Why The NASL Playoff Push Will Be So DramaticThe Cosmos are in the playoffs, but the other 10 clubs all have a shot at the postseason
by Ray Marcham | Friday, September 04, 2015
It’s now September, and the playoff push in the North American Soccer League is well underway.
Of course, making the playoffs in the NASL is much different than in the USL or MLS. The winner of the much shorter Spring Season is already in, and positioning for the Fall Season, and the overall table, is already happening.
In the NASL, four teams make “The Championship”, as the league calls its postseason. That’s four out of 11 clubs, but how those four get is an adventure.
One might be bewildered by how the NASL does their playoffs. With a split season format more often seen in minor league baseball and Latin American soccer leagues, clubs have three chances to make the postseason. A team gets in by either winning the Spring Season, winning the Fall Season, or by having the best overall record but not winning either half of the NASL season. But if the spring champion also wins the Fall Season, then the three teams with the best overall records throughout both seasons get into the playoffs.
The overall records of the four playoff teams are how the seeding is determined. Then #1 plays #4 in a home-and-home, while #2 plays #3, and the winners of those play in the Soccer Bowl, with the higher-seeded team being the host.
The interesting part of this format is the distinct difference in length between the two “halves”. The Spring Season lasted just 10 matches, with each of the NASL’s 11 clubs playing each other once from April until June. The Fall Season has 20 games, with a double round robin format that started in July and goes into late October.
This means that the winner of the NASL Spring Season, the New York Cosmos, is already in The Championship. They clinched that back in June, edging out Tampa Bay by a single point (New York had 20 points in 10 matches). The Cosmos also lead the overall standings, as they are up on Minnesota United and Ottawa by 7 points, and are likely not to get caught there.
However, Ottawa is on top of the Fall Season standings with 21 points in 10 matches, with the Cosmos 2 points back and Atlanta and Minnesota United 3 points behind. If the Cosmos pass the Fury to win the Fall Season, than it becomes the three best overall records getting into the playoffs, with Minnesota United, Ottawa and Fort Lauderdale currently in those positions.
However, the Strikers are level on overall points with Tampa Bay, one point up on Atlanta, three up on Edmonton and four ahead of Jacksonville. The Rowdies are that close despite being last in the fall standings, and the Silverbacks are that close despite finishing last in the spring standings. Thus, the two sides have not been punished by their lack of form in parts of the split season (though Tampa Bay has fired their coach, Thomas Rongen, and their general manager, Farrukh Quraishi, in late August).
While Minnesota United and Fort Lauderdale have not been near the top of the standings, their steady play (compared to other NASL teams) has them in position for spots in The Championship. The Loons finished fourth in the spring (level on points with third-place Carolina) and moved up to third in the fall standings (from fifth) after defeating Indy Eleven on Wednesday night. Fort Lauderdale finished eighth in the spring, but is fourth in the fall as September began.
Of course, there is still plenty of time to shake up the standings. The bottom three clubs in the combined table, Carolina, Indy Eleven and San Antonio, are all within six points of Fort Lauderdale for the last spot in The Championship. If they start on a good run, then they can move up quickly in the overall table, though a shot at the Fall Season crown may be out of reach.
That’s the quirk of the NASL schedule. The first 10 matches are the Spring Season, and it’s a sprint to determine the champion and the holder of the first playoff spot. The second 10 matches are only half of the Fall Season, a chance for teams to either break out on top and work towards winning that title (as Ottawa has) or working to establish a solid position in the overall table to make a run for one of the playoff spots reserved for the clubs with the best number of points since the spring season began.
That means the final 10 matches are important on two fronts. First, there’s the battle at the top, with Ottawa, New York, Atlanta and Minnesota all fighting for first place, with Fort Lauderdale and Edmonton within shouting distance. Then there’s the battle for playoff positioning, with the Cosmos already in and the Fury, Loons and Strikers trying to play well enough to hold off the other seven teams in the league for the other three spots in The Championship.
So, in short, all 11 teams in the NASL still have a chance at the postseason. The Cosmos are already in, and are working to win not only the Fall Season, but top the overall standings and host the Soccer Bowl. Ottawa leads the Fall Season, but aren’t assured of anything yet. There are just six points separating fourth-place Fort Lauderdale and 11th-place San Antonio in the overall standings.
For all of the controversy that the league is mired in, especially off the field, the NASL is setting up for a very good finish. The season may be uneven, but every club still can believe that they can lift the Soccer Bowl trophy in November.
And, for any league in any sport, that’s never a bad situation to have.