What a week it’s been in the NASL. Not the good kind.
For all of the facts, rumors, speculation, and #PANIC about the league’s future, it’s worthwhile to remember that the league is still very much going on. I know that’s a bit rich coming from Chicken Little, but I do write these Power Rankings every week. You can’t say I haven’t invested time and energy into this league.
In terms of play on the field, it was a curious week with a plethora of ties. New York, Miami, Minnesota, and Carolina all improved their standing by virtue of getting wins, while Indy and Edmonton especially may come to rue getting only a single point from this week.
The state of the league is more or less where we left it. The top four are seemingly secure, with New York crossing the 42-point playoff threshold that I’ve guesstimated, and Edmonton at the doorstep. It doesn’t matter whether Indy get there or not, their playoff place is already secure. But they did fall further behind New York and Edmonton, and look increasingly locked into the #2 seed. Meanwhile, the race for the #4 spot is being won comfortably by Minnesota.
Depending on the club, there are either nine, ten, or eleven games left in the season. Plenty of time for something unexpected to happen, but at this point, we know all of these teams pretty well.
The Cosmos ended the week with a disappointing 0-0 draw in Fort Lauderdale—a match they deserved to win. But much more important was their convincing 3-0 home win over Indy Eleven on Wednesday. Remember that New York and Indy have a funny history: six draws in their first six meetings, followed by Indy’s stunning come-from-behind win in the spring that proved crucial for the spring championship. But now it was New York’s turn to break the mold. The Cosmos exacted sweet revenge on a direct rival for the overall season title, and padded their massive advantage in goal differential.
There’s probably still reason for concern given how New York play on the road. But if they continue to be so dominant at home (11-1-0), they may be able to play the entire postseason there and avoid the question entirely.
Last week, I wrote that the schedule was about to get much harder for the Cosmos. While that’s still true, they breezed through the first two fixtures of that more difficult stretch. It will be extremely interesting to see what occurs this coming weekend, when Minnesota United come to town.
Edmonton will be pleased to have rescued a point on Friday night in Ottawa, mainly because they were down 0-2 early thanks to some uncharacteristic gifts from their defense. But when the Eddies needed their attack to show up, their warhorse, Daryl Fordyce answered the call. Fordyce has never competed for the golden boot, but he’s delivered 27 goals in 88 league appearances for the Eddies; six or more goals and 20 or more appearances a year. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
Another hat tip to Matt VanOekel, who saved the first penalty I’ve ever seen him stop ever (and I’ve watched him practice penalty kicks), then saved the retake after that. This Edmonton team may be a team of destiny.
The Eddies are behind New York in both the fall (three points) and combined (four points) table. But they also have two games in hand over the Cosmos. The fall table may be the most important one if both clubs continue their form. Edmonton host Miami this coming weekend, then OKC the following Wednesday. But the most important match in the near future is on the 17th of September, when they’ll travel to New York for a potentially season-deciding matchup.
Earlier in the year, I kept predicting that Indy would eventually drop off. Eventually I stopped, because there was a growing body of evidence that the Eleven were solid and well-rounded enough to just keep on trucking.
But perhaps that’s up for a re-evaluation. Indy are now winless in their last four, with two losses and two draws. Three of those matches were on the road, but the nature of Wednesday night’s 0-3 loss to New York, and Saturday night’s 1-1 home tie with the Tampa Bay Rowdies suggests there may be more to Indy’s slump. At the very least, both the results and the resulting table suggest that the Eleven may fall out of the race for the #1 seed.
Is that too harsh? Indy didn’t play poorly against Tampa, and they nearly equalized late. And while they did play poorly against New York, it was in New York, where nobody has really acquitted themselves well. Indy continue their road stretch this coming week with a match in Fort Lauderdale, which is a tricky place to take three points. They play Miami after that. Neither of those upcoming matches are easy, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Eleven can muster a response.
