions New York and MLS-bound Minnesota are so far distant from the rest of the league, that the top two positions are more certain than ever before. Beyond them, the battle for 3rd and 4th should be fierce. I tend to favor the teams who built upon an already existing core, over the teams who scrapped everything and restarted. It’s plausible that one of the squads who pressed reset have gotten it all right and will come together and surprise as the Fury did last season. But that run seems extraordinary in hindsight. I’d bet on lightning not striking twice.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of the ranking!

 

PRCosmos
#1. New York Cosmos – (0-0-0, 0 pts)

To the reigning champs goes the first place in the rankings. New York have been reliably one of the NASL’s best teams since they joined the league in 2013, and there’s no reason to believe they will fall off this year. While the green and white said goodbye to Marcos Senna and Raúl this offseason, they are probably a better team for it. The Cosmos are younger, fitter, and presumably no less hungry with Gio Savarese at the helm. Their offseason additions have been excellent. Michael Lahoud, on loan from the Philadelphia Union, is a tenacious midfield destroyer. Jairo Arrieta is a fiesty forward with plenty of MLS experience. Young Venezuelan midfielder Yohandry Orozco saw the field for Wolfsburg and has impressed in preseason. Bolivian striker Yasmani Duk has a great name. There’s also the Venezuelan legend Juan Arango, whose distinguished career includes stops in Liga MX, La Liga, and the Bundesliga. At 35, he may not start a number of games, but his prodigious free kick ability could make him an extremely valuable asset for a club that has made a habit of making late comebacks. Finally, the Cosmos latest and most impressive signing has to be the former Tottenham midfielder Niko Kranj?ar. Only 31, the Croatian could well be the league’s best player in 2016.

There are few faults to find in this Cosmos team. The main question marks exist in defense and goal, but only because these areas of the field are less impressively stocked on the roster than the others. When compared with the rest of the league, New York look above the average in every position. This is a team that will rightly count it as a disappointment if they do not hoist the NASL Championship trophy for a second year, and they have the depth and experience to make the US Open Cup interesting once again.

As exciting as the play on the field figures to be in Hempstead this year, the biggest story for the Cosmos this season may come off the field. After years of delay and political wrangling, there is some evidence of movement in the club’s long stalled stadium bid. What an achievement that would be for the club, if they were able to at last secure a permanent home. Love or hate the Cosmos, all fans of the sport ought to hope for this dream to become a reality.

PRUnited
#2. Minnesota United FC – (0-0-0, 0 pts)

Likely bound for MLS in a year, Minnesota certainly will expect to dominate the NASL in their final season in the league. After two years of frustrating semi-final exits, this team has the added motivation to erase the memory of those defeats by winning the club’s second championship. The Loons have the personnel to achieve these goals. Six of the 2015 NASL Best XI can be found on United’s roster, and the team has added a handful of players with MLS experience to start the transition. Former Edmonton player Lance Laing is the biggest intra-NASL signing of the offseason. Arguably the best player in the league for the past two years, the Jamiacan left winger is a deadly weapon in the attack and has shined in preseason. Reigning golden ball and boot winner Stefano Pinho may not feature immediately for the Loons due to recovery from injury, but he offers speed and power up front and on the wing. Add these two to a line-up that contains the league’s best striker in Christian Ramirez, mercurial midfield magician Ibson, and attack-minded fullbacks Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas, and you have a recipe for goals. The Loons set a league record for goals last year, and they’re a good bet to break their own record in 2016.

Where the team is weakest is certainly in defense. Last season’s stopgap solution of Tiago Calvano and converted midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan will not work again, with both veterans a year older. The younger Brent Kallman and Seattle loanee Damion Lowe will be called upon to step up, but if neither are up to the job, then there is no back-up plan. Goalkeeper Sammy Ndjock looked like one of the league’s best in net towards the end of last season and has starred in preseason, but he cannot keep everything out. Minnesota’s lone clean sheet of preseason came against a college team. The back line is simply a huge concern, and expect the club to be in the market for center-backs all year.

