Many more eyes will be on the USSF Division-2 playoffs this year with expansion coming to Major League Soccer over the next two years with Portland and Vancouver moving on after this season and Montreal the following year. In addition to those clubs bringing current players with them, the act of expansion will increase the number of roster spaces available, making players throughout the second tier a valuable resource that must thoroughly be researched.
Beyond that, there is intrigue in this particular playoff as the Portland Timbers are entering the playoffs still without a professional league championship to its credit through its previous NASL days and with its current second division franchise. With Montreal winning the title last year and Vancouver the season before, they both join the Seattle Sounders as expansion clubs that have won a second division title within three years of their debut in the top flight. The Timbers have three weeks to eliminate themselves as the exception in that rare statistic.
The playoffs look to be as exciting as usual with most of the top seeds entering the postseason with comparatively poorer runs of form in contrast to the lower seeds, who are among the hottest in the league right now. Last year, Montreal won the championship as the number five seed in the playoffs.
(1) Rochester Rhinos v Puerto Rico Islanders (8)
Thursday @ Puerto Rico (9-10-11); Saturday @ Rochester (16-6-8)
While the series is a headliner for pitting the regular season champion versus stars of the CONCACAF Champions League, the two clubs are familiar foes when it comes to postseason entanglements. Rochester snapped a drought with its first league championship since 2002 by finishing atop the table this season, and will now be looking to end a two-year postseason losing streak at the hands of Puerto Rico. In 2008, the Islanders rallied from a two-goal deficit in the Semifinals to tie the Rhinos and force series overtime, where they advanced 3-2 on aggregate to the championship match. Last year the two sides met in the opening Quarterfinal round as well. Rochester led once again, 2-1, after the opening leg at home only to see Puerto Rico rally with a 4-1 victory in the second leg to take the series, 5-3.
Neither side is coming into the series on particularly great form in league play. The Rhinos have won just two of the past five matches (2-0-3) while the Islanders have just one win in the last seven (1-2-4). The Rhinos won, 2-1, in St Louis this past weekend after dropping two consecutive home and away to Miami. Puerto Rico had its own troubles against Miami with a 1-1 draw on the weekend, but the result came on the heels of a stunning come-from-behind victory, 3-2, against Mexican side Toluca Wednesday in the Champions League after trailing by two goals.
Rochester has been formidable at home of late, 2-1 Miami loss aside last time out, with four wins in the last five games and an aggregate score of 10-4. Away from home, the Rhinos have done fairly well with five wins in the last eight, but one of the three losses came in Puerto Rico, 1-3. Although Puerto Rico’s home record in the Champions League has been impressive this year (2-1-1) with the lone loss coming at the hands of the Los Angeles Galaxy in a series they handily controlled from the stunning opening leg win in California, the Islanders have not been as dominant in league play with just two wins in the last six (2-2-2). On the road, league wins have been even harder to come by with only two on the season. However, they have not been an easy beat either with all seven road draws coming in the last 10 games with only two losses, both by one goal.
Head-to-head, the two clubs each posted a big victory at home with the Islanders winning, 3-1, July 24 and the Rhinos taking the June 26 meeting, 3-0. Over two months, though, has passed since the last meeting.
(2) Carolina RailHawks v NSC Minnesota Stars (7)
Wednesday @ Minnesota (11-7-12); Saturday @ Carolina (13-8-9)
The series creates an interesting dynamic as the RailHawks have a minimal playoff history in its previous three seasons while the NSC Minnesota Stars are in their first year. The National Sports Center, however, has seen plenty of playoff history courtesy of the clubs predecessor Minnesota Thunder, who were four-time finalists and the 1999 league champion. Carolina’s two forays, though, through its first three years of existence have resulted in opening round Quarterfinal exits last year and in its inaugural 2007 campaign. Last season, eventual finalist Vancouver edged the RailHawks with a single goal at home followed by a scoreless stalemate. In 2007, the eventual champion Seattle Sounders won, 2-0, in Carolina before wrapping the series up with a 1-0 home win.
After suffering three consecutive shutout losses, Minnesota stormed into the postseason with four straight victories, including a pair of 1-0 wins against NASL Conference leaders Vancouver and Carolina. They gave up just one goal in that span with the lone blemish coming in the finale two weeks ago on the road in Tampa. Carolina made a dash to capture the conference title with just one loss in the last six games (4-1-1), including three straight wins to finish the season that included victories against playoff sides Puerto Rico and Austin.
