The Carolina RailHawks host the Portland Timbers Saturday night at WakeMed Soccer Park. The RailHawks will be trying to make their move on the first place position in the NASL Conference, which Vancouver holds with a four point advantage over Carolina. Carolina, however, has a game in hand and are coming off a nice win over Crystal Palace Baltimore. Although Portland has little chance of winning the USL Conference, trailing Austin by eight points and playing out the season on the road, Gavin Wilkinson’s side is not only preparing for their 2011 MLS season but also for a strong run in the playoffs.
Martin Rennie’s RailHawks have had a consistent season, not suffering any lengthy losing streaks, but not going on any gloriious winning streaks either. Carolina is now 2nd in goal scoring behind Austin, while fifth in goals allowed. Nic Platter has been getting the starting nod in goal lately over Eric Reed, while Rennie has added to deepend his squad’s attacking depth by signing USL-2 All-League forward Tom Heinemann. Heinemann has already paid dividends, drawing a penalty kick and later scoring a goal in his first game for the RailHawks. With midfielder Daniel Paladini scoring three times in Carolina’s last two league games, and the finishing of Etienne Barbara (seven goals) and Josh Gardner (five goals), the RailHawks look to rival Austin in scoring depth, and personally I think they will overtake Vancouver and win the NASL Conference.
But the RailHawks have to beat Portland first. The RailHawks haven’t played particularly well at home, posting a 4-5-3 mark, while the Timbers come in on a six-game undefeated streak, with four victories in those six games. Forward Bright Dike has blossomed, giving the Timbers another scoring threat along with Ryan Pore, and the tactical switch to a 4-3-3 formation over the last three games has yielded seven points. Impressively, Gavin Wilkinson’s team is in good form defensively also, only allowing one goal in its last five matches as they clinched a playoff spot. With PGE Park being refurbished, the Timbers will be playing their home playoff contests either at the University of Portland or Hillsboro Stadium. Newly acquired defender Kevin Goldthwaite, formerly of the NY Red Bulls, may see action soon and provide more depth on the Timbers’ backline.
In Puerto Rico Saturday night, the Austin Aztex will visit the Islanders. In their three previous 2010 meetings, each team has won once and they’ve drawn a game. It’s been a busy time for La Tropa Naranja, as the Islanders announced earlier this week that they were joining the NASL next season. The Islanders are also involved in CONCACAF Champions League game, with their next group match in Mexico against Toluca on September 15. Plus, forward Nicholas Addlery has been absent while representing Jamaica in international friendlies. Colin Clarke’s Islanders look to get back on track after a disappointing home loss Wednesday to Montreal. Ahead by a goal, the Islanders were done in by one of the hottest goal scorers in North America, the Impact’s Ali Gerba. Montreal thus passed the Islanders into the sixth playoff position, but the Islanders are still five points or more ahead of the other teams chasing a playoff spot. In addition to Addlery, Clarke can count on David Foley and Josh Hansen for goals, and youngsters Keon Daniel and Joanathan Fana working into the attack. Captain Noah Delgado provides leadership along with the experienced Bill Gaudette in goal
The Aztex won’t be featuring their strongest lineup in Bayamon Saturday night. Potential USSF D2 MVP Eddie Johnson will be sitting out due to yellow card accumulation, while new acquisition Tsuyoshi Yoshitake won’t be making the trip. Jay Needham, Lawrence Olum, Sam Brill, Joey Worthen and Stephan Campbell are out with injuries. Even without Johnson and his thirteen goals, Coach Adrian Heath can count on Jamie Watson, Maxwell Griffin and Randi Patterson for scoring punch, along with midfielders Yordany Alvarez and Sullivan Silva to move the ball forward. The backline is getting a bit thin with injuries, but played very well last week. Miguel Gallardo has had a good season in goal with six clean sheets.
Finally, the last game to discuss is the Miami FC -Montreal Impact match at Lockhart Stadium. The underachieving Miami FC Blues pretty much did themselves in last Sunday when they were unable to get points in St. Louis, while Montreal took a big step forward by beating Puerto Rico on the road Wednesday. Miami FC loaned their leading scorer, Paulo Araujo Jr, to Real Salt Lake of MLS a few days ago for the remainder of the season. The Blues would have to probably win out in their last five games for a shot in the playoffs, which is asking a lot of a team that has won only three times in their first 25. Too many draws and too many goals allowed have most likely doomed this talented team in 2010, but hopefully for Daryl Shore, the organization and its fans, Miami FC can reel off some wins in the remaining games to build up momentum for 2011.
Montreal fans have experienced a roller-coaster season, too. The jubilation felt when the Impact were given a MLS franchise beginning in the 2012 season has been tempered by the team’s inconsistent play throughout the year. Although its unlikely that Montreal could capture the NASL Conference crown, trailing Vancouver by seven points with four games left before Saturday’s clash with Miami FC, the Impacts’ three game win steak makes me wonder a bit. Four wins, twelve points? If Vancouver and Carolina cool off…..wow, what a comeback that would be for the Saputo Stadium faithful.
The main thing, though, is that the Impact are coming together. The afore-mentioned Gerba and other new acquisitions are fitting in well, and the team could make a lot of noise in the playoffs, especially with the support they get at home. Matt Jordan is healthy again in goal. This may be a story to watch….but it has to start with a win by Marc Dos Santos club over Miami FC. The Impact have only lost once to the Blues in twelve meetings.