By JOHN BOSCHINI
A rematch of last season's USSF Division 2 final headlines the debut weekend in the NASL.
The Carolina Railhawks welcome defending champions Puerto Rico Islanders as both teams look to build upon last year's success with mostly rebuilt squads. The Montreal Impact, which will play in its only NASL opener before moving on to MLS, faces off against FC Tampa Bay.
The Atlanta Silverbacks return to the field after a two-year absence with a home matchup against NSC Minnesota Stars. Also making its debut is FC Edmonton with a long trip south to face the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.
All four games kick off at either 7:00 or 7:30 on Saturday.
Here are previews for all four games.
NASL WEEK ONE
Carolina RailHawks vs. Puerto Rico Islanders (Saturday, 7:00)
After their impressive run to the title last season, many forgot that the Islanders were a fairly abject side during the regular season with a record of 9-11-10, barely qualifying for the playoffs. The loss of goalkeeper Bill Gaudette is a huge loss and this could be the first test of new keeper Richard Martin.
The Railhawks have had a tumultuous off-season and a skilled but unfamiliar squad takes the field in Cary on Saturday. If Carolina has developed some chemistry and the fans in Cary turn out in force, the Railhawks are in a good position to open their season with a victory.
Prediction: Carolina Railhawks 2, PR Islanders 1
FC Tampa Bay vs. Montreal Impact (Saturday, 7:00)
FC Tampa Bay had a difficult time keeping the ball out of the back of its net last season, conceding 46 goals in 2010. That'll have to change if FC Tampa Bay is going to start off on the right foot with new defenders Andres Arrango and Frankie Sanfilippo.
Leading the Impact's attack is Ali Gerba, who scored 13 goals in 17 appearances last season. It will be interesting to see how the Impact deals with the lengthy trip from Montreal to Florida for a season debut.
Prediction:FC Tampa Bay 1, Montreal 1
Atlanta Silverbacks vs. NSC Minnesota Stars (Saturday, 7:30)
Atlanta makes a long-anticipated return to the field on Saturday but only time will tell if the time off has been well used. The Silverbacks are extremely young and inexperienced which will lead to some woefully inconsistent performances. It's possible that a home crowd could do some good but it's unlikely to overcome some of Atlanta's shortcomings.
Minnesota, while trying to incorporate a few replacements of its own, comes into 2011 with a fairly intact and familiar squad. It's no stranger to Division 2 play and if the Stars can remain calm and dictate pace, they should win easily.
Prediction:NSC Minnesota Stars 2, Atlanta Silverbacks 0
Ft. Lauderdale Strikers vs. FC Edmonton, (Saturday, 7:30)
What better way to start off an expansion side full of unknown youngsters? A several-thousand mile trip to South Florida should do the trick. As with any expansion side, the debut game is notoriously unpredictable. Will the excitement of taking the field for the first time paper over the lack of cohesion and experience.
Ft. Lauderdale has high hopes for this season and it will be important to get off to a good start at home. Their defense is virtually the same from last season and a couple of key additions up top make te Strikers a well-balanced side.
Predicition:Ft. Lauderdale Strikers 3, FC Edmonton 0
What do you think of this weekend's fixtures? Excited about a rematch of last season's title game? Can either of the Canadian teams provide a shock down south?
Share your thoughts below