New head coach Carl Craig is also an X-factor for the upcoming year, but his long tenure as Manny Lagos’ chief assistant suggests there will be little strife over the switch. Lagos, of course, remains heavily involved as the team’s director of soccer. MLS distractions may prove to be another issue for Minnesota, but it may also serve to motivate the players, who all know they are essentially in an audition. Off the field, a legislative push to finalize the MLS stadium deal and the day-to-day activities needed to switch leagues will consume Loons fans, but there should be few worries on it.

PRRailHawks
#3. Carolina RailHawks – (0-0-0, 0 pts)

With very little fanfare or hype, the Carolina RailHawks have quietly built what looks to be the best defensive team in the NASL. Now of course, great teams on paper do not always turn out to be great in practice (see: FC Edmonton (2015)) but it’s hard not to see the makings of a rock-solid unit in Cary. The RailHawks did good business by looting the carcass of the Atlanta Silverbacks, nabbing two of that team’s able defenders: Simon Mensing and Paul Black. They also poached fullback Drew Beckie out of Ottawa, and lured James Marcelin, one of the league’s best defensive midfielders, out of Fort Lauderdale. The RailHawks are generally a pretty solid and stingy team to begin with, but last year certainly challenged that assumption. These shrewd defensive additions should restore it. To complete the picture, both Akira Fitzgerald and Brian Sylvestre are up to the job in goal, especially after the latter’s successful loan to the Philadelphia Union last year, where he started twelve games.

The critical issue for Carolina all year will be finding goals. The attacking plan, once again, appears to be getting the ball to Ty Shipalane, and hoping he pulls something off. There does not appear to be a Plan B. Striker Brian Shirver (who I was sure must be in his mid-thirties but is actually 28) has returned to Carolina for the fourth time in his career. He won the golden boot in 2013 with this team, but did not look the part while playing in his home city of Tampa Bay for the last two years. Carolina also acquired Aly Hassan, who is one of the quintessential players who always looks dangerous and never scores. Now look, Ottawa didn’t figure out an answer to this question almost all of last year, and they still were amazing and made it to the finals because their defense was so strong. So the RailHawks don’t need to have one guy who’s putting them in night after night. But they do need to score occasionally, and if this team falls short, expect it to be because Ty Shipalane can’t carry this attack all the time.

Interestingly this may be the last season of the Carolina RailHawks as we know them. New owner Stephen Malik wants to invest in this team and also make it his own. There’s talk that after the end of this season, our favorite fictional birds may rebrand as the Carolina Flight. That’s probably a good idea, as ten years later nobody still knows what a RailHawk is. But it will be sad to lose such a great way of making fun of this team.

PRRowdies
#4. Tampa Bay Rowdies – (0-0-0, 0 pts)

Once again, for arguably the third year running, the Rowdies have “won” the offseason. The prize for this achievement, of course, is severe disappointment in the regular season as reality does not meet sky-high expectations. Last year, the Rowdies truly outdid themselves on this front. The green and gold completely overhauled the squad in the offseason and had great success to start the year. Then the team’s form faded, the manager was canned, and basically nothing changed in form. The result was an ignominious fifth place finish and the #OneYearPlan, which is a gift that kept on giving.

Is this year different for the Rowdies? Is this the year that Bill Edwards’ investment is finally rewarded? For comedic purposes, I sure hope not, but objectively I think they have a decent chance. The team boasted a strong defense last season, which they have kept intact. What they lacked was goals, and the front office has thrown a good bit of money at the issue. The biggest signing is striker Tom Heinemann, who assumed his ultimate lupine form in the 2015 postseason, scoring all four of the Fury’s goals. If Heinemann plays at that level for the Rowdies, than this team will challenge for the league title. The problem is that Teen Wolf has simply never finished with the skill and regularity that he gets himself into finishing positions. In two years in Ottawa and 45 appearances, he scored just 14 times. To set-up the attack, Tampa has added the inconsistently brilliant Kalif Alhassan from Minnesota, Danny Mwanga from Orlando City, and has Junior Burgos on loan from the future Atlanta MLS club. Georgi Hristov returns, as does Freddy Adu. Speaking of which—Freddy Adu, Freddy Adu, Freddy Adu.

