The Angle

Looking Back on the NASL Spring Season, Ahead Towards the Fall Campaign

by on 27 June 2016

Two weeks have elapsed since the close of the NASL spring season, and one week remains until the fall season kicks off. We’re in the middle of that wonderful limbo in which we can look back on the results of the spring with something approaching hindsight, yet with no knowledge of how events in the fall will shape final perceptions.

In that vein, 55.1’s Jeff Rueter joined this writer (Alex Schieferdecker) to talk about some of the broader, subjective questions that can’t be answered just by looking at the league table or the stat sheet.


Q: Who should be maddest about losing the spring?

Jeff: I think there are two answers to this question. The obvious answer would be Minnesota United. They had three chances to put the title away and failed to get a point in any of those matches. However, the team kicking themselves hardest has to be Carolina. The RailHawks started off winning their first four and needed just seven points over six matches to clinch. While United and the Cosmos also should have won, the two sides are deep enough to either win the fall or get an at-large spot. Carolina will be fighting Tampa Bay, Miami, and Edmonton for the fourth slot moving forward.

Alex: I think you nailed it. Completely. I wrote about this a lot during the opening weeks, but I thought that if Carolina didn’t win the spring, it was going to be tough for them to make the playoffs, let alone host. I think winning the spring was their best opportunity, and the completeness of their collapse was really breathtaking. As you say, all they needed was seven points from their final six matches, they’d have been spring champions. They could’ve ended the year with two wins, one draw, and three losses and won. To miss that mark is nuts.

Jeff: The addition of Matt Fondy can’t hurt, but a long-lingering fear of Nazmi Albadawi moving on is still there. Austin Da Luz and Tiyi Shipalane are fine players, but I just don’t see enough for Carolina to surpass any two of Minnesota, New York, Tampa Bay, Edmonton, and Miami. That’s a missed opportunity.

 

Q: Which team is the most overrated headed into the fall (or, the luckiest in the spring)?

Jeff: I still don’t buy Fort Lauderdale for a minute. I can’t see what’s changed as they’ve hit their recent hot streak, and I don’t see an attack built around Geison Moura being a long-term success. Ownership is distant, and there’s no fan-support to speak of.

Alex: I don’t buy the Strikers either. I wouldn’t say their ownership is distant, necessarily, but I would say that they seem cheap. They still can’t get people to show up to games, so what does that say about their investment in the team? But I think another team is more overrated, and it might be a blasphemous opinion. I admire Indy’s work ethic and attitude, but I think they got quite lucky on a number of fronts in the spring. They play one dimensional soccer. I think they’ll get figured out. When the fall season is over, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Indy finished out of the top four overall, and were considered underdogs in their playoff semi-final.

Jeff: Smart way to twist the question! I think you’re right about Indy. I think you’ll see a lot of teams fighting just as hard for the third-seed as they will the fall title. It’s not inconceivable for Indy to drop to fifth or sixth on overall points and still host a playoff game. That puts a lot of pressure on the playoff hunt; nobody will want to be the four seed this year.

Alex: Well, I’d rather get the fourth seed than falling out of the playoffs! But I get your point. If we’re right about Indy, then you could have a situation where you have the 5th place team in the combined standings (Indy) hosting the 2nd place team (let’s say New York or Minnesota). The NASL’s format is weird, but last year the playoff seedings still ended up reflecting the final combined table. Perhaps not so this year.

 

Q: Which team is the most underrated headed into the fall (or, the unluckiest in the spring)?

Jeff: As I alluded to earlier, I think Miami stands a real chance to fight for the fourth playoff spot. Their diamond midfield earned the praise of Carl Craig after the Minnesota match as he adamantly called Miami “the toughest team we faced all spring.” Richie Ryan and Michael Lahoud have anchored the midfield, and you can be certain that they’re looking for attacking talent during the transfer window.

Alex: I still wonder about Miami’s backline, even if their midfield is clearly one of the league’s best now. For me, I’m looking at the two Canadian clubs. Edmonton being Edmonton, they’ve flown under a lot of people’s radar. They’re right up there, and they’ve built upon a strong defense, which is the bedrock to success in my book. I also like what I’ve seen from Ottawa. Their results have been poor, but I think they’re the anti-Indy this year. They’ve been unlucky, and they’re also seemingly building for the long term instead of short-term success. They need a few better players, however, and I wonder if the weak Loonie still ties their hands. Unlike in MLS, they have to play in their native currency.

Jeff: If you had to pick one of the the Canadian teams to take over for the fall, who would you choose?

Alex: Oh, Edmonton look better than Ottawa. I just think the Fury are a respectable squad. They won’t finish high, but you won’t get an easy game from them.

