By IVES GALARCEP
The 2014 NASL season kicks off on Saturday, and the growing league has plenty to be exited about heading into a new year.
The arrivals of expansion teams Indy Eleven and FC Ottawa will increase the league’s size to 10 teams, and Indy has already done an excellent job of creating buzz in a soccer hotbed.
Established teams are doing their part to generate interest in the new season, with the New York Cosmos looking every bit like a runaway favorite to follow up their Fall title, and Soccer Bowl championship, with a spring title. Marcos Senna is back and ready to lead a revamped squad.
The San Antonio Scorpions will do their best to try and catch the Cosmos, and a roster overhaul has the Scorpions looking like the best bet to knock off the favored Cosmos.
Minnesota United was expected to be a title contender as well, but the loss of top striker Pablo Campos to a serious knee injury will put a dent into Minnesota’s title chances.
The Carolina Railhawks won’t garner much title consideration after losing NASL Golden Boot winner Brian Shriver, but Colin Clarke’s side is more than capable of making a charge at the top of the league.
If you are looking for a dark horse, look no further than Tampa Bay, which made some major acquisitions in Matt Pickens and Brian Shriver that should have the Rowdies pushing for a Top Four place.
Here is a look at how all 10 NASL teams look heading into the new season, with SBI’s pre-season NASL Power Rankings and team previews:
NASL TEAM PREVIEWS (And SBI’s Pre-Season NASL Power Rankings)
1. NEW YORK COSMOS
2013 Record - 9-4-1
Head Coach - Giovanni Savarese
Key Players – Marcos Senna, Danny Szetela, Hans Denissen
Newcomer to Watch - Mads Stokkelien
Outlook - The New York Cosmos lived up to expectations in year one, but now it’s a matter of avoiding the sophomore slump in year two.
The Cosmos management made a point to bring back nearly the entire squad that lead the team to their first Soccer Bowl championship in 31 years. The club are returning their core of Marcos Senna and Danny Szetela in the middle, Carlos Mendes and Roversio in defense, Diomar Diaz and Sebastian Guenzatti along the wings, and even forward Stefan Dimitrov up top.
That being said, there were some additions and subtractions of note this winter. Starting goalkeeper Kyle Reynish parlayed his successful season with the Cosmos into a job with the Chicago Fire, while reserve forwards Satoru Kashiwase and Henry Lopez were let go in order to sign former NASL Best XI Hans Denissen and Norwegian forward Mads Stokkelien. The Cosmos also made some moves with Major League Soccer, loaning Andre Lewis to the Vancouver Whitecaps via the MLS Draft and acquiring Seattle Sounders draft pick, defender Jimmy Ockford.
The Cosmos start and end with Senna. The 37-year-old was tied for the team lead in goals scored last season with five and proved to be one of the fittest players on the team despite his age. Even without speaking the same language, Senna and Szetela were able to form a cohesive unit in the middle of the park, enabling the 4-2-3-1 formation used by Savarese to work as he had expected.
2. SAN ANTONIO SCORPIONS
2013 Record- 9-14-3
Head Coach- Alen Marcina
Key Players- F Eric Hassli, GK David Bingham, M Walter Restrepo, D Adrian Cann
Newcomer to Watch- M Richie Menjivar
Outlook- The Scorpions were very busy in the offseason. After losing lead strikers Hans Denisson to the Cosmos, San Antonio proceeded to revamp their roster with 14 new players, including a pair of loanees from the MLS San Jose Earthquakes.
The most high-profile offseason addition was French striker Eric Hassli, who joins the Scorpions after stints with Toronto FC, Vancouver and FC Dallas in MLS.
San Antonio’s midfield should be considerably improved with the additions of Walter Restrepo and Richie Menjivar.
Defensively, top goalkeeping prospect David Bingham joins on loan from San Jose and should take over the starting role. The back-line will be led by Canadian veteran Adrian Cann, who is back in action after taking a year off, and Julius James, who joins the Scorpions from Carolina.
