Six weeks of the North American Soccer League Fall Season are in the vault and there are eight weeks to go. So which team will join the spring title winner Atlanta Silverbacks in Atlanta in NASL Soccer Bowl 2013 on Saturday, November 9?
There are seven contenders of course with all but one team within a win of the top of the table. And if the team that is slightly further behind captures the same form that lit up the end of the Spring Season, all are still in with a shot at playing for the ultimate Soccer Bowl prize.
In the words of FC Edmonton coach Colin Miller: “This is the most competitive league in North America - possibly in professional soccer. I don't know of any other league that has three points separating first and seventh place.”
So who will emerge from the tight pack of teams chasing glory?
Tampa Bay Rowdies – the benefit of experience
If the season were to end today, Ricky Hill’s Rowdies would be heading to NASL Soccer Bowl 2013 by virtue of a slim goal difference having scored 13 and conceded 9 to Carolina’s eight over five.
Possessing the resources to consistently hit the back of the net will propel any team to victory and in the case of the Rowdies they have the potential firepower to remain in the driving seat. Top scorer Georgi Hristov is third in the NASL Golden Boot race with nine goals and is now partnered by Etienne Barbara, the NASL top scorer in 2011. Add in the six goals contributed so far from midfield by Englishman Luke Mulholland, who threatens to hit the target every week, and Tampa Bay boasts a potent attacking force.
Defensively the Rowdies are backstopped by Diego Restrepo, who has been in impressive form, and have the benefit of experience in veteran Japanese defender Takuya Yamada.
And when you consider the Rowdies won the 2012 NASL championship and have retained many members of that squad and signed others who have played in a title game, the experience of dealing with high stakes could prove invaluable during the run-in.
The Rowdies’ Achilles heel could be home from, which has seen them win only twice in nine attempts in the combined 2013 spring and fall seasons.
Carolina RailHawks – keen to avoid the bridesmaid tag
The RailHawks were kicking themselves and looking on in disbelief when the Atlanta Silverbacks stole in on the final day of the NASL Spring Season to capture the title and with it the right to host NASL Soccer Bowl 2013.
The RailHawks had two shots at claiming the title and home field advantage for themselves and let both slip. The penultimate game of the first half of the campaign ended in a 1-1 draw with the Silverbacks when a win would have tied everything up for Colin Clarke’s side. Then a week later, victory was all that was needed away in San Antonio, but the Scorpions triumphed 2-0 in a cruel end to a season that saw the RailHawks top the table more frequently than any of their rivals.
The jewel in the Carolina crown as they aim to put things right during the Fall Season is deadly striker Brian Shriver, who leads the Golden Boot race with 12 goals so far in 2013, five of which have come in the six fall games played so far. Shriver has consistently scored goals for the RailHawks and his supply from midfield will continue, particularly if the explosive Ty Shipalane, who was ruled out of the Spring Season run in, can avoid injuries.
The fortress that is WakeMed Soccer Park is another RailHawks weapon as they are yet to lose on home turf in 2013.
Fort Lauderdale Strikers – the surprise package
Having finished the Spring Season bottom of the pile with eight points from 12 games and opened up the fall with two losses, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers were immediate outsiders for claiming a berth at Soccer Bowl.
New coach Günter Kronsteiner asked the Strikers faithful to be patient, put his faith in players he felt were devotees to the cause and duly produced three straight wins and a draw to go level at the top of the table.
The Strikers claimed the RailHawks’ prized scalp at Lockhart Stadium and now face a true test of their credentials in the next five games. They travel to FC Edmonton and Carolina, where points are hard to come by, face the emotion of the first home meeting with the New York Cosmos in three decades and then back-to-back clashes with in state rival the Rowdies. Tampa Bay is one team the Strikers just can’t find a way to beat, but perhaps the Kronsteiner revival will include claiming Florida bragging rights.
A mainstay of the upsurge in form has been Mexican under 20 international goalkeeper Richard Sanchez whose loan spell from FC Dallas has seen him post 315 consecutive shutout minutes, the fifth-best record in league history. A solid back line marshaled by impressive performances from Rafael Alves, Stephane Guillaume, Ivan Guerrero and Stefan Antonijevic have made Fort Lauderdale a tough team to score against.
New York Cosmos – waiting to unleash goals
The rebooted Cosmos face the disadvantage of not having had an opportunity to gel during the first half of the season and as a result, coach Giovanni Savarese faces a challenge in fielding a cohesive unit that can produce consistent performances.
