There was a moment on Saturday when Ottawa, Miami, and Rayo OKC were all winning and the creaky scaffolding of last week’s power ranking was poised to crash down. The former two are teams I’ve ranked among the worst in the league, and while I think more highly of Rayo, they were beating Carolina, a team I had ranked at #2 and have backed as my sleeper. But then, the order of the Northern Pitch power rankings was gloriously restored! [Wipes brow] As a result, the week two rankings are broadly similar to the week one and preseason list.
Predictions have come good and quality has risen to the top early. New York, Carolina, and Minnesota are the only three teams in the league to have registered a win, and it’s no coincidence that they lead the table and the power ranking. Behind them is a mish-mash of teams still sorting things out, who’ve mostly played to a series of clunky draws. Parsing this group isn’t easy, but hey, that’s what happens in these pages.
Let’s dive in!
Here they are again. The Cosmos took three points in comfortable fashion on Sunday, knocking off the Jacksonville Armada. New York has aced their first two games by a combined score of 5-0. They look talented, cohesive, and deep. Former Spurs midfielder Niko Kranj?ar made his first start for the club and was wholly convincing in the center of the park. Juan Arango, who I figured would be mostly a substitute due to age, has instead started both matches and played well. Above all, I’ve loved what I’ve seen from Michael Lahoud. The Sierra Leonean destroyer, who frequently impressed me with Philadelphia, has been everywhere for the Cosmos in midfield in both games. Lahoud’s play allows the rest of the team to take chances going forward, and the results have been sterling.
All of this being said, the Cosmos still have things to prove. Their first two matches were both at home, and featured one of the weaker clubs and a club coming off a first week bye. There will be much tougher tests ahead. This coming week, the Cosmos get their first taste of the road, as they travel to Indy. Incredibly, all six games ever played between these two clubs have ended deadlocked. This despite the fact that New York have been the favored side in every single encounter. I suspect that this Cosmos team is the strongest they’ve yet assembled. Can they break the Indy curse?
Carolina didn’t have an easy time in Oklahoma against debutants Rayo. But after going down 1-2, they rallied and improbably stole a 3-2 victory in the final seconds. At the risk of cheapening this entire article with a worn cliché, that’s what good teams do: they find ways to win. I’ve written before about the talent that this team has, especially in defense. It’s since become clear that they also have a great deal of heart.
The big question for Carolina before the season started was where goals would come from. The improbable answer appear to be “Austin da Luz”. The midfielder, who had previously netted just twice in twenty six appearances for the RailHawks, has scored three goals in two games to start this year. That’s not sustainable, but there’s no question that da Luz has played out of his mind and scored some really nifty goals. Between da Luz, Ty Shipalane, Aly Hassan, and others, perhaps this team might be able to score more than expected.
Interestingly, the current issue for coach Colin Clarke is his defense. The team’s biggest strength on paper has already been humbled by injuries. Kareem Moses suffered a concussion against Minnesota and Simon Mensing was sent off. Paul Black hurt himself against Rayo. Next week’s opponents are the Ottawa Fury, who might be the perfect club to have an injury crisis against. Still, fans in the Triangle will breathe a lot easier once they have their full complement of defenders back in action. Carolina have a strong starting eleven, but they lack the huge depth of New York or Minnesota. They’ve gotten off to a great start in the spring, and I think they must win it if they want to host a playoff game. In the long run, I think they will be good, but not able to sustain a position in the top two.
Minnesota’s opening day loss against Carolina wasn’t the end of the world, but it certainly put the MLS-bound club under early pressure that they probably didn’t anticipate facing. But the early adversity only seems to have energized the Loons, who battered FC Edmonton on a chilly afternoon in Alberta. These two teams have historically played each other very close, but it was anything but on Sunday. Minnesota ran rampant from the opening whistle, and the final 2-0 scoreline flattered the hosts.
The man of the hour and a half was Ben Speas, whose second impression for Minnesota fans was much better than his first. The former Columbus Crew homegrown scored a brace and hailed a taxi for Mallan Roberts after a deft flick on the second goal. These were the Loons we were expecting a week ago.
