The Maple Leaf Forever! 2015 North American Soccer League Preview

By Benjamin Massey

March 26th, 2015 · No comments

Xaume OIleros/Power Sport Images/North American Soccer League

Xaume Oileros/Power Sport Images/North American Soccer League

It’s hard to view the upcoming NASL season dispassionately. Many fans have feared that, with their high spending, worldwide ambitions, and superior media profile, the New York Cosmos would become bigger than the league just as they did in the 1980s. But last year they were beaten in the regular season, didn’t get into the Soccer Bowl, and the world was instead treated to a marvelous tilt between founding NASL member Fort Lauderdale and high-profile expansion team San Antonio. The Scorpions won, under Canadian head coach Alen Marcina and captain Adrian Cann, and fans on both sides of the border could feel pretty good.

The Cosmos have apparently decided that this will not do. They spent something around one jillion dollars on new players, including Spanish legend Raúl, 37 years old but still the most prominent acquisition by any North American team since Thierry Henry, if not David Beckham. They also picked up Adam Moffat, who would be a headline grab for most NASL teams in most seasons. All this without losing anybody terribly important, and with the possibility of a fully healthy Marcos Senna wrecking havoc again. I would not like to be the New York Cosmos’ opposition.

But are the Cosmos so clearly the NASL’s best team in 2015? (Yes.) What about Minnesota United? (Not as good as the Cosmos.) Or do defending champions San Antonio match up? (No.) Will newly Brazilian-owned Fort Lauderdale fit Ronaldo for a jersey and a bib and challenge for the regular season championship, the Woosnam Cup? (No and no.) Below is one man’s prediction of how the 2015 North American Soccer League season will shake up, team by team, from first to eleventh, informed by a little table showing their 2014 statistics including TSR and PDO. You didn’t think I’d write a post this long without some tables in it, did you?

Note: this article contains many photos and without notes is pushing 10,000 words, which according to literary authorities is long enough to count as a “novelette”. The good stuff is therefore after the jump. Feel free to get through this in installments. Pack a lunch.

Preliminary Note on the Spring Season

Most prediction posts I’ve seen only look at the NASL spring season. This is a mug’s game.

The 2015 spring season will be ten games long; not nearly enough time for a team’s skill to be more important than its short-term luck. The unbalanced schedule (each team will play every other team once, half at home and half away) only makes matters worse: a club whose road trips are all to tough teams will look like a more hapless side than they may be. Look at last year’s nine-game spring: FC Edmonton was in second-last despite running an even goal differential, Indy was dead last because the soccer gods hated them, and meanwhile the Carolina Railhawks were pottering around in fourth waiting for somebody to notice that they didn’t have any defenders. The fall season frankly isn’t that much better, but I’d far rather predict thirty games than ten.

Obviously teams can, and will, make changes during the summer break. This makes any season-long prediction crystal-ball-y. However, all else being equal, a statistically-informed prediction for thirty games will more accurate than a prediction for ten because luck has more time to even out. So take this post as a full-season outlook, rather than just for spring. This won’t make me any less wrong, but it’s truer to my belief that soccer pundits should look longer-term. (It also saves me doing all this again in the fall.)

All statistics given are regular season only; US Open Cup, Voyageurs Cup, and NASL playoffs are excluded. I have a great deal more to say about the statistics used; click the footnote if you’re really interested[1].

1. New York Cosmos

2014 Statistics
SD: 415 (2nd) SDA: 288 (1st) TSR: 0.590 (1st)
SoG: 154 (1st) SoGA: 108 (1st) SoGD: +46 (1st)
S%: 24.03% (8th) Sv%: 75.00% (4th) PDO: 99.03 (6th)
GF: 37 (4th) GA: 27 (2nd) GD: +10 (3rd)
Leading Scorer: Mads Stokkelien (7)
Major Subtractions: Hans Denissen, Danny Mwanga, Joseph Nane, Jemal Johnson.
Major Additions: Raúl, Adam Moffat, Wálter Restrepo, Samuel Cáceres.

Thinking about the 2015 New York Cosmos makes me need some air. They are, in the worst sense for those of us who support other teams, frightening.

The 2014 Cosmos were plenty good. Norwegian Mads Stokkelien was quietly one of the league’s more regularly effective forwards but the hard work was done by a sterling midfield. When Marcos Senna was healthy there was no better middle four in the league; Sebastián Guenzatti and Danny Szetela were enough of a one-two punch on their own, and ex-Tenerife veteran Ayoze would be the a standout on about seven NASL teams. The defense was superb, the goalkeeping was good, and the only thing that kept them from dominance was poor finishing from all their non-Norwegian forwards and a fistful of bad luck. Being knocked out of the playoffs by an own goal[2] was the icing on the cake.

Look at those shooting statistics. Their TSR didn’t only lead the NASL last season, it was miles in front. We can’t blame over-generous scorekeepers at James M. Shuart Stadium: the Cosmos were the only team in the NASL last year to have a positive shooting differential on the road. Had they done nothing this offseason, simply sent out the same eleven guys, I’d have had a hard time predicting them not to finish first. That’s how good they were. It’s a tribute to the league’s depth and the caprice of the soccer gods that they ended last year without the smallest, grimiest piece of silverware.

Running second seems anathema to the Cosmos, so they didn’t stay the course. They brought in Wálter Restrepo, long one of the NASL’s top midfielders, to bolster the right flank. Thinking that wasn’t quite enough, Adam Moffat arrived from the Houston Dynamo. It’s easy to imagine Restrepo being overwhelmed by the talent around him; he was long noted for being outstanding on uncreative teams and he’ll have to adjust to becoming a supporting player. This could go very well (imagine Senna with the ball on his foot from 30 yards and Restrepo spreading the field) or very badly. But Moffat, on merit certainly an MLS-calibre player, is a bold pickup in the prime of his career with the potential to help long-term. Midfielder Leo Fernandes, loaned in from the Philadelphia Union, may well struggle for minutes.

Their defense remains strong, underrated, and experienced. The defensive unit of Rovérsio, skipper Carlos Mendes, Hunter Gorskie, Hunter Freeman, and goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer is entering its third season together, a rare privilege in the NASL, and last season no backline was better. Loanee defender Samuel Cáceres is an unknown quantity but has played regularly in quality leagues and seems like a good pickup. Oh, by the way, they also signed some 37-year-old who played for Spain a hundred times.

Here’s the thing. Everyone knows Raúl is a public relations signing. There’s no reason a player of his quality can’t win the Golden Boot if he gives it his best, but he’s too old, he’s on his retirement contract, if history is any judge he’ll miss some road games with undefined lower-body ailments. I grant all of this. But the Cosmos have so much depth at every position, save forward, that they should win games by the dozen even if Raúl is no good at all. Stokkelien is still around, clutching a fresh contract extension, and at a spritely 25 years old should only improve. David Diosa didn’t get a chance to do much last season but has looked good in limited action. And undersized speedster Lucky Mkosana, who joined from the Tampa Bay Rowdies, will terrify tired defenses off the bench. The Rowdies relied on Mkosana as a regular and he wasn’t good enough, but “depth forward for the Cosmos” is his best-case scenario.

The players New York’s lost were not core players. Danny Mwanga, who came in on loan last fall, was great on paper but didn’t get results and anyway only played eight games. Hans Denissen is a dandy player but got lost in the shuffle at Shuart Stadium: look for him to rebound in Atlanta but don’t expect New York to be hurt. Joseph Nane was probably the best of the bunch, but when you’re holding the loss of Joseph Nane against that list of additions you’re sitting pretty.

The good news is that, when us Canadian fans are getting destroyed at Shuart Stadium, we won’t be able to watch the game[3]. Oh Lord, protect us from the New York Cosmos.

2. Minnesota United

2014 Statistics
SD: 321 (9th) SDA: 318 (2nd) TSR: 0.502 (6th)
SoG: 130 (6th) SoGA: 116 (2nd) SoGD: +14 (4th)
S%: 36.15% (1st) Sv%: 75.86% (3rd) PDO: 112.02 (2nd)
GF: 47 (1st) GA: 28 (3rd) GD: +19 (t-1st)
Leading Scorer: Christian Ramirez (20)
Major Subtractions: Matt Van Oekel, Rafael Burgos, Omar Daley.
Major Additions: Jonny Steele, Kalif Alhassan, Sammy N’Djock, Ibson.

