Looking Forward: NASL Spring Rankings, Part I

The NASL instituted the split season format in 2013 dividing the competitive year up into two unequal halves, Spring and Fall. Tinkering with a playoff system is a mainstay of North American soccer, but it seems that the NASL found a formula that maintains the integrity of being the season champion while respecting the sporting system with which we’re all most familiar. By taking the combined season winner, the best team of each half, and then the next best team overall, the NASL devised a four team postseason that is competitive and inclusive. Unlike other sports and leagues where more than half of the teams make it to the postseason (creating the not infrequent situation where a losing team makes it to the playoffs), the NASL’s system carves a niche for merit and being in form.

Since the split season format has been in place the team that wins the Spring has been the favorite for the championship, but the team that has won the Fall as routinely been the most exciting. We saw this in 2013 when the New York Cosmos arrived on the scene in the second half of the season on its way to winning the league title. In 2014, Minnesota dominated the Spring and Fall and Combined but lost the championship to a surging and impressive San Antonio. Just last season, New York looked to be the team to beat from the outset, yet a scrappy Ottawa Fury made the drive to the championship a heated three-way battle between themselves, the Cosmos, and Minnesota.

So what can we conclude before a single meaningful minute has been played? More than you’d suspect actually. Whatever team comes out of the gate fastest will most likely win the Spring, and winning the Spring locks a spot in the championship. But winning early is its own challenge. After the Atlanta Silverbacks won the Spring in 2013, the team phoned in the rest of the season failing impress not just throughout the Fall but in the championship against the Cosmos the team was thoroughly out classed. Winning the Spring requires a different type of mental fortitude than surging at the end of the Fall or maintaining a high level throughout the season.

Having said that, when Puerto Rico FC comes into the league in the Fall a la New York Cosmos, it will have a thorough scouting book on all its competition and know that if it pushes hard enough it will insert itself into the playoff conversation. Teams that traditionally start strong but fade (Tampa Bay Rowdies, Carolina Railhawks, and Ft. Lauderdale Strikers) and those that open poorly but rev up as the season progresses (Minnesota and Ottawa) will be looking for that coveted balance. The long suffering FC Edmonton and Indy Eleven appear stronger than they’ve ever been, a completely revamped Jacksonville Armada look to stake its claim as Florida’s team, while expansion sides Miami FC and Rayo OKC are poised to impress.

As we are about to enter the 2016 season, it makes sense to try to put together a power ranking of sorts. Preseason results and form have to be taken with a grain of salt or, rather, an entire salt mine. Pundit picks and analysis mixed with last minute signings and injuries all done in a morass of training meant more to acquaint players with one another and develop fitness is where we find ourselves.

There are eleven teams competing in the Spring. The middle and bottom teams in the league will be more fluid this year than in previous. Here are my rankings for the Spring positions six through eleven.

The Middling

12719281_10153378572190423_1815274491506581210_o

Brian Shriver, left, in preseason scrimmage again Univ. of North Carolina (photo Carolina Railhawks)

6. Carolina Railhawks

Carolina are never a bad team although it routinely comes in under expectations; a steady stock but one that it’s difficult to invest in. Yet new owner Steve Malik has given manager Colin Clarke the resources he needs to be competitive. Signing a slew of new, quality defenders (fullbacks Paul Black and Drew Beckie and centerbacks Simon Mensing and Kareem Moses) while discretely pinching one of the league’s best defensive midfielders in James Marcelin and one of the better young, attack-minded central midfielders in Marvin Ceballos gives the Railhawks depth and strength. The return of Brian Shriver, a former Golden Boot winner, and his placement at his proper position of striker rather than winger (where Tampa Bay all too often utilized him to poor results) will do a lot to bring goals back to WakeMed Soccer Park. Perennial MVP candidate Tiyi Shipalane opposite a healthy Austin da Luz with the ever improving Nazmi Albadawi betwix means that Shriver will spearhead an experienced and technically gifted attack. Health will be the major concern for Carolina.

2907487202

Strikers’ PC in black takes on Brazil’s Corthinians in a preseason friendly (Photo: Kelsey Kinds/Ft. Lauderdale Strikers)

7. Ft. Lauderdale Strikers

Nothing about Ft. Lauderdale makes any sense, yet it is arguable the most fascinating team in the league. The Strikers’ front office over the past three seasons has felt like a telenovella – sweeping and bizarre melodrama bookending intriguing results on the pitch. This preseason the team has gone over to China where it will undoubtedly be looking to cozy up to the nation’s Super League and the seemingly endless stream of money pouring from its pockets. The still fresh-faced owners in Ft. Lauderdale are crafting an interesting organization and team, one that is perhaps the most international in the league. Last season, the Strikers found the trio of Stefano, PC, and Marlon Freitas was spectacular enough to keep its head above water and even give it some swagger. Of that threesome, only PC remains, yet he has a new cohort that is, arguably, more impressive. Veterans Adrianinho, Jean Alaxandre, and Kleberson will give the team much needed experience and guidance. Matheus Carvalho is the striker that we’ll be looking at to most impress. The 23 year-old comes from AS Monaco where he saw Champions League action and the expectation is that he will be a goal scorer here in North America. After having one of the thinnest and most porous defenses last year, new manager Caio Zanardi has signed some league journeymen (Nana Attakora, Julius James, and Gale Agbossoumonde) to ground the team’s Brazilian flair. If the Strikers can find the right chemistry, it could blossom into an entertaining team.

