At this point in the year, we are more or less halfway through the season. There’s never a precise middle point, because some teams have played seventeen matches and some have played fifteen. But most teams in the league have sixteen contests in the book at this moment, and so we’re going to call the 2016 edition of the NASL halfway done.
How do things stand?
This Power Ranking has ranked four teams: New York, Indy, Minnesota, and Edmonton as the league’s top four, and in that order, since week thirteen. A few weeks on, and that group appears to be separating themselves from the top of the league, ever so slightly. The furthest back of that leading group is Minnesota, who have 25 points, but they have also played the least games. They top fifth place Rayo by two points with two games in hand, and sixth place Tampa by five points and a game in hand. And New York, Indy, and Edmonton are even further up the table.
Ranking these four, however, has become increasingly difficult. All of these four top teams have played at least three home matches in the fall (Edmonton have played four). They are combined 13-0-0 in these matches. What distinguishes these teams is that they all their home matches are foregone conclusions. So what to make to make of their away records then? It’s the reverse! In eleven away matches, these top teams hold a record of 1-4-6. Whichever of these teams can figure out how to get points on the road with more regularity will have the league in their hand.
It’s through this lens that you have to evaluate the results we’ve seen among these top four teams. Edmonton had a fantastic week. But they played twice at home, and have played more home games than the other teams. That’s why they lead the fall season. New York has had a rough few weeks. But that was in large part because they played three away matches in a row. Sure, they didn’t take advantage, but neither have their competitors. Indy have also looked more vulnerable of late. But of these four sides, they’ve played the toughest schedule in the fall so far. And Minnesota, who lurk with games in hand, has only played twice away. They’re coming up on a stretch of three home matches in four, but it will be the last week of August, when they play three straight on the road, that could define their season.
So with all of this written, here’s what I’ll say about this top four, which gets ever-so-slightly revised this week. The gap between the first and fourth team this week is smaller than the gap between fourth and fifth. I think these sides are, at this stage, almost exactly equal.
All of the above being written, I cannot demote New York, even as they failed to make hay on their three-game road trip. The Cosmos dropped a 1-2 decision to Edmonton at the midweek, returning home with just a single point, and a -4 hit to their goal differential. But they returned to form at home against Puerto Rico, exactly as you would expect them to, with a solid 3-0 win.
The green and white were never going to lose to the league newcomers, and the only real question at kickoff was how much they’d tack on. Lucky Mkosana, who you figured would’ve been outclassed by the league years ago, actually seems to be getting more productive. Gio Savarese is a shrewd manager, who has very quietly gotten the best out of a number of seemingly bit-players in their time in New York.
Having not seen a cause to drop the Cosmos from the top spot despite their bad road trip, I don’t see New York falling out of this position for another seven weeks. Why? Of this team’s next eight matches, six are played in Hempstead (Rayo OKC come this week).Of that stretch, the Cosmos will host both Indy and Minnesota, so a statement win from either of those visitors could conceivably flip the script. But in eight home matches to date, New York are 8-0, with a combined score of 17-2. There’s no more sure thing in this league than the Cosmos at home. Expect New York to race out to a lead in the overall league table well into fall. But the ultimate fate of this team will be decided once the run of home games ends and stretch of road matches closes out the season.
Indy suffered just their second loss of the season this week, and it came as a 1-2 score away against Miami. It wasn’t an unexpected result. Miami are a tricky opponent for the Eleven. Indy have been better against stronger opposition this year. Miami are a team that, like Schrödinger’s cat, are both good and bad at the same time, and thus is was inevitable that the visitors should struggle.
