The 2014 NASL season kicks off for most of the league on Saturday, so today we're taking a look at what the rest of the league has to offer. Earlier today we looked at the league's two expansion teams, and our second installment will see us take a look at some of the clubs I believe will fail to contend this season.
Overall, the quality of the NASL looks to have made a significant jump this winter. Ottawa Fury FC have joined the league and look to have one of the best rosters around, while several decent sides from last season appear to have improved considerably. There are three returning sides didn't do enough this winter to convince me that they'll be in the playoff hunt though, and I think we'll see these three struggle in 2014.
Atlanta reached the Soccer Bowl last season on the strength of a great spring, but struggled enough during the fall season that they let their manager go despite playing for a title. Honestly, I felt that last season's success was largely built on smoke and mirrors, and that a hot stretch early on helped them take advantage of the split season format to earn a Soccer Bowl berth.
Since the end of last season, the SIlverbacks have seen their best overall player leave for San Antonio, while both of their top scorers have departed the club as well. The only significant addition to the squad appears to be 26-year old Deon McCaulay, who has done little of not in his professional career but was excellent for Belize during their World Cup qualifying campaign.
To manage the squad, Atlanta settled on FOX analyst Eric Wynalda. Given that Wynalda is still splitting time between his two jobs, it's hard to imagine this being an ideal situation. On the plus side, many of the players he's recruited have worked with him before, even if most fans have never heard of them. Wynalda also brings name recognition to the club, something they won't be getting from their roster.
In the end, Atlanta's roster appears to be among the least formidable in the league, and I can't imagine this arrangement with Wynalda ends up working on the pitch. It's hard to find any reason to believe they won't be closer to the bottom than the top, especially over the course of 27 games.
Edmonton were a very consistent team in 2013, finishing fifth out of seven teams in the spring, while finishing sixth out of eight in the fall. Excluding the Cosmos, Edmonton finished with the lowest goals against total in both the spring and fall seasons individually, allowing a total of just 26 goals in 26 games. Unfortunately, they only scored 26 goals last season, the worst total in the NASL.
While the club did add three players that should improve their attack in Ritchie Jones, Frank Jonke, and Tomi Ameobi, they'll need to drastically alter their approach in order to best utilize that trio. Edmonton sent most of 2013 playing ten men behind the ball, looking to attack only when the opportunity presented itself. This probably made the defensive unit look better than it actually was, while making the offense look terrible.
While this team could surprise a bit and possibly push for the fourth spot, I'd be very surprised to see them finish far above Atlanta and Indy. Their conservative approach last season just makes it hard to predict how they'll look if they open up a bit, and if they continue to play the same defensive style they utilised last season, they just won't secure enough wins to push the league's better teams.
Fort Lauderdale Strikers
The Strikers struggled last year, winning only seven times over the course of the two seasons combined. They were only marginally better than FC Edmonton at finding the net, scoring just 28 goals in their 26 games. Unlike the Canadian side, the Strikers were much, much better during the fall, leaving fans a glimmer of hope that they'll be competitive in 2014.
The winter saw Fort Lauderdale tread water to some extent. Their best player, Walter Restrepo, left the club to join San Antonio. I really like the addition of Marius Ebbers though, and feel he could more than make up for the loss of Restrepo. Chris Nurse is also a nice addition.
While the Strikers showed enough improvement during the fall season for fans to be hopeful, most of the teams that finished above them seemed to have done more this winter to improve their rosters. I feel like this club has a better chance to impress than any of Indy, Edmonton, or Atlanta, but I still believe they'll fall well short of a serious playoff push.