Minnesota United has always given the impression of a team that slightly overachieves. Cynics like me sneer at them, yet year in year out they run onto the field and thump higher-profile, and higher-priced, sides. Last year we saw United run with a thoroughly average TSR and take nearly everything the NASL has to win anyway. We can’t totally reject the numbers, but that doesn’t mean Minny isn’t special.

On the one hand, their run to the Woosnam Cup obviously had Lady Luck as their number ten. Christian Ramirez is many good things but he’s not a natural 20-goal scorer. Nobody’s a natural 20-goal scorer, it was a career season, good for him but he’s unlikely to fire at the same rate. Rather too much of Minnesota’s success relied on such high shooting percentages. They boasted Manny-Lagos-standard-issue superior defense and a couple real talents in Ramirez and American international Miguel Ibarra, but it was that fortuitous percentage that elevated them from “good mid-table” to “regular season title”.

This year, Lagos has broadly stayed the course. No subtractions are that major. Matt Van Oekel was the starting goalkeeper for a couple seasons but only the very optimistic ranked him among the league’s best and Mitch Hildebrandt was probably gonna be fine. Most of the core remains in place and looking good: young, healthy, reasonably experienced, and ready to ride with United up to Major League Soccer in a couple seasons. You could run out ten of Minnesota’s best 2014 eleven on opening day, if you wanted to.

You’re not going to want to, though, because Minnesota’s signed a couple fancy players who turn heads and make you wonder if, maybe, they might slug it out with New York.

Many of the additions are big names. Not all of them are more than that. Jonny Steele can’t make up his mind whether he’s a brilliant player or a terrible one. He makes fans apprehensive, suspicious, until one day you bring him on at the 70th minute and he sets up two goals and you say “oh, I guess he decided to be good this year.” Kalif Alhassan is a poor man’s Jonny Steele. Ibson, the best-known new United player on the world stage, is in that awkward part of his career where he’s plunging down the soccer world and you’re not sure when he’s going to stop. An NASL team signing a player from Bologna is always cool but also, in its way, a really bad sign. As for goalkeeper Sammy N’Djock, who looks set to eat Mitch Hildebrandt’s lunch… what do you say when a 25-year-old three-time Cameroonian international signs in the NASL? That’s got potential. Yet, perversely, he’s signed with a team that’s hardly in need of his talents. With the United defense and the perfectly capable Hildebrandt waiting in the wings, what’s the upgrade in goal going to be worth?

Pablo Campos… eurgh, I’m gonna have to say it, it’s like getting a whole new player. Almost certainly the best forward in the NASL’s short history, Campos blew out his ACL and MCL just before kickoff of the 2014 season[4]. Campos’s recovery took longer than expected, limiting him to about an hour of game time last season, and he’s on the wrong side of thirty. But he’s still Pablo Campos and you bet against him at your peril. Despite a reputation as an individualist he knows a thing or two about supporting a striker who knows how to poach. Christian Ramirez could easily play Etienne Barbara to Pablo Campos’s, er, Pablo Campos. It’s not 2011 anymore, but then Ramirez is no Maltese Falcon.

The new players are, to a man, gambles. Some bigger than others, but you wouldn’t be surprised to see all four wash out. You also wouldn’t be surprised to see them dominate. At their best all are top players, but they’re in Minnesota because their best is so hard to come by.

The recently-announced Major League Soccer expansion is not necessarily a positive on the field. Minnesota has three seasons left before in the NASL but there’s a risk they’ll look forward to 2018 at the expense of the games they’re playing. Ask the 2010 Vancouver Whitecaps or the 2011 Montreal Impact: “ramping up” for MLS can scuttle a second-division season in a hurry. United has a lot of similarities with the 2010 Whitecaps, in fact: a modest club with a reputation for on-field success and developing regional players which is awarded an MLS expansion team and suddenly looks at flashy imports. The Whitecaps suffered for it. Then again, the 2010 Portland Timbers were brilliant and 2014 Orlando City won a title. There’s no hard-and-fast rule here, but the further United reaches from the conservatism that’s worked so well, the greater their peril.

So long as the United brass stick with what they’ve got they can’t fall too far. The team’s solid core remains, absorbing all our criticisms with the solidity of bog-standard somehow-continuously-overachieving Minnesota soccer. Miggy Ibarra and Christian Ramirez are still around (over/under on the number of times this season I refer to the NASL being good enough for Jürgen Klinsmann but not Benito Floro: 10.5). Aaron Pitchkolan will probably live forever. We know Minnesota’s going to be reliable defensively, because they always are. Manny Lagos is some sort of defensive horse whisperer. If by chance there’s an injury or a dip in form he plucks a guy like Justin Davis or Kevin Venegas out of frigging PDL and gets them on the NASL Best XI.

In the end, while I rank them below the Cosmos, Minnesota and New York are the two clear favourites. Everyone else can take a number.

3. Indy Eleven

Indy Eleven

Indy Eleven

2014 Statistics
SD: 419 (1st) SDA: 382 (6th) TSR: 0.523 (3rd)
SoG: 107 (10th) SoGA: 141 (8th) SoGD: -34 (9th)
S%: 32.71% (3rd) Sv%: 67.38% (8th) PDO: 100.09 (5th)
GF: 35 (7th) GA: 46 (8th) GD: -11 (8th)
Leading Scorer: Kléberson (8)
Major Subtractions: Mike Ambersley.
Major Additions: Greg Janicki, Brian Brown.

Whither the Indy Eleven? I don’t trust them. For a bottom-three team last year they looked suspiciously decent. How do you explain a team which finished first in the NASL in shots directed and tenth in shots on target? The stats men in Indy are dodgy (hey, would you believe the attendance was 10,285 again?!) but even away from home the offense was good: Indy took 253 shots directed at home last season, second-best in the NASL, and 166 on the road, fourth in the league. They’d have been golden if they’d hit the bloody net, and with players who know a thing or two about finishing around you have to believe their troubles were temporary. Moreover, their defense was not up to snuff: not terrible, not Carolina Railhawks territory, but pretty darned bad.

Mike Ambersley’s gone, of course, a troubled and concussion-riddled Indy career over. He’s off to USL Saint Louis and I don’t doubt a ten-goal season. His absence might be more significant than fans expect, but in his place is one of the more interesting new forwards in the NASL this year. Brian Brown is on loan from the Jamaican league, which doesn’t sound great, but at 22 years old he’s already capped for his country. A short stay with the Philadelphia Union last year was perfectly good: only 230 minutes and one start but two goals, an assist, and shooting rates that seemed hopeful[5].

The addition of Greg Janicki in central defense should shore up a back four that hasn’t lost anybody important. Jaime Frias, a bright young left back on loan from Guadalajara, is returning for 2015. Along with Honduran international Erick Norales and journeyman Cory Miller it looks like a respectable, though not title-contending, crew. Kristian Nicht in goal remains a slight question mark but he’s certainly better than the statistics made him look at times last year.

That said, if Indy is going to finish in the playoff picture it’ll be on the strength of their attack. World Cup-winner Kléberson was a rare treat, a highly-touted foreign signing who lived up to the hype. Leading the team in goals from midfield, Kléberson missed time in the spring with a hamstring injury but was otherwise healthy and effective. His eight-goal haul was actually the highest total of his club career, and though that was as much due to the fact that he couldn’t set anybody up as anything, he was a potent attacking weapon even when everybody in the league knew he was the danger man. Speedster Don Smart lent a little extra pizzazz, while youngster Victor Pineda and ex-Real Sociadad reserve guru Sergio Peña have joined the team permanently after promising 2014s. If Kléberson goes down there are no match winners, but while the Brazilian stays healthy he has a varied and aggressive supporting cast.

Can the forwards seal the deal this year? Ambersley’s injuries and lack of production cost the Eleven too many points. Brown looks very promising but is inexperienced. The forward depth doesn’t amount to much: Los Angeles Galaxy loanee Charlie Rugg returns but he’s no goal-scorer. Wojciech Wojcik is an unfamiliar name but has gotten good reviews in preseason: he made a decent start to his professional career last summer in the Finnish second division and scored in bunches as a collegiate. Smart can also play up top. Not much depth there, but a fair bit of potential.

