The USSF Division Two playoffs kicked off yesterday with the Austin Aztex visiting the Montreal Impact and the NSC Minnesota Stars hosting the Carolina Railhawks. With the Whitecaps' first game scheduled for tonight, it seems like a good idea for us Whitecaps supporters to scope out potential adversaries. So this is the first post in what I guess will be a two-part series for the first round: a look at USSF D2 playoff action elsewhere in the continent.
Montreal 2 [Gerba 39' 76'] - 0 Austin: The Impact got things started the right way at Stade Saputo Wednesday, rolling the Austin Aztex 2-0 before what was for Montreal's standards a surprisingly light crowd of 7,962. In pouring rain, Austin made the mistake of coming out hard and trying to attack the Impact: they made initial inroads but failed to seriously test Matt Jordan. Leading scorer Edward Johnson was back in the lineup for Austin after some injury problems but was largely ineffective, apart from taking a yellow card for a clumsy foul in the thirty-seventh minute. That foul would be costly: Philippe Billy played the resulting free kick onto the head of leading striker Ali Gerba, who headed it home and gave Montreal a 1-0 lead.
Even with the 1-0 deficit, Austin continued to attack, forcing Montreal into a number of fouls in order to stop their advance. Perhaps it was because of this rough play that Montreal retained the advantage: they may have been playing Austin hard but they were getting the ball back for their trouble, and in the seventy-sixth minute Gerba picked up his second goal, corralling a long ball from Rocco Placentino and simply outrunning his marker before depositing a shot past a sprawling Miguel Gallardo in Austin's goal. From Gerba's second goal on the fight largely went out of the Aztex, and though there were no more clear-cut chances Montreal emerged with a very solid 2-0 victory.
Now in the driver's seat for the return leg on Saturday, Montreal will have to contend with the loss of veteran midfielder David Testo. Testo suffered a calf strain in the twenty-fifth minute: as yet there is no word on how long Testo may be lost for. The sole bright spot for Austin was the play of their goalkeeper Gallardo; in spite of inconsistency and playoff inexperience Gallardo wasn't really at fault for either goal and made some good saves, including a remarkable sprawling fingertip stop off of Eduardo Sebrango in the second half.
Minnesota 0 - 0 Carolina: A quiet opening game from the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota, but a promising one for the NSC Minnesota Stars. Coming into this playoff series knowing their team won't exist next year if they can't find new ownership, Minnesota faces the double whammy of being heavy underdogs to the Carolina Railhawks, one of the strongest teams in USSF D2. Sadly, on a lovely clear day only 686 fans came to see what might be the last professional soccer game in Minnesota for some years.
One of Minnesota's top scorers, Brian Cvilikas, started the game on the bench due to lingering problems, but to their credit the Stars came out going for a win. Carolina's superior skill told as the game wore on, and Minnesota was obliged to foul more than they'd like to keep chances away, but shots would up tied at 7 and shots on target tied at 3. Second-year Railhawk goaltender Eric Reed and the seemingly ageless Joe Warren in goal for Minnesota combined to make a number of routine, if not necessarily spectacular, saves to keep the match scoreless.
The draw was a solid moral victory for Minnesota, who were not expected to get a result. Unfortunately they must now return to the Railhawks' home ground in Cary, North Carolina needing a result to advance to the next round. Defeat means that the NSC Minnesota Stars, barring an ownership miracle (that can never be ruled out in this league) would exit the second division. From the Thunder to the present day, Minnesota's generally been a good soccer state, and for a neutral it's hard not to hope the Stars get another round and a bit more dignified a send-off. If this was their last home match, though, they at least went out playing their best.