The Bottom

CbnykQOWAAELmc9

New signing Jonny Steele in scrimmage (photo Ottawa Fury)

8. Ottawa Fury

Last season, the Ottawa Fury  made it to the championship final, but gone now is the architect manager Marc Dos Santos and nearly all of the defenders that created the stingiest defense in the league as well as most of the midfield and attacking core. What remains of the 2015 Fury, centerback Rafael Alves and goalkeeper Romuald Peiser, is not enough to leave supporters anything but unsettled. Yet new manager Paul Dalglish is a superb tactician who is adaptable and committed. The signings made in the off-season were not impressive but were most certainly important. Midfielders James Bailey and Marcel de Jong will be able to not just hold their own in the league but definitely impressed. I have concerns about the signing of winger Jonny Steele as he is a bounder and too often toxic in the lockerroom, but I trust in Dalglish to get the most out of him. The greatest concern is defense. After a record setting 2015, the new Ottawa defense looks porous and untested. It feels as though the defense has become the team’s greatest liability. The rebuilt Fury is a different team but just how different remains to be seen.

CaN8qBRVAAA74g7

Rayo OKC’s first manager, Alen Marcina (photo Rayo OKC)

9. Rayo OKC

Of this season’s expansion teams, Rayo Oklahoma City look the most dangerous and the most ready to play. At the helm will be former San Antonio Scorpions manager Alen Marcina. The debut team’s manager is more than familiar with the league having won the championship in 2014 and although he’s coming off a bizarre and awful season with San Antonio, he’s a young, committed player’s coach. Marcina has picked up some of his favorite players from his now dissolved former team (winger and future MVP Billy Forbes, defensive midfielder Tyler Gibson, midfielder Marvin Chavez, and the impressive ‘keeper Daniel Fernandes) as well as impressive talent from the ranks of MLS (journeyman striker Robbie Findley, Sebastian Velasquez formerly of Real Salt Lake and NYC FC, and ex-FC Dallas star Michel). Of Rayo OKC’s first four matches, three will be at home, which bodes well. I wouldn’t say that the team’s schedule is easy, but Rayo OKC doesn’t face the Cosmos, Minnesota, or Ottawa (last season’s powerhouses) until the end of the Spring. I don’t think Rayo OKC will show well in the Spring, but it will certainly be in the mix come the Fall.

CceMErVW8AAwp3X

Jonathan Borrajo getting the feel for Miami (photo Miami FC)

10. Miami FC

Miami is a clustercuss for US soccer, a strange quagmire of might’ve’s, should’ve been’s, and could be’s. Enter Alessandro Nesta at the helm of the expansion Miami FC. The organization came out of the gates in the off-season hard and strong announcing the signing of striker Jaime Chavez, winger Dane Richards, and ex-EPL midfielder Wilson Palacios. This trio made it clear that Miami wasn’t taking its status lightly; it expected to compete. Since those signings the roster has filled out with interesting if not very inspiring talent. As you would expect of Nesta, the defense looks to be the strongest aspect of Miami. Fullbacks Jonathan Borrajo and Mason Trafford know success in the league, Rhett Bernstein though little known here in his home country has been a solid and regular defender in Europe, and Adailton who last endured time with MLS’s Chicago Fire has plenty of experience. Bigger questions exist in the midfield which, outside of Richards and Palacios, is underwhelming. The same can be said for the attack. Beyond Chavez and former Golden Boot winner and league all-time goal scorer Pablo Campos, there isn’t anything of note. Miami will open the Spring facing its in-state rivals – first Ft. Lauderdale away, then Tampa Bay at home, and Jacksonsville away. I don’t suspect Miami will be able to win bragging rights, but these three opening matches promise to be some of the best rivalry soccer in the nation.

CbOXfhbVIAIkJDB

Centerback Albert Watson (photo FC Edmonton)

11. FC Edmonton

The Eddies or Montons are never as good as we’d like them to be. Yet, the team is never awful, which can be its own type of madness. It feels like Edmonton are cursed to always be a middling-to-poor team. That mentality has to change, not just in Edmonton (where I am certain it already has) but throughout the league (where it certainly hasn’t). Losing its best player, Lance Laing, to Minnesota United was a blow. Without Laing on the left wing, Edmonton was often floundering. There is no like-for-like replacement in Edmonton for Laing, but there are a number of quality new signings. Canadian international Nik Ledgerwood will anchor the midfield allowing for a healthy duo of Sainey Nyassi and Tomi Ameobi to finally show their true quality. Up front, Edmonton snatched Jake Keegan from Galway United where he was one of the Irish league’s scoring leaders for the past two seasons. Attack will be in the minds of the Canadians and its supporters. I just hope its defense finds better footing than it had last season. FC Edmonton have something to prove, but I don’t think it will prove it in the Spring.