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NASL Power Rankings 2016: Week Thirteen

by on 12 July 2016

It was one of those odd weeks in the NASL where most of the matches were between teams who, at least to this writer, seemed more or less even. The result of these weeks is almost always that the power ranking doesn’t change much. It’s instructive to watch each team, but doesn’t say much about their overall standing.

All the same, two weeks into the fall season and the table is still quite close. As the only team with two wins, the Cosmos have moved out to an early lead in the combined table, but there will be tougher challenges to come. The bottom end of the table still lags as well. But the great middle section, with five teams strung out from 16 to 19 points, is where the action is. Who’s a contender and who’s a pretender? It’s not always so obvious.

Anyway, on to the ranking.

PRCosmos
#1. New York Cosmos – (8-0-4, 24 pts) – No Change

The Cosmos grabbed another three points on Saturday, and have won eight games to date. The closest competitors have won six. But it has to be said that neither of New York’s fall season victories have been especially dominant, despite facing much weaker teams on paper. Last week I wrote all about the difficulty they had in polishing off Ottawa. This week, the challenge was in suppressing Miami FC. Thanks to a last minute winner from Lucky Mkosana, the Cosmos were able to grab a 3-2 victory, but it wasn’t easy.

For one, both Mkosana’s goals were, well, extremely lucky. His first came after a David Diosa pass somehow hypnotized three Miami defenders, each of whom could’ve had a play on the ball if they had just stuck their foot out. His second came after a corner kick deflected off the post, off a bafflingly unmarked Mkosana, and squeezed into the net. They all count the same, but I think New York were quite fortunate to benefit from some truly incompetent defensive work. They also were culpable of the same, which allowed Miami to twice equalize. The green and white have looked unsteady at the back so far this fall.

Having listed the causes for concern in Cosmos Country, there was one redeeming quality to the evening, and it was the sensational passing work in tight quarters that the team pulled off for the second goal. This is the kind of goal that only the Cosmos score regularly in this league, and it really is a joy to watch when it comes off. Ever since they began to play, New York have been the league’s best team at playing in tight spaces, and they were rewarded for their efforts with a crucial goal.

New York face Jacksonville in Hempstead this Wednesday, which is basically a guaranteed win. After that, they go on a three-game road trip that’s not to be underestimated, with stops in Oklahoma City, Tampa Bay, and Edmonton. The toughest matches for the Cosmos, however, come much more towards the end of the fall season, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if New York top these power rankings and the combined table for quite a few more weeks, at least until September. Their early fall schedule is soft.

PREleven
#2. Indy Eleven – (5-7-0, 22 pts) – No Change

Indy continue to do what they do best: frustrate and overcome some of the biggest names in the NASL. The Eleven hosted a Minnesota team intent on revenge, and instead they reasserted their dominance over one of the league’s highest budgeted squads. It wasn’t pretty on either side, and the Eleven benefited from some good fortune and individual heroics. But night after night, someone on this team seems to stand up and deliver when they need to most. It’s the darndest thing.

On Saturday evening, it was a double act. First came goalkeeper Jon Busch, who clearly knew where a Christian Ramirez penalty kick was headed, and beat the ball to his left corner. Second came Dylan Mares, who stands out in this Indy team as a skillful player with the ball. Late in the match, he intercepted a pass from Lance Laing, drove to the top of the box, and curled his finish past Sammy Ndjock into the top corner. It was a moment of quality in a match that lacked it on both sides, and it deservedly held up as the winner, thanks in large part to Mares himself, whose incredible leaping header cleared a sure-equalizer off the line in the dying minutes.

I’ve written about Mares before, and I’d love to see what Indy could do if they built a team (and a stadium, because I’m sorry Indy fans, your pitch is the league’s worst) around him. He is a smooth operator, and along with Siniša Ubiparipovi?, he stands out on this rough-hewn Eleven. There might be more of a role for both of those players next weekend as Indy travel right back to Minnesota for the second half of a really odd home-and-away series. Who knows what went on in the NASL’s scheduling to have it turn out this way, but plenty of eyes around the league will be focused on the rematch of what has been a reasonably ugly rivalry so far this season.

