Photo Credit: Minnesota United FC

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NASL Power Rankings 2016: Week Twelve

by on 4 July 2016

We’re back! Yahoo!

Despite all the diversions, whether across the US or in France, I still missed you, NASL. I missed your silliness, your unpredictability, your terrible fields, your questionable attendances… all of it! Except for your broadcast deals that put games on television stations that nobody has, and that are literally unavailable in one of the two countries that make up the league.

All the same, thanks for coming back.

It’s been a long and busy break for the teams. Miami continued to make eye opening purchases. The Open Cup happened, and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers made the Ro8. There were several friendlies played. Hey, a new team even entered the league! It was all in all a good time.

Now it’s back to the grind. The fall season kicked off on Saturday, and it promises to answer some of the big questions we were left with after the topsy turvey spring. Already, we’ve gotten some good evidence as to what has stayed the same and what might be changing. Consistency, growth, and perseverance are key in the fall, and there are no second chances. Here. We. Go.

PRCosmos
#1. New York Cosmos – (7-0-4, 21 pts) – No Change

Three more points in the bag for the New York Cosmos, and I’m tempted so say all’s well that ends well in Hempstead. But despite the win over the Ottawa Fury, there’s more cause for concern in Cosmos Country after this game than there was before. The green and white struggled to impose themselves on their home turf, despite being up a man for almost the entire game. The mid-season break was unkind for New York. They lost Niko Kranj?ar to Rangers, then saw another loanee, Gabriel Farfán, poached by Maimi FC after Michael Lahoud was snatched away in the same fashion earlier in the spring. It comes to a big personnel issue for Gio Saverese’s squad at a bad time.

New York will continue to be a good team, because that’s what they do. But if these gaps aren’t plugged soon, then it will be increasingly hard for the Cosmos to keep up appearances with Ruben Bover, Danny Szetela, and Adam Moffat in midfield. These players are not bad, but they’re not as good as those that came before them. Against Ottawa, that usual Cosmos control seemed to be missing. The visitors looked up for the challenge throughout, despite being down a man, and they broke through at the end of the game for a consolation. Three points are enough to keep New York in the top spot this week, but performances like Saturday’s won’t paper over the cracks for long.

Next week, New York travel to Miami. Their previous trip to the home of their ancestors resulted in an almighty thrashing that also sparked a drastic and expensive transformation project. The Miami FC of today is much different, and much better than the one that the Cosmos will remember. It will be a test, make no mistake.

PREleven
#2. Indy Eleven – (4-7-0, 19 pts) – No Change

I’m not entirely sure what to make of Indy’s last gasp draw against debutants Puerto Rico FC, in Bayamón. I’ve been pounding this drum for a while, but the Eleven are not good against bad teams. Puerto Rico, at least on paper, belong in that category, and so to some extent a lukewarm 1-1 tie against a brand new club is more or less what I’ve come to expect from the spring champions.

On the other hand, Indy were the first to make a difficult away trip to play on a lumpy grass field against a totally unknown team. There are a lot of challenges that will face NASL teams when they play in Puerto Rico, and perhaps a point on the road is a good result here.

What can be safely taken away from this match is that there’s no need to rewrite the book on Indy. They played more or less the same way they played in the spring. They also fought to the bitter end and snagged a late equalizer. We already knew this was a team that didn’t quit. But if there was any thought of relaxation following the spring season victory, it didn’t show through here. The goal was scored by the new man, Souleymane Youla, who was playing his first minutes for the club and seems to have already caught the bug. The Eleven kept their undefeated record through eleven matches, for the third time in the year equalizing in the game’s final minutes.

Can they survive unbeaten through twelve games? It’d be poetic if the streak was stopped at eleven, but don’t expect that to sway Tim Hankinson’s crew. Their home match against Minnesota this coming weekend is early in the season, but it could end up being crucial at the end of the year.

PRUnited
#3. Minnesota United FC – (6-1-4, 19 pts) – Up Two

No team had a better Saturday than the Loons, who stormed out of the gates and absolutely pulverized the visiting Carolina RailHawks. The final score was 5-1, which seemed an accurate reflection of the proceedings. Christian Ramirez scored a hattrick and added an assist for good measure. He now leads the Golden Boot race with eight, and Kevin Venegas leads the Hamburger Helper™ NASL Golden Helping Hand race with six assists. For a club that struggled to restart the offense once Ben Speas went down in the spring, the result proved how far things have come. After strong results, even in defeat, against Sporting Kansas City and Club León, the Loons are looking like the club most of the league expected.

There’s still a lot of soccer to be played, however, and many much tougher matches to come. Minnesota must next travel to Indy, and they’ll be without Jeb(!) Brovsky in central midfield, due to red card suspension. It would be welcome if a few of the players who sat out Saturday’s action with injuries, like Damion Lowe and Ben Speas, would become available.