It was interesting to see Keith Cardona make his first start of the year for Indy. In the preseason, I expected Cardona to be Indy’s first choice, with mentoring from creaky Jon Busch. Instead, Busch has been fantastic for Indy and the young Cardona has been completely shut out of playing time. But for whatever reason, Tim Hankinson decided to give Cardona a run-out on Saturday. You’ve got to give young players time, and with a playoff spot secure, perhaps mid-season matches like this one are the ideal time to plug in a few little-used players. That said, you could see why Busch has been starting. Cardona probably could’ve done better on both of Miami’s goals, especially the second. Had Busch not started the spring season (which is what I wanted and expected), Indy would not have won. Shows how much I know.
Indy are also about to start a homestand. This one will last three matches, including a midweek clash against Jacksonville and a weekend meeting with Ottawa. The former is more or less a guaranteed win, but the latter could prove tricky. In their eight home matches, Indy have won six and tied twice. Ottawa are one of the two teams to eek a draw against the Eleven at The Mike, and they’re playing better now than ever.
Minnesota took a point from their road trip to Oklahoma City, which given the difficulty of playing on the road this year, is actually a pretty solid result. The Loons will surely be kicking themselves that they didn’t take away more, however. Christian Ramirez scored in stoppage time to put the team ahead 2-1, but just seconds later the hosts equalized rather improbably through Futty Danso.
In truth, the result was fair. Both teams benefited from lucky headed equalizer goals. Justin Davis almost certainly intended to cross the ball, but his awkward looping header fell into the net instead to tie the game at 1-1. Danso’s late tally came from another awkward, almost unintentional looping header. In both cases, you couldn’t really fault either defender, as both were well positioned, and contested the ball. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.
I do think, however, that Minnesota deserve some credit for the great 29-pass, 11-player build-up to Ramirez’s goal. Check it out here.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Minnesota are about to embark on a series of home games. They play twice at home this week (midweek vs Puerto Rico, and against Miami over the weekend). This should translate into six points, and anything less will be points dropped. The Loons have played just fifteen games, which means they have a game in hand, if not two, against all of their chief rivals on the table. But having that kind of opportunity and cashing in on it are two different things. Like the teams that surround them at the top of the table, it’s all about taking care of business at home, and figuring out what the deal is on the road.
No team had a better week than Edmonton, who won 2-1 over New York, and 1-0 over Carolina. They’ve also added a couple of intriguing players in Pedro Galvao (fullback) and Ben Fisk (winger). Both home wins (in which the two newcomers made their debuts) vaulted the Eddies into a tie on points with the Cosmos for the fall season, and second place behind them in the combined table, with a game in hand in both scenarios.
At various times over the weekend, I considered putting Edmonton on top of the ranking. Ultimately I kept things as they were, but that whole preamble in the intro was mainly written for the Eddies’ benefit. This is a good team, possibly the league’s best team, but I just can’t say for sure.
One thing that is certain is that Colin Miller’s men have the league’s best defense. With Papé Diakité and Albert Watson back in the line-up, the Eddies conceded just once to two teams with good scoring records. Now in sixteen games, Matt Van Oekel’s net has been breached just ten times, and the team leads the league in clean sheets. Already, in six matches, Puerto Rico have conceded more. Only one team (Minnesota, week two) have scored twice against them in the league, and no Edmonton match has seen four goals total scored.
The Eddies have started the fall by making the most of their four home games in six. But like all of these top four teams, they will ultimately end the fall season with more games on the road than not. So banking points now is crucial.
Coming up next, Edmonton must hop down to Puerto Rico, the league’s longest road trip. Let’s see what kind of effect that travel has on the team. PR are there for the taking, and three points on the road in Bayamón would ease some of the pressure for the home match against Minnesota that follows the week after.
Miami edge up another place this week; the best of the rest. Given their horrible start to the year, they still have a huge amount of ground to recover on the table. But they’re playing quite well, even occasionally without Richie Ryan, and Saturday’s win over Indy marks their best result of the year.
It was interesting to see Miami and Indy play each other. Both teams are quite similar, employing a 4-4-2, doing their best attacking work on counter-attacks, and playing on horrible playing surfaces (it’s a toss-up for which side has the league’s worst field). But these days, the teal and tangerine are probably the more technically skilled side, and on Saturday it proved the case.