Minnesota played Fort Lauderdale to a rather dull 0-0 draw midweek, then won 1-0 at home against OKC on Saturday. I suspect these results are better than you might think. First off, the Loons collected three draws from their Florida road trip, which is not so shabby considering their away record was 1-2-5 before. Second…
Something I've noticed in #NASL: stringing together clean sheets is the surest signal of a club's quality. Defense first, goals follow.
— Alex Schieferdecker (@alexschief) September 4, 2016
The 1-0 score was deeply flattering to OKC, who were played off the park. Minnesota were as good on Saturday as they’ve been in a while. United have played six games since they were embarrassed 0-4 at home by Miami. They’ve given up just two goals in those games. Sammy Ndjock returned to the net, and Aaron Pitchkolan was inserted, first in central defense, then in midfield. For the last three games, the Loons have had the exact same back four, with Pitchkolan in front and Ndjock behind.
This is a very good omen and a very good stretch for Minnesota. Last year with Ottawa and this year with Edmonton, we’ve seen this “defense first, goals follow” approach lead to some of the league’s deadliest teams. It’s taken a long, long time for the Loons to find their feet, but six games is a reasonable sample, and this team looks suddenly hard to beat. If they put together the same kind of attack they demonstrated on Saturday, they’ll be golden.
Now, this thesis will get a stiff test this weekend in New York. But there may be no better time for Minnesota to be making the league’s toughest away trip.
Tampa Bay’s away draw against Indy Eleven is a Pyrrhic result for the green and gold. Yes, obviously, to get a point on the road against the league’s #3 team is a point more than anyone had reason to expect. Through their five-game swing that included matches against the league’s top four teams (and OKC), the Rowdies picked up four points. That’s not so bad.
The problem is that if they’re going to make the playoffs, Tampa Bay can’t settle for being the league’s 5th best team, they need to figure out a way to jump up in line and pass Minnesota. But right now, they’re still stuck with hangers-on like Carolina and Fort Lauderdale, and risk being passed by Miami. In isolation, these results are encouraging for Tampa and point to this team’s real quality. But in the context of the NASL season, with just ten games left and an eight-point cushion to close, a draw in Indianapolis isn’t really good enough.
Again this week, we saw that the Rowdies are struggling without an elite striker. They didn’t play poorly against the Eleven, but with Georgi Hristov and Joe Cole forced to play a spot more advanced than they ought to, thanks to the lack of a target man, their attacks are incomplete. I’ve ragged on Tom Heinemann enough, but I really do think the Rowdies would be better with him to aim at. Midseason signing Carlos Preciado has been utterly useless, and at least with Teen Wolf, you get a physical presence who can occupy defenders, free up Hristov, and dive for penalties. Better than nothing.
Miami beat poor Puerto Rico senseless in Bayamón on Saturday. The teal and tangerine were far and away the better side, and scored three goals with ease against a team that has, at the very least, been resolute. When Miami FC are on their game—which is not as often as you’d think—they’re among the NASL’s best clubs.
But Miami are among the chasing pack of teams who are quite simply running out of time. Miami have had a good fall season, but even then, they’re only in fifth place with games in hand. If they were going to recover from their dreadful start to the year, Alessandro Nesta’s men needed to do better than just keeping pace with the top four teams, they needed to be much better than at least one of the top four teams. That has yet to happen.
As good as Miami FC occasionally are, it does not get much easier. While six of their final eleven matches are at home, Miami have yet to play away in Edmonton (this coming weekend), Indy (the weekend after that), and New York. Miami also play Tampa Bay twice, and will host Edmonton as well. There are some tough games ahead, and they will need to play their best consistently to have a sniff of the postseason.
Last week, I wrote:
“Only Carolina can go from good to bad and bad to good so quickly.”
And lo! Two weeks after beating Indy, one week after getting smashed by New York, the RailHawks turned right back around and beat Jacksonville. Was it a famous performance? No, it wasn’t. But it wasn’t a bad one either. Carolina were the better team, they were at home, and they won. Just like that, the RailHawks are now in the fifth position in the table, with two games in hand on Minnesota, and mathematically, the team with the best chance of making the playoffs who are not currently in position to do so.
