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Impact needs Carolina to show up for final game of the season… but will it?

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Martin Rennie
Decisions, decisions.

The Carolina RailHawks, who clinched the NASL regular-season title weeks ago, are cruising towards the playoffs. As in, on autopilot. As in, losers of three games in a row.

If the RailHawks lose add a fourth loss to the streak, the Montreal Impact will be eliminated from post-season play. If Minnesota beats Carolina next weekend, the Stars clinch the sixth and final playoff spot, no matter what the Montreal Impact does in its final game of the season, a road date against last-place Atlanta.

RailHawks coach Martin Rennie has a quandary; no coach would want his team to continue its stale run. After all, how many times, in how many leagues, in how many different sports, have we seen a team run away with a regular-season title, pennant or division crown, shut it down, then not be able to fire it back up for the playoffs?

As well, Rennie will need to keep his players sharp. After the home date with Minnesota, the RailHawks get a bye through the first round of the playoffs, and nearly two weeks off.

But, then, there’s the matter of Montreal. The Impact is red-hot at the moment, earning 14 points out of the last 21 on the table. With the additions of MLS loaners Miguel Montano and Ryan Pore, the attack has been transformed. Evan Bush is the best keeper in NASL.

Pore was named the NASL’s Offensive Player of the Week Monday for his two-goal effort against FC Edmonton over the weekend.

“This honour is a reflection of the team’s success right now,” said Pore in a release issued by the club. “We have been getting some good results as of late and hopefully we will bring this confidence to Atlanta and get the win.”

But, wouldn’t it suit Carolina best to ensure that the team most likely to make a Cinderella run from a low seed didn’t make the playoffs at all?

The things that make you go hmm.

With Montreal facing the last-place team, NSC Minnesota knows that it can ask, but can’t depend on help from a spoiler. But, being a point up going into the final game, the Stars know they are in control of their destiny.

Or should that be… the RailHawks are in control of that destiny? Carolina already played a part in the race by losing to Montreal last week.

No doubt, there are some general managers in NASL who are hoping that Carolina Railhawks coach Martin Rennie decides to give NASL leading scorer Etienne Barbara the day off. From scuttlebutt around the league, you can’t shake the feeling that the Impact’s acquisition of players like Pore and Montano on loan from MLS clubs late in the season didn’t quite rub the other NASL teams the right way.

What the Impact did was legal. And above-board. But, there were many eyebrows raised that the Impact got some, ahem, impact players from MLS. With the Impact going to MLS next year and struggling in NASL — then getting help from various MLS sources — well, that got the conspiracy theorists out. After all, young players are usually sent on loan for full seasons, so they can develop; they don’t go in late-season deals.

Next year, with no Div. 2 clubs making imminent moves to MLS, there won’t be any conspiracy theories over loans. (That is, if the United States Soccer Federation approves NASL as a Div.-2 league next season.) But, going forward, it might bring some legitimacy to the process if there was some kind of allocation process in NASL about MLS players moving into the league mid-season; the same way MLS deals with bringing in guys coming back to North America from Europe.

But, how much would it endear Rennie to Vancouver Whitecaps fans — he’s taking over as coach there in 2012, after the side took a mulligan on its 2011 expansion season — if he helped ensure that the Impact didn’t make the playoffs? There’s no love lost between Impact and Whitecaps’ supporters — and Vancouver fans would see a Carolina loss this weekend as just desserts for 2009, when the Impact sent out a weakened lineup in the final game of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship and lost 6-1 to Toronto FC, giving the Reds the NCC on goal difference over the Whitecaps, who could only helplessly watch the Impact’s kids get ripped apart.

The two key matches kick off at the same time; at 7 p.m. ET this Saturday.

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