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NASL spring season: A crowded field suddenly paced by Cosmos, again

Photo Courtesy NASL/Trevor Ruszkowski

An unpredictable five-horse race is now a four-horse race in the NASL's homestretch, but the New York Cosmos are in control again. Wes Burdine paints the scene.

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Four teams remain in the hunt for the NASL spring season title with only two weeks remaining in the campaign. The New York Cosmos, the league’s perennial favorites, hold the upper-hand, but Minnesota United, the Carolina RailHawks, and 2016’s surprise package, Indy Eleven, remain in the picture.

What’s at Stake?

The spring sprint is one of the more peculiar aspects of the NASL’s split-season format that was introduced in 2013. Since the league is only 11 teams, each team plays one another once during the spring before a three week break that leads up to the fall season. The winner of the spring is guaranteed one of the four spots in the Championship as well as hosting rights for the first round. The remaining places will go to the winner of the 20-game fall season and the two highest finishers in the combined table.

The lop-sided format means that there is a disproportionate amount of importance for the first 10 games than the 20 to follow. It can also mean that a team is playing two-thirds of the year knowing they’ve already clinched a playoff spot. In 2013, the Atlanta Silverbacks won the spring with 21 points from 12 matches, only to sputter toward the Championship with 16 points from their last 14 matches.

The Race So Far

Up to this point, the spring season has been a mix of the predictable and complete surprise. What’s been predictable is just how bad the Florida teams have been, no small thing for a league with 36 percent of its teams in the state. Miami FC and Jacksonville have been particularly woeful, winning just one game apiece. The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale Strikers are just behind the title contenders, but as league veterans, they have been thoroughly underwhelming.

Also predictable has been the dominance of the New York Cosmos and, to a lesser extent, Minnesota United. These two teams have the highest team salaries and attract bigger names (though in both categories the Cosmos far outpace Minnesota).  Both also came into 2016 as firm favorites for two of four Championship spots.

What no one predicted was an as-yet undefeated season for Indy Eleven. Since Indy came into existence, they have bargain-shopped their way to the bottom of the NASL table. But the appointment of Tim Hankinson as coach has proven to be an inspired choice.

Coming into this past weekend five teams were in serious contention for the spring title with only two points separating first from fifth. But a draw for Indy and losses for FC Edmonton and Minnesota United this past weekend means that the New York Cosmos need a win in their final game against Fort Lauderdale to clinch the spring. (Despite being level on points with second-place Indy, FC Edmonton cannot win the spring season since the club is four points adrift of the Cosmos with only one match to play. Also, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa Bay are mathematically still alive, but logically aren't in the hunt.)

The Contenders

New York Cosmos

(9 games played; 6-3-0, 18 pts.)

Each season, the Cosmos have brought in a shiny, new player with a recognizable name. But players like Raúl and Marcos Senna brought an enormous amount of quality to the pitch, too. Juan Arango and Niko Kranjčar certainly don’t command the same level of name recognition, but Arango in particular has proven effective so far, scoring three goals. Kranjčar, on the other hand, was ruled out of the rest of the spring season with an injury. The Cosmos’ other key acquisitions were modest, but effective: Jairo Arrieta and Yohandry Orozco have each scored two goals.

Photo Courtesy NASL/NY Cosmos

Photo Courtesy NASL/NY Cosmos

The Cosmos’ season hit a bump when they suffered their first back-to-back defeats since their rebirth in 2013 at the hands of Indy Eleven and Minnesota United. They suffered another loss at Edmonton, but otherwise, they have been flawless, winning their other six matches. In those six wins, the Cosmos gave up only one goal.

The only obstacle before them is an away trip to Fort Lauderdale this coming weekend. A win against the Strikers could wrap up the spring with one week remaining. It was certainly poor planning by the NASL to give the league’s flagship team a bye week to finish off the spring. Just how easy of a match the Cosmos will have is difficult to tell. At times this season, the Strikers have been absolutely woeful; their 3-0 loss in Minnesota was the nadir. But in May, the Strikers had three wins and a draw, giving neutrals a glimmer of hope that they might put up a fight.

Indy Eleven

(8 games played; 3-0-5, 14 pts.)

This is not Tim Hankinson’s first rodeo. Previously, the white-haired manager led the expansion-side San Antonio Scorpions to win the regular-season title in 2012, before a colossal meltdown in the semifinals against Minnesota.

Indy Eleven’s owner, Ersal Ozdemir, brought Hankinson to Indy hoping that they could build this year’s Ottawa Fury. In 2015, the Fury came from nowhere to take the fall season and earn a spot in the finals against the Cosmos. They did it with muscle.

Hankinson’s Eleven have a plan and, though the hoof-it-and-run tactic may not be pretty, it has been remarkably effective. Indy goes into its final two matches of the season undefeated. With two games remaining, they need the Cosmos to slip up if they are going to capture the spring season. Luckily for them, their schedule is favorable. They travel this weekend to Miami FC, which has been absolutely terrible to this point (though the club did win its first match last week). If the Cosmos draw or lose this weekend, then Indy will go into the final game of the season needing a win at home to the Carolina RailHawks.

Carolina RailHawks

(8 games played(4-3-1, 13 pts.)

The RailHawks have always been a streaky team and 2016 has proven no different. They started the spring with a big win against Minnesota United and then went on to win the next three matches. Since then, however, Carolina has only picked up one point and that was against hapless Miami FC. Playing Jacksonville Armada this weekend could be the sort of match that revives their spring hopes. However, the RailHawks will need the Cosmos, Minnesota, and Indy to all trip up before they play Indy Eleven in what would be a must-watch match to cap the spring season.

Photo Courtesy NASL/Carolina Railhawks

Photo Courtesy NASL/Carolina Railhawks

Minnesota United FC

(8 games played; 4-3-1, 13 pts.)

The Loons are an impossible team to understand. Since Carl Craig took over the head-coach role from the abdicator, Manny Lagos, Minnesota has been far more ruthless than in the past. They handily dispatched the likes of Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville and won their first match ever against the New York Cosmos with a thrilling 90th-minute goal from Christian Ramirez.

And yet, in the last month they drew against a poor Ottawa Fury team and lost to Indy Eleven and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. When they are clicking, the Loons are a whirring machine of steampunk dreams. They boast last year’s top two goal-scorers and the league’s two best fullbacks in Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas. But at times this season, that machine has chucked its gears and the Loons seem unable to string together a series of passes.

To win the spring, Minnesota will need the Cosmos and Indy to trip up, but they will also need to get their attack moving again. The Loons face a difficult journey to Rayo OKC this weekend (after a midweek U.S. Open Cup match in St. Louis), who play on a very small turf field that other players have described in less-than-glowing reports. If they can win in Oklahoma City, then they will have an easier time at home to Miami FC, which, as mentioned, is not good at soccer. It is a difficult path to the spring title, but not an impossible one. And if the rest of the spring is any indicator, we should be prepared for some sort last-minute surprise.

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