It was nice to go on vacation last week and mail in the Power Rankings. But now I’m back, and its back to business.
The NASL trundles on. It’s that time of year when the playoff picture is clarifying quite a bit, but there’s still so much soccer left to be played that it feels uncomfortable to be calling anything for sure.
Still, given the results of the past two years, we can guess that the eventual playoff cut-off line will be just over 40 points. Already, three teams are very near to that number. We know one of them, the Indy Eleven, will already be in the playoffs by virtue of winning the spring season. But it looks increasingly likely that the New York Cosmos and FC Edmonton will join them. It’s hard to conceive of either team failing to gain the four or five points that they’ll likely need in twelve to thirteen matches.
Increasingly then, the main interest of these rankings will be in prognosticating the fourth playoff spot, where Minnesota United have the inside position, and speculating about the order of the teams. A lot can still change. But in the NASL, it usually doesn’t change that much.
I’m not sure why I’m surprised, but New York continue to grind out results. This weekend against Puerto Rico, the Cosmos came from behind to take a 2-1 victory thanks to two goalkeeping errors. It wasn’t pretty. It never is. But fortune always seems to smile on Gio Saverese’s men, and it’s once more the story of how a good team creates its own luck.
I thought the losses of Niko Kranj?ar and Michael Lahoud would be more damaging to this side, but there’s no evidence of it so far. New York have had a strong fall season, and they’re right up there, still contending for the league title. The Cosmos are still in the midst of a blissful string of home matches, and there’s still the question of how they will perform when the favorable schedule fades away. But until then, as long as New York keep getting results, I’ll keep putting them on top of this ranking.
This coming Saturday, the Cosmos host the RailHawks.
Edmonton rise to their highest ranking of the season, thanks to a gritty away win in Tampa Bay. It wasn’t a famous performance—the Eddies were played off the field at times. Still, it was a win, and it demonstrated how many lines Edmonton have in defense. The Rowdies broke through on numerous occasions, yet could never hit the part of the net that Matt VanOekel wasn’t standing in. That’s a credit to MVO’s size and positioning, but also to the Eddies’ deep-lying defensive approach, which suits VanOekel’s abilities perfectly.
In terms of the league standings, there’s nothing to complain about in Alberta. The Eddies lead the league with 39, and they have a game in hand over New York and Indy. At home this Sunday against Puerto Rico, they ought to be heavy favorites to grab another three points.
Early on in the season, I wrote several times that it wasn’t sustainable for Indy to keep winning matches in the game’s final seconds. Yet the Eleven have made an art of it this season. For whatever reason: focus, fitness, heart, Indy have been the masters of the late comeback.
So it was deeply satisfying to see, just for once, the same thing happen against them. Away in Carolina, the Eleven were cruising with a 2-1 lead, when their hosts flipped the script, equalizing early in the second half and then netting a stoppage time penalty kick to hand Tim Hankinson’s men only their third loss this year.
Indy have been very impressive this fall season, winning six games and drawing just once, after winning four and drawing six times in the spring. But in becoming more aggressive and getting more wins, the Eleven also seem to have exposed themselves to the occasional defeat. They’re doing great on points, but teams are starting to figure out ways to get at this team, and I remain concerned that they do not have a plan B, if it comes to it.
Next, a trip to Ottawa.
The Loons had a fantastic week off the field, celebrating the team’s imminent ascension to MLS. On the field, it was a mixed bag. They were gifted a win midweek against Tampa Bay, then got a draw out of a mid-afternoon match in Jacksonville that seemed more or less unplayable for both sides.
Minnesota shouldn’t be celebrating the results, although a four point week isn’t anything to sneeze at. But the quality of play still seems to be lacking. Against Tampa Bay, Minnesota didn’t really earn either goal through their own attacking play. Against Jacksonville, the Loons had all of the chances worth mentioning, but they couldn’t convert. So there’s still room for improvement. The return of Kevin Venegas in the coming weeks ought to help in that regard. If this team could get reasonably fit, then it might be worth considering them contenders again.
