Over this Labor Day weekend, the second-place USL Conference Austin Aztex will host NSC Minnesota Saturday night. On Sunday, the Puerto Rico Islanders will be looking for points as they visit Vancouver following Thursday’s loss to Portland, and also on Sunday Miami FC will make its first trip to St. Louis in their first ever match against AC St. Louis..
Manny Lagos’ NSC Minnesota Stars have a very tenuous hold on the final USSF D2 playoff spot, tied at 28 points with FC Tampa Bay. They will have an uphill fight to get points on the road against Austin, who have only lost three times in 2010, and only twice at House Park. Moreover, the Stars will be without starting goalkeeper Joe Warren, who will sit out with a red card suspension, and veteran defender Kevin Friedland, who is out with injury. Losing these two veterans will make it even tougher to contain Austin’s excellent finishing. Matt Van Oekel, who’s appeared in four regular season games in 2010, will take Warren’s spot between the posts and Chris Clements will most likely replace Friedland in the starting lineup. Clements has recently returned from injury.
Austin’s excellent finishing has put them far atop the team USSF D2 scoring lead, as they have accumulated 43 goals on the season, 11 more than runner ups Rochester and Carolina/ Forwards Eddie Johnson, Maxwell Griffin and Jamie Watson have combined for 24 goals, and Randi Patterson has five strikes on the season, his first four coming when with Crystal Palace Baltimore. The Aztex have added Patterson’s former teammate, midfielder Tsuyoshi Yoshitake, who scored three times for CP Baltimore. Yoshitake, who is on loan to the Aztex, will be ineligible to play until September 8.
With a win Saturday night, the Aztex would regain first place in the USL Conference, as they trail Rochester by only two points. The Aztex juggernaut has slowed a bit recently, as they were held to draws in their last two contests up in Portland and Vancouver. The injury bug has bitten Adrian Heath’s team hard, as defenders Jay Needham and Stephan Campbell, along with midfielder Lawrence Olum, are definetely out for Saturday’s match while midfielders Sullivan Silva and Joey Worthen got banged up in practice this week and may miss the match also.
The Aztex won the only previous 2010 matchup between the two teams, winning 2-1 in Minnesota while the Stars played a man down. Based on the season’s performance, the Aztex are undoubtedly an elite team in USSF D2, but Manny Lagos’ Stars have a penchant for pulling out games near the end, and if they can quiet the Aztex’ scoring, they may be able to sneak out of Austin with a result.
On Sunday, the Puerto Rico Islanders continue their road trip with a match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Vancouver has had a lot of player turnover as they prepare a roster for 2011 MLS play, but Teitur Thordarson’s squad have had a stranglehold on the first place spot in the NASL Conference and don’t look to let go. They have a six point lead over second place Carolina, and although the RailHawks have played one less game, they haven’t seriously threatened the Whitecaps lead. Only a USSF D2 league high 13 draws have marred the Whitecaps season, but the dearth of scoring they suffered through the first half of the season has improved, as youngster Blake Wagner has scored four times in only twelve contests, to tie with captain Martin Nash for the team lead.
The Whitecaps still boast the stingiest defense in USSF D2, allowing only 18 goals in 25 games. Jay Nolly has had a superior season, and backliners Nelson Akwari, Greg Janicki, Wesley Knight, Luca Bellisomo and Zurab Tsikaridze have demonstrated the ability to thwart opposing offenses. They have been the rock of Thordarson’s team. In the meantime, Thordarson, who will be retained as head coach upon the Whitecaps entrance in MLS play next year, has been playing mix and match with the midfield and forward lines. Newcomers Cody Arnoux, Ridge Mobulu, Jonathan McDonald and Terry Dunfield have been getting playing time since their arrival, and Thordarson is certainly assembling a talented group of youngsters that also includes Alex Semenets, Kyle Porter, Gershon Koffie, Ethan Gage and two-time Canadian U-17 Player of the Year, Russell Teibert.
Vancouver will be facing a hungry Puerto Rico Islanders squad that held up well in Portland Thursday night before succumbing to USSF D2 leading scorer Ryan Pore and losing 1-0. With the Islanders at 8-8-8, a result would solidify their current sixth place standing in the USSF D2 playoff format. Led by David Foley, Nicholas Addlery and Josh Hansen in attacking, the Islanders are fifth in USSF D2 team scoring, third in shots taken and fourth in corner kicks. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Colin Clarke and his Islanders take advantage of the inexperience of some of the Vancouver newcomers and steal a win in the city that hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games.
Finally on Sunday, AC St. Louis will host Miami FC in a match of two teams desperate for three points. AC St. Louis, with 23 points, stand five points out of the last playoff spot while Miami FC are eight points back. Mathematically still alive, both teams will have to push for a win, as a draw would probably do little for either squad’s playoff hopes. Both teams changed coaches earlier in the season, with Dale Schilly replacing Claude Anelka in St. Louis while Daryl Shore replaced Victore Pastore as head coach of the Blues.
The reason both teams are currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in is defense. Miami FC have allowed the most goals in USSF D2 this season, and have an ugly goal differential of -15. AC St. Louis, meanwhile, has shown real individual improvement among their rookies in goal (Alec Dufty) and on the backline (Mark Bloom, Zach Bauer, John Lesko, Anthony O’Garro and the injured Dillon Barna), but have surrendered goals in the 87th minute or later in five games since May 29, costing them nine points. AC St. Louis has brought back defender Chris Schuler on loan from Real Salt Lake to help out. Schuler played well in three games earlier this summer for the Saints before returning to Real Salt Lake.
While AC St. Louis is led in scoring by Mike Ambersley, who’s netted eight times in 18 games, Miami FC’s leading scorer has been Paulo Araujo J, also with eight tallies. Paulo Jr, who was the subject of an MLS Rumors post recently that had him headed to the LA Galaxy, has been consistent all season, and has combined with former MLS MVP Christian Gomez, Abe Thompson and Brian Shriver to field an imposing attack, at least on paper. Newcomers Chukwudi Chijindu, on loan from Chivas USA, and Danilo Martins have given the Blues even more scoring depth, yet the team only ranks 9th in team scoring. And while Schilly has improved AC St. Louis offensively, they rank 11th in goals scored. Neither team scores enough to offset their defensive lapses.
Yet both coaches are upbeat. According to Shore, “We control our own destiny. We have six games left, four of which are at home. If we take care of business at home and get some results on the road we should be able to make a final playoff push to get into the playoffs.” Likewise, Schilly knows the formula to get his team into the playoffs. “It is simple. The guys are now creating chances and we are scoring goals. The question becomes how can we hold onto the game, and manage the game in the last 15 minutes to get the result,” said Schilly. “Now is time for us to take responsibility, and take care of things at the end of a game.” Schilly added that “Mike Ambersley will be important for us Sunday. We need to get him the ball in positions where he can score goals. Plus, the supporting cast needs to be good and help create chances for Ambersley or for themselves.”
Should be a fun contest. I’m looking forward to being at the game, rooting for my hometown Saints but also looking forward to seeing the talented players on the Miami FC club. With most of the leagues in the world having the weekend off because of international competitions, this is a good weekend to catch a USSF D2 game live or watch the online streaming through the club websites.