In terms of organization, Miami still probably have room for improvement. But they are improving. With a 2-2-1 record so far this fall, Alessandro Nesta’s men are looking better this fall than they ever did in the spring. There’s much more room to grow to break into the top group, but on the evidence of Saturday, they could get it done.
Next up, Miami travel to take on Minnesota. The Loons are hard to beat at home, and Miami lost 1-3 in the spring. The two matches after that; against Fort Lauderdale and Rayo, are more winnable and very crucial.
The Scissortails had a good week, with a win on Wednesday over Tampa Bay, and then a draw against Minnesota over the weekend. The problem is that at their current rate, this just isn’t good enough for Rayo OKC. With next week’s match being away in New York, there’s a good chance that it’ll end in a loss, bringing Rayo’s record to 6-6-6. Last week, they were 5-5-5. They’ve also been 3-3-3, 2-2-2, and 1-1-1 this season. Averaging four points every three games is simply not going to cut it. 1.33 ppg is not good enough to make the playoffs. It’s more or less the line of mediocrity. Rayo are at it right now, and they’ve been at it for more or less the whole season.
Rayo’s ranking, then, has usually been less a function of their own play, and more a result of how many teams are looking better or worse than they are. This past week’s results saw bad results from a couple of teams who seemed to be near to the leaders, and so Rayo look better in comparison, despite actually performing more or less exactly as you would expect.
Ottawa started the fall in disastrous form, losing three consecutive matches. But after Paul Dalglish went on a bizarre Twitter run screencapping his team’s stats, they’ve now won three straight, including twice this week, and suddenly it all looks pretty decent for the Fury. What happened? Was it the Tweets?
It’s certainly hard to say, but I think a few things have changed. First, I’ve always been a believer that the Fury were a better side than people gave them credit for, but they didn’t really have the talent up and down the roster to complete. Second, they’ve been adding that talent. Since June, Ottawa have signed seven non-academy players. Four of those players made the start on Saturday, and the remaining three all subbed in. The new additions are improvements over those they’ve replaced, and the Fury are benefiting (their press was noticeably improved against Carolina especially). Third, Ottawa have simply played worse teams over the past three games (and twice at home) than they played in the first three (once at home). To kick off the season, Ottawa lost to New York, Rayo, and Edmonton. Since, they’ve beaten Jacksonville away, and Carolina and Tampa at home.
Ottawa still ought to feel good about how they’ve done recently. Beyond simply winning each match, the Fury have done it all with a 2-0 result. It’s now been 278 minutes since the Fury defense was opened up, and there’s a real change to gain some momentum. The next three matches are away at Indy, then home against Jacksonville, and finally away in Fort Lauderdale. The match against the Eleven this coming weekend will be a challenge. The others are extremely winnable.
Who is to blame this week?
Last week we heard all about how the referees were biased against the Rowdies. Last week the team owner and social media department, through an open letter and a low-light video, denounced PRO officials for stealing points away from this Tampa team.
Now, after a week in which the Rowdies lost twice and failed to score a goal against Rayo and Ottawa, who will Bill Edwards and the team FO blame for the defeats?
Was it the referees again? Was it the quality of the turf? Was it the lingering musty smell of the visitors’ locker rooms? Was it the meanness of the fans in Oklahoma City and Ottawa? Was it the lumpy pillows at the hotel? Was it the lack of pretzels on the flights? Was it the Democratic National Convention?
Tell me, Bill Edwards, how did PRO referees conspire to dupe Matt Pickens, leading to Rayo OKC’s only goal and an appearance on Sportscenter’s Not Top 10? How did PRO referees somehow fool Matt Pickens yet again on a low bouncing shot up in Ottawa? How did PRO referees get into the head of Tam Mkandawire and convince him to head the ball into his own net? Will we get an open letter looking into these pressing questions?
