By TRAVIS CLARK
It's been a long season in the USSF Division 2, and soon enough, a second division champion will be crowned.
Playoff action begins Wednesday evening, as eight teams vie for the championship. The next few weeks will be a rigorous test of travel adaptability and each club's depth, as the eventual winner will have to navigate through six games in order to emerge victorious.
Each round will be two legs, with each side hosting (final included) — away goals won't be used as a tie-breaker. Standard overtime rules of two 15 minute halves will come into effect if the two sides are tied after both games, and penalty kicks to determine a winner if needed.
Five teams have to be considered favorites — Rochester, Austin, Carolina, Portland and Vancouver. They comprise the top five seeds in the playoffs, with the latter two squaring off against each other in the quarterfinals. That's not reducing chances of the other three teams, but the aforementioned clubs have enjoyed the most consistent regular seasons, and boast the deepest and most talented squads.
Here's a look at the USSF D-2 quarterfinal matchups:
No. 7 NSC Minnesota Stars vs. No. 2 Carolina Railhawks, October 6 and 10
As the only expansion side to make the playoffs — though only by a technicality were the Stars a new team — NSC Minnesota managed to succeed with a limited budget and a hard-working core of players. Devin Del Do and Simone Bracelello seem to have developed a strong attacking understanding towards the end of the season and represent Minnesota's best chance of springing the upset.
They'll face a stiff test against perennial second division side Carolina, entering the playoffs in search of the club's first-ever championship. This team is built to succeed in the playoffs as well — a strong attack is balanced out by a quality defense. Etienne Barbara was one of the best acquisitions of the season, and his goal-scoring instincts must come into play.
Interestingly enough, a late season loan acquisition could be the Railhawks' secret weapon. Tom Heinemann, on loan from USL-2 side Charleston Battery, has an outside shot at winning both the third and second division titles in one calender year. Heinemann has scored four goals in just six games with his new club and could be the additional offensive option Carolina needs to taste postseason success.
Regular Season: Minnesota 1-0 Carolina; Minnesota 1-0 Carolina
Key Players: Minnesota- Devin Del Do, Simone Bracelello, Kyle Altman; Carolina- Etienne Barbara, Tom Heinemann, Daniel Paladini
Prediction (total for both legs): Railhawks 4, Minnesota 2
No. 6 Montreal Impact vs. No. 3 Austin Aztex, October 6 and 9
For the longest time the Aztex sat at the top spot of USSF D-2; only a late season losing streak saw them fall off the top spot. Their high-powered offense finished at the top of the league with 53 goals, led by the trio of Eddie Johnson, Jamie Watson and Maxwell Griffin will be a handful for Montreal to deal with. Johnson remains an injury concern after suffering a concussion towards the end of the regular season, and if he isn't
The experience of Montreal can't be discounted, and the addition of Ali Gerba has proven to be a tremendous piece of business — the former Toronto FC striker scored 9 goals in 13 games and needs to be in form for the Impact to have a chance.
Austin's defense hasn't been a strong point this year, and with Yohance Marshall's recall to the Galaxy, goalie Miguel Gallardo will need a big series if the Aztex plan on making it to the semifinals.
Regular Season: Austin 2-0 Montreal; Montreal 2-0 Austin
Key Players: Montreal- Ali Gerba, Tony Donatelli, Leonardo Dilorenzo; Austin- Jamie Watson, Eddie Johnson, Maxwell Griffin, Miguel Gallardo
Prediction: Montreal 5, Austin 4
No. 5 Vancouver Whitecaps vs. No. 4 Portland Timbers
The Northwest rivalry will get one final chance in the second division spotlight. There's very little separating these two teams — both have talented rosters, as each side has stockpiled and scouted talent to possibly bring to MLS in 2011.
Bright Dike and Ryan Pore are two players who have earned that shot, and they give the Timbers a creative, attacking edge heading into the playoff series. Both have a chance at featuring next season, but the focus is on winning the series at hand.
Over the course of four regular season meetings, the Timbers held the slight advantage going 2-0-2. All season long, the Whitecaps have had trouble scoring goals on a regular basis — now is the chance to prove that they can trouble opposing defenses. Cody Arnoux, recently acquired after a stint in Europe, has a chance to make his mark as he continues to audition for 2011.
Regular Season: Portland 2-1 Vancouver; Portland 0-0 Vancouver; Portland 2-1 Vancouver; Vancouver 2-2 Portland
Key Players: Portland- Bright Dike, Ryan Pore, Steve Cronin; Vancouver- Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Cody Arnoux, Martin Nash
Prediction: Portland 3, Vancouver 2
No. 8 Puerto Rico Islanders vs. No. 1 Rochester Rhinos, October 7 and 9
If there's one thing certain about the Puerto Rico Islanders, it's they're a tough team to beat at home. On the road is another thing, but the key for Puerto Rico is jumping out to a lead on October 7, then hanging on for dear life back in Rochester.
Nicholas Addlery's health is a big concern as well — if the former D.C. United striker can't go against Rochester, the scoring load falls on David Foley's shoulders. Even without Addlery, and entering as the bottom seed in the playoffs, the Islanders can't be counted out — Los Angeles Galaxy fans will reinforce that suggestion.
Besting the Rhinos will prove tough, obviously. The decision to blow up the team and bring in a number of new faces has proved fruitful; now head coach Bob Lilley can turn his attention on two games against the Islanders. Speedy attacker Isaac Kissi has flourished at times for Rochester, and as the team's leading scorer will undoubtedly be a focal point of the attack.
Winning efficiently has summed up the Rhinos' season — they finished with the best goal differential in the league — and they have the right pieces in place to start a long playoff run against Puerto Rico.
Regular Season: Rhinos 3-0 Islanders; Islanders 3-1 Rhinos
Key Players: Puerto Rico- David Foley, Bill Gaudette; Rochester- Isaac Kissi, Frankie Sanfillipo, Troy Roberts
Prediction: Rochester 4, Puerto Rico 2
What do you think about the USSF D-2 quarterfinals? Which team is going to win it all?
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