Carolina’s lone defeat in that span, however, came in a 1-0 decision on the road against Minnesota. It gave the new club a sweep on the season in the head-to-head series, having also posted a 1-0 road victory in their second match in club history.
Minnesota struggled to find wins at home over the final portion of the season before posting the victories over Carolina and Vancouver in the final two, ending a four game winless run (0-2-2). Meanwhile, the road was a different story as they dropped just one match in the last nine (4-4-1) away from home, a 2-0 defeat in Austin. Carolina’s last nine at home has seen just two losses (5-2-2) with a four-game unbeaten run (3-1-0) heading into the playoffs. Unlike Minnesota, the road has not been so kind with three wins and four defeats in the last seven, but all four losses were one-goal decisions.
(3) Austin Aztex v Montreal Impact (6)
Wednesday @ Montreal (12-7-11); Saturday @ Austin (15-8-7)
The Aztex are making their postseason debut facing one of only three clubs to win the league championship three times, including last year. While Austin enters the series as the number three seed due to the playoff format, the club finished second overall one point back of Rochester.
The head-to-head is an immediate factor in the series with the two clubs entering the match on the heels of facing one another to close the season. Montreal blanked the visiting Aztex, 2-0, in the league’s regular season finale Sunday, a reversal of the same scoreline from when the two met in Austin on opening weekend of the league schedule.
While Austin may be the higher seed entering the postseason, the fortunes of the two clubs have late have been the complete opposite. Austin has limped into the playoffs with just one win in the last six games (1-1-4) and the lone victory coming against St Louis, which missed the postseason. Montreal, on the other hand, has lost only once in its last seven games (6-0-1) with an aggregate score of 15-3 over that span.
Montreal’s good form has been consistent home and away of late as well with a run of 3-0-1 coming into the playoffs at home and a record of 3-0-1 in its last four away from home. Most of Austin’s poor form of late could be attributed to a travel-heavy schedule that has seen them play seven of the last nine on the road with a record of 0-3-4 in that span, which is an part of a larger nine-game road winless stretch (0-4-5). Meanwhile, the club is on a eight-game unbeaten run (7-1-0) at home with a six-game winning streak heading into the playoffs.
(4) Portland Timbers v Vancouver Whitecaps (5)
Thursday @ Vancouver (10-15-5); Sunday @ Portland (13-10-7)
The other headline series that will likely get the most attention with both clubs heading to Major League Soccer next year, two sides will pick up where they finished the season as the two met to close the season Saturday in a 2-2 draw north of the border. The draw foiled Vancouver’s bid to win the NASL Conference and earn the number two seed in the playoffs as well as gave Portland the season series with two wins and two draws.
Head-to-head, Vancouver has led in the last two meetings, but has been unable to hold on for the win. Prior to this past weekend’s draw, the Whitecaps fell at home, 2-1, to Portland in the second of two July contests. The other was a scoreless draw in Portland. The first match was also a 2-1 win for the Timbers at home.
The long-time rivals have met in the postseason three times previously, including two of the last three years. Last season eighth-seeded Vancouver got out to a 2-1 lead at home and held on to advance from the semifinal series, en route to reaching the championship game, by posting a dramatic 3-3 draw in Portland against the regular season champions. In 2007, Vancouver also got off to a good start with a 1-0 win at home, but Portland rebounded with a 3-0 victory in the second leg to advance to the Semifinals. The first postseason meeting came in the 2002 Western Conference First Round in which Vancouver earned a pair of 1-0 decisions to advance.
The two clubs enter the playoffs running on differing trends as Portland is unbeaten in its last 10 games (6-4-0) while Vancouver has just one win in its final seven (1-4-2). The lone victory for the Whitecaps came against last-place Baltimore, the only club in its final six games that is not in the playoffs.
Portland has been successful home and away down the stretch with a run of six unbeaten (3-3-0) at home as well as on the road (4-2-0) with an aggregate score of 9-3 at home and a surprising 8-3 aggregate on the road during those runs, which included four consecutive shutouts on the road. Vancouver, on the other hand, is winless in its last six at home (0-4-2) with only one win in the last nine (1-6-2). They have been better, in comparison, on the road with a record of 4-4-1 in the last nine.