This coming Saturday will see the North American Soccer League kick off its playoff campaign. The eight-team league will have a first round that sees the top two teams (Carolina and Puerto Rico) get a bye into the semi-final and the remaining four duke it out in a single-leg playoff: Edmonton will visit Fort Lauderdale and Minnesota will be in Tampa. The semi-final round will see Carolina and Puerto Rico re-join the competition, and a pair of two-legged ties will determine the league finalists.
Even to fans of the playoffs like me it's not an ideal format; one where an entire season is riding on home field advantage and a little mistake. It'll sure make for exciting viewing for the neutral even if supporters will be on tenterhooks, and while it's a pity that hard-working, decently-supported teams in Edmonton and Minnesota may miss out on the reward of a home playoff game, the NASL's free webcasts on UStream will go some way to making up for that.
Of course, the thing about the NASL is that it doesn't get much press coverage. Last year I did my best but, of course, the Whitecaps were in the second division at the time. Then again, with FC Edmonton still in contention, the NASL playoffs may be the only glory any Canadian professional soccer team gets this year. Unfortunately, Edmonton are in tough in their single-game series against Fort Lauderdale... but, then, with Martin Rennie's Carolina Railhawks favoured for the championship Vancouver Whitecaps fans have someone to cheer for as well.
The North American Soccer League is still, week in and week out, more exciting than Major League Soccer, and in terms of competitiveness and skill this was one of the second division's best seasons. The playoffs ought to be just as good, with four close-matched teams tangling in a single do-or-die game. After the jump, a look at the first round of the NASL playoffs.
Byes: Carolina Railhawks, Puerto Rico Islanders
So, how about Martin Rennie and the Carolina Railhawks? The future saviour of the Vancouver Whitecaps wrapped up first place in the North American Soccer League's regular season, an impressive feat for a hastily-reconstructed, financially imperiled team in a division that features more top-end talent than ever. Yes, Rennie's done a masterful job guiding his team into a playoff bye... riding a four-game losing streak, including a close but ignominious to the NSC Minnesota Stars and away losses at Puerto Rico and Fort Lauderdale; all potential serious playoff rivals.
Of course, the Railhawks remain strong contenders for the NASL championship but when a team loses as many games from September 7 to September 24 as they did from April 9 to September 3, that catches the eye. Since Rennie was named Whitecaps head-coach-in-waiting on August 9 the Railhawks have a record of three wins, one draw, and five losses. Formidable scorer and Golden Boot winner Etienne Barbara hasn't scored since August 27 against hapless Atlanta, although admittedly Barbara bagged a hat trick in that game.
Of course, the Railhawks had the regular season championship sewn up by September 7 (the first game of their losing streak) and were essentially untouchable for weeks before. The team played its last games like they'd taken their feet off the gas: the Railhawks loss to Minnesota eliminated the surging Montreal Impact and Carolina looked like they knew it. It would be no surprise if they went back to their near-invincible form come playoff time... and it would be no surprise if they slumped to an embarrassing semi-final defeat. We must wait a round to see.
As for the Puerto Rico Islanders, well, they're not coached by Martin Rennie so they're less interesting. Weirdly, despite returning many of their core players from the 2010 USSF D2 champions, the Islanders were probably a little underrated coming into the season. They had a rough first half of the season but came on late, winning eight of their last ten and getting borderline-heroic play from 24-year-old English hobbit David Foley.
In contrast to the defensively impregnable Islanders of old, this Puerto Rico team can be vulnerable defensively: the change in goal from Bill Gaudette to Ray Burse has not been entirely successful and their defense, anchored by 23-year-old Richard Martinez, isn't quite what it used to be. Puerto Rico is tied for third among the six playoff teams in goals against: not bad but vulnerable.