Tampa ought to be good, again. But they have too many questions, including the inexperienced Stuart Campbell returning as coach, to make the Rowdies a comfortable bet. You wouldn’t be surprised to see this team among the top spots in the league. But would you be surprised if they missed the playoffs instead?

PRArmada
#5. Jacksonville Armada – (0-0-0, 0 pts)

Last year, I wrote that issue one for the Armada in the offseason had to be an overhaul of their worst-in-the-league goalkeeping corps. They did hire an excellent goalkeeper, but Tony Meola will be their head coach instead. That’s a shame. On the field, their options in goal actually got worse, as David Sierra was replaced by last year’s third keeper and Miguel Gallardo retained the no. 1 job. Putting it bluntly, this is bad news bears for the Armada, and its hard to see this team making the playoffs without a more reliable backstop. But otherwise, Jacksonville have made some very good moves, and they should improve drastically upon their expansion season results The big signing is Richie Ryan, who captained Ottawa last year, is a steady presence in the middle of the park, and a good free kick taker. The Armada also added Matt Fondy, who led the USL last year with 22 goals. Between Fondy, Alhassane Keita, Pascal Millian, and Jemal Johnson, this Jacksonville team is primed to score quite a few goals. The defense is a bit less spectacular, but a lot of the dead weight from last year has been replaced. What’s kind funny is that the entire Armada defensive corps is between the ages of 25 and 27. The standout in that group, if last year is any indication, is the Haitian centerback, Mechack Jérôme, who was signed late last year and impressed.

In preseason, Jacksonville came away with some feel good wins over Orlando City and Miami FC, and lost big to the New York Red Bulls (twice) and Rayo OKC. That might be a harbinger of the year to come. This club was unbelievably hot and cold last season, looking like world-beaters at home and like lost puppies away. It will be on rookie head coach Meola to fix that pattern. Jacksonville took a big risk in signing Meola with plenty of more experienced options out there. They may have to suffer through his learning curve a bit this year as a result, but if the front office and the players are committed to him, they have the potential to be a wildly entertaining and even successful team.

PREleven
#6. Indy Eleven – (0-0-0, 0 pts)

In the two years that they’ve been in the league, the Indy Eleven have been as good off the field as they’ve been bad on it. League-leading crowds have, for two years, watched awful teams. This year may be a critical year in Naptown, because the crowds got a bit thinner last year as the disappointment wore on. But hope springs eternal, and with a new coach in Tim Hankinson, who knows how to build a winner in the league, the Indy faithful might just have reason to believe.

The Hankinson hire was a bit of a let-down for many folks. The white-haired coach had last been unceremoniously dumped from the 2013 San Antonio Scorpions after a poor start, and had been recently coaching in Jamaica. But after taking a risk on a first-time head coach in Jurgen Sommer previously, the Eleven clearly wanted someone who had more experience. Hankinson certainly has that. His first year in San Antonio, the Scorpions were the league’s top team, and he has a fair claim towards being let down by the club ownership in that offseason. Despite the poor results in previous years, Indy had some good pieces to build upon. Foremost among them is attacking midfielder Dylan Mares, who ranks among the league’s best young players. Elsewhere, Hankinson has shopped wisely. Siniša Ubiparipovi? will pull the strings in the attack. Colin Falvey is a solid defender. Jon Busch will turn 40 this season, but can still play goal in a pinch and ought to be a good mentor to 23 year-old stopper Keith Cardona.

There’s really no out-and-out star on this Indy team, at least not yet. But there are good pieces at every position, and a really positive mix of youth and veterans. The Eleven look a well-rounded team, and if Hankinson can make them work well as a team, then they could be one of the toughest squads to break down in the league. Speaking about Hankinson once more, Indy went in a clearly different direction than their counterparts in the league, who almost all sought new, fresh, untested coaches. Oddly, in the NASL this year, taking the safest route also means walking alone. I think it’ll pay off. The Eleven may not be flush with cash, but they’ve made good purchases and ought to improve over the last two years. Only injuries, which have hobbled the club in preseason, seem an immediate concern.