So why third? Why such an aggressive prediction? Apart from Janicki they haven’t improved their roster much, but the players they have will benefit from a full season together. Their improvement between the spring and fall seasons shows that Indy was already trending the right direction and they have conservatively – but sensibly – stayed the course. Useful young players have another season of experience, and their greatest position of weakness has been shored up. They also benefit from one of the NASL’s strongest home field advantages, as even if their official attendance numbers are a fiction Michael Carroll Stadium has always, by NASL standards, been rockin’.

Meanwhile, the teams ranked below have had indifferent offseasons: they have completely retooled (Tampa Bay, Fort Lauderdale, Carolina, Atlanta), are calling the bet with a hand that’s not strong enough (Edmonton, Ottawa), or are an expansion team (Jacksonville). San Antonio will be tipped to finish ahead of Indy by most, but their 2014 was a lucky season and a long list of changes shows they know it. While New York and Minnesota are one-two with a bullet, Indy’s in an early position to be the best of the second tier.

4. San Antonio Scorpions

Robin Jerstd/North American Soccer League

Robin Jerstd/North American Soccer League

2014 Statistics
SD: 392 (6th) SDA: 394 (9th) TSR: 0.499 (7th)
SoG: 134 (5th) SoGA: 128 (4th) SoGD: +6 (5th)
S%: 32.09% (4th) Sv%: 81.25% (1st) PDO: 113.34 (1st)
GF: 43 (2nd) GA: 24 (1st) GD: +19 (t-1st)
Leading Scorer: Rafael Castillo (9)
Major Subtractions: Josh Saunders, Wálter Restrepo, Greg Janicki, Jonathan Borrajo, Adrian Cann (?).
Major Additions: Nana Attakora, Zourab Tsiskaridze, Marvin Chávez, Pablo Cruz.

If you’re a Canadian looking to follow the North American Soccer League, but think Edmonton and Ottawa are arctic dystopias not worth your TV time, might I suggest the San Antonio Scorpions? Not only have they recently signed Canadian defender Nana Attakora but they’re coached by a Canuck, Alen Marcina. They’ve done North America the favour of bringing back Zourab Tsiskaridze, his imposing Georgian chrome-dome recognizable from his days with the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact and popular everywhere. Other names will be familiar to fans of Canadian club soccer: Eric Hassli, Julius James, Stephen DeRoux. And one of their better players, midfielder/forward Billy Forbes, is an international for the Turks and Caicos. How can you not love the San Antonio Scorpions? I’m an Eddies fan and part of me loves the San Antonio Scorpions.

One more reason to love the Scorpions is that, even though they were second in the overall regular season last year and won the Soccer Bowl in a 90-minute classic, Marcina wasn’t fooled. Scroll up, look at those underlying numbers. The Scorpions succeeded not because they played brilliant soccer, but because they got don’t-even-pretend-that’s-sustainable goalkeeping from Josh Saunders and some decent luck from a set of forwards that’s not that good. Saunders is gone now: even if he could throw another 80% save percentage season, which I promise you he couldn’t, he’ll have to do it at New York City FC. Daryl Sattler was an NASL Golden Glove winner once upon a time, but he’s been injured and unable to recapture his 2012 form. The unwise would be tempted to say “I can keep what I’ve got and get back in the title race.” Thank God, Alen Marcina is a cut above the average.

So in come some defenders. If you’re reading a blog named Maple Leaf Forever! you must know Attakora, a physical no-nonsense type whose inability to stick in Major League Soccer has never quite made sense. He’s a solid pickup to a backline that needs it. I watched a lot of Tsiskaridze in 2010 and 2011 and I can promise you he is the genuine article, a left back with grit and hustle, something of a throwback but with just enough attacking flair that defenses must respect him. Replacing Big Z with Willis Forko late in 2010 was the single factor, more than any other, that doomed that Whitecaps team. He’s been lost in the wilderness the past couple seasons after falling out of the Russian Premier League but this is the ideal opportunity for him.

That backline is still pretty thin. Tsiskaridze is listed as a midfielder but it’s hard to imagine him playing there when the team’s so short on D. Greg Janicki has moved closer to home in Indy (though Attakora is good compensation), respectable fullback Jonathan Borrajo is off to Fort Lauderdale, Julius James is getting older, Stephen DeRoux is no great guns, and the only defender left is Eduard Zea, an utterly unknown quantity. 2014 captain Adrian Cann, who blew out his knee at the end of the season, is not on the 2015 roster but might not be done: he’s been hanging around San Antonio doing community appearances for the club and an assistant coach photographed him taking light practice with the club doctor last week[6]. Even if Cann does make a miraculous return at 34 years old, he’ll need to regain full fitness in a hurry to contribute as he used to.

The midfield is not quite rock solid, but I find myself strangely optimistic. Obviously right midfielder Wálter Restrepo, a two-time member of the NASL XI including last season, is a big loss as he heads to the mighty Cosmos. But his replacement is Honduran veteran Marvin Chávez, a player who’s had a rough couple years in MLS but for whom I’ve always had a sneaky regard. He’s a goalscorer and a playmaker, like Restrepo, and while older and more injury-prone has a history of good production. He even looked good on last season’s Chivas USA, which was not easy to do. Fans are sometimes surprised by how little a player coming down from MLS to the NASL achieves; Chávez might do the opposite. Pablo Cruz is another subtle, clever addition. Underrated because of his youth and spending too much time in Atlanta, Cruz was one of Eric Wynalda’s brightest pickups for the Silverbacks in 2012. Put Cruz and Chávez on either side of the heavy-footed Rafa Castillo and the reliable Richard Menjivar, add Josue Soto for offense on the left or in the middle as you like, and suddenly the Scorpions’ centre is looking pretty deep.

The forwards need no introduction, almost the same imposing group from last year. Remember Eric Hassli? Thought so. He’s still inconsistent and hurt more than he should be but when he’s on the field, and on his game, the NASL has few forwards more dangerous anywhere on the pitch. Tomasz Zahorski is not as spectacular but more reliable, and César Elizondo completes a veteran threesome that lacks a single star but scores in depth. Young loanee Cristian Palomeque will have to work hard to establish himself in the Scorpions lineup, but has shown promise in his domestic league and scored for the Colombian U-21s. San Antonio might have the best forward depth in the league. Combined with the good midfield and it’s a knife-fight between the Scorpions and the Eleven for third place early in the year but that defense, and a plethora of new players who’ll need time to gel, bumps San Antonio back a place.

5. Tampa Bay Rowdies

Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies

2014 Statistics
SD: 403 (3rd) SDA: 389 (t-7th) TSR: 0.509 (4th)
SoG: 163 (2nd) SoGA: 138 (7th) SoGD: +25 (3rd)
S%: 22.09% (10th) Sv%: 63.77% (10th) PDO: 85.85 (10th)
GF: 36 (6th) GA: 50 (t-9th) GD: -14 (9th)
Leading Scorer: Georgi Hristov (9)
Major Subtractions: Frankie Sanfilippo, Diego Restrepo, Jay Needham, Takuya Yamada, Anthony Wallace, Darel Russell, Blake Wagner, Devin Del Do, Shane Hill, J.P. Rodrigues.
Major Additions: Kamil Contofalský, Martin Núñez, Brad Rusin, Darnell King, Stefan Antonijevic, Maicon Santos, Rich Balchan.

Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards has poured a lot of capital into this team. Not only big-money players, though there have been those. Their video and web coverage has improved by expensive leaps and bounds. He’s poured cash into renovating city-owned Al Lang Stadium so the former baseball diamond looks good for professional soccer. The Rowdies faithful didn’t have a pub to drink at on match days, so Edwards is buying them one[7]. You couldn’t ask for more, except maybe some wins.