Before that, however, Indy host Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday night. When last these two teams met, the resulting 0-0 draw was quite possibly the least entertaining match of the NASL spring season. Hoping for better on the second try.

PRUnited
#3. Minnesota United FC – (6-1-5, 19 pts) – Up Two

You can’t say the Loons didn’t learn their lesson from the spring season’s capitulation in Indianapolis. Then, Minnesota had been bamboozled by the host’s stout defending and had utterly failed to handle their prowess on the counter and set pieces. This time around, coach Carl Craig’s men were determined to beat Indy at their own game, and they largely succeeded. After ninety minutes, it was Minnesota who had generated by far the better chances, including two great opportunities off their own set pieces and a penalty kick. But the final score ended 0-1, thanks to the penalty being saved, a set-piece goal called off for offside (I’ve looked at the replay repeatedly and while I can’t say for sure, I think Pitchkolan was offside by the slimmest of margins), and the other set piece saved improbably off the line.

United failed to convert their chances, and really both fans can agree that the game was no classic. As a result of both teams resorting to tactics more reminiscent of a team chasing relegation, it was dire watching. But in the NASL, you do what the circumstances dictate, and it’s hard to fault Minnesota or the coaching staff for their strategy. It is, at least on some level, nice to see the tactical flexibility.

This coming week ought to look a bit different. With Jeb(!) Brovsky, Damion Lowe, and Ben Speas all presumably ready for action, Minnesota ought to have their full starting XI ready for the return clash against Indy. At home and on grass, they ought to be able to play a game a bit more suited to their preferred style, and try to force Indy to adapt. I think this kind of scheduling quirk is dumb, but admittedly there is one benefit, and that’s that we get to see directly the kind of tactical tinkering that can go on between two teams who are quite familiar with each other. I keep yammering on about the type of pitch and the style of play, and so this coming Saturday offers a great chance to see if I’m right, or should shut up.

 

PREdmonton
#4. FC Edmonton – (6-3-3, 21 pts) – Up One

Fun fact. FC Edmonton have scored eleven goals and conceded eight, for a total of nineteen. Two clubs, (Minnesota and New York) have scored more goals than that, and two further clubs (Carolina and Miami) have allowed more than that. So if you’re going to an Eddies game hoping to see an attacking game, better wait for the Oile—you know what? Just go watch the Esks.

But if you want to see your hometown club win, well then Colin Miller’s team is good value for your money. On Sunday, they took care of business with a 1-0 win against Fort Lauderdale. Edmonton have now won five of six at home in the league, giving up just four goals in those games. They’re the league’s stingiest team—quite similar to Indy but better on defense and without the same speed in the attack. As we know, that formula is a successful one in this league. The Eddies weren’t really the better team on the balance of play (and Matt VanOekel will probably be named to the Team of the Week for his performance), but they really never allowed Fort Lauderdale a single exceptional chance. Meanwhile, the men in blue had two of them: one was a clear penalty that the referee inexplicably did not award, and the second was Daryl Fordyce’s winner.

I have a strong sense of fatalism about this Edmonton team, after years of watching them come close to the postseason and falling just short. But through twelve games, their defense has been rock-solid and that’s really more than half the battle in the NASL. Next, the Eddies host Ottawa, and they look the better of the two Canadian sides at this moment.

PRStrikers
#5. Fort Lauderdale Strikers – (4-4-4, 16 pts) - Up One

Fort Lauderdale move up in the rankings this week more on account of the performances of other teams than their own. The Strikers faced Edmonton, and as written above, they generated a lot of heat and not a lot of fire. This team still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I don’t quite see the difference in the overall quality between this team and (say) Ottawa, yet there’s a seven point gap between those teams. So what do I know?

Last week, I did write that the upcoming stretch of games for the red and gold would say a lot about the club. That’s even more the case given the odd behind-the-scenes activity that 55.1 reported on last week. With tough matches ahead and some strife off the field, it’ll be interesting to see the effect. Based on Sunday’s showing, there wasn’t much of a change. But if a few more disappointing results stack up, that could force a re-evaluation.

