By JOHN BOSCHINI
The NASL will be somewhat shorthanded heading into the final month of the regular season with 14 players out for international duty.
Among the notable players that will be absent are Puerto Rico's Jonathan Fana (Dominican Republic), Chris Nurse (Guyana) with Fort Lauderdale's Cristian Arrieta leading a sizable chunk of players set to represent Puerto Rico. Unaffected by the break are FC Edmonton, Minnesota and the charging Montreal Impact.
The Impact are only three points off moving into sixth place for the final playoff spot but will have to deal with some off-field distractions. Forward Mignane Diouf was arrested at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport last weekend for allegedly stealing a pair of headphones valued at $600. The Senegalese native could face deportation if convicted but the Associated Press is reporting charges have yet to be filed. Regardless, Diouf has been one of Montreal's few offensive producers and face an uphill battle should he need to be replaced.
The Puerto Rico Islanders have gained some ground in their monumental task of chasing down the Carolina Railhawks for the top seed in the playoffs but those odds got a little bit longer following a midweek draw with FC Edmonton. Edmonton, despite sitting in fourth place, is far from safe with only five points separating them from their cross-country rivals.
Here is a look ahead at all the weekend's games
FC Tampa Bay at Carolina Railhawks (Saturday, 7:00)
FC Tampa Bay will be hoping to take advantage of a Railhawks squad that might be tempted with complacency after all but securing the number one seed.
Mike Ambersley is coming off a three-goal August to raise his season total to 11, good for second in the league. Also keeping Tampa Bay in the playoff hunt is rookie goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, who notched two shutouts in August. One more win all but assures Tampa Bay's place in the playoffs.
However, Carolina has shown no signs of a dramatic drop-off after its dominating midseason form. Etienne Barbara is still the league's most dominant striker with 20 goals on the season and the Railhawks are unbeaten in their last three games.
Puerto Rico Islanders at Atlanta Silverbacks (Saturday, 7:30)
Puerto Rico will be struggling with nine players missing on international duty, including NASL third-leading goal scorer Fana. Luckily for the second-placed Islanders, Atlanta hasn't won since July 24th and has run up six-game losing streak.
Atlanta is playing for little more than pride at this point. If the Silverbacks are to challenge in 2012, their offense will rely heavily on Matt Horth, who has scored six goals this season.
Montreal Impact at Fort Lauderdale Strikers (Saturday, 7:30)
The Montreal Impact have surged into playoff contention on the back of new signing Sinisa Ubiparipovic. The Bosnian native has scored three goals in the month of August fueling Montreal's new-found offense. Fort Lauderdale, on the other hand, will be without Arrieta and will rely heavily on defense in order to compete.
The two teams have drawn three times this season, managing a combined two goals during the contests, so the winner will take sole possession of sixth place.
NSC Minnesota Stars at FC Edmonton (Saturday, 9:30)
A win for either team would go a long way towards easing the fear posed by charging Montreal.
Edmonton has won only once since June 26 and even though coasting into the playoffs seems likely, it's not the form Harry Sinkgraven's men want heading into the fall. The NSC Minnesota Stars are in a similar predicament with a seemingly impermeable home form falling off sharply with two consecutive losses.
What do you think of the weekend's fixtures? Can Montreal return to the playoff picture? Is Edmonton in a must-win position? Concerned about Carolina getting complacent?
Share your thoughts below.