The last match against Indy is where things seemed to go off the rails for Minnesota in the spring season. Now, with the Eleven guaranteed a playoff home match, and United gunning for the other top seed, points against Indy take on special importance. Last time, the Loons were easily undone by long balls and counter attacks. They ought to be better prepared this time, and will be hungry to end the Eleven’s unbeaten streak. But it will be a tougher ask than this past week’s lollygag against Carolina, and they need to play the full 90 minutes against Indy—the closing moments against the RailHawks were a mess.

PRRowdies
#4. Tampa Bay Rowdies – (4-5-2, 17 pts) - Down One

Tampa Bay started off the fall season in much the same fashion that they played the spring. They looked like the better team, and while they probably can’t believe it, they emerged with only a share of the spoils. The Rowdies drop down a spot because they didn’t win 5-1, but they’re not going down in the power ranking for real. They could have won 5-1 were it not for the repeated interventions of Jacksonville goalkeeper Sean Lewis. So while a point in their house is really two points dropped, objectively Tampa ought to not just like, but love, their performance. They did more than enough to win, the visiting club couldn’t handle them, and if they play future games with the same level of control, they’ll make the playoffs. Rowdies fans should have a good feeling about it.

Just like with Minnesota, this is where we remember that there is a lot more to come. Facing Jacksonville at your home is probably the easiest match-up the NASL has to offer, considering that no NASL or USL team has ever managed to lose it. Tampa Bay’s schedule starts soft in the first three weeks, with an away to Carolina and a home against Puerto Rico. Then it turns right round, with a home fixture against the Cosmos, and away to Rayo and Ottawa in one week. So it might take some time to see how this Rowdies team is progressing.

Here’s to hoping the club’s record attendance on Saturday is another point of progress, although the once in a lifetime postgame concert from a rapper who I’ve never heard of might have had something to do with it.

That’s how I feel, anyway.

PREdmonton
#5. FC Edmonton – (5-3-3, 18 pts) – Down One

FC Edmonton’s modus operandi is to not concede, so when Robbie Findley scored in the 33rd minute for Rayo OKC, things were always going to be tough for the Eddies. But it took until the last seconds to equalize, and it only happened after the hosts basically stood back, refused to run, and dared Gustavo to shoot from distance. That kind of charity doesn’t happen every day.

A point on the road is alright for Edmonton, who are going to bravely slog through the fall season and potentially make the playoffs but more likely (if history is any guide) miss it by a few points. I’m not sure why the NASL did this whole thing with four of the spring openers being repeated to start the fall, but either way, Colin Miller’s men have escaped from Oklahoma City with two draws and that’ll do.

Edmonton sit in 4th place on the combined table and I think they’ve looked rather good actually. But I’m pessimistic in the long run, and after a mid-season break with absolutely no acquisitions and the release of patron saint Eddie Edward, they’re looking awfully thin. This past weekend, the team had four players on the bench, including a back-up goalkeeper. Saving money? Injury bug? Not good enough? It’s odd, and it’s hard to compete long term like that.

The Eddies host Fort Lauderdale next. They met on the final week of the spring, with the northerners ending up on top.

PRStrikers
#6. Fort Lauderdale Strikers – (4-4-3, 16 pts) - No Change

The red and gold got the league’s first look at a revamped Miami FC side (more on them shortly) and acquitted themselves well with a home 1-1 draw in which they held the balance of play. You could probably complain that the Strikers weren’t able to capitalize on the better chances to get the three points, but the result was reasonably fair. It also caps off a great month for Fort Lauderdale, in which they have advanced to the Ro8 in the US Open Cup despite going to extra time in all three matches, twice winning on penalty kicks. Results are results, and regardless, going to toe-to-toe with MLS squads is an achievement.

The Strikers are still somewhat of a mystery to me. More than any other team in this league, I really don’t know why they’re winning soccer games. Or drawing soccer games. Because I mainly expect them to lose, and they’ve failed to meet my expectations eight out of eleven times. So what do I know anyway?

As mentioned above, the next match for the Strikers is up in Edmonton, then two more games that week, away in Indianapolis, and at home against Carolina. That’s a reasonably challenging set of three matches, and so for all my lingering doubts about this squad, they have the opportunity to make a big statement very soon.

PRMiami
#7. Miami FC – (1-5-5, 8 pts) – Up Two

Miami FC started their inaugural year with a roster that most NASL fans could see wasn’t good enough. That judgement proved true, but to their credit, the ownership recognized the problem and moved swiftly and decisively to correct it. One of the stories of the season has been the teal and tangerine’s movement in the transfer market and it continued unabated in the midseason break. To their haul of Richie Ryan and Michael Lahoud, Miami added the erstwhile New York City FC (and Atlanta Silverbacks) midfielder Kwadwo Poku, and poached fullback Gabriel Farfan from the New York Cosmos.

Now, at last, Miami have the makings of a quality team. Although I’m not entirely sold tactically on a midfield diamond of Ariel Martinez, Poku, Lahoud, and Ryan, the talent of that group is undeniable. A healthy Darío Cvitanich returning up top is another valuable asset.