Next the Strikers travel to Indianapolis for a midweek match.

PRRowdies
#6. Tampa Bay Rowdies – (4-5-3, 17 pts) - Down Two

The one thing you can say about the Tampa Bay Rowdies this season is that they have—save their US Open Cup loss to Columbus—been competitive in every match. Now, that cuts against them sometimes, because they’ve played competitive games against teams they should’ve beaten handily. But they’ve also been giving good fights to basically anyone in the league. Except, oddly, to Carolina.

Early in the spring season, the Rowdies were beaten 1-3 by the RailHawks, their worst defeat of the year until last Saturday, when they managed to fall 1-4. This defeat is significantly more galling. When they lost to Carolina in the spring, it made some sense because Carolina looked like a good team. But the RailHawks have been absolutely dreadful since week five of the spring season, going winless in seven straight weeks. To be the team that is finally beaten is really an astoundingly bad achievement. To be beaten by three goals to a team whose last two league matches were 1-4 and 1-5 losses? Uh yeah, what?

Even Freddy Adu was allowed to play!

The critical loss for Tampa Bay was clearly their two starting center backs, Tam Mkandawire and Neill Collins. Still, replacements Stefan Antonijevic and Frankie Sanfilippo are experienced professionals and really should have done better, and I think it’s quite odd that they did not. The good news is that their next match is hosting Puerto Rico, which ought to be a win, regardless of who mans the defense. But the evidence is clear that the Rowdies are better off with Tam and Neill in the back. And that’s three points down the drain for the green and gold.

PRMiami
#7. Miami FC – (1-5-6, 8 pts) – No Change

Another pretty respectable performance, another less than optimal result for Miami FC. Despite their big money acquisitions, the teal and tangerine have yet to get everything quite straightened out. They’re not scoring enough, especially from open play (I cannot remember Darío Cvitanich scoring from something other than a penalty kick this year, although I’m sure he must have). Their defense is still making awful errors. Back to the transfer market? A central defender, perhaps?

I still have Miami ranked fairly highly,  when paired with their points total, because the talent is there and a last-second loss to New York is nothing to be ashamed of. But already there are eleven points separating Miami from the playoff places, and we’ve only played twelve games. Alessandro Nesta’s team has a good bit of work to do.

They will have a golden opportunity to get in the win column with their weekend home match against Jacksonville. The Armada will have already played midweek, and they basically never win away anyway, so it’s really well set-up for Miami.

 

PRRayo
#8. Rayo OKC – (4-4-4, 16 pts) – Up One

Rayo move up a spot for their 1-0 away win against Ottawa. They somehow have 16 points on the year, which is strange given their overall lack of coordination and cohesion this season.

For a team that really should be on six points to start the fall, Rayo have been quite bad. They drew against Edmonton due to their own carelessness, and were somehow rewarded in Canada’s capital when their hosts scored an early own goal. Credit to the Scissortails for a good defensive effort so far, but beyond that, don’t color me impressed.

It gets even better for Rayo in the midweek matches, as they host Puerto Rico FC. While I don’t exactly trust this Oklahoma City team to get results on command, I’m generally so down on the Melos, that I’ll back the home team. But given everything we’ve seen from Rayo so far, I’m not expecting it to be a dominant performance either way.

PRFury
#9. Ottawa Fury – (2-3-7, 9 pts) – Down One

[Rereads last week’s Ottawa Fury post.]

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Ottawa continue to play every match as if they’re trying to boost the confidence of their opponents. They play well, but not quite well enough, and after 90 minutes, the opponent wins. How nice of them! Happy belated Canada Day!

In this case, I feel sad for the Fury. They deserved better than to have Romauld Peiser sent off and a penalty kick awarded in the 4th minute for a foul in the box some defender and Marcel DeBellis conspire to bungle the ball into their own net.That set them down a goal and a man, after which they played the Cosmos Rayo OKC even and finished the match with a 1-2 0-1 loss.