But at the moment, they are further back from third place (six points) than they are ahead of fifth (five points). Before MLS, they’ve got to worry about shoring up their playoff position and mounting a challenge on the clubs above them. Next week, Minnesota travel to Miami, which is an opportunity for three points, and also zero points. Everyone knows what happened just a few weeks back when these two teams met, and so the rematch ought to have an interesting vibe.
Oklahoma City were in good position on Saturday against Miami, and then their visitors spoiled the party late. It was a disappointing result for the Scissortails, who probably deserved to win on the balance of play. But they could not reliably find a way past Daniel Vega. After a Pablo Campos equalizer, a last second, floated nothingburger of a goal sealed OKC’s fate.
Briefly, I feared that OKC might have cracked the code. But it appears they are reverting back to their form of getting a win, a draw, and a loss every three games. That’s good news, actually, because it portends a win this coming week, away at Tampa Bay. But it’s bad news if they want to make the playoffs. At that rate, it ain’t happening.
The Rowdies are surely the victim of some cosmic joke. On Saturday, the green and gold played host to FC Edmonton. That was always going to be a tough match, but Tampa Bay made it look easy, knifing through the normally stout Eddies defense and taking chance after chance. The only problem was that they managed to hit every single shot more or less directly at Matt VanOekel’s chest. It was an impressive display of all the wrong kinds of accuracy. Scott Sterling-esque.
Inevitably, Edmonton drew a soft penalty late in the game and converted. Daryl Fordyce, with a deft sense of comedy, struck his penalty directly at Matt Pickens’ chest and the Rowdies goalkeeper dutifully dived away.
What I’m trying to say is that everything about this game was a parody of itself.
Things continue to look not so great for Tampa Bay. The club finds itself seven points shy of the playoff places, as a miserable fall season drags on. With ten games played since the restart, the Rowdies have just eight points. Tommy Rongen didn’t get that kind of benefit of the doubt. What happened to the #OneYearPlan?
Joking aside, Tampa have just emerged from a very difficult stretch in their schedule. While they didn’t get a point against New York, Minnesota, and Edmonton, they were competitive in each game. Arguably they were unfortunate to not win the matches against the Cosmos and Eddies. While the referees have been the scapegoat, there’s really nobody to blame but the Rowdies themselves. Time and time again, individual players have made egregious mistakes that have cost the team points. You don’t see Edmonton making as many similar errors, and that’s why they’re where they are.
Tampa Bay aren’t out of the woods yet. They host Rayo this coming week, then Indy the week after. But after those two matches, the schedule gets a lot softer. Rowdies fans must hope it’s not too late.
Miami really looked to have lost all momentum from their 4-0 win over Minnesota. There they were, trailing Rayo OKC 0-1 and en route to their second straight shutout loss. And then, Pablo Campos (woo woo!) and Ariel Martinez struck late, and the teal and tangerine earned three valuable points on the road. Nicely done.
Miami have ten points between them and the fourth playoff spot, and are eight points south of the fall season lead. So they must still climb quite a ways to erase the memory of their poor spring campaign. Still, after the league’s top four teams, Miami have the fifth best fall season so far, and that’s through just eight games. No team has more soccer left to be played, and Alessandro Nesta’s squad has the talent to take advantage.
The upcoming week offers a big chance to do exactly that. Miami travel to Ottawa for a midweek match, then host Minnesota on the weekend. The Fury are hurting right now, and while another 4-0 over the Loons seems unlikely, Miami will surely be confident in that match-up.
Kudos to Carolina for doing what nobody has yet managed to do against Indy Eleven. The RailHawks played their guests tough, and they outfought them even late in the match. That’s a great win, and it puts the RailHawks in sixth place and a game in hand. The prospectus on this team has whipped back and forth this season, and it probably has further twists in store. But it does seem clear that with Matt Fondy and Omar Bravo in the lineup, Carolina effectively addressed their single biggest liability in the spring season, so kudos for that.
Now on to the other liabilities. Carolina’s defense has been much weaker than I expected this year, and I think injuries—especially to James Marcelin, but really to basically everyone—have been the main cause of this. I’ll also keep insisting that Brian Sylvestre is the better option in goal than Akira Fitzgerald, but Colin Clarke seems committed to a rotation.