PREdmonton
#7. FC Edmonton – (0-0-0, 0 pts)

I had Edmonton ranked #3 in last year’s preseason ranking. Instead, the Eddies struggled all year and finished seventh overall. Inconsistent goalkeeping, an inability to find a balance between the attack and defense, and a lack of replacements for Lance Laing were the critical factors in the disappointment. So here we are, a year later, and the goalkeeping is unchanged (if not weaker), and Laing has joined Minnesota. What can the northerners expect this season?

Perhaps more of the same. Laing’s departure could force Edmonton to develop more varied approaches to attack besides simply feeding their best player. The new replacements are intriguing. Jake Keegan, a 24 year-old American striker, found the net frequently in Ireland. Papé Diakité, a 23 year-old, 6’4” centerback, has good experience in Belgium. Adam Eckersley was in Manchester United’s academy a long long time ago. Nik Ledgerwood is a Canadian international midfielder who comes to Edmonton after a productive career in Germany, and will be looked upon as a leader of the team. Best of all, Edmonton have a fascinating crop of young players coming through the ranks as usual. Mallan Roberts is fully secure as a starter and will hope to get more caps for Canada. Midfielder Shamit Shome has gotten good reviews, and should debut before he turns 19. Goalkeeper Tyson Farago may be poised to push for the starting job against Matt Van Oekel. The Eddies don’t usually get a lot of press, but their youth development in particular is the gold standard of the league, and it’s paying increasing dividends.

A point in Edmonton’s favor has been their preseason trip to Scotland and Northern England. One of four NASL teams to travel abroad this season, the Eddies have doubtless noticed the success that other teams have achieved after preseason trips outside of the normal comfort zone, at least in the early going. This is a club that has started the season very poorly in past years, perhaps because of the difficulty of training properly during the winter. That may no longer be the case this year. For the second year in a row, the Eddies will face an expansion club. They’ll hope to not concede a goal in the first few seconds this time.

The big overarching question is what Colin Miller will make of it all. After falling short of any silverware for three straight years, is this finally the year that Miller’s seat starts to heat up? The Scottish-Canadian manager is one of the league’s most experienced managers. Yet he has continually failed to make the most of his talent in Edmonton, even if his squads haven’t been a total shambles either. This isn’t the best team he’s had to work with, at least on paper, but it’s one that should be competitive to the final weeks. Edmonton’s Sunday afternoon kickoffs and paltry crowds are always one of the sadder sights in the league, and the Edmonton faithful deserve a winner to help entice their fellow citizens to get out to the stadium. Maybe Connor McDavid can play?

PRRayo
#8. Rayo OKC – (0-0-0, 0 pts)

Of the three expansion teams that will join the league this season, Rayo are the most primed for success on the field. The Scissortails (?) snapped up a title-winning NASL coach in Alen Marcina he brought with him three of the best players on the San Antonio team in goalkeeper Daniel Fernandes, winger Billy Forbes, and midfielder Martin Chavez. He’s recruited well from the NASL and MLS as well. I like the pick-ups of defender Erick Norales, formerly of Indy, midfielder Richard Menjivar, formerly of San Antonio and Tampa, midfielder Pecka of Real Salt Lake and Fort Lauderdale, and forward Robbie Findley, last seen in Toronto. To top it all off, Rayo has signed Georgios Samaras, who is astoundingly only 31, yet failed two physicals before signing with Rayo. Presumably he could still contribute in the NASL, but I’d be worried about whether the Greek international will ever be fit.