The goal this week came from a beautiful chipped effort by Ty Shipalane, who seems to be having a bit of an off year (he is 30 after all). Also crucial was the defensive effort, and the clean sheet for Brian Sylvestre. For the RailHawks, any day you don’t get scored on is a good day.
Do the RailHawks have a chance at the postseason? Yes they do. They’ve got a fairly reasonable schedule to end the season (hosting Ottawa next week), two games in hand, and key players are healthy. Will they do it? No, they will not. These are the RailHawks; disappointment is what they do.
In their new stadium, the Strikers returned from a draw and played two 0-0 matches with Minnesota and New York. Two good teams, and even at home, those are decent results. Still…
It's a good thing Ft. Lauderdale have this new ground, because all I hear are…
— EastCoastDarkClouds (@ecdcmnufc) September 1, 2016
In other news, Bruno Cardoso, who was Mr. Butterfingers 2016 at the beginning of the year, has been in excellent form recently. Huh?
#9. Ottawa Fury - (5-5-10, 20 pts) – Up One
I’ve loved this one ever since he made his debut, immediately took a corner kick, and it was terrible:
But it got even better this week, as Williams stepped up to take a penalty kick, with Ottawa up 1-0 over Edmonton, and had it saved by Matt VanOekel, who is the worst goalkeeper in the NASL on penalty kicks. And then the kick was ordered retaken because of encroachment. Williams stepped up again… and was saved again!
All the same, it got better for Ottawa, as they went up 2-0. Then it got worse, as Edmonton fought back to equalize. On the balance of play, the result was fair, perhaps even beneficial to Ottawa. But there’s no excuse to drop two points, given their 2-0 lead and the penalty opportunity. What an embarrassing result.
Oklahoma City traveled to Minnesota over the weekend, and lost 0-1. It could’ve been worse, were it not for a standout performance from Daniel Fernandes, and the canny eye of the AR, who twice called off Minnesota goals for offside (correctly). But losing 0-1 or 0-5, doesn’t matter in the overall scheme of things for the Scissortails, who have now lost four straight and have fallen all the way back to ninth place.
Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect OKC to keep up their respectable pace, given all the turmoil that has surrounded this club. Still, they seemed to play decently at first. But after a string of losses, things look much worse.
This coming week, OKC returns home to find out if there is still a home field to return to. The good news is that their opponents are Jacksonville, who really should not be a threat. But who knows?
#11. Puerto Rico FC - (1-5-6, 8 pts) – No Change
Puerto Rico just aren’t up to snuff. This has been obvious since before they played a game, but twelve matches in, I think we can say this for sure. Occasionally they’ve been intriguing, but never have they been good. This weekend, Los Naranjas suffered their worst loss of the year, a 0-3 home defeat to Miami FC. The scoreline was one thing, the ease at which the visitors managed to score was another. All of the Miami goals were simple. Puerto Rico were cut open much too easily.
The crowd of 2,556 was also unfortunate. I don’t know enough about Puerto Rico FC, but they have been the league’s most successful expansion story this year (you can’t divorce Miami’s success from Fort Lauderdale’s struggles). Their broadcast commentary is fantastic. I want them to succeed. But on and off the field, they had a bad week.
Next up, Tampa come to town.
The Armada haven’t been abjectly bad recently, but they’re don’t seem to be getting good anytime soon. This past weekend, they returned to their classic away form, losing 0-1 to Carolina at WakeMed Soccer Park. It was same old, same old, for Jacksonville. After taking a bye the previous week, they were flat, they struggled to score, and they went home empty handed.
This coming week, they have a theoretical chance to get a point or more on the road against Oklahoma City, who are struggling. But then again, OKC might not be the tonic for the Armada, the Armada might be the tonic for OKC.
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