Last year’s Rowdies were fundamentally decent. They just didn’t get any points. Despite adding MLS veteran Matt Pickens the goalkeeping was repugnant, as Pickens suffered a mid-season thigh injury[8] and neither Ryan Thompson nor Diego Restrepo were acceptable. The shots didn’t go in. Tampa Bay didn’t only have the NASL’s lowest PDO but the lowest by miles. Coming from a team that should have been in the playoff race, the fall season in particular was shocking.

Knowing that you should be better than you are is slim consolation at times like that. Edwards was spending, he’d shown faith in the team’s core, and (lest we forget) the Rowdies are staring at the United Soccer Leagues’ head office in Tampa every day and if you think that doesn’t matter you’re kidding yourself. One can picture Edwards gazing down at the field from the press box, eyes full of fire, working his jaw until the spirit of Gordon Ramsay finally burst into his head and he shouted “SHUT IT DOWN!” And the coach was fired, and the coach’s kid was cut, and a chainsaw scythed through the lineup scattering body parts everywhere, and at the end of it Georgi Hristov, Keith Savage, and Darnell King were standing in a field of blood surrounded by bright faces in Rowdies kits and said “who the hell are these guys?”

Club totem Takuya Yamada is gone. Captain Frankie Sanfilippo is gone. It’s probably easier to list the players who haven’t left: that list of notable departures is by no means comprehensive. Head coach Ricky Hill is gone, obviously, along with his son Shane: the new boss is Thomas Rongen, the sort of coach who always seems to get a new job somewhere. Rongen and new president (and ex-Calgary indoor player) Farrukh Quraishi have many admirers in the regional soccer community, but they were clearly not men to build on what Ricky Hill had constructed. The changes were rapid and merciless. Not even the most beloved, long-term Rowdies were spared.

In their place is a chorus of youngsters and underachievers. Brad Rusin, Darnell King, Martin Núñez, Gale Agbossoumonde, Rich Balchan, even Maicon Santos (!). Kamil “Sean Tofalski” Contofalský, a senior citizen who did very well with Fort Lauderdale last year, is the closest thing to a sure bet in that whole crew, and he might be the backup goalkeeper. Still, if he’s stuck on the bench at least Contofalský will have some friends. The Rowdies will run out no fewer than five members of the 2014 Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and that wasn’t a bad team but these guys aren’t Fafà Picault.

So the Rowdies, reinforced with players I for one wouldn’t trust my destiny to, under a coach whose last success was with American Samoa, march into a 2015 season full of ex-Spanish internationals and Serie A guys, hoping that their squad can learn each others’ names quickly enough to wrestle their way into a playoff spot. I have heard the Rowdies called a dark horse. They must be very dark.

I do not have the Rowdies doing well. Their hopes depend to a disproportionate extent on players finally meeting their potential, and the odds of that are all the shorter for the team being so completely revamped. There’s too much quality for them to really plunge into the basement again… probably. But they certainly shouldn’t make any noise.

6. FC Edmonton

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

2014 Statistics
SD: 318 (10th) SDA: 381 (5th) TSR: 0.455 (9th)
SoG: 117 (8th) SoGA: 131 (5th) SoGD: -14 (7th)
S%: 29.06% (5th) Sv%: 77.86% (2nd) PDO: 106.92 (3rd)
GF: 34 (t-7th) GA: 29 (4th) GD: +5 (4th)
Leading Scorer: Lance Laing (7)
Major Subtractions: Lance Parker, Neil Hlavaty, Beto Navarro.
Major Additions: Óskar Örn Hauksson, Matt Van Oekel, Tomas Granitto, Johann Smith.

I’m sorry, FC Edmonton. I want to believe. When the Eddies played in the league basement during the spring season it was obviously a fluke, some good performances wiped out by appalling ball luck, and their reign of terror late in the fall season that saw them whip almost all comers and wind up marginally shy of a playoff spot got everybody’s hopes up. Many of their poor statistics were caused by the fact that, especially early in the season, they traveled worse than an incontinent baby afraid of heights. But just as Edmonton wasn’t as bad as they looked in the spring, they weren’t as good as they looked in the fall. They will not grab the league by the testicles so firmly again. I defer to nobody in my love of Lance Laing, but a fullback moving up to wide midfield and leading the team in scoring by bagging thirty-yard free kicks and wind-assisted olimpicos is the very definition of a career year.

Even ranking them as high as sixth has the faint reek of the homer. Their TSR last year was dreadful. Offensively they were nothing. Being a homer I know that Frank Jonke, who missed the entire fall season, was badly underrated on the basis of an unlucky spring. I know that Daryl Fordyce, who was injured off and on and never seemed quite 100%, is a good front-rank NASL attacker. I know that if Hanson Boakai keeps working and developing his game, which admittedly is a substantial “if”, he can become a leading attacking midfielder. More than most teams in the NASL, FC Edmonton relies on their academy, and that means that even when they aren’t bringing in new talent they should be moving forward. But every team has “if”s and “should”s, and the reason Edmonton is sixth on this list rather than seventh is pure fingers-crossed hope.

The departed players won’t hurt. Lance Parker was a good goalkeeper and a well-liked member of the community, but a series of injuries meant it was his backup John Smits who won the NASL Golden Glove last year. Anyway he’s been replaced with ex-Minnesota United goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel, who early on looks like the starter presumptive. Nobody can doubt Neil Hlavaty’s quality but the arrival of Ritchie Jones last year made him redundant, and Beto Navarro got more credit for last fall’s comeback than he probably deserved. The combination of veteran Northern Irish skipper Albert Watson and Canadian Mallan Roberts at centre back, with young Marko Aleksic in support and Kareem Moses shuffling all over the backline as needed, will be no worse. Alas, that won’t be enough.

Plain and simple, there isn’t enough skill on offense. Versatile set piece guru Óskar Örn Hauksson, a wide midfielder loaned in from Iceland, is being relied upon for most of the added spark. But the Icelandic league is no guarantor of quality, and how well a 5’9” midfielder with only two games’ experience outside his home country will fare is a very open question. Hauksson has only made his national team twice, and as Canadians who watched their friendlies in January will know strákarnir okkar are not exactly an unholy terror. Young Tomas Granitto is one for the future, not 2015, and the greatest virtue of speedster Johann Smith is that he will free Lance Laing up to play in midfield full-time. The soccer world’s graves are filled with “quick counter-attacking teams” that had great runs but turned out to be one-season flukes who didn’t generate enough offense. FC Edmonton looks exactly like one.

7. Jacksonville Armada

Jacksonville Armada

Jacksonville Armada

Expansion Team

By definition an expansion team is hard to figure out. Who are these guys?, even the saltiest pundit asks. The Jacksonville Armada, we can say confidently, are Argentinian, so strongly that we should be suspicious if they book a friendly on the Falkland Islands. The current roster actually contains more Argentines than Americans, but few of them will jog even the faintest memory.

There are a few recognizable names elsewhere. Goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo, who played six fine seasons with the USL’s Austin Aztex and Orlando City and is still only thirty years old. Jemal Johnson spent last year on the New York Cosmos, defender Lucas Rodríguez is an old NSC Minnesota Star, Jordan Gafa’s worked his way up from PDL and nearly broke through with the Tampa Bay Rowdies last year, and of course Jaime Castrillón had a few interesting seasons in Major League Soccer. But there’s a lot of mystery. Defender Shawn Nicklaw spent last year in Iceland and has capped sixteen times for Guam. Is that good? Diminutive forward Keita has scored quite a bit in some good leagues and is a reasonable 31 years old, but he’s also bounced around four continents and the support behind him is not exceptional. The best of the Argentines, attacking midfielder Marcos Flores, was for a time one of the Australian A-League’s leading players, but the path between Australia and the NASL is one seldom walked and the well-traveled player is coming off a serious right ACL tear[9].

The head coach, José Luis Villarreal, knows all about first-rate soccer but has never before been head coach of a professional club. Absolutely anything could come from there. The fan support sounds like it’ll be excellent, with a February report saying the team had sold over 5,000 season tickets[10], but Indy’s was pretty good last year and look how their season went. There’s simply no practical way to judge the Armada in advance. The mass of the team, from the coach down to half the depth players, is so completely new to the NASL that the best you can do is a moderately educated guess.

