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USSF D2: Are You Ready for Some Playoffs?

With no promotion/relegation in US and Canadian professional soccer, a playoff system is a good method of adding extra excitement to the regular season and make more games meaningful as the regular season draws to a close.  The 2010 USSF D2 teams in playoff action, in order of seeding from top to bottom, are the Rochester Rhinos, Carolina RailHawks, Austin Aztex, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, NSC Minnesota Stars and Puerto Rico Islanders.  Montreal was the 2009 USL-1 playoff champion and NSC Minnesota are the only expansion club to make the 2010 playoffs.

The playoffs open Wednesday, with first leg matches between  the NSC Minnesota Stars and the Carolina RailHawks at National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota,  and the Montreal Impact hosting the Austin Aztex at Saputo Stadium.  The other two first leg matches will kick off Thursday, with Vancouver Whitecaps playing host to the Portland Timbers at Swangard Stadium while the Rochester Rhinos, the regular season champions, meet the Puerto Rico Islanders at Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. 

In the second leg of the two-game series, Saturday matches will feature Rochester at home facing the Islanders, Carolina welcoming the NSC Minnesota Stars to WakeMed Soccer Park and the Austin Aztex hosting Montreal at House Park.  On Sunday, Portland and Vancouver will re-match at Merlo Field on the University of Portland campus.  The Timbers regular home field, PGE Park, is undergoing refurbishing in preparation for their inaugural 2011 MLS season.  Merlo Field looks to be a very nice facility, but has a seating capacity of less than 5,000 — only a third of what the Timbers often drew at PGE Park. 

 The Fanatic will preview Wednesday’s pairings in this post, and Thursday’s matchups in a later post.  The Fanatic will also predict the outcomes.  (Ed. note: Please don’t bank on the Fanatic’s predictions, as we were wrong about AC St. Louis making the playoffs and Austin winning the USL Conference, although at least got one right by picking Carolina to top the NASL Conference.  But your comments and reactions are very welcome).

Wednesday’s Games

Carolina RailHawks at NSC Minnesota Stars

The RailHawks and Stars kickoff at 7:00 pm CT Wednesday evening.  The RailHawks, NASL Conference champions, have been in the playoffs three out of the four years of the team’s existence, but have yet to win a series or even score a goal.  The Stars join the playoff fray in their inaugural season.  The two teams met twice in the 2010 regular season, with NSC Minnesota taking both games.

The Carolina RailHawks finished their season winning three consecutive games to finish with a 13-9-8 record that took them past the Vancouver Whitecaps to the NASL Conference title.  The RailHawks were second behind Austin in goals during the USSF D2 regular season with 44 tallies, while ranking as the fifth stingiest club in allowing goals, giving up 32 on the year.  Coach Martin Rennie has had to revamp his defense the last weeks, relying on newcomers Daniel Woolard and Devon McKenney, along with Kupono Low and Brad Rusin to take the place of injured backliners Mark Schulte, Matt Bobo, Greg Schields and John Gilkerson.  The replacement backline has been relatively successful.

In attack, Rennie has blended the talents of forward Tom Heinemann into the mix with wonderful results.  Heinemann, acquired from the Charleston Battery after their USL-2 championship title win, has scored four times in six games.  Along with Maltese striker Etienne Barbara, attacker Gregory Richardson and midfielders Daniel Paladini and Josh Gardner, the RailHawks boast a deep and diverse group of goal scorers. 

The RailHawks are getting hot at the right time.  “It’s been an interesting season,” coach Martin Rennie said. “We’ve done reasonably well in this regular season but there’s never been a feel-good factor till last week. And I’d rather get it now than two months ago.” 

The NSC Minnesota Stars are bringing a lot of “feel-good” attitude into the playoff match, too.  After looking like the may not make the playoffs with a 7-12-7 record, the Stars roared back to finish the season with four consecutive wins, securing the 7th playoff berth and winning 11 games on the season, a fine accomplishment for an expansion club.  Coach Manny Lagos found a new strike partnership along the way, as Simone Bracalello and Devin Del Do have teamed up in recent weeks to give the Stars a boost in scoring punch. as the duo accounted for every game-winning goal down the team’s stretch playoff run.  Argentine midfielder Lucas Rodriguez, a four-year NAIA All-American at Mid America Nazerene University, has also stepped up lately for the Stars.