3. INDY ELEVEN
2013 Record- NA
Head Coach- Juergen Sommer
Key Players - M Kleberson, F Pedro Mendes, D Erick Norales, GK Kristian Nicht
Newcomer to Watch - F Ben Spencer
Outlook- For an expansion team, the Indy Eleven have compiled the kind of talent that could make them a top four team this spring, and a potential title contender by the Fall. The signing of Brazilian World Cup winner Kleberson was the most high-profile addition of the NASL offseason, and if he can provide the type of quality he showed in spurts with the Philadelphia Union last year, the Eleven could be a real threat.
Goalkeeper Kristian Nicht and Honduran defender Erick Norales give Indy a solid defensive foundation, while the addition of former Chivas USA defender Jamie Frias and return from injury by Chris Estridge could give Indy a formidable defense.
The Indy Eleven attack will be spearheaded by former Atlanta standout Pedro Mendes and NASL veteran Michael Ambersley, as well as youngster Ben Spencer, who has joined Indy on loan from Norwegian side Molde.
4. MINNESOTA UNITED
2013 Record- 11-8-7 in 2013
Head Coach- Manny Lagos
Key Players- M Miguel Ibarra, D Tiago Calvano, M Aaron Pitchkolan, GK Matt Van Oelken.
Newcomer to Watch- F/M Jamie Watson.
Outlook- The loss of standout striker Pablo Campos to a major knee injury puts a serious dent in Minnesota’s title hopes, but there is still enough talent to give the club a strong chance of a Top Four finish.
Miguel Ibarra will be the focal point of the attack, but the NASL Best XI selection should have some help from the dangerous Watson, who joins Minnesota from Orlando City.
How far Minnesota goes will depend largely on how good their trio of Brazilian newcomers are. Calvano is being called on to anchor the defense while Daniel Mendes is expected to provide some playmaking qualities in central midfield. Also facing pressure is forward Christian Ramirez, who must pick up the slack for the injured Campos.
5. CAROLINA RAILHAWKS
2013 Record- 12-7-7
Head Coach- Colin Clarke
Key Players- GK Akira Fitzgerald, M Jun Marques Davidson, D Kupono Low, M Cesar Elizondo, M Enzo Martinez.
Newcomer to Watch- F Daniel Jackson
Outlook- The Railhawks are a perennially strong team in the NASL, but might be lacking the attacking firepower to mount a serious challenge to a title in 2014. The departure of NASL Golden Boot winner Brian Shriver leaves a void, though the Railhawks will be hoping some defensive upgrades help produce better results.
The return of two familiar faces should provide a boost for Carolina in midfielders Jun Marques Davidson and Nick Zimmerman. Davidson returns after a two-year stint in the NASL, while Zimmerman is still working his way back after sitting out 2013 with a major knee injury.
The addition of former Minnesota United defender Connor Tobin should help boost the Railhawks back-line, while the continued presence of the steady Akira Fitzgerald in goal will keep Carolina competitive even if the attack struggles out of the blocks. The pressure will be on Zack Schilawski to produce now that Shriver has moved on.
6. TAMPA BAY ROWDIES
2013 Record - 10-8-8
Head Coach - Ricky Hill
Key Players - GK Matt Pickens, F Giorgio Hristov, F Casey Townsend, M/D Anthony Wallace
Newcomer to Watch - F Brian Shriver
Outlook - While the offseason didn’t really affect the Tampa Bay Rowdies in a negative way, there will be a noticeable absence in the midfield once the season kicks off. Midfielder Luke Mulholland joining Real Salt Lake may cause some hurdles for Ricky Hill’s squad.
The arrival of NASL Golden Boot winner Brian Shriver in the offseason may give the St. Petersburg side that extra push in terms of goals. Shriver will more than likely pair up with forward Giorgi Hristov, who combined tallied 27 goals in 2013.
The Rowdies lost goalkeeper Diego Restrepo to a ruptured Achilles, but responded by signing former MLS Cup-winning goalkeeper Matt Pickens from the Colorado Rapids. Pickens should be the best goalkeeper in the NASL, giving the Rowdies defense a rock to anchor the back-line.
