NASL Playoff Picture Emerges

NASL teams are jockeying for playoff positions
by Daniel Casey   |   Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Minors - column on North America's lower division soccer leagues (NASL, USL PRO, CSL, NPSL, PCSL & USL PDL)

The playoff picture is starting to coalesce for Major League Soccer, teams are heading down the stretch vying for the last spots. In the Western Conference, FC Dallas and Vancouver are battling for the final position with Colorado praying for a miracle. Over in the Eastern Conference, DC United and Columbus are in a shoving match for the final playoff spot with Montreal furiously scribbling creative math to bolster its fading hopes. All this is going to mean some very competitive soccer for the remainder of the season.

To get yourself prepped for this, take a look at the playoff picture for Division II, the NASL.

Already the NASL’s playoff structure is determined. Given how small the league is (currently eight teams), making the playoffs is hardly a nail-biting affair as all but Atlanta and Edmonton made the playoffs.

Once again, my favored Minnesota Stars FC, the current champions of the league, have gotten into the playoffs by landing the last spot and lowest seed.

Readers may recall that I’m not one that favors playoffs, and it’s difficult to toe that line given the teams I support often put their hopes into the making-the-playoffs basket. The top two teams earned themselves quarterfinal round byes, which sends them right into the semis. As of right now that’s San Antonio and Tampa Bay, with Puerto Rico lurking in third place still hoping to make a last match of the regular season move.

What should be the story of the season is the expansion San Antonio Scorpions coming out this year and, after a bit of a shaky start, dominating the league. San Antonio has scored the most goals in the league and given up the least. The team’s home form has been outstanding (8-2-3) and their away record has been respectable (5-5-3). It’s impossible not to see San Antonio as the playoff favorites and it would certainly be grand for the team if they could pull off an informal ‘double’ (league champions & Soccer Bowl champions).

So let’s look at the current picture and most likely seeding.

San Antonio Scorpions will get the first seed and the Tampa Bay Rowdies the second seed. Both teams will get first round byes and face the winners of Puerto Rico vs Minnesota and Ft. Lauderdale Strikers vs Carolina Railhawks. These match-ups are speculative given that it’s still entirely possible that the final standings could change. But at this point such positioning is going to have little effect.

Any team that fights its way to the Scorpions is going to have a hard time. Forward Pablo Campos will end the season as the Golden Boot winner (currently with 19 goals) and goalkeeper Darly Sattler leads all netminders with a .68 goals-against average. The Scorpions attack is led by Honduran midfield Walter Ramirez (six assists), forwards/wingers Colombian Esteban Bayona (six goals, five assists), and Dutchman Hans Denissen (four goals, four assists), and the ever-ready MLS all-time scoring leader Jeff Cunningham. San Antonio is not a fast team but it is big. The Scorpions are a strong team that creates goal-scoring opportunities and patiently rebuffs their opponent’s attack.

Tampa Bay will have to focus in the playoffs and improve its finishing if its going to advance. The Rowdies have taken the most shots in the league and have the most shots-on-goal. However, this seems like numerical attrition — a scattershot approach to attack may not win a trophy. Given that Carolina has gotten hot or, well, warmish, Tampa Bay needs to prove it can be clinical in front of goal.

But the fact is, the other playoff teams have been lukewarm at best.

Minnesota just broke out of a horrible nine-game winless streak made up of five draws and only four goals scored. Although the Stars snapped out of it in style beating Puerto Rico, 4-0, they weren’t able to string back-to-back victories and lost the next week to Puerto Rico, 2-0. And this has been the characteristic of the team’s inabilities to string together successful results, play well on the road and score.

Ft. Lauderdale’s last six matches have very low scoring affairs – with the exception of a 3-0 blowout against Tampa Bay – and the Islanders have only scored four goals in the month of September. The point is, the one game quarterfinals will be a scrum. Of the likely quarterfinal teams (Carolina, Ft. Lauderdale, Minnesota, and Puerto Rico), it’s anyone’s guess who will come out.

But the teams that go into the two-game, home/away semifinal will have momentum and the sharpness that comes from having been tempered in a hard fought quarters.

This was what happened with Minnesota last season as it became deserved champions. What team will take on Minnesota’s role this year?

Well, most likely, Minnesota, which in the exact same position as last year. The team is desperately trying to keep the trophy in Minnesota. Passion for a trophy is also high in Cary, N.C. In his first year with Carolina, manager Colin Clarke wants to bring a trophy home to the Railhawk supporters after coming close as manager for the Puerto Rico Islanders. Tampa and Ft. Lauderdale would love to have their league’s trophy to muffle noisy neighbors Orlando City of the USL, constantly harping on their expectations to join MLS yet own failure to win their league after winning the regular season. A Floridian peninsula battle would be quite interesting for the league to promote.

To my mind, San Antonio could only be knocked out by a team that suddenly gained intense focus and form. The last two games of the regular season will do much to set the tone for the playoffs.

Minnesota has shown that a lowly seed can come away with silverware, and I’d love to see them do it again.

San Antonio has dominated the league and is looking to make that dominance certain.

Carolina is looking to assert that it’s a winning franchise, regardless of its former manager Martin Rennie, who is currently vying for the playoffs leading MLS’ Vancouver.

Tampa and Ft. Lauderdale are old NASL throwbacks that would love nothing more than to make ratchet up their competing claims to being the best team in Florida.

And Puerto Rico would love to deepen its experience by not just having Champions League play but an actual league trophy.

The competition will be hardnosed and the soccer will certainly be exciting; supporters are in for a brilliant playoff run. Who knows, maybe I’ll change my tune and come next year with the new Apertura/Clausura format pine for the playoffs.

Daniel CASEY

Nationality:
USA
College:
Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.
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