This team will take some time to gel, and Ryan’s absence away at Fort Lauderdale was an inconvenience. But on paper at least, these four major money acquisitions should really help

PRFury
#8. Ottawa Fury – (2-3-6, 9 pts) – Down One

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 that looked to my eyes to be wrongly awarded.That set them down a goal and a man, after which they played the Cosmos even and finished the match with a 1-2 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 host Rayo OKC next week, in a match they ought to have a good chance of winning.

PRRayo
#9. Rayo OKC – (3-4-4, 13 pts) – Down One

Oh Rayo OKC! Played in their home and native stadium, their draw against Edmonton will come as a grave disappointment considering that a minimum of defensive effort would’ve probably snuffed out the Eddies’ equalizer. True patriot love in all their players, for all 90 minutes, was all that was needed, and they came up wanting.

Rayo are neither bad nor good, but the most damning thing about them is that they seem to lack any real upside. What’s the best case scenario for OKC fans to see their team rise? That Samaras turns healthy and becomes a deadly striker? That Ian Svantesson learns to play as a strong and free center forward after previously being a central defender? That Billy Forbes regains his mojo and ranges far and wide? That their defenders actually run to close down attackers, instead of just standing on guard? Most of the other clubs in the NASL have had highs which show what kind of glorious and free club they aspire to be. Rayo just kind of are. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, sometimes they draw. I’m not really sure what they do well, nor am I entirely confident as to where they’re weak. But in a league where everyone else is so up and down, steady, dull mediocrity is the worst way to be.

PRArmada
#10. Jacksonville Armada – (1-5-5, 8 pts) – Up One

The Armada scored a goal! So unexpected was this occurrence that they conceded to Tampa Bay virtually off the subsequent kickoff. But beggars can’t be choosers. And in a match where they got basically played off the field. Tony Meola’s troops will be just fine with a point on the road.

Meola deserves credit for the result because he benched goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo and put his faith in the extremely green Sean Lewis. The young American’s previous professional experience came with (don’t laugh) the PDL’s Panama City Beach Pirates and the Tasmanian Victory League Champions (yes that’s a thing) Olympia FC Warriors. Somehow having arrived stateside, he waited out Gallardo’s inevitable stumbles and an injury to Sebastian Evers, and finally got his chance. Woah, was he fantastic. The Rowdies huffed and puffed and they simply couldn’t beat him twice. What a show, keep him in!

Otherwise, I think the Armada are still looking awfully thin in the attack. They’ve yet to really splash that Richie Ryan money, although they did pick up two Swedes over the break (neither were in the eighteen against Tampa, so ¯\_(?)_/¯). Having Pascal Millien and Mechack Jérôme back from international duty is also a plus.

Next up, the Armada host Puerto Rico FC. The Melos are still a mystery, but the Armada have shown little interest in tactics this season anyway, so it ought to be a fairly charmless, yet boundlessly interesting match.

PRRailHawks
#11. Carolina RailHawks – (4-2-5, 14 pts) – Down One

Good god.

Colin Clarke has been coaching Carolina since 2011. Their performances have gotten worse and worse since 2013, when they won the shield but failed to qualify for the Soccer Bowl. The past two years, they’ve had bizarre mental blocks and massive losing streams that they have been unable to extricate themselves from. How much longer can this go on? There’s no evidence that Clarke can pull the RailHawks out of this calamitous downward spiral (reminder: 0-2-5 after starting the season with four wins). If nothing changes this coming weekend at home against Tampa, owner Stephen Malik really ought to consider changes. He’s invested in this club, the players are more than good enough, and the results are horrible.

Gary Smith is available.

PRPuertoRico

#12. Puerto Rico FC - (0-1-0, 1 pt) – Debut!

Puerto Rico FC debut at the bottom of this ranking, although I admit to being pleasantly surprised with their opening performance and delighted with the enthusiasm of the crowd and the play-by-play commentary. I suspect that with the quirks of their field and the distance of travel, the Melos will have a distinct home field advantage.

Whether they’ll win away, however, is something of a question. On paper, their roster simply doesn’t compare. There are a few USL players, a few NASL veterans, and some homegrown Puerto Rican stars. There are also a lot of players I simply don’t know, and so I’m open to the possibility that this is a much stronger group than I know. But it’d be surprising if they competed aggressively.

It will be hard for Puerto Rico especially given that three of the four playoff spots are basically foreclosed to them as they didn’t play in the spring  But surely playoffs aren’t the main goal, at least for now. A respectable opening season and some good home crowds would be a start to be proud of.

They did well at first, playing Indy tough in their own style of play. Héctor Ramos, a very capable player with a great strike rate for the national team, netted the club’s debut goal. The Eleven equalized at the death, as they are wont to do, but something tells me the crowd went home happy.

As screwy as the NASL’s expansion has been lately, it’s always fun to have new clubs. Welcome to the league, Puerto Rico!

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