The Super-Duper NASL spring season preview By Steven Sandor Posted on April 2, 2013 1 0 1,180 Share on Facebook Share on Twitter The 2012 NASL season ended with one of the most exciting finals that either MLS, NASL or USL has seen. In the second leg of the final, the Tampa Bay Rowdies erased a two-goal first-leg deficit, then held on through extra time with only 10 men. The Rowdies then rode goalie Jeff Attinella as they beat the then-named Minnesota Stars in penalty kicks. The Stars have changed their name to Minnesota United FC, and Attinella has left for MLS. NASL has now changed formats, and the two-leg finale is now history. But, as we get ready for this weekend’s kickoff to the NASL spring season, the Rowdies and MUFC are the clear favourites to top the table. Under the new format, the team that wins the spring title will host the winner of the fall title in November’s Soccer Bowl. If the same team wins the spring and fall sessions, then the team with the next-best overall record will be the road team in the final. The Puerto Rico Islanders are on hiatus, and the expansion New York Cosmos don’t enter the league till the fall season. So, the spring season will see each team play a schedule that’s basically a 14-game sprint. A slow start to the season means that a team is using its late May and June schedules to see what it needs to do to be more competitive in the fall. With a new owner, MUFC made some significant signings; while the Rowdies return a core of players to the lineup, with the addition of some NASL veterans. Can a new-look FC Edmonton get off the bottom of the table? Can San Antonio open its new stadium with a team that befits the Scorpions’ rabid fan base? Can the RailHawks improve on what was a porous defence in 2012? We present the teams in alphabetical order. ATLANTA SILVERBACKS Maybe the most significant change the Silverbacks made in the offseason was the introduction of a new logo. But fans decided against going back to the club’s old ‘70s NASL name, the Chiefs. But, for a team that finished second-last in the league last season, it’s disturbing that the topic of conversation is the players it lost — not the players it’s brought in. Matt Horth, the team’s offensive sparkplug last year, is now wth the New England Revolution, and midfield playmaker Ciaran O’Brien went to Carolina. There is still talk around the league how Atlanta simply doesn’t have the budget to bring in players. VERDICT: Hard to see this team finishing outside of the cellar in spring, 2013. CAROLINA RAILHAWKS Last season, even after losing the strike force of Pablo Campos and Etienne Barbara, scoring goals wasn’t an issue for the RailHawks. But keeping them out was a big problem, as the team finished tied for last in the league in goals against and gave up eight in a game to San Antonio. Getting NASL Best XI central defender Paul Hamilton is the key piece. The ex-FCE defender was cut and now will be asked to be the field general for the RailHawks, a job which won’t be easy. The RailHawks will need a lot from ex-MLS and Toronto FC defender Julius James, who will be asked to help the backline. Ray Burse, who struggled in goal last year, is gone, and Akira Fitzgerald takes over as the No. 1. As well, Nick Addlery, the dynamic midfielder, is a big pickup from the Puerto Rico mess. VERDICT: Is there an improvement in the back to see this team move from NASL’s second tier to being able to battle with the likes of Minnesota and Tampa Bay? No. Wes Knight FC EDMONTON New coach Colin Miller made it clear that he was wiping the slate clean. He inherited a club that finished last in the league last season, struggled on set pieces, and scored the fewest goals. He then made the decision to cut defender Paul Hamilton, who was the sole Eddie to make the NASL Best XI last year. A rebuilt defensive core will see former Northern Ireland U21 captain Albert Watson partner Carlyle Mitchell, on loan from the Whitecaps. That partnership is delayed, as Watson deals with a torn MCL in his right knee. But the real key will be seeing how the NASL vets the team has brought in — midfielders Neil Hlavaty and Chris Nurse, plus defenders Wes Knight, Lance Laing and Edson Edward — can bolster the lineup. VERDICT: Because of budget and climate, almost all of the Eddies’ preseason was played indoors on a small field. The preseason schedule was lean. With so many changes, we will be watching a work in progress this spring, with a better idea of what this team can do in the fall session. FORT LAUDERDALE STRIKERS Midfielder Mark Anderson just may be the best player in NASL. An outstanding playmaker and shooter, he was a revelation last season. But, who will give him support? A week away from the season, and the Strikers’ roster page on the club’s wesbite still had a bunch of “TBA” slots in defence and goal. Andy Herron is a nice option up front, but the veteran has a real issue with staying healthy. Bulgarian striker Stefan Dimitrov is on loan from the Cosmos, so will go back to New York in July. Ex-Impact veteran defender Shavar Thomas will join ex-MLSers Scott Gordon and Toni Stahl in the back, but there’s very little depth. VERDICT: Too many holes. Too many questions. Club could struggle this spring session. Pablo Campos MINNESOTA UNITED FC As the Stars, they won the title in 2011 and then got to the finale in 2012. But, in both seasons, they did at as low-seed playoff Cinderellas. Now, with the new win-or-else format, the new MUFC will need to bring consistency to its reputation of being big-game overachievers. New ownership opened the pocketbooks. Etienne Barbara won the 2011 NASL MVP and scoring title when he partnered with Pablo Campos in Carolina. He came to MUFC after spending 2012 with the Whitecaps and then managing to wriggle out of a promise to sign with FC Edmonton. Campos, who won the scoring title and MVP in 2012 in San Antonio also came on board. And, almost in retaliation for FCE signing holding midfielder Neil Hlavaty, MUFC went out and grabbed midfielder Bryan Arguez, who spent a good part of last year on loan to the Eddies. VERDICT: On paper, this is the best team in NASL. But with Campos, Barbara and Arguez comes a massive shift in philosophy. Minnesota used to beat you with hard work and teamwork. Now, this is a team that will have to massage some egos. Campos and Barbara have won individual awards, but they haven’t proved they can win NASL titles. They’re very good players, but aren’t seen as being very good teammates. The question. Will talent win over chemistry? SAN ANTONIO SCORPIONS The Scorpions finished atop the table in 2012, playing on the small pitch and awful turf at their temporary home at Heroes Stadium. Now, with the brand-new Toyota Field on the ready, will playing on a proper pitch be an equalizer that brings the team back to the pack? But what’s an issue is the feeling around NASL that, with the stadium now in place, it is being used to sell pro soccer in San Antonio rather than spending some bucks on the team. The club lost league MVP Pablo Campos and minute-eating fullback Wes Knight. The team lost keeper Daryl Sattler to Minnesota. VERDICT: The field better be first-class, because the team won’t be. Really, the second year will feel a lot more like an expansion season in San Antonio than year one did. TAMPA BAY ROWDIES The defending champs had maybe the best preseason prep of an NASL team, including games in the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic against MLS opposition. While the other NASL clubs put together preseason programs based on playing local club or college/university teams, the Rowdies got some work in. Mike Ambersley will score goals for the defending champs (as soon as he’s back in the lineup; he’s coming off a sprained MCL), and Luke Mulholland is one of the better attacking midfielders in the league. Also, the Rowdies brought in some NASL depth, with ex-Minnesota strikers Devin Del Do and Amani Walker now in the fold. They will add size to the attack. Also, the Rowdies grabbed Jay Needham from Puerto Rico, a team that isn’t playing in 2013. VERDICT: The only real question for the Rowdies is in goal. Jeff Attinella left for Real Salt Lake, and the unproven Andrew Fontein is the new No. 1. Because of that, the Rowdies might just be a rung below Minnesota when it comes to being the NASL Soccer Bowl favourite.