The question is whether United can continue to play like this, and against better opposition. The team’s fitness and focus were exemplary on Sunday, but not all teams in the league will allow the same thing to happen to them. This coming Saturday, the Loons return home to Minnesota to host the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. They should win comfortably, but the week after features a visit from the New York Cosmos—the toughest match on the schedule for both sides.
Tampa Bay were poor for the first sixty minutes of their match against Miami FC. The expansion side, perhaps buoyed by their first ever home crowd, took the game to their most established guests and led 1-0. But the Rowdies wrested control back in the later stages, got their equalizer, and could’ve had more. It’s tricky to properly score a game where one side didn’t hold the balance of play, but made such a strong statement in the final phase of the match. In this case, no other plausible holder of the #4 spot emerged, and so the green and gold keep their placement for now.
I wrote last week about Tampa’s finishing problems, which were obvious once again on Saturday night. But the team also has a lack of creativity in the final third that was problematic in South Florida. Kalif Alhassan and Georgi Hristov are the only two players who played a pass that surprised me in the 90 minutes of action. Every other action from the other players was more or less predictable, and it seemed to be just as obvious for the Miami defenders. With two games gone, the Rowdies have only their equalizing penalty goal on Saturday to show for their attacking work. Now, Minnesota only scored their first goal last year in week four, and they went on to set the league record for goals scored. So there’s hope of course. But the early signs from the Rowdies aren’t great. They could use someone like (hear me out here) Freddy Adu. Crazy, right?
The good news is that the defense still looks solid. Miami’s lone goal was a broken play and for all of the control they ceded in the midfield, Tampa were rarely exposed in defense. Solidity in the back ought to be a strong foundation for continued work improving the attack. Looking ahead to next week, at home against Edmonton, that could be the perfect tonic for the Rowdies as they address their issues up front.
Jacksonville opened their season on Sunday against the Cosmos and were well beaten in a 0-2 defeat. It’s not the result Tony Meola wanted on his managerial debut, but he ought to be proud of the quality of his team’s play regardless. The Armada gave a rather good account of themselves in spite of the opposition. The good news is that away to New York is about as hard as it gets. This coming weekend, at home against Miami, ought to be a much simpler task.
Alas, nothing is ever simple when you cannot rely on your goalkeeper. Sorry not sorry for returning to the well again. Miguel Gallardo is too inconsistent for this level. He can make tremendous saves, but often only because his awful positioning and heedless aggression get him into trouble in the first place. On New York’s first goal, Gallardo took a few steps out, then hurriedly tried to backpedal. As a result, he was not ready to handle Jairo Arrieta’s shot, the ball slipped under him, and trickled into the goal. Jacksonville had all offseason and hired a famous goalkeeper as their coach, and yet this is still the major issue with this team. WHY???
Rayo OKC lost on Saturday in greatly disappointing fashion, but they move up two spots on the basis of the strength of their play, if not the results. I raised questions about the length of the Scissortail’s preseason—and I maintain that the best teams play more than four preseason games—but credit to Alen Marcina’s men for getting on with it quickly. They were the better side against Edmonton, and showed moments of real quality against Carolina, even if their goals came off two mistakes. Rayo put together an impressive group for an expansion team, and its showing. Beyond simply being the better of the three expansion teams, Rayo might push for more.
But before we set anything down in stone, let’s see how OKC perform on the road. Rayo have a one week bye before traveling to Miami for the meeting of the expansion clubs. That’s about as good as it gets when it comes to getting a road win. The end of the spring season is much less favorable to Rayo than the front, so there’s still a lot to learn about this club when the going gets tough.
There are early points of concern. Daniel Fernandes hasn’t been the matchwinner in goal that he was for San Antonio last year. There’s also reasons to feel good. Georgios Samaras is more fit and engaged than I expected, even if he hasn’t made the scoresheet. So some good, some bad, lots of questions. Welcome to the middle of the pack, Rayo.
Miami FC haven’t even left South Florida yet, but they’ve been the least awful of the teams that remain, and move up to seventh this week. After a dud of a week one performance in Fort Lauderdale, Alessandro Nesta’s side played a generally solid match against Tampa Bay in their home opener. In both matches, the teal and tangerine could claim to have been the more dangerous team, for more of the game. The issue is that in both matches they took their foot off the gas and allowed a late equalizer.
