By Jason S Rufner
It was a wild Week Four in the North American Soccer League. Two clubs (FC Edmonton and Fort Lauderdale Strikers) earned their first victories of the Fall Season, while another (Ottawa Fury FC) managed its first goal.
The story of the Spring Season was Minnesota United FC. In the Fall, the Loons are showing in the #Fight4Fall that their story is not yet done.
Minnesota is hot. (That's not a sentence you hear often.) United is challenging San Antonio Scorpions for the top of the table. New York Cosmos endured the biggest drop, plummeting to eighth after another home loss.
If The Championship began today:
Minnesota is the Spring Champion and San Antonio would be the Fall Champion. New York (23 points) would be the third seed and Carolina (20 points) would be the fourth. On the outside, but close enough to smell it, would be Fort Lauderdale (17 points), Atlanta Silverbacks (17 points) and Tampa Bay Rowdies (16 points).
But, like a Billy Forbes crossing pass, it's very much up in the air. Every NASL club still has 14 matches to be played (except San Antonio and Carolina, which have 13 matches left). That means there are 42 points out there for the taking. All 10 clubs have every chance to make The Championship.
Here's how each of those 10 is trending in the #Fight4Fall:
San Antonio Scorpions
The previously undefeated and untied Scorpions' loss at then-last-place Edmonton may have surprised many (including the Scorpions themselves), but it was a long plane ride for San Antonio to face one of the NASL's most stout defenses.
Alen Marcina may not be as forgiving, but an outside observer can give the Scorpions a mulligan. They'll keep the neutral arrow this week.
Minnesota United FC
The Spring Champion is off and running in the Fall Season, collecting points from both home and road matches in methodical fashion. The Loons have allowed the fewest goals in the league while sporting the circuit's most prolific goal-scorer (Christian Ramírez's nine).
Minnesota earned four points in a tough two-matches home verse Carolina and at Atlanta, nearly sweeping both contests. Then it took care of business at home against lowly Ottawa. United has earned an up arrow.
Four goals in a professional soccer match is a bunch, and that's what the Silverbacks did on the road against Indianapolis. That performance came a week after salvaging a point against Spring Champion Minnesota with a stoppage-time tally. Perhaps the return of head coach Jason Smith is having an impact on Atlanta's energy.
The Silverbacks are in the thick of it right now, but need to keep it up if they are to keep that arrow up.
Giving up zero goals during a two-match win streak buys you an up arrow, and being on pace for a spot in The Championship makes you feel good. But the RailHawks cannot afford to rest on laurels, because not all the signs are good.
Two weeks ago, Carolina would have been saddled with some big down arrows. The club began the Fall Season with three losses and just one goal, and even its two recent victories have come against Ottawa (last place) and New York (eighth place).
The year's biggest off-field success story in the NASL is clearly visible when scanning the packed stands at Indy Eleven games. But a look at the field, and the story isn't so hot.
Indy's table placement in the middle of the pack is somewhat deceiving. The Eleven are 0-2 at home and are coming off a thorough defeat at the hands of Atlanta in which they surrendered the most goals a club has scored yet this Fall.
After a rough introduction to the NASL in the Spring Season with a league-worst 20 goals allowed and a league-lowest zero wins, it is only barely better in the Fall for this rookie franchise.
Tampa Bay Rowdies
The Rowdies should be feeling a sense of urgency. Their last two times out, they've neither won nor scored, losing most recently to their struggling rivals in Fort Lauderdale. Their 16 combined points has them in the thick of it, but if the current trend continues, chances will grow thin.
The next couple matches will go a long way toward determining if Tampa Bay gets a shot at adding another star to its crest.
Defense, the Eddies have. They've let in three goals in four matches. The problem is they've only put in three goals in four matches -- and they all came last Sunday.
Edmonton is used to this. They were stingy in the Spring Season too, allowing 11 goals -- but at the same time they were offensively poor, scoring a paltry 11 goals (and more than half of those came in one game).
But if the Eddies can take it to San Antonio, they can theoretically play with anybody and for that reason they are trending up.
New York Cosmos
The Cosmos fell at home to Carolina, and in doing so, fell all the way to eighth in the table.
After the closest possible second-place finish in the Spring Season, New York has yet to get on track in the Fall. The Cosmos' sole win came against last-place Ottawa, and their other point was a tie with ninth-place Fort Lauderdale.
The Cosmos have already given up more goals in the Fall Season (five) than during the entire Spring Season (three), and they've shown they're not invincible at home (two losses and -3 differential in two matches). Their ticket to The Championship is nowhere near punched, so they need to earn some points pretty quick.
Fort Lauderdale Strikers
The Strikers had nowhere to go but up -- and they did it in style. A narrow 1-0 home win versus the hated Rowdies -- a match that was more dominated by Fort Lauderdale than the score indicates -- gives The Fort a few things they badly needed: Three points, a victory, a boost up the table, a surge of confidence and a win over Tampa Bay, who'd completely owned the rivalry recently.
If the Strikers can regain the offense that produced an NASL-best 18 goals in the Spring Season, maybe that upward trend will continue.
Ottawa Fury FC
After a respectable 10 points in nine Spring Season matches to inaugurate Ottawa in the NASL, the Fury have done almost literally nothing in the Fall Season. In fact, Saturday was when the club managed its first goal in its last five matches.
They can take solace in the large number of potential points that await in the #Fight4Fall, but it might take a Fury-ous rally to get back in contention. It's a sideways arrow now only because there's plenty of time left, but it can turn down if things don't improve in the capital city.