The soccer gods, in all of their omniscience and randomness, have graciously conjured up an absolutely stunning finish to the NASL spring season this year. The final three-game run in (weeks 12, 13 and 14, respectively) is something sports fans crave for in every season that passes, as the top 3 teams on the table will face off against one another before the NASL Spring Season concludes, in addition to playing one game against an opponent not in contention for the spring season champion spot, beginning this weekend.
And directly at the middle of this of this critical, multi-game maelstrom sits your Carolina RailHawks.
However, before we get started on breaking down the potential outcomes for the first week of these pivotal matches, it’s important to note what’s riding on the rapidly approaching end to the NASL Spring Season.
The format of the NASL Regular Season is unique to American sports, in that it’s divided into two separate competitions: the Spring Season (Apr. to July) and the Fall Season (Aug. to Nov.). The winner of the Spring Season earns the right to host the winner of the Fall Season in the Soccer Bowl, the postseason match that decides the NASL Champion of 2013.
NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson, in an interview with Indy Week, spoke highly of the new split season format, stating, “[it’s] wonderful; I love it. My e-mail, text and Twitter accounts all lit up Saturday night, and I said, “The playoffs are here.” Fans were ranting and raving about issues, and people were excited, sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a bad way. Every team’s still in it and we’re going into week 10. I think by Sunday morning that might not be the case, but the format has proven a couple of points. First, this league is closely matched right now, and two, this system creates a lot of interest.”
With the RailHawks merely two wins away from claiming the Spring Season title, indeed, “the playoffs are here.” Yet, two of those upcoming three matches are against the toughest clubs in the NASL—3rd place Minnesota United FC and league leaders and Southern rivals, the Atlanta Silverbacks. Couple that with the fact that winning the Spring Season earns a spot in and home field advantage for the Soccer Bowl, and it’s easy to argue that these final 3 games are the most crucial games of the year for the RailHawks, who stand undefeated at home in both the NASL (4-0-0) and U.S. Open Cup play (3-0-0). Their away record (0-4-1), on the other hand, is still an issue Clarke and his players are working tirelessly to remedy.
However, it’s by that same aforementioned randomness of the soccer gods that both of the RailHawks’ remaining fixtures against top opponents will be played at home, and the non-contending opponent they face, the San Antonio Scorpions (6th), is statistically the weakest of the non-contenders that the top 3 will face in their respective run ins (Atlanta will face the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who are 4th; Minnesota will face FC Edmonton, who are 5th).
Here are the remaining fixtures for Atlanta, Minnesota and Carolina, as well as possible table outcomes for week 12:
Atlanta Silverbacks (17 pts, +3 GD) remaining schedule:
6/22: TAMPA BAY (H)
6/29: CAROLINA (A)
7/04: MINNESOTA (A)
Carolina RailHawks (16 pts, +5 GD) remaining schedule:
6/22: MINNESOTA (H)
6/29: ATLANTA (H)
7/04: SAN ANTONIO (A)
Minnesota United FC (14 pts, +1 GD) remaining schedule:
6/22: CAROLINA (A)
6/30: EDMONTON (A)
7/04: ATLANTA (H)
With an Atlanta win and Carolina loss/Minnesota win, the Silverbacks will retain 1st, with Minnesota trailing in second by 3 points and Carolina by 4 points
With an Atlanta win and a Carolina win/Minnesota loss, the Silverbacks will lead the RailHawks by 1 point going into their fixture against Carolina
With an Atlanta win and Carolina/Minnesota draw, Atlanta will retain 1st going into the pivotal match against the RailHawks leading Carolina by 3 points.
With an Atlanta draw and Carolina win/Minnesota loss, the RailHawks will lead the table by 1 point
With an Atlanta draw and Carolina loss/Minnesota win, Atlanta will lead Minnesota by one point going into the final 2 games, the RailHawks sitting in third only 2 points out of first
With an Atlanta draw and Carolina/Minnesota draw, the table remains the same with Atlanta leading Carolina by 1 point
With an Atlanta loss and Carolina win/Minnesota loss, the RailHawks will jump up to 19 points, 2 points clear of Atlanta and 5 points clear of Minnesota.
With an Atlanta loss and a Carolina/Minnesota draw, Carolina will take top spot in the league on goal differential
With an Atlanta loss and a Carolina loss/Minnesota win, Minnesota and Atlanta will be tied at 17 points, their positions on the table decided by goal differential and Carolina 1 point off the lead
**If Carolina defeats both Atlanta and Minnesota, they claim the NASL Spring Season title. The same goes for Atlanta—with wins over Carolina and Minnesota, they will claim the spring season title.
So with the consequences laid out in front of us, it’s time to throw on your orange and navy, thank the soccer gods for the highly competitive NASL action, and pull your RailHawks through the final 3 matches of the NASL Spring Season.