All this is to say that a team that still doesn’t really make sense conceptually, at least has a pretty good roster. But it’s not a roster that’s good enough to overcome the usual obstacles that plague expansion teams. Rayo have played just four recorded preseason games, which isn’t enough, and it’s the same thing that torpedoed Marcina’s Scorpions last year. The club’s off-the-field situation also figures into things. Will anyone show up to cheer this team on? What happens if Rayo Vallecano is relegated from La Liga? I’ll admit that the team has assembled a better roster than I expected. But the biggest question marks for this entire project are on the business side, and there’s a chance that they dog Rayo all season long.

PRFury
#9. Ottawa Fury– (0-0-0, 0 pts)

Because the NASL gets shamefully little attention from sportswriters in the US and Canada, the miracle season that the Ottawa Fury had in 2015 flew under the radar. But the men from Canada’s capital got plenty of credit in these pages, and before we turn to the season to come, it’s worth remembering how surprising their achievement was. The Fury finished ninth in the spring season, playing insipid soccer that would result in a six-game run with a 1-0 win, an 0-1 loss, and four 0-0 draws. It’s remarkable that anyone showed up to a game after that, but those who did would witness a team built on that bedrock of defensive solidity become the league’s best team in the fall, tying for the best team overall that year. It was a team that was much more than the sum of its low-budget parts, and relied upon cohesiveness and guts as it dominated the NASL.

That’s why the events of the past offseason were so dispiriting, even for fans of other teams. Simply put, the Fury were picked clean. Head Coach Marc Dos Santos’ departure was already known during the season, but after the Fury’s defeat in the championship, the floodgates opened. The Rowdies splashed big bucks for Tommy Heinemann, Richie Ryan decamped to Jacksonville, Siniša Ubiparipovi? was scooped up by Indy, and the rout was on. Of the fourteen players who played in the final, just four are still on the roster.

Ottawa have rebuilt the squad, but on paper it seems a shadow of what it was before. The strongest position remains in goal. Romauld Peiser is a year older, and at 36 it’s probably time to start mulling his succession. The good news is that Bruce Grobbelaar is still the goalkeeper coach and Marcel DeBellis seems a promising next-in-line. But beyond the netminders, the Fury have more questions than answers. Only Rafael Alves is left of the league’s best defense in 2015. In the midfield, the Fury have signed Jonny Steele, who did not work out in his previous NASL stint with Minnesota. The same can be said of Mozzi Gyorio, who is currently suing the Loons. Much will be expected of young Mauro Eustáquio and Canadian vet Marcel de Jong to carry the load. The shallowest pool of players is up top. It’s hard to imagine who will actually score goals for the Fury. The team has never been especially prolific in the past two years, and there’s not a single striker on the team today who has a record of goal scoring in this league or a higher one. That’s an issue.

The biggest question mark of all must be in the head coaching position. Paul Dalglish has a famous father, but his own managerial record is not stellar. In his two seasons coaching a professional team, his teams have been poor. Incredibly, Dalglish is more experienced than many other coaches in the league, but it certainly remains to be seen what kind of stamp he puts on this team, and what he can accomplish with a weak roster. The odds are against this team, once again.

PRMiami

#10. Miami FC – (0-0-0, 0 pts)

Miami FC made a big splash with their first signings, highlighted by Honduran midfielder Wilson Palacios who is only 31 and had previously spent most of his career in the Premier League. Argentine striker Darío Cvitanich, and Brazilian midfielder Matuzalém also bring European experience to the squad. But the supporting cast for Miami FC doesn’t quite live up to the same standard, especially in the defense and in goal. And beyond NASL all-time leading goal scorer Pablo Campos and ex-Ottawa defender Mason Trafford, there’s a lack of deep NASL experience on the roster. For an expansion team, I think that’s a problem. Miami FC have a handful of star players, backed up by a group of little-known and barely-tested players. In midfield, for instance, Palacios, Blake Smith, and Dean Richards, are solid pieces, but you’d like to see one or two more players. Will the 35 year old Matuzalém hold up? If not, you’re looking at choosing between five players without Wikipedia pages and a guy who barely played in the USL last year. In defense, Miami will be relying on players like Jonathan Borrajo and Brad Rusin, who were previously fringe starters in the NASL. There are simply just too many question marks throughout this line-up to take a risk in putting them higher.

