Friday night is showdown night at WakeMed Park in Cary, North Carolina. It’s time to do battle, as the Austin Aztex and Carolina RailHawks collide with both teams vying for first place in their respective USL and NASL Conferences. Also on schedule Friday night is a duel for pride between expansion clubs FC Tampa Bay and Crystal Palace Baltimore in Florida. Austin is the only team in the league with two regular season matches remaining, as they will head to Montreal for a clash with the Impact for their season finale on Sunday afternoon.
What’s at Stake
What is at stake in the Austin – Carolina showdown is simple for the Aztex. By beating Carolina, the Aztex will claim the USL Conference title and the top seed in the USSF D2 playoffs, placing them against eighth-place Puerto Rico in the first round. The can control their own destiny. Currently, Austin is two points ahead of the Rochester Rhinos for the USL Conference lead. The Rhinos play AC St. Louis at AB Soccer Park on Saturday evening. The Aztex have a great opportunity to not only win the USL Conference title, but to top the USSF D2 regular season league table, a remarkable accomplishment for a team that won five games in 2009. But even with an Aztex loss and a Rochester win Saturday, the Aztex could still claim the prize with a win Sunday in Montreal.
The RailHawks have jumped up to tie the Vancouver Whitecaps on points to share the NASL Conference lead, a lead that Vancouver has held since the second week of April. The two teams currently share the same goal differential of plus ten goals, and have split their head to head meetings in 2010. As it stands before this weekends action, Carolina actually holds the NASL Conference lead based on the tie-breaker of having scored more goals. A win over Austin Friday would put pressure on Vancouver, who host Pacific Coast rival Portland Saturday night. The Timbers are on a nine-game unbeaten run, and Vancouver would have to not only win, but beat Carolina in goal-differential to gain the NASL Conference title and the number two seed in the playoffs.
I can’t wait for this game. This contest features the two best offenses in D2 and two outstanding coaches, Austin’s Adrian Heath and Carolina’s Martin Rennie, trying to outwit each other with so much at stake for both teams. The Aztex won this year’s only prior meeting between the two clubs, 3-2, at House Park.
Austin comes into the game off of a 4-2 win over AC St. Louis last Saturday. Austin took an early 2-0 lead before allowing the St. Louisans to draw even at halftime last Saturday. But the Aztex closed the door on AC St. Louis in the second half, scoring two unanswered goals to win the game. Prior to that big win, the Aztex had probably their roughest patch of the season, gaining only one point in three games against the Puerto Rico Islanders, FC Tampa Bay and AC St. Louis the week before.
The bad news for Austin on Friday night is that they may be missing forward Eddie Johnson, the league’s second leading goal-scorer. Johnson suffered a head injury last Saturday, and his ability to compete this Friday will be a game time decision. The Aztex will definitely be missing midfielder Michael Callahan, who also suffered a head injury in last Saturday’s match that required 33 stitches in his forehead. Callahan scored the opening goal in the 4-2 win. On the positive side, midfielder Lawrence Olum, out the last several weeks, has been upgraded to questionable status for Friday’s match. Still, with the acquisitions of forward Randi Patterson and midfielder Tsuyoshi Yoshitake from CP Baltimore, Coach Heath has talented players to fill in, and can rely on the league’s second and third leading scorers (Maxwell Griffin and Jamie Watson) for offensive fireworks.
The Carolina RailHawks have enjoyed a good month of September, going 3-1-1 heading into their regular season finale, although two of those wins came against the punchless Crystal Palace Baltimore club. Still, Martin Rennie has his team playing well both offensively and defensively. Forward Tom Heinemann has given the attack a boost, scoring three goals and drawing a penalty kick in his five games since coming over from the Charleston Battery. Rennie can also rely on scoring from forward Etienne Barbara (seven goals), midfielders Daniel Paladini (six goals) and Josh Gardner (five goals). The return of defender Kupono Low from injury recently and the acquisition of defender Daniel Woolard have helped to offset the loss of defender and team captain Mark Schulte, who suffered a knee injury several weeks ago and is out for the season. Nic Platter had been getting the starts in goal recently, but Rennie turned to former starter Eric Reed in last week’s win over Puerto Rico, so I’m not sure which one will get the starting nod Friday night.
Espansion Teams Duel for Pride
In Friday night’s other contest, FC Tampa Bay will host Crystal Palace Baltimore in the season finale for both expansion clubs. Both teams have fallen on hard times, with FC Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Coach Paul Dalglish being replaced last week by interim coach and Rowdies’ legend Perry Van Der Beck. Starting the season strong, the Rowdies were 5-1-3 at the end of May and looked quite likely to make the playoffs, but injuries and inconsistency took their toll as the Rowdies could only muster one more win in the next four months. Led by Aaron King’s ten goals, the Rowdies will be looking for a morale boost with a win in front of the home faithful Friday to restore optimism for 2011. A highlight of the evening for Rowdies’ fans will be the retirement of Van Der Beck’s number in recognition of his contributions to the old NASL team.
For Crystal Palace Baltimore, 2010 will be a season to mainly forget. Although the team managed six wins against playoff-bound teams, their lack of offense combined with off the field and finding -a -field problems conspired to keep them out of the playoffs. The team has lost its last seven games, but after being shut out in five of those games, have managed to at least get some goals in their last two matches. Local Baltimore player Mark Murphy has started the last two games in place of regular Evan Bush. Bush has had a better season than statistics would indicate, and has been a bright spot for CP Baltimore along with young defender Kory Veeder, who recently received a call-up by the US U-20 Men’s National team.
With all due respect to FC Tampa Bay and CP Baltimore fans, Friday’s main event will take stage several hundred miles north of Tampa in Cary, North Carolina. Both the RailHawks and Aztex will come out swinging in a bout that will be a highlight of the regular season’s final weekend.