We know that Gallardo is a good goalkeeper. It’s frankly criminal that Orlando City didn’t give this lifelong Lion an MLS contract because they preferred a 700-year-old Donovan Ricketts, but that’s far from the most criminal thing Orlando City’s done so we should let it slide. Their defense, apart from Gafa (total NASL games: 14) is completely new to the league, but at least Shawn Nicklaw and Joseph Toby have played USL. All of these defenders are in their mid-twenties and most only have a season or two of professional experience at lower levels. One of the team’s two Argentines, Lucas Trejo, is an exception, but is a complete unknown in North America whose experience doesn’t suggest great quality. The other, Fabricio Ortiz, has as his career highlight a few friendlies for a local Italian club. Both these players are coming off a season in the Argentine third division. It’s not often you get a veteran South American for whom the NASL is relatively major league.

Flores is the headliner in midfield, joining two more Argentines, Lucas Rodríguez and Lucas Scaglia. Rodríguez was, as far as I can tell, out of professional soccer last year. Undersized Scaglia’s played with some serious South American clubs and recently spent a season at Colombia’s Deportivo Cali but was never really a regular. Pascal Millien spent a couple of seasons in Tampa Bay before going to Ireland and Bangladesh (!), where he scored seven goals. I don’t know that Millien is the only Bangladeshi alumnus in North American professional soccer this season but I wouldn’t be surprised. Finally there’s Ramak Safi, a one-time Carolina Railhawk who never got into a league match, bummed around the USL Second Division for a few games, and spent the past four seasons in the NPSL with Jacksonville United. The fact that Safi is one of Jacksonville’s most experienced North American players is telling.

Some of the forwards look decent, and Castrillón and Johnson at least know North America, but the players mostly aging and on the downswing of their careers. Johnson has produced only intermittently at Fort Lauderdale and New York, Keita hasn’t scored regularly since he played in Saudi Arabia seven years ago. Tyler Williams and Tommy Krizanovic are both old NPSLers. They may be savvy pickups, they may not. If you’re a Jacksonville United fan by all means leave a comment. Castrillón is officially listed as a midfielder, which might mean they have no recent front-line goalscorers at all.

The Armada front office has already earned a lot of respect from people who’d know, and their rampaging ticket sales suggest they’re smart chaps. By ranking them seventh I’m showing confidence in the process, if not the individual players. The idea of this lot fighting for a playoff spot is almost laughable, but with good coaching, the unknown players living up to their billing, and maybe a good summer addition or two, the expansion Armada may be surprisingly respectable.

8. Ottawa Fury

Steve Kingsman/Icon SMI/Ottawa Fury

Steve Kingsman/Icon SMI/Ottawa Fury

2014 Statistics
SD: 330 (8th) SDA: 371 (4th) TSR: 0.471 (8th)
SoG: 128 (7th) SoGA: 135 (6th) SoGD: -7 (6th)
S%: 26.56% (6th) Sv%: 71.85% (6th) PDO: 98.41 (7th)
GF: 34 (t-7th) GA: 38 (5th) GD: -4 (6th)
Leading Scorer: Olivier Minatel (7)
Major Subtractions: Ramón Soria, Vini Dantas, Tony Donatelli, Omar Jarun, Pierre-Rudolph Mayard.
Major Additions: Colin Falvey, Paulo Junior, Mike Randolph, Andrew Wiedeman, Julian de Guzman.

Last year, Ottawa was not good. This year, they haven’t changed much. That’s a bad sign. There’s been some addition by subtraction. Palestinian pylon Omar Jarun is gone, his release “mutually agreed upon.” (“Omar, you should retire already.” “I agree.”) Pierre-Rudolph Mayard, a forward and favourite from head coach Marc dos Santos’s old days at the Montreal Impact, was way out of his depth last season and has also moved on. Tony Donatelli had a weirdly productive season by the numbers but was still Tony Donatelli and not fooling anyone. Even much-hyped Brazilian forward Vini Dantas was ultimately a disappointment and won’t be missed. Their most important loss was actually in the middle of last season, when savvy left back Maykon went home, but even he was never settled enough to give his best.

In comes another much-hyped Brazilian, Paulo Junior, ex- of Miami FC, Real Salt Lake, the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, just about everybody really. I’m old enough to remember Paulo coming into the USL First Division in 2009 and beating the hell out of pretty much every fullback incautious enough to match wits with him. Those first two second division seasons were truly excellent from such a young player, and his first run at Real Salt Lake had a lot to like about it too. Injuries and plain bad luck, alas, seem to have robbed him of his excitement. Way back in December 2012 when the Whitecaps acquired Paulo I wrote about him with optimism[11]; since then he’s been cut by the Whitecaps, joined Fort Lauderdale and was cut, signed in Brazil where he was relegated then cut, and is now in Ottawa. The 2010 USSF D2 Best XI right winger hasn’t scored a professional goal since July 27, 2012, for Fort Lauderdale against the hapless Atlanta Silverbacks. He’s 26 years old and already looks washed-up. Marc dos Santos will have to turn back the clock a long, long way to regain Paulo’s form of old.

So what about Andrew Wiedeman, cut after a disappointing three seasons with sad-sacks Toronto FC? Undistinguished ex-Silverbacks Brandon Poltronieri and Mike Randolph, both 29 and plenty versatile but short on all-round quality (and short generally)? Quintessential journeyman centreback Rafael Alves? Or popular, decent, but ultimately unremarkable ex-Charleston Battery defender Colin Falvey? Which of these new additions are going to steer Ottawa into the playoffs following a first NASL season where they were fighting for last place and deserved it?

If the Ottawa Fury are going to improve, it won’t be because of their new players but their returning ones. This isn’t improbable. Forward Tom Heinemann missed almost all of the 2014 spring season but was productive when he got back; he’s almost an ideal NASL forward. Midfielder Nicki Paterson should also be healthy. The team will benefit from a full season by veteran goalkeeper Romuald Peiser, who arrived in the middle of 2014 to spell the disappointing Devala Gorrick.

More than most teams, Ottawa has inexperienced but promising players who will only benefit from another season’s playing time. Their leading scorer last year, Oliver Minatel, will turn 23 this season and should bang in even more goals. Forward Carl Haworth is 25 and not really a prospect anymore, but still seems to be growing into his boots. Midfielder Mauro Eustáquio belongs at Canada’s U-23 Olympic qualifying attempt this summer if he can recover from a preseason injury, and new Canadian wide midfielder Patryk Misik is 20 and will make his professional first team debut this year.

It adds up to a rise in the standings, but not much of one. Talk of the playoffs is well premature, unless the Fury buy a DeLorean and borrow vintage Paulo Junior and Phil Davies from 2010.

EDIT, March 27: not long after this post went up, Ottawa signed veteran Canadian midfielder Julian de Guzman. This is obviously a major signing, as even at age 34 de Guzman is a major part of the Canadian national team’s midfield. That said, de Guzman has been without a club for over a year, and being at a Canadian national team camp will only join the Fury very near the beginning of the season. He will have several pounds of rust to shake off. While de Guzman’s arrival might be enough to shove Ottawa over Jacksonville, it doesn’t necessarily give them a big advantage early in the year.

9. Carolina Railhawks

Rob Kinnan/Carolina Railhawks

Rob Kinnan/Carolina Railhawks

2014 Statistics
SD: 347 (7th) SDA: 471 (10th) TSR: 0.424 (10th)
SoG: 116 (9th) SoGA: 155 (9th) SoGD: -39 (10th)
S%: 32.76% (2nd) Sv%: 72.26% (5th) PDO: 105.02 (4th)
GF: 38 (t-3rd) GA: 43 (7th) GD: -5 (7th)
Leading Scorer: Zack Schilawski (9)
Major Subtractions: Zack Schilawski, Danny Barrera, Jun Marques Davidson, Akira Fitzgerald, Enzo Martinez, Alex Martinez.
Major Additions: Neil Hlavaty, Chris Nurse, Wes Knight, Blake Wagner, Simone Bracalello, Futty Danso.