This coming week, the Rowdies face Fort Lauderdale at home. Surely even PRO’s nefarious machinations can’t get Tampa to lose that game, can they?
Just like Tampa, it was a two-away-loss week for the RailHawks. Their tour of Canada led to no points. They could’ve really used at least three, but they at least might’ve settled for a draw against Edmonton, one of the teams in playoff position. Instead, a three point difference between those two teams has become a nine point difference, and the playoffs look far away for this team again.
I’d be surprised if Carolina fell into the same kind of rut they were in towards the end of the spring (though perhaps I shouldn’t be, it’s always hot or cold for this club). Despite losing twice this weekend and not scoring, I don’t think they looked completely blown out in either match. Brian Sylvestre played well enough against Edmonton that he should get more nods over Akira Fitzgerald, and I think the RailHawks are better with him in goal. The trick, as always, is to get the attack going. It doesn’t come easily for Carolina. Omar Bravo, who started against Edmonton, could not find a way through. Matt Fondy didn’t have a great trip either. Without Nazmi Albadawi, Matt Watson, or James Marcelin, the whole team suffers.
The RailHawks have one more stop on their away run, as they head down south to visit Jacksonville. The Armada are not in a good place right now, and Carolina will need to take advantage, even away. They really can’t afford to fall further behind the pace.
Fort Lauderdale eeked out a late win against the visiting Jacksonville Armada on Saturday night, which is to say that they struggled to do the easiest thing in the NASL. Still, they won, and incredibly kept a clean sheet with Bruno ‘Butterfingers’ Cardoso in net (more on the Jacksonville Armada below). For a team that been on a big slide, anything will do. It was their first win of the fall.
Next week, the Strikers play their Coastal Cup match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the second in a four game stretch of Florida vs Florida matches. Neither team looks too hot right now (see above), but the red and gold are still the clear underdogs. Only the occasional Maicon Santos goal seems to save them, and if someone has decided that Cardoso needs to get a second chance in net, that can only end badly.
#11. Puerto Rico FC - (1-2-3, 5 pts) – No Change
No surprise this week as Puerto Rico traveled up to New York and got walloped. They should take their lumps and move on.
If you want to find a bright spot, Los Naranjas didn’t play too poorly against the Cosmos. They conceded an early Cristiano Dias own goal, then kept their hosts from tacking anything else on until the 84th and 92nd minute. So there was a long stretch of the game when the visitors weren’t doing too badly.
But there’s no hiding it, there is a massive gap in quality between these two sides overall. Puerto Rico were game, but they were never going to win in New York. The same is probably true of their midweek match coming up against Minnesota. The Loons are a much deeper and stronger team, and I worry for a Puerto Rico defense who have nearly conceded two goals a game. Life gets better for the Melos over the weekend, when they return home and contend with a visiting FC Edmonton. The Edmonton-PR road trip is long and tiring, and if Puerto Rico can contain their losses in Minnesota and then come at Edmonton full throttle at home, they could pull a surprise result.
Even then, this is the toughest stretch of the season for the new NASL side. Things get easier after the end of August.
The Jacksonville Armada failed to win away over the weekend, for the twenty fifth time in their history. A year and a half after making their debut, and the blue and gold are now 0-6-19 on the road in all competitions, with a combined 14-48 (-34) goal difference.
Also, it has now been 423 minutes of gameplay since the Armada last scored.
Now halfway through the season, Jacksonville are on pace for 22 points. That wouldn’t be the all-time low overall or in ppg, (in 2011, Atlanta got 16 points in 28 matches), but it would be damn close. For a team that stocked up on talent over the offseason, and has continued to make signings throughout the year, it just gets worse and worse.
Jacksonville travel to Indy for a midweek match, which looks a very promising opportunity to extend their streak of futility. On the weekend, the Armada host Carolina, which should be a true test of their commitment to being terrible.
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