By JOHN BOSCHINI
ï»¿ï»¿ï»¿ï»¿ï»¿ï»¿After a grueling season spanning nearly six months and consisting of 27 games, it all comes down to the final weekend in the inaugural season of the NASL.
The NSC Minnesota Stars and the Montreal Impact enter the weekend in a fight for the final playoff spot, while FC Tampa Bay and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers jockey for third place. Minnesota holds a narrow lead over Montreal but faces a difficult road trip to Carolina, while Montreal should have little problem with the despondent Atlanta Silverbacks.
Should Minnesota lose and Montreal tie, the Impact would go through on goal difference, because the two sides split their four contests. Fort Lauderdale and Tampa Bay meet on Saturday with the winner taking third place. Tampa Bay would finish in third should a tie occur.
The Puerto Rico Islanders and FC Edmonton have already wrapped up their regular seasons, finishing in second and fifth place, respectively.
Here is a look ahead at the final weekend of action in the NASL:
Fort Lauderdale Strikers at FC Tampa Bay (Saturday, 7 p.m.)
On paper, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa Bay are remarkably similar. Both teams have marginally positive goal differentials, are matched at 38 points and would like to avoid playing FC Edmonton in the opening round.
Mike Ambersley and Aaron King have given FC Tampa Bay a potent offensive attack and face a Fort Lauderdale defense that has shown signs of massive improvement after a shaky first half. Tampa Bay has had some offensive success against Fort Lauderdale this season, scoring seven goals in three games.
NSC Minnesota Stars at Carolina Railhawks (Saturday, 7 p.m.)
Under normal circumstances, the Stars would be longshots to come into Carolina and grab three points, and, given Minnesota’s current form, the odds are still not in the Stars' favor. However, Carolina's form has plummeted after wrapping up the top seed in the playoffs, and the Railhawks will try and break a string of 1-0 losses.
Minnesota has won only once since the beginning of August and has conceded 12 goals in eight games, managing only one shutout. It will be interesting to see how the Railhawks approach their finale and whether or not key players will be rested or Carolina will try to enter the playoffs on a high note.
Montreal Impact at Atlanta Silverbacks (Saturday, 7 p.m.)
A month ago, this matchup would have been billed as little more than a meaningless battle between the two worst teams of the NASL. However, Montreal’s impressive run combined with Minnesota’s collapse upped the stakes on Saturday’s finale.
Atlanta has been playing like a team that has lost all interest after being eliminated from playoff contention. The Silverbacks did manage to get their first win of the season over Montreal but the Impact asserted dominance with a 4-0 rout last month. Atlanta has conceded a whopping 59 goals this season, so don’t expect a clean sheet against a Montreal offense that has found form and has everything to play for.
What do you think of this week's games? Do you predict Montreal or Minnesota making the playoffs? Do you see a winner in the FC Tampa Bay vs. the Fort Lauderdale Strikers? Does Carolina have anything to play for?
Share your thoughts below.