Like Tampa Bay, Carolina has blown it all up. But Carolina has a much better excuse. While the Rowdies weren’t near as bad as they looked, the Railhawks looked pretty bad but were actually worse. At the end of the season they suffered a potentially crippling blow when leading scorer and genuinely talented local Zack Schilawski retired aged 27 to go to law school[12]. Team MVP Jun Marques Davidson signed in the Thai league, and speedster Enzo Martinez has signed in USL Charlotte with his brother Alex. Goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald is also off, joining New York City FC, but he’ll be mourned largely by FC Edmonton fans. Having dispersed most of their talent, the Railhawks at least managed to keep a lot of the crap. Austen King, Connor Tobin, Daniel Scott, and Kupono Low were the league’s worst defense in 2014, and all will return. Skipper Low has been a fine player for many years but is 36 years old and showing the miles, while the other three are journeymen without the skill or awareness to compensate for Low’s fading pace. Plus, head coach Colin Clarke got a contract extension. It might be a long year for the Railhawks.

The old-timers are terrifying for all the wrong reasons, but how about the fresh meat? The goalkeepers are Hunter Gilstrap, a veteran third division man, and Brian Sylvestre, ex- of the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency and backup the past two seasons with USL’s Harrisburg. The midfield is reinforced with the 2013 FC Edmonton central duo of Neil Hlavaty and Chris Nurse, supported by decent ex-Fort Lauderdale Striker Mark Anderson and veteran Wells Thompson. The enigmatic Ty Shipalane remains, as does promising youngster Nazmi Albadawi: the midfield might be Carolina’s strongest position, but there are still no players you’d write home about. Anderson’s best year by far in Fort Lauderdale was three seasons ago, and while he’ll bring quite a bit of direct attacking ability he’s a supporting player at heart. Hlavaty was used out-of-position in Edmonton and is a talented defensive midfielder due to rebound, but he and Nurse have not always taken frustration well and Carolina looks like a frustrating team. Apart from Shipalane there is little excitement, though Thompson still has a goal or two left in his boots, and Enzo Martinez will be badly missed.

That lamentable defense has a few new players. Wes Knight took the 2014 season off from professional soccer but returns at right back and/or right mid. Knight is a Maple Leaf Forever! favourite and popular everywhere he’s ever played; he even got good reviews with the Vancouver Metro Soccer League’s CCBRT United. Signing with his hometown club is a great opportunity for a player who deserves one. But Knight’s last impact professional season was in 2012, with injuries to his joints taking their toll: we cannot know what he has left. He’s joined by a fellow 2010-11 Vancouver Whitecaps wide player, Blake Wagner. If Carolina was my team I would not think “combine the width of the 2010 Whitecaps with the central core of 2013 FC Edmonton and we’ll be onto a winner.” Colin Clarke apparently differs.

The defense is augmented by Futty Danso, maybe the best of the new men. Big, thick take-no-prisoners, has there ever been a more second-division player than Futty Danso? He seems born to deliver crunching tackles for Colin Clarke and will bring a dimension the Railhawks lack, but is no star. Putting Danso at centre back might deter a couple smaller forwards but it certainly doesn’t make up for Kupono Low getting old or the whole backline lacking finesse.

Up top Simone Bracalello, who had a few good seasons but failed to stick with Minnesota United, joins aging ex-Rangers man Nacho Novo. Novo just turned 36 and didn’t do much when he joined Carolina in the middle of last year: unless one of those two finds their old form behind the couch Schilawski will be dearly missed. Behind them, nobody. Quite literally. It’s a week until the season starts and the Railhawks have something like 19 players under contract. Shipalane could play up top, I guess, but fans should hope desperately for reinforcements. No signs of life in preseason either; the Railhawks have lost every exhibition against professionals and recently fell 1-0 to USL expansion team Charlotte Independence, who have a bunch of players nobody has ever heard of[13].

There seems to be optimism around the Railhawks in the commentariat this year. For the life of me I cannot understand why.

10. Fort Lauderdale Strikers

Jon van Woerden/Fort Lauderdale Strikers

Jon van Woerden/Fort Lauderdale Strikers

2014 Statistics
SD: 395 (5th) SDA: 358 (3rd) TSR: 0.525 (2nd)
SoG: 151 (3rd) SoGA: 118 (3rd) SoGD: +33 (2nd)
S%: 25.17% (7th) Sv%: 66.95% (9th) PDO: 92.11 (9th)
GF: 38 (t-3rd) GA: 39 (6th) GD: -1 (5th)
Leading Scorer: Fafà Picault (12)
Major Subtractions: Fafà Picault, Mark Anderson, Carlos Salazar, Kamil Contofalský, Pecka, Darnell King, Martin Nuñez, Chris Nurse.
Major Additions: Léo Moura, Stefano Pinho, Jonathan Borrajo, Fabian Kling, Joe Nasco, José Angulo.

Last year’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers were a darned interesting team. The spring campaign was uninspired but in the fall they were scorching hot: first place in shots on goals for and shots on goal against, a record on which it is hard to improve. The utterly unheralded Fafà Picault announced his presence with authority and had one of the NASL’s best goalscoring seasons. Picault was obviously leaving even before the season ended (so lackadaisical that at one point he was benched) and is now in the Czech Republic. Inconsistent early-season goalkeeping from 40-year-old Ola Nikolov was banished by the arrival of Kamil Contofalský, who brought a much-needed infusion of youth into the Strikers’ goalkeeping picture aged only 36. The Strikers rampaged into the playoffs and went to the wall against Minnesota, one of the games of the year. Mad Günter Kronsteiner got kicked off the bench (again), Martin Nuñez scored a miraculous stoppage-time equalizer, Pecka buried the decisive kick from the mark, and the Strikers went through. Then, in the Soccer Bowl, they played another one of the games of the year, losing 2-1 to San Antonio in what can only be called “the best advertisement the North American Soccer League ever had.” If all NASL games were as exciting as Fort Lauderdale’s playoff run I’d have a lot more grey hairs in my beard.

This year, Fort Lauderdale is also darned interesting for the neutral observer. Sadly, for much more dubious reasons.

Traffic Sports sold the Strikers to a group publicly fronted by Brazilian businessboy Ricardo Geromel and soccer legend Ronaldo. Club president Tom Mulroy departed “due to the difference in core philosophy with the new Brazilian Striker team ownership.”[14]. Crazy Uncle Günter was unceremoniously let go, leaving without a police escort this time but with an open letter where he twice apologised for his poor English then, in immaculate English, detailed how the new owners made him a pro forma offer with the clear expectation he’d turn it down[15]. Kronsteiner may have been a certifiable lunatic on the touchline but he was, with Manny Lagos, in the first class of NASL coaches. Fans started to gnaw their fingernails. The new head coach, Marcelo Neveleff, is an almost complete unknown outside south Florida: a major figure in regional youth soccer but with an extremely ragged professional history. He may be highly qualified, or he may not. Nobody knows.

The merest handful of 2014 Fort Lauderdale Strikers return for 2015. Honduran fullback Iván Guerrero, 37 years old but still plenty useful last season. His fellow countryman Walter Ramirez, a longtime Miami FC player who’s slipped far enough that he was a mid-season cut last year by sadsacks Indy. Ex-MLS midfielder James Marcelin, who’s useful enough but is less effective in the NASL than you might guess. Forward Aly Hassan, an off-and-on member of the Strikers’ squad rotation for a few years. Journeyman midfielder Shawn Chin. Backup goalkeeper David Meves. Depth midfielder Manny Gonzalez. That’s it. Seven guys, of whom three are in any sense important.

Much of the new blood is Brazilian, bringing back not altogether fond memories of Miami FC. Léo Moura’s is by far the bluest: a one-time Brazilian international who spent a decade at Flamengo and served as captain. Moura will turn 37 during the season and, despite being a right back most of his career, is going to be pushed into central midfield because his feet know what the soccer ball feels like. I know little about the Brazilian league but Moura was a regular starter for Flamengo up to the end, scored a couple of goals and notched assists from right back, and by most accounts was still an acceptable starter on a mid-table side. He’s been healthy, even through the rigorous Brazilian schedule, and while artificial turf will be new to him dodgy playing surfaces will not. This bodes extremely well for his NASL future, but you can never quite tell with players like this. Moura is on a distinct retirement contract, cashing cheques while he winds down his playing career. The commitment of such players can be variable, especially from someone whose last contract outside of Brazil was an ill-fated Portuguese sojourn in 2005.

