We've looked closely at what the Cosmos will look like in 2014, and concluded that they'll likely be among the better teams in the NASL again this season. We examined the two expansion clubs, and predicted that on will be quite good, while one is likely to struggle. After looking at the new clubs, we identified three rivals that we expect to struggle this year, leaving just four teams left to look at. Here are the four clubs we think could challenge New York and Ottawa for playoff spots this season:
Carolina were one of the more consistent clubs in the league last season. They finished one point behind Atlanta during the spring season before finishing second again in the fall, this time to New York. Had the new playoff format been in place last season, Carolina would have comfortably qualified for a semifinal. They should be in the thick of the hunt again.
The RailHawks didn't do anything too flashy this winter, though they certainly did enough to think they'll be a better side than they were last season. Top scorer Brian Shriver has left the club, but they added Conor Tobin and Jun Davidson to help solidify the midfield and defense. They'll be counting on a healthy Nick Zimmerman to replace some of Shriver's production, and if he's able to return to the sort of form he showed in 2012, the RailHawks should be a very good team.
With the additions of Tobin and Davidson, I fully expect Carolina to push New York for the lowest goals against total during the 2014 campaign. Like the Cosmos last season though, where they ultimately finish will likely come down to whether or not they can constantly find enough goals to turn one point into three. If they can, this team is a playoff lock.
San Antonio Scorpions
The Scorpions made lots of noise over this past winter, both by complaining about other clubs spending money and bringing in loads of new talent themselves. They've assembled a very good squad though, as both MLS sides in Texas can attest after struggling against them during the preseason. After managing a draw with FC Dallas, the Scorpions beat the Houston Dynamo 2-0. Ultimately those friendly results mean nothing, but they're still and encouraging sign for the fanbase.
The winter started with San Antonio losing their best forward to an NASL rival, just as it did the winter before. This time, it was Hans Denissen leaving the club to join the New York Cosmos, while in 2013 it was Pablo Campos leaving for Minnesota. Club president Howard Cornfield was very vocal in his complaints about the spending of the Cosmos, though ultimately, his club wound up going on a shopping spree of their own.
The club ended up replacing Denissen with former designated player Eric Hassli, who provides a player in the Campos mold that they did not have last season. They also brought in Daniel Barrera, Richard Menjivar, Walter Restrepo, and Shaun Saiko from NASL rivals, as well as forward Sainey Touray, who is a high-upside lottery ticket. All told, this San Antonio squad looks to be considerably stronger than they were in 2013.
Last season, San Antonio started out looking like a contender. They finished tied with Carolina on points during the spring season, one point behind Atlanta. Their fall season was dreadful though, and they finished the 14-game campaign with just ten points. If they can find some sort of consistency in 2014, they have enough talent to make a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup as well as pushing for an NASL title.
Minnesota are a tough team to really evaluate heading into the new season. They didn't do a whole lot over the winter to change to makeup of the squad, but had enough talent last season that they probably should have produced better results.
The defense looks fantastic, and will be anchored by Brazilians Tiago and Cristiano Dias. That pair have played so well this spring that it looks as if NASL Best XI center back Aaron Pitchkolan will start the season on the bench. They also signed fullback Tyler Pollack, who was once a Generation Adidas signing.
The midfield was a boom or bust unit, largely due to the boom or bust nature of Miguel Ibarra. After a dreadful start to the season that made many wonder how he was making the 18-man squad, a brilliant second half of the season saw him named to the league's Best XI. A full season of solid play from Ibarra would go a long way toward helping them contend.
Jamie Watson and Christian Ramirez are both new signings that impressed in USL Pro last season, and the latter in particular will have a lot to say about whether or not Minnesota can contend. He'll have to replace the club's top scorer, Pablo Campos, who suffered a serious knee injury and will be out of action for most of the season. Ultimately, the club's success this season will depend on replacing Campos and getting consistent production from Ibarra. If they struggle with either, they'll likely become a pretender in very short order.
Tampa Bay Rowdies
How different could 2013 have looked if the Cosmos hadn't come back from 3-1 down at home against Tampa Bay? That incredible comeback by the Cosmos ended up being the defining moment of their fall season, while it began a dreadful close to the season for Tampa Bay. Every result is important with the split season format, and no team knows this better than the Rowdies.
The Rowdies had some work to do this winter, as Luke Mulholland left the club to test himself in MLS. The club made a few big signings to replace him though, and should be pushing San Antonio and New York for the top spot in the table.
Brian Shriver was the league's top goalscorer last year, and when the club brought him in from Carolina to pair with the league's top assist maker Georgi Hristov, they might have put together an even more dynamic offense than they had in 2013. They added three former MLS players in Darel Russell, Anthony Wallace, and Matt Pickens, with Pickens being one of the top goalkeepers in the United States.
Tampa is going to score this season, and they're going to score a lot. Whether or not they turn that scoring into contention will depend on whether or not they can keep their opponents from scoring at a reasonable rate though, as we saw during the fall campaign. Pickens should help, but probably isn't enough to fix their problem conceding on his own. If they can play some better defense, the Cosmos might need to sign Raul this summer just to stay above the Rowdies in the table. If not, Tampa could find themselves on the outside looking in for a second season in a row when the postseason begins.