Just like that, Fort Lauderdale are back in the hunt, building on last week’s win with a draw in Jacksonville and a win at home in their new stadium (and in front of 1,000 extra people, if we believe the official numbers) against Ottawa. With 26 points and a not-entirely-horrific -3 differential, the Strikers are in business, at least mathematically. They are now in fifth place. New signing and near-retiree Amauri provided the week’s best highlight, with a bicycle kick winner against the Fury. He’s earned his beach time.
I don’t think Fort Lauderdale are for real, however (they are, however, in better shape than Ottawa). Their decent results in past weeks has come against poor opposition. There’s a tougher test coming after their bye this week. Next midweek they play against Minnesota, then against New York the following weekend, and Indy the weekend after that. All of these matches are at home, so if Central Broward Stadium has some kind of weird juju, we’ll find out shortly. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Strikers took no points from their next three games, and fall back in the pack again. If they manage to beat my low expectations, they’ll obviously move ahead in this ranking.
#10. Ottawa Fury - (5-3-10, 18 pts) – Down One
Things can’t get much lower than losing to Jacksonville in your own building, but the Fury are dredging the depths of humiliation for more indignities. This weekend, they were defeated by the Fort Lauderdale Strikers thanks to two late goals from the hosts. Just when I thought things were finally coming together for this team a few weeks ago, it’s all fallen apart again with some awful, awful results.
On the positive side, I paid Lansdowne Park a visit this past week and was very impressed with the development. The stadium is nice because it’s new, although the design inside is fairly ordinary. What’s not ordinary is the care with which the designers have put towards making the north end of the stadium work with the street. There are stores, restaurants, and gates that spill out onto a shared-use street, and it all works quite well without seeming like the stadium is overpowering. I was a bit concerned about the balance of residential development to other uses on the site, but perhaps there are enough people living nearby to make it not an issue. On the night I was there, several restaurants were full of people. The whole thing is quite well done.`
As for the Ottawa Fury, this week could be disastrous or it could be productive. They play twice, at home on Wednesday against Miami FC, then at home against Indy on the weekend. These are two strong teams, but the Fury have usually been game for these types of matches, especially at home. Their recent form however, is so dire, that it’s not hard to see the Fury failing to earn a point, despite being in the friendly confines of TD Place.
#11. Puerto Rico FC - (1-4-5, 7 pts) – No Change
Puerto Rico, once again, gave a good account of themselves and still lost. Against the New York Cosmos, Héctor Ramos found the net early against a makeshift back line, but two poor mistakes by goalkeeper David Meves doomed Los Naranjas to defeat. Same old, same old.
Puerto Rico have a scoring problem, which seems silly to say about a team with the league’s most in-form striker. But relying on Pito Ramos to score every goal for you is not a sustainable approach. This is essentially what has unfolded. The expansion side have nine goals to their credit, and Ramos owns seven of them. Somebody else needs to step up and start putting the ball in the net. Is there anyone?
This coming Sunday, Puerto Rico make the long, hard trip up to Edmonton. The Eddies won in Bayamón, but they’re on another level right now, and the deck is heavily stacked against the Melos as they venture north on the most brutal road trip in North American soccer.
It’s been four straight matches now without a loss, which is really an accomplishment for this squad. That they got their win away is also worth cheering. At the same time, all three draws were at home. This past week, the Armada held the line against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on Wednesday, then Minnesota United on the weekend. The latter wasn’t much of a soccer game, thanks to heat and humidity that made it look as though the action was in slow motion. The former was a close match of attack and counterattack, where the Armada had a late winner rightly ruled out for offside.
Either way, Jacksonville look much better than they did before Tony Meola was fired. Mark Lowry has seemingly done a decent job so far, just in reversing the team’s bad vibe. But there’s a lot more work that’s probably necessary. While their goal in Fort Lauderdale came from inside the box, the Armada basically never got into the danger zone against Minnesota. Too often this team, especially Charles Eloundou, resort to ripping shots from deep. It’s why this club has just 15 goals through 21 matches, and Lowry’s biggest task and Meola’s biggest failing was developing an actual offense.
The Armada have the other bye this week. That’s useful for them, there’s a lot more work to do.
Seeya next week.