Nothing much changed for Ottawa over the break, aside from their pick-up of two FC Edmonton players; Mallan Roberts on loan and Eddie Edward via transfer for family reasons. These two pick-ups will improve their defense (both played against New York), but neither are exactly game changing. The loss of forward Idan Vered would theoretically have been an issue, but since the club he moved to was Beitar Jerusalem, we’re clearly all better off without a person like that in the league.

Ottawa appear set to lose Marcel de Jong to the Vancouver Whitecaps, which is a serious blow, considering that de Jong has been by far their best player this season.

Ottawa host Rayo OKC next week, in a match they ought to have a good chance of winning. Ottawa travel to Edmonton next weekend, in what should be a very low scoring match. But Edmonton are the better team.

PRArmada
#10. Jacksonville Armada – (2-5-5, 11 pts) – No Change

My god, the Jacksonville Armada scored one goal last week, and now this week they scored two! TWO! Dare I expect three in their next match?

Sorry Logie, beating Puerto Rico at home isn’t a great accomplishment. For Jacksonville, I guess, given that it’s only the tenth NASL win in the club’s history (in thirty two games), it’s something worth cheering. But the Armada have to start getting better results all around if they’re going to move up the rankings, and the table.

But the good news is, I think there’s a chance it could happen. The Armada did look much more dangerous against Puerto Rico than they’ve looked in a long time, especially on the counter. Alex Dixon and Jemal Johnson combined on both Armada goals. Jason Plumhoff looked good coming on as a substitute, and could prove a smart acquisition for Jacksonville. In goal, Sean Lewis couldn’t quite follow up on his incredible showing last weekend, but I’d still rather he play over Miguel Gallardo. So yes, it’s only Puerto Rico. But maybe there’s hope.

The Armada have a tough week ahead, with two matches, both on the road. First, a trip to New York, then a match against Miami. Considering that the Armada never win ever, and the caliber of their opponents, it’s quite likely they emerge from the road trip without a point. But the manner in how they play, especially on the attack, could change the way that this team is viewed.

PRRailHawks
#11. Carolina RailHawks – (5-2-5, 17 pts) – Down One

Last week I wrote that if nothing changed with the RailHawks, they ought to consider a coaching change.

Boy did something change with the RailHawks.

Against Tampa Bay in a match that on paper seemed difficult, the men in silver and orange rolled to a commanding 4-1 victory. Nazmi Albadawi was named the NASL Player of the Week (which makes no sense to me, his goals were a penalty and the fourth goal of a 4-1 game), but the real star was recent acquisition Matt Fondy, who terrorized the normally stout Tampa back line. The much maligned (especially by me) striker capitalized on his first start not on Jacksonville, scoring the opener and winning two penalty kicks by and more or less running free in the box. As much as Fondy came in for abuse in these pages during the spring season, I do think the RailHawks suit him much better and that he can be the reliable goal scorer this team so desperately needs. But might he already be replaced by aging Mexican star Omar Bravo?

Either way, I’d like to believe that Carolina have turned a page. Their defensive effort was solid (I think Brian Sylvestre is a better option in net than Akira Fitzgerald, kudos to Colin Clarke for making the switch), and their attacking was better, even though they benefited from two spot kicks. They can’t play a depleted Tampa team every week, but maybe if they play like this more often, they’ll be the team that they once looked like being.

Because the NASL table moves so slowly, even seven weeks without a win can still mean you’re in the thick of the hunt.

PRPuertoRico

#12. Puerto Rico FC - (0-1-1, 1 pt) – No Change

 

The Melos suffered their first defeat in their history despite a spirited effort away in Jacksonville. While I applaud Puerto Rico’s effort, the Armada aren’t a particularly fearsome team, and the result mostly helps confirm my pre-existing suspicions that this team isn’t that good. They do have some fight in them, however, which is a good sign. After going down 0-2 on the road, they scored and battled until the end for an equalizer.

It’s probably much too early to say anything definitive about this team, beyond what we can see on paper and the disappointment of the opening weeks. So stay tuned. PRFC play twice this week, both away matches, at OKC and Tampa Bay. My hopes aren’t high for either match, so any points that the men in orange can muster is a good result.

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