USSF D2 kicks off the Labor Day weekend with a Thursday night match featuring the Portland Timbers and Puerto Rico Islanders. Friday, the Carolina RailHawks host Crystal Palace Baltimore, while Saturday NSC Minnesota travels to Austin for a matchup with the Aztex at House Park. On Sunday, AC St. Louis host Miami FC while Puerto Rico play in Vancouver. Also on Sunday, the Carolina RailHawks host an international friendly, taking on Mexican Liga Ascenso club Pumas Morelos. Long-time Mexican international defender Claudio Suarez, the most capped player in the history of soccer, will take the field for the RailHawks in the match, as he began training with the club on Thursday.
The Portland-Puerto Rico matchup tonight features two hot teams. The Timbers play their last USSF D2 regular season home game at PGE Park, and lead the Islanders by six points in the USL Conference standings, although the Islanders have two games in hand. The Islanders are riding a nine-game unbeaten streak in league play, while Portland is on a five-game unbeaten streak.
This is a big game for both teams, and especially for the Timbers’ faithful who have helped support this franchise and been a big part of its success as the team prepares for its move to MLS in 2011. The Timbers have their offense percolating now, having scored eight times in their last five games. Ryan Pore still leads USSF D2 in scoring, and Bright Dike has come into his own during the last stretch of games to prove that he can score goals on the professional level. The Timbers have added 19 year-old Ghanian midfielder/forward Khalif Alhassan to their squad, along with former Red Bulls’ veteran defender Kevin Goldthwaite, to their roster as the team develops a squad that can be competitive in MLS play.
The Islanders once again are playing in the CONCACAF Champions League tournament. After eliminating the Los Angeles Galaxy in the preliminary round, Colin Clarke’s Islanders have gotten four points in two group round games. They have represented USSF D2 well, and are tied for the CCL Group D lead with Toluca. The Islanders are now fifth in USSF D2 in scoring, led by David Foley with eight goals, and have surpassed the .500 mark with a 8-7-8 record.
The Timbers-Islanders matchup has all the markings of a great contest. The emotion of the Timbers’ home crowd, coupled with this match being the last regular season USSF D2 game at PGE Park and the proximity in the standings of both teams, along with each team’s current level of form, should make for an entertaining contest.
On Friday night, the RailHawks host Crystal Palace Baltimore at WakeMed Soccer Park. The RailHawks have hovered around the .500 mark all season, not being able to put together a streak of wins, but only once suffering defeats in two consecutive games. Currently in second place in the NASL Conference with a 9-8-7 record, the RailHawks are led in scoring by striker Etienne Barbara, who has netted seven times in the regular season. Josh Gardner and Daniel Paladini have each contributed five goals, while Sallieu Bundu has added four, giving the RailHawks a diversified attack. Defensively, former Minnesota Thunder goalkeeper Nic Platter has been getting starts lately in place of Eric Reed, and Martin Rennie’s backline of Matt Bobo, Mark Shields, Greg Schulte and John Gilkerson, along with David Hayes, have been solid for Carolina all season. The RailHawks have just added All-League USL-2 forward Tom Heinemann from the champion Charleston Battery and former Chicago Fire defender David Woolard, who last played for the DFW Tornados of the PDL.
Crystal Palace Baltimore have also made changes to their roster, adding forward Alan Sanchez from the Real Maryland Monarchs and Romanian midfielder Adrian Bumbut, who has played for the USL-2 Richmond Kickers and the indoor Baltimore Blast team, along with goalkeeper Mark Murphy to back up regular Evan Bush. The Baltimore team, four points out of playoff contention, are in fourth place in the NASL Conference ahead of AC St. Louis and Miami FC, although both clubs played one less game than CP Baltimore. CP Baltimore has beaten the RailHawks once this season, and drawn with them in their other meeting. Defender Kory Veeder will be absent from the Baltimore lineup through September 12 as he joins the US Men’s National U-20 team for their tournament in Peru.
With no team mathematically eliminated from the USSF D2 playoff race, September (and the first weekend of October) should be an interesting time. The USSF D2 playoffs begin on October 6 and 7th, with the return leg games to be played on October 9 and 10th. For more information on the USSF D2 playoff format, please visit Brian Quarstad’s Inside Minnesota Soccer http://www.insidemnsoccer.com/