 

Q: Who has been the best signing new to the league?

Jeff: Has to be Eamon Zayed. The Libyan international turned Indy’s often-sputtering offense into a capable attack, living up to his Mr. Hat Trick nickname and helping Indy win the spring against all odds.

Alex: Week in and week out, Papé Diakité was the league’s best defender. He’s played every minute, and only has two yellow cards. He has 70 clearances so far. The next closest defender has 53. Paired with vet Albert Watson, Diakité has led Edmonton to the league’s best defensive record. Also, he’s scored twice, which is as many goals as Tom Heinemann.

Jeff: Diakite has been a revelation. The only difference for me is how they’re able to affect games. Diakite kept Edmonton in games they should’ve lost. Zayed earned them points. Shoutouts also go to Ben Speas, Jeb Brovsky (both MNU), Joe Cole (TBR), Michel (OKC), and Ramon Nunez (FTL).

Alex: If you were Minnesota, would you offer Edmonton a trade: Lance Laing for Papé Diakité? If you were Edmonton, would you consider that deal?

Jeff: If I’m Minnesota, I’m buying Edmonton’s front office a keg of Summit and calling as soon as they polish it off. Even in an EPA stupor, I don’t think Edmonton makes that deal. It’s so tough to find defenders in this league, and I don’t think a reunion would be enough for the Montons to part with Diakite.

 

Q: Who was the worst new signing?

Jeff: Georgio Samaras. To me, this comes down to Matt Fondy at JAX or Samaras, but Samaras carries a bigger reputation. He was brought in to be both a goalscorer and a marketing piece and has failed to achieve either. It shouldn’t come as a surprise (he scored in 1-of-3 matches at Celtic and 1-of-9 for Greece internationally), but the brand ‘Samaras’ promised Rayo goals as he hoped to make it to Spain and the parent club. Neither happened, and his may have been the biggest loss and gamble of the off-season as Rayo OKC’s offense sputtered.

Alex: You’re right that it’s between Fondy and Samaras, but I’m going with the former. I don’t know anybody who believed Samaras would be a legitimate goal scoring presence. He hadn’t played in a while, he had persistent back injuries, and as you note, his strike rate was merely adequate in the Scottish first division. Several years and lingering injuries later, and my expectations for Samaras were rock bottom. Fondy, on the other hand, had scored 24 goals in 30 USL appearances last year. That’s absolutely lethal. Are USL and NASL that different in the quality of play? They’re certainly different, but I doubt even the most fervent NASL backer would have told you that the USL’s golden boot wouldn’t hack it in NASL. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened. Fondy has been dreadful. Unlike someone like Tom Heinemann, who scores less than he should, but is an absolute pest to play against, Fondy doesn’t seem to offer much besides goals. And if he’s not scoring, then he’s wasting space. As you reported, Jacksonville already have shipped him off to Carolina, and I think it’s a good move for both teams. But Jacksonville paid a USL-record transfer fee for him, and he was an utter bust for them. They’re tied as the worst team in the NASL right now in large part because they assumed with Fondy on the team, they could expect goals.

Jeff: I think the system had a lot to do with Jacksonville’s failure. You have to imagine that Fondy will have more success in Carolina. If I’m thinking WORST SIGNING 2K16, I’m going for a player with an interational pedigree. Very few people knew Fondy in NASL circles before last fall. That makes the difference for me.

Alex: But we’re not “very few people,” we’re experts Jeff! Experts!

I grant you that Samaras is a bigger “name” than Fondy, but if you had polled engaged NASL fans before the season, the type of people who knew about both players, I bet you would’ve found skepticism about Samaras and enthusiasm about Fondy. In 2015, Fondy scored 24 goals and looked like a real up-and-comer. In 2015, Samaras scored none, and people questioned whether he’d retire.

Jeff: and in 2016, we’ve been questioning if he isn’t just a skeleton. I don’t know how you even try to sign that guy. Bad all around, unless there’s a Greek population in Oklahoma City of which I’m unaware.

Alex: We really don’t disagree much on this point, honestly.

 

Q: Which coaches are on the hot seat?

Jeff: Tony Meola was given a golden opportunity in his first ever coaching gig with a sneakily-talented group of players and full control over player movement. However, the Armada looked to be the most lifeless side in the Spring, and his own position as a player is their biggest weakness in Miguel Gallardo. Players didn’t look motivated by him, and I would be surprised if he makes it to September.

Alex: Yep, it’s Meola. His team has looked completely adrift in terms of tactics, they can’t score goals for beans, and Jacksonville are a team with high expectations who have spent some money to compete. He’s not the only one though. The RailHawks have a first year owner, and Colin Clarke has had plenty of years to deliver already. This is his team through and through, and it’s struggling. Now with the investment from a new owner, he’s out of excuses.