The Stars also have gotten a lot of mileage from veteran goalkeeper Joe Warren.  Warren had retired following the 2007 season with the Minnesota Thunder, but came back this year with the Stars.  The 6’4″ veteran, who turns 36 later this month, has been consistent in the Stars’ goal after taking over in the first game from number one goalkeeper Louis Crayton, who suffered a season ending injury.  Warren even stopped penalty kicks in three consecutive matches earlier in the year.  Although the Stars have suffered an injury to defender-assistant coach Kevin Friedland recently, Lagos can rely on young veterans Andres Arango, Kyle Altman and Brian Kallman for strength on the backline. 

Austin Aztex at Montreal Impact

The Austin Aztex and Montreal Impact meet Wednesday evening at 6:30pm CT at Saputo Stadium, after finishing the regular season facing each other on Sunday, with Montreal winning 2-0.  The teams split their two game season series, as the Aztex opened the season against the Impact, winning 2-0 score and indicating to the rest of the league that they weren’t the same team that won only five times in 2009.

The Aztex were the best team in USSF D2 until the month of September rolled around.  Led bv English forward Eddie Johnson, the team led the league in scoring and team points until losing against their bogey team, the Puerto Rico Islanders on September 11 in Bayamon.  Since then, the Aztex have been only 1-3-1 closing out the 2010 season, although they had built such a lead that they only lost the USL Conference title to the Rochester Rhinos by a point, and still finished with the second highest point total in USSF D2. 

Austin have played the last two and a half games without Johnson.  And although Coach Adrian Heath has many proven scorers on his squad, Johnson’s loss seems to have slowed the team, but Johnson is scheduled to play Wednesday after suffering a mild concussion two weeks ago.  Midfielder Michael Callahan will not be ready to return from injury Wednesday, but may play in the second leg in Austin.  Otherwise, the Aztex are healthy.  The schedule did them no favors at the end of the season, as they played three matches in eight days, but if the team get its legs back by Wednesday and regain their mojo, they will be a handful for the Impact.

On the other hand, the Impact will be a handful for the Aztex.  The Impact are hot hot hot, finishing the regular season with six wins in their last seven matches, shutting their opposition out five times in the process.  Coach Marc Dos Santos has the Impact rolling, with midseason acquisitions Ali Gerba, Richard Pelletier, Wesley Charles, Rudolphe Mayarde, Marco Terminesi, Antonio Ribeiro  and Anthony Le Gall all contributing to getting the Impact back on track.  Matt Jordan is the last line of a strong defense, and Montreal is playing its best ball of 2010 over the last weeks.  Like his Austin counterpart, Dos Santos also rested several of his regulars in Sunday’s regular season finale. 

Both clubs have a great deal of depth, as Austin has not only Eddie Johnson, but Maxwell Griffin, Jamie Watson and Randi Patterson to knock in goals, and a boatload of talent in a midfield that could include Yordany Alvarez, Lawrence Olum, Sullivan Silva, Lance Watson and Tsuyoshi Yoshitake.  Jay Needham, Kevin Sakuda, Leonard Griffin and Kieron Bernard have provided good defending in front of goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo.  Similarly, Montreal has gotten a lot from forward Ali Gerba, who has knocked in nine goals during the Impact’s hot streak, while forward Eduardo Sebrango is in good form and scoring, too.  Tony Donatelli, David Testo and Leonardo Di Lorenzo have been solid all season in midfield, and Dos Santos has relied on Hiccam Aaboubou, captain Nevio Pizzolitto and Phillippe Billy at the back. 

Predictions:  The NSC Stars will squeak by to take the playoff series from Carolina, keeping a lid on the RailHawks potent offense.  Montreal is in too good of form to lose this series, and will win out over the Aztex in a close series,  ending the Aztex’ outstanding season.


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