Attempting to predict the final standings of the NASL Spring Season is probably a foolish endeavor, and one almost certain to provide nothing but laughter when looked back upon in June. Not only do we have two expansion sides that have never played a competitive match, but most of the eight returning sides have undergone major changes during the offseason, making their performance over a ten match Spring Season very difficult to predict.
With that all said, I'm going to try to predict the final Spring Season standings anyway, to give us all something to laugh at while waiting for the Fall Season to get underway. I suppose it's only fitting that this is publishing on April Fool's Day. Here's my semi-educated guess at how the final standings will look, from worst to first:
11) FC Edmonton - The Eddies were one of the biggest surprises of the 2015 season, but I don't think any club in the league suffered as big a loss as Lance Laing's departure for Minnesota. Laing aside, Edmonton returns quite a bit of underrated talent, but I think they're likely to hit a few early bumps in the road as they attempt to replace the Jamaican's contributions, which often turned draws into wins, and losses into draws during the 2015 campaign. That said, they might still be a better side than the Chicago Fire.
10) Ottawa Fury - The Fury were the best team in the NASL during the 2015 Fall Season, but have seen the vast majority of their better players depart the club during the winter months, along with their Head Coach. Paul Dalglish will be tasked with integrating quite a few new faces in 2016, most of whom are new to the NASL, and I just don't see them finishing in the top half of the table this spring. That said, I didn't think Ottawa were going to be a title contender last season, either.
9) Indy Eleven - No team in the NASL has been as successful as Indy Eleven FC off the pitch, but the Midwestern side haven't given fans much reason to believe that this season will be significantly better on the pitch than previous campaigns. Gorka Larrea, Jon Busch, and Sinsa Ubiparipovic are all fine additions to the squad, but I just don't believe that trio will be enough to help the Eleven contend in a much improved NASL. I'm still putting money on another 1-1 draw against the Cosmos, though.
8) Miami FC - Miami are almost impossible to predict, as while they've signed some very nice talent for their initial campaign, many of those players are new to the league, and haven't ever played together. I really like the additions of Wilson Palacios, Dario Cvitanich, Dane Richards, and Pablo Campos, and think this could be a team to watch during the Fall Season. I wouldn't be surprised to see them struggle early on, however, so I'm pinking them to finish behind squads like Jacksonville and Carolina, despite Head Coach Alessandro Nesta having a more impressive arsenal at his disposal.
7) Jacksonville Armada FC - Like Indy, Jacksonville has done some nice work this winter, but probably haven't done enough to turn a bad team into a contender. Pekka Lagerblom will be one of the players to watch in the NASL, and could easily wind up being a Best XI selection. Meanwhile, nabbing Richie Ryan from Ottawa was an excellent piece of business. Still, for the Armada to have any real hope of a postseason birth, they'll have to cross their fingers that Tony Meola can get more out of the returning core of the roster than last year's coaching staff was able to, and that Matt Fondy replicates his red-hot form from USL.
6) Carolina RailHawks - Carolina's roster never looks all that impressive on paper, but they always seem to be hanging around in the postseason hunt despite that. I don't see any reason why 2016 will be any different, and if forward Brian Shriver returns to form with midfielder James Marcelin performing as well as he did for the Strikers, the RailHawks could be a surprise contender in the spring.
5) Rayo OKC - As mentioned with Miami, it's difficult to predict how expansion sides will do, so this could be wildly inaccurate. I really like the initial roster that Alen Marcina has assembled, though, especially the attacking unit, which will be led by Georgios Samaras. Billy Forbes is one of the most exciting youngsters in the league, and Richard Menjivar, Robbie Findley, Sebastian Velasquez, Marvin Chavez, and Derek Boateng ought to ensure that Samaras has plenty of opportunities to score. If Marcina can put together a better defensive unit than he had last season in San Antonio (which shouldn't take much, tbh), watch out.
4) Fort Lauderdale Strikers - Matheus Carvalho is one of the best additions in the league, as far as I'm concerned, but the Strikers let a lot of talent go this winter as well. Stefano Pinho, James Marcelin, and Marlon Freitas are all going to be very difficult to replace, and I have serious reservations about the Fort Lauderdale defense. Like last year, I'd expect this team to be very, very fun to watch, but it might cause Strikers fans' hair to turn prematurely grey.
3) Tampa Bay Rowdies - The Rowdies began 2015 with a team that looked stout defensively but had questions up front, but attempted to address those issues over the winter. With the additions of Kalif Alhassa and Tom Heinemann, and the return of Georgi Hristov and Freddy Adu, this looks like a very balanced and dangerous Rowdies team that should coast to a postseason berth. If Heinemann can't replicate his form from the second half of 2015, however, the Rowdies could struggle to find the back of the net, as he's their only real scoring option up front.
2) Minnesota United - I was very close to picking this Minnesota team to finish first, but the Cosmos signing of Niko Kranjcar was what finally convinced to select United as runners-up. The MLS-bound club has loaded their roster with elite NASL talent, likely in hopes of bringing many of those players with them when they switch leagues next season. That talent should ensure that United reach the postseason easily in 2016, even if they miss out on the spring title.
1) New York Cosmos - At some point this winter, I had real doubts about whether the Cosmos would be contending for the Spring Season title, but with the signings of Yasmani Duk, Juan Arango, Niko Kranjcar, and Yohandry Orozco, it's hard to believe that they aren't the favorites to finish atop the heap this spring. Defensively, there will be questions given the age of the back line, and the injury to Roversio, but as long as Jimmy Ockford and David Ochieng don't become major liabilities, the club ought to be well above average in the back, even if their best defender misses the entire spring. In the end, there's just too much talent here.