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USSF D2 Playoffs: The Battle for the Final Spots Part 2

In part 2 of our USSF D2 playoff battle preview, we’ll look at NSC Minnesota, FC Tampa Bay, AC St. Louis, Crystal Palace Baltimore and Miami FC’s hopes.  All these teams have enjoyed bright moments in 2010, but those times have been tempered by disappointment.  At least one will emerge to claim a playoff spot. Good luck to all.

In Intensive Care:  NSC Minnesota and FC Tampa Bay are tied in points with a two point lead over AC St. Louis.  NSC Minnesota has four games left, whereas the other two have five.  All three clubs are expansion teams.  Each is coached by a gentlemen in his first year as a head coach in professional soccer — Manny Lagos in Minnesota, Paul Dalglish in Tampa Bay and Dale Schilly in St. Louis, but all three have vast experience in the game.  

Unlike the other teams in USSF D2, the NSC Minnesota Stars have not gone out and obtained additional players for the playoff run.  They do benefit from having midfielder Devon De Lo and defender Chris Clements back healthy again.  The Stars haven’t won since July 10.  Following that win over the Rowdies, the Stars drew in five consecutive games before enduring a rough patch in their last three contests in which they have been unable to score.  NSC Minnesota management has demonstrated fiscal restraint in not adding players and keeping payroll low.  They probably were the last club in USSF D2 to assemble their roster, although many players had ties from their days with the Minnesota Thunder.  

Manny Lagos has done a good job in his first year, but next Saturday’s road game against AC St. Louis will be crucial.  The Stars, who have a 1-1-1 regular season record against AC St. Louis, need at least a draw, and a win would get them back on the right track.  After Saturday’s match, the Stars play twice at home before ending the season in Tampa.

For FC Tampa Bay,  a two-month midsummer winless drought derailed the impressive start of the 2010 Rowdies.  Paul Dalglish’s squad showed character in their last outing by coming back from a two goal deficit to draw against AC St. Louis at home, and will have had almost two weeks off to prepare for Saturday’s contest in Rochester this Saturday.  But Rochester have lost their first-place status to the Aztex, and will be gunning for a win.

The Rowdies have today added defender Justin Morrow on loan from the San Jose Earthquakes.  If Morrow does as well in D2 as his fellow University of Notre Dame teammates Bright Dike (Portland) and Jack Traynor (AC St. Louis), the Rowdies will benefit.   Adding former Vancouver midfielders Jonny Steele and Ricardo Sanchez, a fine dead-ball specialist, along with Chivas USA forward Maykel Galindo (on loan) have helped ramp up the Rowdies offense that had sputtered because of injuries, and was shut out in five of six matches between June 19 amd July 22.  The Rowdies are the third ranked team in USSF D2 scoring this year,  paced by Aaron King’s nine goals, but have allowed as many as they have scored.  FC Tampa Bay has three remaining home games among their final five contests.

For AC St. Louis, it’s been a wild ride off and on the field, but Sunday’s big win over Miami FC has the team’s fans optimistic of gaining the playoffs.  Starting off slowly, the Saints have picked up offensively under Coach Schilly, and if they can continue to avoid surrendering leads, they have a real chance of claiming a playoff berth.  Three of their five remaining games are at home, although in that five gain span they play the offensively dominant Austin Aztex twice and the elite Rochester Rhinos once.  In two previous meetings with the Aztex and one with Rochester, the Saints have gotten zero points.

AC St. Louis has added defender Chris Shuler back on loan from Real Salt Lake  — he played three games earlier for AC St. Louis before returning to RSL, and started Sunday against Miami FC.  His presence is a positive factor.  Mike Ambersley leads the team with nine goals, and fellow veteran Luke Kreamalmeyer is a threat on the right flank.  Rookies Chris Salvaggione, Brad Stisser and Jeff Cosgriff, each with two goals on the season, will be counted on to contribute, and teenage phenom Luis Gil has been getting more minutes in each of the four games he’s played for AC St. Louis.  Defensively captain Jack Traynor and USL veteran Tim Velten have helped solidify a young backline that has shown real improvement in individual performance but occasionally loses focus.  The team is pretty healthy, and with Alec Dufty coming up with big saves throughout the season, Saints’ fans are guardedly optimistic, but praying too. 

On life support: In the Catholic faith, St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes and the miraculous.  Crystal Palace Baltimore need St. Jude’s intercession badly.  With only four games left, Jim Cherneski’s Baltimore team have 24 points on 6 wins and 6 draws.  The team has had financial troubles off the field, trouble establishing a home field (they’ve played home games at five different venues in 2010) and have lost their last four games by an aggregate score of 13-0.  Help !!!!  Even the club they are affiliated with, Crystal Palace in the English championship, went under administration in 2010.

I don’t mean to belittle CP Baltimore or their fans.  But in dispensing with the services of forward Randi Patterson and midfielders Tsuyoshi Yoshitake and Yakiel Perez, the team with the most difficulty scoring goals in USSF D2 lost a lot of the attackers they had.  The team recently added forwards Alan Sanchez and Adrian Bumbut, and they started together in the team’s last outing, but unless they become a dynamic duo immediately, CP Baltimore’s chances for a playoff berth seem to be hopeless.  It’s a shame, because goalkeeper Evan Bush and others on the team have had good years, and defender Korey Veeder will be missing until September 12 as he is with the US U-20 Men’s National Team in Peru.  Baltimore is one of my favorite cities, and I’m a fan of the old Baltimore Colts, the Orioles in the days of St. Louisan Earl Weaver, and even the Baltimore Bullets of the Wes Unseld-Gus Johnson- Earl “the Pearl” Monroe days.  But I’m very skeptical of this team’s chances, especially considering its recent form. 

Call the Coroner:  Miami FC.  Three wins in 25 matches.  Convert a few of the Blues’ 11 draws into wins, and the team is in playoff contention.  I really like this team and this organization.  But they’ve leaked 44 goals in 25 matches in 2010, by far the worst in USSF D2.  And despite offensive talents like Christian Gomez, Paulo Araujo Jr (who may be departing to MLS), Abe Thompson, Brian Shriver, loanees Gerson Mayen and Chukwudi Chijindu and newcomers like Danilo Martins, the club is only seventh in the league in scoring.    The Blues had to win Sunday in St. Louis but were unable to do so.   I thought if they could win that game, they’d have a fighting chance.

Again, I really like this team.  Any organization that includes Fernando Clavijo is a class organization, and the powder-blue shirts and white shorts are as good-looking as any kit in USSF D2 or MLS.  But they’d practically need to win all five games for any hope of making the 2010 playoffs.  Unfortunately for Miami FC fans, mission improbable.  Management will regret what could have been  in 2010, but there is certainly a talent base to breed optimism for 2011.  And even if they become the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers next year, I hope the current kit is kept at least as a third uniform.

Predictions:  Here we go.  Austin will nose out Rochester for the USL Conference title, while Carolina will win the NASL Conference.  The seeds thus will be…….

1.  Austin Aztex                      additions of Patteson and Yoshitake offset injuries

2. Carolina RailHawks           newcomers Russell and Heinemann boost firepower

3. Rochester Rhinos              great season for Coach Lilley’s team, need more scoring

4. Vancouver Whitecaps        lack of finishing has hurt the ‘Caps, but great defense

5. Portland Timbers                will be dangerous in playoffs

6. Puerto Rico Islanders        slow start hurt this team, but team could take playoffs

7. Montreal Impact                  inconsistent season, coming together as a squad

8. AC St. Louis.                      by a nose over FC Tampa Bay and NSC Minnesota

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