So Moura is a headline grab, but the rest of the new Strikers are absolutely nothing to write home about. Three Brazilian loanees have come in: midfielder Marlon Freitas and forward Stefano Pinho from Fluminense, and left back Victor Giro from Corinthians. Freitas is a 19-year-old of no distinction. Pinho participated in the 2013 MLS combine, went 37th overall in the 2013 MLS Supplemental Draft to Colorado[16], and was joint top scorer of Finnish first division club MYPA last year with seven league goals. (MYPA has since gone bankrupt, so he didn’t help.) Giro, a man with a million names (nicknamed “PC” and also called Victor Pagliari here and there) reportedly played for the Brazilian U-20 team, though I’m having trouble backing that up, and bounced around a few clubs on loan without doing anything anybody bothered writing down. From what little the Internet can tell us Pinho is the best of the bunch but you wouldn’t point to any of the three and say “he, right there, is going to be a quality NASL player.” And the Strikers need quality NASL players.

They have at least tried to dive into the NASL player pool. 27-year-old right back Jonathan Borrajo joined from San Antonio; a perfectly decent player. Another veteran defender, Frankie Sanfilippo, came from Tampa Bay; he was beloved with the Rowdies but what a 33-year-old left back will do around Guerrero and Giro isn’t clear. 27-year-old German defender Fabian Kling is one of the presumptive starting centre backs, an undistinguished inaugural Scorpion who spent last year on loan to a team that got relegated from the German fourth division. Karsten Smith, a depth defender in Finland and Iceland, or stunningly-coiffed Israeli league alumnus Ryan Adeleye will presumably be the other centre back. Ex-DC United man Jordan Graye might slip in but he’s a right back really. Then there’s Giro, whatever he turns out to be; good early preseason reviews for what little that’s worth. The defense is a dog’s breakfast, with no players standing out as weak but no anchor in sight, only one returning player from last season, and guys who spent 2014 in Texas, Tampa, Brazil, the depths of Germany, and Israel. Behind them in goal stands (presumably) Joe Nasco, who was a fixture at the Atlanta Silverbacks but never a top keeper. In the part of the park you most want stability, you have chaos. The few players we know about, we don’t much like.

How about midfield? We have Moura, who’s a right back. We have Dani Sánchez, who washed out of the A-League two years ago and has been bouncing around southeast Asia. Evans Frimpong, a pretty useful ex-Rowdy, joins the crew, as does the solid returning contingent of Chin, Marcelin, and Ramirez. It’s not bad but much relies on Moura, as without him it’s Shawn Chin building all your attacks. The questions may be less urgent than those on the backline but they’re still plenty large. Finally, the forwards: Pinho, the familiar depth of Aly Hassan, and José Angulo, who’s managed a good scoring record in USL but will be making the step up to the NASL for the first time. There are a total of twenty-one games NASL experience in the forward corps, all by Hassan. The trio knows North America, which is something, but on a team already in nasty disarray that’s not good.

But Ronaldo might play for them! Or rather he has alternately encouraged[17] and quashed[18] rumours that he will suit up for Fort Lauderdale, if only for the playoffs. I don’t find the idea of Ronaldo playing in the NASL as laughable as some. I still remember a 40-year-old Romário suiting up for Miami FC in 2006, and despite apparently having put on blubber for a long hibernation scoring completely at will for a team that had no other drawing cards whatsoever. Even tubby, rusty, and one-legged, it’s impossible to view the idea of Ronaldo bearing down on, say, Connor Tobin without sweating. And if you don’t want to see Ronaldo tee off against old strike partner Raúl in cold blood then you have no soul.

It’s impossible to rank Fort Lauderdale anywhere but near the bottom. Front office turmoil, a roster full of unpredictable wild cards thrown together from every corner of the earth under a coach finding his feet. One highly esteemed new arrival, playing out the string in an unfamiliar land, and a bunch of players their old teams could afford to lose. Sure, they killed the Jacksonville Armada in a home preseason game, and if each of those unknown players winds up being a brilliant bargain Fort Lauderdale might soar up the standings. But what grounds do you have to bet on that?

11. Atlanta Silverbacks

Atlanta Silverbacks

Atlanta Silverbacks

2014 Statistics
SD: 401 (4th) SDA: 389 (t-7th) TSR: 0.508 (5th)
SoG: 138 (4th) SoGA: 168 (10th) SoGD: -30 (8th)
S%: 23.19% (9th) Sv%: 70.24% (7th) PDO: 93.43 (8th)
GF: 32 (10th) GA: 50 (t-9th) GD: -18 (10th)
Leading Scorer: Jaime Chavez (8)
Major Subtractions: Pablo Cruz, Kwadwo Poku.
Major Additions: Steward Ceus, Kyle Porter, Hans Denissen, Dominic Oppong.

This is something like the fourth time we’ve said “this may be the last ride for the Atlanta Silverbacks”. In 2002 they were averaging a thousand fans a game, not all of whom had paid to get in there, and were about to sell off three-quarters of their quality. 2008 brought more trouble and they actually took the 2009 and 2010 seasons off. In 2014, with ownership having pulled the plug and a competing MLS franchise incoming, we had no idea whether the NASL would bankroll the Silverbacks for one more campaign. They will, and we again wonder if this is Atlanta’s second-division swan song. Would you believe this is the team’s 20-year anniversary? Undistinguished and unloved, the Silverbacks are by far the NASL’s elder statesmen: the Fort Lauderdale Strikers date back to 2006 if you count Miami FC, the Ottawa Fury to 2005 if you count their PDL days, and the next-longest second division history in one city belongs to the 2007-born Carolina Railhawks. The Silverbacks are ten years older than any of their fellows even by the most generous measure. Justin Fashanu played for them.

What’s sad is that Atlanta has a lot going for it. They play in their own soccer-specific stadium, far from a palace but still a much-admired facility. Their attendance in the past few years has been roused from terrible to merely bad. Head coach Gary Smith, a good English lad who did a decent job last season, will return. The team’s been made over but they kept top scorer Jaime Chavez, sold Kwadwo Poku to MLS for a tidy fee, and have brought in some old NASLers of known quality. Kyle Porter, Hans Denissen, and Dominic Oppong all arrive a couple years after their best days, but Porter and Oppong are healthy and young. Denissen is aging and had a rough 2014 but as recently as two years ago was a heck of a San Antonio Scorpion. None of the out-of-league talent they’ve acquired is amazing but some have decent pedigrees, none are too old, all are playing for their careers. In truth, ranking them eleventh, as pretty much everyone is, is a little lazy. There are some intriguing possibilities swirling about the Silverbacks.

I want Atlanta to succeed. I want them to draw good crowds (tickets this year are filthy cheap), have a good run, give the NASL hope that they can hold onto a niche at their little soccer-specific stadium even when MLS moves in. Canada and the United States need local soccer derbies, and I don’t mean a bunch of clubs in New York/New Jersey shouting “ESPN! ESPN! Look at me!” but scrappy little sides in a few leagues who want to win soccer games, not a media war. Atlanta would be a good as city as any. I want it so badly, I want it more than I want anything else in American soccer this year, but I can’t believe it’ll happen.

In goal we have Steward Ceus, a perfectly respectable old MLS backup who returns to the United States after a year in the Finnish third division. Ceus is nothing to write home about but he’s fine. Or would be, except he’s undergoing what we’re assured is a “minor knee operation”, and the future is in the hands of unknown C.J. Cochran[19]. Big careers have come from less auspicious starts, but Cochran is in a bad position. The defense includes English journeymen Paul Black, who washed out of League Two makeweights Cheltenham Town, and Simon Mensing, who played a utility role in Scottish Championship side Livingston for a couple years. They are joined by fullback Kyle Miller, who steps up to NASL after one season starting in USL Pro, and an old Gary Smith charge, Raushawn McKenzie, whose one professional season as anything like a starter was on the hopeless 2012 Chivas USA. Ex-FC Edmonton midfielder Dominic Oppong will help, being a solid – and solid-built – defensive midfielder, but the mid is largely inexperienced. Michael Reed had a couple years on the fringes of Minnesota’s eighteen, and Jon Okafor’s played regularly in Finland and USL, but the others lack seasoning.