#3 FC Tampa Bay (11W 8D 9L) v. #6 NSC Minnesota Stars (9W 9D 10L)
Only five points separated FC Tampa Bay and the NSC Minnesota Stars in the regular season, which ought to tell you something about how well-balanced the middle-of-the-pack teams in this league are. Tampa was led by the dangerous Mike Ambersley, a 28-year-old forward who's turned a journeyman second-division career into an NASL Best XI appearance and status as a lynch-pin for a fairly good offensive team. Not that Tampa is without balance: the presence of Tampa's 2010 leading scorer Aaron King gives them a one-two punch unrivaled by anybody outside of Carolina. 22-year-old Canadian Mozzi Gyorio is a set piece specialist who's had a fine year and winger Pascal Millien is a speed merchant with deceptive movement on his shot and they have a quality veteran midfield. But defense is a concern and goalkeeper Jeff Attinella isn't a game-changer.
Given that so many of us thought the NSC Minnesota Stars would fold before the beginning of this season they have to be a little happy to be here. A wild and woolly playoff race saw them squeak in at the last minute thanks to a win in Carolina. They're leaning on pensioner Joe Warren, who came up with the Minnesota Thunder in 1996, in goal. They score by committee and it's not that much of a committee, led by Simone Bracalello and Devin Del Do. Their main strength is their defense, which boasts few big names but an assortment of quality players who can frustrate even high-powered opponents and win balls without taking cards: Kyle Altman is probably the leader of an undistinguished but effective bunch.
This match is probably going to be a bit of a dog to watch but Tampa has the clear advantage. While Minnesota's strong defense will be an obstacle Tampa has the firepower to break them down. The season series went in Tampa's favour with two wins and two draws. Combine that with Tampa's home-field advantage and FC Tampa Bay are 2-0 favourites in my book.
#4 Fort Lauderdale (9W 11D 8L) v. #5 FC Edmonton (10W 6D 12L)
This is the series I'll be watching most closely and not just because I'm from Edmonton. FC Edmonton must be damning the bad luck that saw them finish two points behind Fort Lauderdale in the standings: they threw home-field advantage away with careless last-minute goals in Puerto Rico on August 27 and in Fort Lauderdale on September 11. Edmonton had a good start to the year but also suffered an eight-game winless streak between July 4 and August 14. They have three wins since June and two of them were against Atlanta, by far the worst team in the league.
Edmonton has some strong players: Paul Hamilton and Shaun Saiko are magnificent young Canadians who deserve chances in MLS, with Saiko contributing nine goals from central midfield. Forward Kyle Porter, though in MLS exile thanks to the Whitecaps retaining his rights, has also been superb when fit. Unfortunately the lineup is filled with gifted, young, but infuriatingly inconsistent players like Alex Surprenant, Eddy Sidra, and Michael Cox, as well as veterans who aren't pulling their weight. 39-year-old Rein Baart can make some tremendous reflex saves but his gaffes are so horrifying and his distribution so poor that he might be the worst starting keeper in the league.
Fort Lauderdale, meanwhile, has put together a sneakily good team. I didn't rate them at all at the beginning of the season but they've shown me a thing or two. Goalkeeper Nic Platter, once the backup with Carolina, has proven that he can start at this level. While they lack a single offensive force they have four solid finishers in Brian Shriver, Eduardo Coudet, Abe Thompson, and Martin Nunez, which may let them spread the field against the erratic Edmonton defenders. Edmonton won their inaugural game in Fort Lauderdale 2-1 but Fort Lauderdale took the season series with two wins, one loss, and one draw. However, the two teams are superbly matched.
Fort Lauderdale is a tough place to play. Elderly Lockhart Stadium has a grass surface that's basically solid but has its quirks and the weather forecast is thirty-three degrees Celcius with a chance of storms. The good news for Edmonton is that veteran Fort Lauderdale Cristian Arrieta will be missing the game thanks to an ill-advised red card in Fort Lauderdale's regular season finale, making a team which conceded 36 goals in 28 matches just a little shakier at the back.
I want to pick FC Edmonton to win the game but I just can't: Fort Lauderdale's on a better run of form, they're probably a better team, they have a big home advantage, and they seem to match up well with Edmonton. I make it a 2-1 Fort Lauderdale victory, but I'll be watching from my office with crossed fingers all the same.