Saturday September 11 features a full slate of games on the USSF D2 docket. In part one of this review, we’ll focus on the games in which the teams hovering around the eighth and final playoff spot — the AC St. Louis-NSC Minnesota match, the Rochester-FC Tampa Bay tilt and the Vancouver-Crystal Palace Baltimore contest. In part 2, we’ll focus on the Carolina-Portland, Miami FC-Montreal and the Puerto Rico-Austin games.
Saturday evening at 7:10 pm CDT, the NSC Minnesota Stars and AC St. Louis will kick off at AB Soccer Park in St. Louis. The two expansion teams are as evenly matched as could be based on head to head competition this season, with the Stars having 1-0-2 mark against their Mississippi River rivals in league play, while AC St. Louis beat the Stars in US Open Cup play up in Blaine, Minnesota. In each meeting, AC St. Louis has scored the opening goal, while NSC Minnesota has been able to come back to win or draw in all three league matches, each time gaining the result very late in the contest . The Stars are tied with FC Tampa Bay at 28 points on the season and currently hold onto the last USSF D2 playoff spot, while AC St. Louis are only two points behind with a game in hand.
Stars’ coach Manny Lagos will be drawing upon his eight playoff seasons as a player for guidance. “At the end of a long season like this, everyone has little knocks and bruises that they’re playing with,” he said. “We’ve got to put our heads down and really push ourselves to get the next result and keep the pressure on the other teams who are all feeling the same things right now. The guys all know it can be a bit of a grind, but the reward for it is satisfying, and we definitely believe we can reach that.” The Stars have been slipping lately, having been held scoreless in their last three outings, all of which have been losses. The Stars’ veteran goalkeeper, Joe Warren, returns from suspension and midfielder Andrei Gotsmanov is back from a foot injury, but defender Kevin Friedland, who missed last week’s game, is questionable for Saturday’s game with a calf injury and forward Neil Hlavaty is out due to the red card he picked up in stoppage time last week. Hlavaty scored the 87th minute game-winning goal against AC St. Louis when the two teams met on May 28. Forward Brian Cvilikas leads the Stars in goals with five.
AC St. Louis Coach Dale Schilly knows what his team has to do. “We have to stop them from scoring in the last couple minutes, or in stoppage time,” declared Head Coach Dale Schilly. “Minnesota is a good matchup for us. They want to put the ball on the ground and play. The key questions for us are can we put them out of the game earlier, or have we matured enough to manage the last couple minutes of the game?” Schilly also added that ““This game could be different than all the other games we have had with Minnesota. It could be a low scoring game just because of what is riding on this particular match. We have a hurdle to overcome with holding onto leads. Three points would mean a lot to this team because they have invested a lot of effort to get here, and they have bought into everything this coaching staff is trying to do. It is a huge three points for these guys, and not just from a playoff perspective but from a professional perspective to reward the commitment they have shown.” The two teams have combined for 13 goals in their three prior league meetings, and the Saints held onto their lead against Miami FC last Sunday.
AC St. Louis will be led on offense by D2 veterans Mike Ambersley, with 9 goals, and Luke Kreamalmeyer who has 4 goals and 5 assists. The team is in relatively good health, but will be without defender Chris Schuler, who was on his second loan from Real Salt Lake but was recalled. This is a huge game for both clubs. AC St. Louis needs the win to surpass NSC Minnesota in the playoff race, while NSC Minnesota needs to win because they have one less game left than their closest rivals, the St. Louisans and FC Tampa Bay. I’ll be at the game — can’t wait.
In Rochester Saturday evening, the Rhinos will host FC Tampa Bay at Marina Auto Stadium. The Rhinos haven’t played since their August 27th loss to arch-rival Montreal, although they played an intrasquad match September 4 at Monroe Community College. The Rhinos are one point behind the Austin Aztex for the USL Conference lead, and clinched a playoff spot weeks ago. Meanwhile, FC Tampa Bay are fighting desperately to gain a playoff spot. They have also had some time to regroup since their last league game, an August 29 draw against AC St. Louis in which the Rowdies came back from a two goal deficit.
The two teams have met only once this season, with Rochester prevailing in a 1-0 win. Bob Lilley’s team will be fighting hard to regain the top spot in the USL Conference, which they captured by reeling off six wins in a row before their loss to Montreal last time out. For Coach Paul Dalglish of the Rowdies, getting a result Saturday will be crucial, and despite the Rhinos’ superiority berth in the league standings, the Rowdies have actually scored more goals on the season. Aaron Wheeler leads the Rowdies with 9 goals, while striker Isaac Kissi leads Rochester with 5 strikes on the season, followed by Anthony Hamilton and Ryan Heins, who have chipped in with four each.
In this meeting between the two clubs, Dalglish will have MLS veteran Maykel Galindo, on loan from Chivas USA, to help on the attack. The Rowdies’ second leading goal scorer, Aaron King, may be back in action Saturday, as might 2010 World Cup veteran Jeremy Christie, who featured for the brave New Zealand national team. This should be an exciting game with so much on the table for both teams.
Another team with playoff aspirations, Crystal Palace Baltimore, will host NASL Conference leaders Vancouver in an afternoon contest at Paul Angelo Russo Stadium. With only three games left on their schedule after Saturday, this is a must-win match for the Baltimore team. Jim Cherneski’s squad has been going through a rough patch lately, losing four consecutive games by an aggregate score of 13-0, but with their backs against the wall, and now having found a home at Paul Angelo Russo Stadium, they can perhaps totally focus on beating Vancouver. Without a win Saturday, their chances for a 2010 playoff berth look impossible, as they were passed by AC St. Louis last week when the Saints downed Miami FC, and also have NSC Minnesota and FC Tampa Bay ahead of them. Goals have been at a premium for this team, but in playing Vancouver they are facing another squad that has been poor at finishing.
The league’s best defense has kept Vancouver in the NASL Conference top spot. The Whitecaps have only allowed 18 goals in 26 matches, and have only lost once since the end of May. Finishing has been a problem however, as the team has been involved in seven scoreless draws and leads the league in draws with 14. Forwards Cornelius Stewart and Nizar Khalfan, along with midfielder Takashi Hirano, had to be let go by the team because of league limitations on foreign players, which the ‘Caps had exceeded in bringing in so many players in preparation for their 2011 MLS debut.
Going into Saturday’s match in Baltimore, Vancouver will be without the services of midfielder Ethan Gage and dependable backliner Nelson Akwari, who are out with injuries, and newcomers Gershon Koffie and Davide Chiumiento. Coach Teitur Thordarson will rely on captain Martin Nash and youngster Blake Wagner in the midfield, along with forward Ridge Mobulu, ro provide some offense. Although much of Vancouver’s focus in 2010 has been in preparing a competitive roster for next season, they are an organization with a lot of pride and would love holding off Carolina to capture the NASL Conference crown as well as making a deep playoff run. With all the roster changes they’ve endured, these team will have to come together quickly if they are to accomplish those tasks.