Forward will be their strongest position. Jaime Chavez was long one of those Americans who flirted around the amateur and semi-professional scene but never got a fair shake at a soccer career. Last year he got that chance and made good, leading Atlanta’s scoring in his first full professional season at age 26. With him stand Porter, a useful forward at FC Edmonton who showed flashes in MLS but failed to stick, Denissen, the blunt and blunt-headed little ball of fury who was so valuable to the Scorpions for two years, ex-Silverback Matt Horth, a skilled big man returning after a couple seasons in the wilderness, and returning 2014 Silverback Shaka Bangura, a little speedster who’s entering his fourth North American pro season and still feels like a newbie.

There’s enough there to give us well-wishing neutrals hope. Porter, Denissen, and Chavez all know how to score in this league. The defenders don’t look like much, but players from such humble backgrounds have long made up the spine of many a decent NASL side. They have, by all accounts, the right coach, and above all they have nothing to lose. No prediction I’ve seen has them outside the bottom three and most put them dead last. If they succeed, and they might, it won’t be with individual flair but a team that, whatever else you might say about it, is well-rounded and well-led. Unfortunately these must be combined with experience and skill, and there the Silverbacks plain fall short.


[1] — Most statistics are from the NASL results page at http://www.nasl.com/results. I have box scores for five FC Edmonton games that I watched and tracked myself. I believe my own records are more accurate than the league ones, so for these five games I used my own stats rather than the NASL ones. There was also one game where the NASL results page was missing, so I got the stats off Soccerway. You may well say that this makes for a rather unsightly mixture of sources, and you’d be right. But it is, in my way, the most accurate means available. If you’re interested in my spreadsheet of NASL team shooting for the 2014 season, please send me an e-mail.

The official NASL stats are filled with oddities, such as games where the goals for one team exceeded their shots on target: most notable was San Antonio’s 7-0 win over Tampa Bay on October 11, when San Antonio had four (!) official shots on target. (Nor are they not counting goals as shots on target – at least, not reliably.) Most NASL games show blocked shots but some do not; these are counted as shots directed. That makes me nervous but ensures consistency across the league. Some NASL games show shots that hit the woodwork but most do not; these are also counted as shots directed. Shots directed is therefore [shots on target + shots off target + shots blocked + shots woodwork]. One of my hopes for 2015 is that the NASL steps up the consistency of their recordkeeping. Currently, the NASL.com stat-keepers are paid for by the league but found by the club, and quality seems variable game-to-game, let alone city-to-city. In addition, it would be really nice to get player-specific shooting stats back…

Stats aficionados will notice that I follow the old-school practice of measuring PDO with 100 as the baseline rather than 1000. This is because it makes more sense.

[2] — “Scorpions beat Cosmos 2-1 and will play in the NASL Championship final.” San Antonio Scorpions, November 9, 2014. Accessed March 24, 2015. http://www.sascorpions.com/news/detail/uuid/161xmhgr4otm11518gglyzggis/scorpions-beat-cosmos-2-1-and-will-play-in-the-nasl-championship-final#.VRF-9RpG32g.

[3] — “North American Soccer League announces global agreement with ESPN.” NASL.com, March 26, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2015. http://www.nasl.com/article/uuid/1a4ij20y91hlzxwb9klbf2c7/north-american-soccer-league-announces-global-agreement-with-espn#.VRQ22xpG32g.

[4] — “United striker Pablo Campos suffers knee injury.” Minnesota United, March 21, 2014. Accessed March 23, 2015. http://www.mnunitedfc.com/news/detail/uuid/kyqax13bkg0s1wlsdevgmcios/united-striker-pablo-campos-suffers-left-knee-injury#.VRCt8tRdUpQ.

[5] — Major League Soccer. “Brian Brown.” MLSSoccer.com. Accessed March 24, 2015. http://www.mlssoccer.com/players/brian-brown.

[6] — Evans, Nick. “A great sight for everyone today. Our captain Adrian Cann working with Dr.Czar on the field. @SAScorpions #NASL2015.” Via Twitter, March 20, 2015. Accessed March 24, 2015. https://twitter.com/evsie1984/status/578997589061713920.

[7] — Girardi, Steven. “Rowdies’ owner buys garage, restaurant with fans in mind.” Tampa Tribune, February 9, 2015. Accessed March 23, 2015. http://tbo.com/news/business/bill-edwards-buys-garage-restaurant-to-please-rowdies-fans-20150209/.

[8] — “Match preview: Rowdies host New York Cosmos.” Tampa Bay Rowdies, August 13, 2014. Accessed March 23, 2015. http://www.rowdiessoccer.com/news/detail/uuid/1jnm8si0pgpuk1sls2puzto8nm/match-preview-rowdies-host-new-york-cosmos.

[9] — “Marcos Flores released by Newcastle Jets to leave A-League for overseas deal.” ABC News (Australia), January 14, 2015. Accessed March 24, 2015. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-15/flores-to-leave-jets-for-overseas-deal/6019454.

[10] — Thurlow, Andrew. “How the Armada FC’s new Business Alliance led to rise in ticket sales.” Jacksonville Business Journal, February 5, 2015. Accessed March 26, 2015. http://www.bizjournals.com/jacksonville/news/2015/02/05/how-the-armada-fcs-new-business-alliance-led-to.html?page=all.

[11] — Massey, Benjamin. “Those Paulo Araujo Jr. Statistics, in Full.” Maple Leaf Forever!, December 14, 2012. Accessed March 25, 2015. http://www.maple-leaf-forever.com/2012/12/14/those-paulo-araujo-jr-statistics-in-full/.

[12] — Morris, Neil. “Zack Schilawski of Carolina RailHawks to enter law school, possibly ending his pro soccer playing career.” IndyWeek, August 12, 2014. Accessed March 24, 2015. http://www.indyweek.com/sports/archives/2014/08/12/zack-schilawski-of-carolina-railhawks-to-enter-law-school-possibly-ending-his-pro-soccer-playing-career.

[13] — Patel, Jamie and Mauricio Villarreal. “Carolina Railhawks fall to Charlotte Independence 1-0 in exhibition match-up.” Carolina Railhawks, March 21, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2015. http://www.carolinarailhawks.com/news/detail/uuid/1b9j812656wed1uk273nplstwq#.VRLP1RpG32j.

[14] — Mulroy, Tom. “Moving on and forward…” Via Facebook, November 19, 2014. Accessed March 25, 2015. https://www.facebook.com/tom.mulroy.338/posts/844831238871965:0.

[15] — Kronsteiner, Günter via Kartik Krishnaiyer. “Letter from head coach Günter Kronsteiner to Fort Lauderdale Strikers fans.” The Kartik Report, December 7, 2014. Accessed March 25, 2015. http://kartikreport.com/2014/12/07/letter-from-coach-gunter-kronsteiner-to-fort-lauderdale-strikers-fans/. Yes it was fun spelling both “Kronsteiner” and “Krishnaiyer” in one footnote!

[16] — “Supplemental Draft: Rapids select Griffiths, Pinho, David, and Castro.” Colorado Rapids, January 22, 2013. Accessed March 25, 2015. http://www.coloradorapids.com/news/2013/01/supplemental-draft-rapids-select-griffiths-pinho-david-and-castro.

[17] — “Ronaldo set to come out of retirement for Fort Lauderdale Strikers.” ESPN FC, February 24, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2015. http://www.espnfc.us/north-american-soccer-league/story/2314970/ronaldo-to-come-out-of-retirement-for-fort-lauderdale-strikers.

[18] — “Ronaldo: I will not be making a comeback at Fort Lauderdale Strikers.” ESPN FC, March 4, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2015. http://www.espnfc.us/north-american-soccer-league/story/2332537/ronaldo-i-will-not-be-making-a-comeback-at-fort-lauderdale-strikers.

[19] — “Cochran poised to fill in for injured Ceus.” Atlanta Silverbacks, March 25, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2015. http://www.atlantasilverbacksfc.com/news/2015/03/25/cochran-poised-to-fill-in-for-injured-ceus.

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