The additions of some other interesting MLS veterans in Darel Russell and Casey Townsend should give the Mutiny solid depth.
7. FC EDMONTON
2013 Record- 6-8-12
Head Coach- Colin Miller
Key Players- D Albert Watson, F Daryl Fordyce, M Milton Blanco, M Mike Banner
Newcomer to Watch- F Frank Jonke
Outlook- The Eddies boasted the stingiest defense in the league last year, but the team’s offseason moves were clearly aimed at boosting an attack that quite simply didn’t generate enough goals.
Canadian forward Frank Jonke joins Edmonton from the Finish First Division, where was a Best XI forward. A 6-foot-3 target striker, Jonke should form a good partnership with returning scoring leader Daryl Fordyce, who notched seven goals last season.
The Eddies made some solid midfield pick-ups as well, with former Atlanta standout Milton Blanco and MLS alum Mike Banner expected to provide upgrades.
8. ATLANTA SILVERBACKS
2013 Record- 10-9-7
Head Coach- Eric Wynalda
Key Players- GK Derby Carillo, D Mike Randolph, M Blair Gavin, F David Estrada
Newcomer to Watch- F Deon McCauley
Outlook- Though his title isn’t officially head coach, Eric Wynalda will lead the Silverbacks through the post-Brian Haynes era, and with many of the team’s top players from the 2013 Spring championship team now gone, Wynalda will have his hands full molding his new squad.
All three of the team’s 2013 NASL Best XI selections have moved on, including star goalkeeper Joe Nasco (now with the Colorado Rapids). Wynalda has turned to a familiar face in Derby Carillo, who was in goal for Wynalda on the fabled Cal FC team that made a memorable U.S. Open Cup run in 2012.
The Silverbacks attack could be even more dangerous this season, with the arrival of David Estrada on loan from the Seattle Sounders, and Belize National Team star Deon McCauley. How former MLS midfielder Blair Gavin does in central midfield will be key as he looks to replace Best XI midfielder Richie Menjivar, who is now with San Antonio.
9. FORT LAUDERDALE STRIKERS
2013 Record - 7-5-14
Head Coach - Gunter Kronsteiner
Key Players - D Ivan Guerrero, GK Oka Nikolov, M Martin Nunez, M Chris Nurse
Newcomer to Watch - Forward Marius Ebbers
Outlook - 2013 was a rocky season for the Strikers. A last place finish in the spring season and a coaching staff change brought more questions than answers. The appointing of Gunter Kronsteiner last summer left several, if not all, with optimism for the future. While the 2013 fall season didn’t bring any success, it did highlight where the troubles were.
With goalkeeper Richard Sanchez’s loan from FC Dallas now over, the Strikers were able to fill that void by bringing in former Eintracht Frankfurt goalkeeper Oka Nikolov during the offseason. Kronsteiner’s German influence was felt again when he added another former Frankfurt player Marius Ebbers, who will look to spark an attack that was one of the weakest in the NASL last year.
The Strikers added some other promising newcomers in winger Fafa Picault and midfielder Chris Nurse, who joins from FC Edmonton.
10. OTTAWA FURY FC
2013 Record- NA
Head Coach- Marc Dos Santos
Key Players- F Tom Heinemann, M Richie Ryan, F Vini Dantas, M Sinisa Ubiparipovic
Newcomer to Watch- D Drew Beckie
Outlook- Dos Santos has a good coaching pedigree, having previously led the Montreal Impact to a USL title in 2009, but this task of leading an NASL expansion team won’t be an easy one.
Former MLS forward Tom Heinemann will lead the attack, and could be partnered with former Molde striker Vini Dantas up top. Long-time MLS midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Irish midfielder Richie Ryan should give the Fury a competitive midfield.
Dos Santos will have to mold a young team that features a handful of members of the Canadian Under-23 Olympic Qualifying team that defeated the United States back in 2012, with Beckie, Philippe Davies and Carl Haworth all boasting good potential.