Like Rayo, this analysis comes with the cautionary note that Miami’s early season schedule is softer than a Romauld Peiser “injury”. Next week, Miami venture to Jacksonville, to complete their tour of all three other Florida teams to open the season. It’s not until the 30th of April that the team has to leave the state. So like Rayo, be wary of drawing big conclusions from early results, because both expansion clubs see their schedule get much tougher as the year progresses.
Still, we can at least say that Miami do not look outright bad. Two time goalscorer Darío Cvitanich has unsurprisingly been the pick of the bunch. But credit to goalkeeper Mario Daniel Vega, who looks sharp. Brazilian vet Matuzalém has also been a tidy and effective presence in midfield and Wilson Palacios has been a key focal point when he has been on the field. I won’t go so far as to say that Miami have been impressive, so let’s stick with “not awful” for now.
After a worthy opening draw against Tampa, Indy returned home to their IUPUI faithful and did not exactly light up the night against visitors Ottawa Fury. The Eleven have always had issues at home, for whatever reason, but this is supposed to be a new era for the team and instead it looked depressingly like the old one. The late Don Smart sub and resulting attempts to hoof it in his direction was as predictable as it was disappointing.
One of the things I liked about the Tim Hankinson hire was that the silver-haired coach is a veteran who is pragmatic and who knows how to win. But I’m worried that the pressure to deliver results has somehow gotten in the way of playing attractive football. One of the many quotes floating around the internet after Johan Cruijff’s death was this: “”Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.” Indy may well pay heed to that second part.
If you’re an optimistic type, you’ll find many positive takeaways from the final period of the game, where the hosts seemed to realize their predicament and made a mighty push for an equalizer, which they got through Nemanja Vukovi? in the 89th minute. But before then, especially in the first half, Indy were on the back foot in a way that is not a good look at home.
Looking ahead, Indy host New York next week, in what will surely be a draw. They then have a bye, and travel to OKC after that. Having fumbled their chance at home against Ottawa, how long will the Eleven have to wait before getting their first win? It could actually be a while. The team showed good spirit to claw back a point on the weekend, but how long can you keep focus, discipline, and drive if it’s taking a while to get the three points you need?
Edmonton were soundly defeated by visiting Minnesota on Sunday, the most lopsided NASL match of the week. The Eddies have problems, and have seemingly gained no early benefit from their preseason trip to England and Scotland. Colin Miller’s squad looks anemic in attack and especially squishy in central midfield. Losing captain Albert Watson to a red card suspension was a surprisingly impactful blow in the second week, as replacement Mallan Roberts (who had a breakout year in 2015) was badly exposed.
More than anything, it was striking how naďvely the Eddies played against Minnesota. It’s no secret that the Loons have struggled with route one balls, and yet Edmonton didn’t take full advantage. Instead, they attempted to work the ball through the midfield, where they simply couldn’t play fast enough to thwart the Loons’ press. Edmonton are one of two clubs in the league who have yet to score, and the other is Jacksonville, who have only played once.
The only positive for Edmonton from Sunday’s match was Matt Van Oekel, who was much more assured in net against his former team than he was the week before in a shaky showing against OKC. A trip to Tampa Bay is next for the Eddies. The Rowdies are a good defensive team and the Canadians may find it difficult to score once again.
Coming off a bad opening loss to New York, the Fury rebounded in a trip to Indy. Ottawa were in control against the Eleven, which might mean one of two things. Either the Fury are better than expected, or Indy are worse. I’m placing my chips on the latter option this week, but last year’s runners up clearly can’t be written off just yet.
Goalscoring is an issue (some bad finishes in this game), and goalkeeping might be a worry too—Romauld Peiser sure looks a year older. But Ottawa did control the ball and the tempo of play, and it was pretty neat. That seems to be the identity that Paul Dalglish is aiming for, and it mirrors what Marc Dos Santos was building in the first year of his tenure.
We’ll get a good look at what kind of squad Ottawa really are this coming week, as they travel to face Carolina. That’s a tough match, but it’s easier than facing the Cosmos, and the RailHawks are a bit battered by injury. If the Fury have more to offer than expected, they could make that known next Saturday.
Fort Lauderdale were on a bye week, which couldn’t hurt after their bad opening performance at home. Next: a trip to Minnesota.
What’s your take on this week’s rankings? Sound off in the comments below.