Jeff: If I had to rank the hottest seats, it’s Meola, Stuart Campbell (do you really think the Rowdies will make it a full season with the same manager?), Caio Zanardi (same situation as Tampa. What’s Gunter Kronsteiner up to?), then Clarke. Those Florida franchises have expectations and club history; I can’t see either of them missing the playoffs and sitting idly by. If New York is clearly going to finish second or lower once September rolls around, should Gio Savarese worry?

Alex: I think Gio is safe no matter what happens. He’s won the league twice in three years. I’d say Carl Craig is on a hotter seat than he is. If Minnesota weren’t heading to MLS, then Craig wouldn’t be under pressure. But because of the impending move to MLS, he needs to show that he can be up for the job in the top league. Minnesota will need to improve on their spring season results in order to lock down Craig’s position.

 

Q: Which teams or players have the most to prove in the fall?

Jeff: Tampa Bay has been building a very impressive roster over the past six months, re-signing Freddy Adu, signing Tommy Heinemann, and most notably adding Joe Cole. For their efforts, they finished with 16 points in the Spring, missing the top slot by two points, but barely clearing rival Fort Lauderdale. This team has the personnel to challenge in any match, but the mis-utilization of players like Adu (though that might not be their fault) and Junior Burgos could prove to be a waste of money and giving minutes to the wrong players. Stuart Campbell has a lot of work to do to get them in the playoffs.

Alex: I think Tampa have been a better team than their record suggests. But along with Minnesota and New York, they definitely have the pressure to make good on the promise of their high wage bill. Those three teams are the teams with the most obvious ambitions in terms of spending on and off the field. All three are in the mix after the spring, but you’d expect them, especially Minnesota and New York, to pull ahead of the pack as the season gets longer. If they don’t, then questions will be asked.

Jeff: Is Kalif Alhassan the star player on the former-Minnesota nightmare squad? His comments after assisting on Tampa’s opener against United seem to imply that he can be our heel.

Alex: He’s certainly a Minnesota killer at the moment. Thank goodness Jonny Steele missed that chance against us, I think I would’ve quit following the sport if that had gone in.

Speaking of players with things to prove, beyond the aforementioned Matt Fondy, I think Lance Laing has the most to prove. He hasn’t been great on either defense or offense for Minnesota. Whatever the issue is, it’s really in the interest of both team and player to get it addressed. Here’s to hoping they can do so over the break.

 

Q: What’s the most needed change over the break for a player or a team?

Jeff: If any player needs a change of scenery in this league, it’s FC Edmonton’s Jason Plumhoff. Much like John Smits last year, Edmonton is benching a very promising young player who seems like a better starting option than the incumbent. Plumhoff is a creative attacker who only got 265 out of a possible 900 minutes, scoring a goal in a rare start against New York. The 24-year-old German-American has the potential to be a key piece of a playoff team’s attack given the right system and opportunity. Plenty of teams need a 10/right winger, and he fits the bill.

Alex: In terms of teams, my first answer was that Carolina need to get a striker. I had Conor Casey in mind, but Matt Fondy has a higher upside in theory. He could be the player we thought he was in Carolina. So with the RailHawks potentially taken care of, I think the next move has to be in New York. Losing Michael Lahoud and (it seems like) Niko Kranj?ar is a real issue. I don’t think you can just pass it over to Ruben Bover and Danny Szetela, they need to go out and get at least one player of Lahoud or Kranj?ar’s ability, otherwise they may struggle a bit in the fall.

Jeff: Not to mention that Szetela doesn’t have a history of staying healthy. With Roversio taking Kranjcar’s international slot, I don’t know who they pick up to fill the midfield. Something is clearly missing in New York. For the first time since they joined the league, they don’t look like the all-caps-COSMOS. They’re beatable and everyone is gunning for them now. They have a solid defense and Jimmy Mauer is one of the two or three best goalkeepers in the league. The attacking half of their team just doesn’t scare me as much as they did last year, though. Talk some sense into me, Schief.

Alex: The Cosmos being the Cosmos, I have no doubt they’ll find a way. Keep in mind that their Cosmos B team should allow them some flexibility with internationals. It’s a worry though, isn’t it? If they had just won the spring, nobody would be concerned about New York, because they’d have months to get it right. But now, there’s still that pressure for results. Let’s say Szetela gets injured the Open Cup. Suddenly New York have all kinds of depth concerns and they could drop valuable points right out of the gate.

***

The NASL fall season kicks off again in one week, on July 2nd!

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