The issue extends to the coach. Alessandro Nesta is a legend in Italy and spent some time in Montreal. But he has never coached before, and has no experience in the NASL specifically. There will be a learning curve for this team, because the NASL is a tough league with some good teams. Nesta’s stature gives him some job security and surely leads to respect in the locker room, but his team will have to earn respect for itself on the field. The good news is that Miami starts the season against their three in-state rivals, which is a blessing in terms of travel and could help smooth over the opening weeks of the year.

Miami FC will be an interesting team to follow this year, even if the squad on the field is a dud. As David Beckham’s franchise appears to be getting off the ground at last, there will be a lot of attention paid to how this squad draws in the stands. Will fans stay home, waiting for Beckham? Can the NASL draw in America’s most notorious soccer city? With the big names involved in both projects, there will be a lot of eyes at home and abroad tracking the success or failure of this club.

PRStrikers
#11. Fort Lauderdale Strikers – (0-0-0, 0 pts)

The red and gold have been one of the most bizarre teams to follow over the past few years. The team was purchased late in the 2014 season by a Brazilian ownership, and made the league final with a shoestring budget thanks to the head coaching wizardry of Günter Kronsteiner. That offseason, the club did not retain Kronsteiner, hired a replacement on the cheap, and stocked up with Brazilians, including a 2002 World Cup veteran. The results were disastrous, and the team was forced to make amends with Kronsteiner, who engineered a remarkable recovery and secured the final playoff seed in 2015. Now, here we are in 2016, Kronsteiner has not been retained again, and the team is again stocked with Brazilians, including a 2002 World Cup veteran. So have any lessons been learned?

The one big hope for improvement is that the club has made a better coaching hire. Last year’s manager, Marcelo Neveleff seemed well-intentioned but overmatched by the demands of coaching a professional team in such a taxing league as the NASL. This year’s choice, Caio Zanardi, doesn’t have experience with a professional team either, but he has coached the Brazilian U-17 team, so at least that’s something. Overall, he simply seems to have more backing from the ownership than did Neveleff.

What of the players then? The Strikers have had a great deal of turnover from the previous two years. In fact, just five players remain from the 2015 team, and only Manny Gonzalez remains from the 2014 team. So even considering the Strikers to be a defending playoff team seems to be giving this roster unearned credit. The good news is that the squad has been together since New Years, have scrimmaged teams like Schalke and Shaktar Donetsk, and toured China already. Team cohesion should probably not be an issue, although fatigue will be late in the fall. The bad news is that this team just doesn’t strike me as being particularly good. Midfielder PC, one of the lone returnees, is a quality player. Striker Matheus Carvalho played a few games on loan at Monaco, which is promising. But beyond those two, the roster is basically made up of unknown kids, old feeble men, and good-but-not-great role players. I have a lot of respect for Neil Hlavaty, and would love if he was on Minnesota, but he’s not the kind of player who will win you the league. Geison Moura, a fringe player with Minnesota last year, may actually start for Fort Lauderdale. There’s Gale Agbossoumonde and Maicon Santos, who both couldn’t stick in Tampa Bay. There’s Giuseppe Gentile, who didn’t do much with San Antonio. Ditto for Nana Attakora. I loved Julius James’ energy in the commentary box, but is the 31-year-old defender coming off a major injury really an answer?

The current Strikers ownership has brought ambition to the club, but they haven’t backed it up by opening up their wallets on a deep roster, or aggressive marketing This team’s attendances last season were sad, and will probably continue to be sad. The club has twice let go of the league’s best manager, when they really should’ve given him a lifetime appointment. The players on this team are not impressive. Last year, the club unearthed some gems in PC, Marlon Freitas, and Stefano Pinho. They still needed some serious help to make the playoffs. It’ll be really interesting to watch this team, but unless they panic-hire Günter Kronsteiner again, they’ll be one of the league’s worst teams.

I’ve seen so many people rating this team highly. Why?

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