But so far seven points taken from a possible nine in home games at Hofstra University have kept the Cosmos only a point off the pace. Lightning struck twice as injury time winners earned maximum reward from games against Fort Lauderdale and San Antonio, but away form has produced only two draws so far.
The ace in the Cosmos pack is midfield veteran Marcos Senna. The former Spain international and European Championship winner has stamped his authority on most games this season, provides a spark when New York most needs one and has scored twice. Compatriot and fellow midfielder Ayoze also looks like he is itching to get among the goal scorers.
Having only had six games to determine the most effective strike partnership, the Cosmos could be due a glut of goals from forwards who have all hit the target so far in Angel Diaz, Henry Lopez and Alessandro Noselli, not to mention Stefan Dimotrov, who spent the Spring Season on loan in Fort Lauderdale.
Minnesota United FC – the silent assassins
One win could put Minnesota clear at the top, but they have put themselves within striking distance of heading to NASL Soccer Bowl 2013 almost unnoticed. Unlike some of their rivals who have put together streaks or unbeaten records, United FC have ridden a relative rollercoaster this fall.
Defeat at home on the opening day was followed by a win most pundits expected Manny Lagos’ side to secure away to the at that time struggling Strikers. Tampa Bay then took a point from the NCS Stadium and following a loss in Carolina it would have been easy to write off Minnesota.
But a dramatic last gasp winner took maximum points from San Antonio in a thrilling 3-2 away win and then a draw at home to FC Edmonton claimed another point, although the Eddies equalized while United FC were still celebrating breaking the deadlock.
Coach Lagos has trimmed his squad that boasts one of the most deadly and natural goal scorers in Pablo Campos who has already found the back of the net eight times in 2013. With Mike Ambersley, who arrived from Tampa Bay, also settling in and expected to start hitting the target and the sublime Miguel Ibarra a constant creator in midfield, Minnesota will look to achieve more consistency. They face back-to-back road games in New York and Edmonton where goals have proved hard to come by.
FC Edmonton – the dark horse
Saying your team is sitting in seventh place in a league of eight teams should be followed by a disclaimer in Edmonton where their position is tempered by the fact they are only a win off first place.
Colin Miller’s team have scored the joint fewest goals with five, but have also conceded the same number, which earns them the joint best defensive record in the NASL. Quite simply, teams struggle to score against the Eddies whether at Clarke Stadium or with the benefit of home advantage. If the goals come at the other end, this could be the team to watch when the race for Soccer Bowl intensifies.
Journeyman Chris Nurse has been at the heart of the FC Edmonton consistency with a goal in three straight games and dominating midfield performances that earned him the NASL Player of the Month for August award, voted for by the media.
The Canadian side’s attack has been bolstered by the arrival of Corey Hertzog on loan from Vancouver and he has hit the target twice, including a strike on his debut. Quite simply, goals are the requirement for FC Edmonton in their quest to win the Fall Season.
San Antonio Scorpions – the obvious outsider
Let’s not be too quick to write off the chances of the Scorpions.
San Antonio endured a slow start to the NASL Spring Season, but made a dramatic recovery to remain in contention for the title until the final day of action. They only have to look to the east to Fort Lauderdale to see how a change of coach might also bring a change in fortunes.
Alen Marcina looked to have sealed a point in the fifth week of action in his first game in charge in place of Tim Hankinson, but saw Minnesota United FC cruelly score an injury time winner at Toyota Field. But that point did come away to the in-form Strikers.
The irony of the 0-0 draw in Fort Lauderdale was that while it broke the Scorpions’ duck in the standings, prolific marksman Tomasz Zahorski failed to score for the first time and his equally potent strike partner Hans Denissen was also shut out. But the good news is that if San Antonio has steadied the ship, they now have the attacking options and the memories of their spring resurgence to believe they can bounce back into Soccer Bowl contention.
Tickets for NASL Soccer Bowl 2013 are now on general sale and can be purchased by calling 404-969-4900 or booking online at www.atlantasilverbacksfc.com.
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|Tampa Bay Rowdies||14||5||5||4||3||20|
|Minnesota United FC||14||6||2||6||2||20|
|Fort Lauderdale Strikers||14||5||3||6||-2||18|
|San Antonio Scorpions||14||3||1||10||-9||10|
|San Antonio Scorpions||12||6||2||4||4||20|
|Tampa Bay Rowdies||12||5||3||4||5||18|
|Minnesota United FC||12||4||2||6||-5||14|
|Fort Lauderdale Strikers||12||2||2||8||-14||8|