The North American soccer season is all but over. The end of the 2015 North American Soccer League (NASL) season saw the New York Cosmos host the Ottawa Fury and come away with its second championship trophy. What remains over the next two weeks are Major League Soccer’s (MLS) semi-finals and finals where another New York team may be in position to hoist its league championship trophy.
I’m not a playoffs guy. They feel like a barely more legitimate money-grab than an All-Star game. I’m a top of the table guy. What team had the most points for the season? Yeah, that team is the champion. Full stop. But I would be a lying sack if I said I didn’t watch the playoffs because…well, I don’t want to not watch more soccer. Congrats, playoffs, you win.
This is a roundabout way for me to confront an annual grime fact. The off-season is upon us. It is a barren, grey time only made tolerable by scraps of news, announcements that only make us long for the next season. To fill this void, it is not unwarranted or improper to proffer wild speculation.
I’d like to give some thoughts on NASL and its fourteen teams and over two hundred players. There are three expansion sides that don’t have any players (Rayo Oklahoma City, Puerto Rico FC, and Miami FC), a team that is ownerless and might dissolve (Atlanta Silverbacks), and a team that has positioned itself to self-relegate to a lower league (San Antonio Scorpions).
Some teams are already making big moves. The Tampa Bay Rowdies have signed Tom Heinemann away from the Ottawa Fury. Nicknamed Teen Wolf, Heinemann’s stock has inexplicably shot through the roof. Over two seasons with Ottawa the forward has primarily scored from penalty kicks, sloppy and stumbling scrums, and the occasional poacher goal of just happening to be in the right place at the right time. I suspect that Heinemann will go down as one of the biggest bust signings of 2016.
Perhaps the best move of the nascent off-season has been the Ottawa Fury replacing out going manager Marc Dos Santos with Paul Dalglish. When he was managing the Austin Aztex, Dalglish not only guided the team to success but was perhaps one of the most engaging coaches on social media. I’m lookign forward to seeing him develop Ottawa’s young players like central midfielder Mauro Estaquio and forward Oliver Minatel.
What I would like to do is pay some attention to a handful of players that could be on the move this off-season and the teams that should seriously consider pursuing them.
Cristiano Dias, Minnesota United
For whatever reason, centerback Cristiano Dias went from being a regular in Minnesota United’s backline to being a bench option to completely disappearing from the gameday eighteen.
Fans of Minnesota have seen this before with other players (forward Simone Bracalello in recent memory). This doesn’t reflect poorly on the player but rather shows the evolution of manager Manny Lagos’ wants and needs. Dias is an excellent centerback and there are more than a few teams in the NASL (and not a few bottom third MLS teams) that could use him as one of their regulars.
To my mind, the team most in need of defensive augmentation is Jacksonville Armada. Desperate for height and strength in its backline, a central defender like Dias paired with Haitian international Mechack Jerome would go a long way to solving the Armada’s defensive issues (the team had the worst goal differential in the league and was tied for second with most goals conceded).
Billy Forbes, San Antonio Scorpions
The owner of the San Antonio Scorpions has sold his team’s stadium to the county and the group that owns the NBA’s Spurs. These new stadium owners have made it clear their intention to join MLS (even though as of right now MLS has said, “thanks but no”) and the Spurs group has strongly suggested it sees joining the USL as the best route to do so.
That leaves the status of the San Antonio Scorpions unclear. Will it drop down to the third division essentially becoming a MLS minor league team? Will a USL team and a NASL share the stadium? Will the Scorpions dissolve into some new entity?
These questions matter when you’re a player like winger Billy Forbes, who just had his option exercised by the Scorpions. Forbes has been and is San Antonio’s best player. Over the passed two seasons, Forbes has been a constant producer not only scoring goals but also creating chances (eight assists in nineteen starts this season and seven in twenty starts last season). Playing in the USL would be an egregious step backwards lowering his profile in the soccer world and stunting his development.
But joining a team like the Carolina Railhawks with its a new, ambitious owner would not only put him with a secure, stable organization but also partner him opposite Tiyi Shipalane, the most dangerous right winger in the league. If Carolina had Forbes on the left wing and Shipalane on the right, its attack would be championship caliber once again.
Kareem Moses, FC Edmonton
It was a rough season for FC Edmonton. Its once tight and stingy defense seemed to get the yips. Veteran centerback Albert Watson did his best to right the ship and hold the backline together. His efforts were rewarded with a contract extension. Edmonton had two young centerbacks that looked to be developing nicely, Mallan Roberts and Kareem Moses. But it decided that it had gotten all it could out of the twenty-five year old Moses letting him go at the end of the season.
Moses is a strong centerback who could go out every week and perform. With the right partner, he could stabilize or even heighten a team’s defense. There is one in particular that utterly lacks any personal in defense, the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.
The Strikers have some of the best attacking talent in the league (Golden Boot winner forward Stefano, Marlon Freitas, and PC). But they have an aging defense lacking a true centerback. Throughout the 2015 season, Ft. Lauderdale carried only seven defenders most of which were fullbacks and usually with at least two suffering injury. Moses would breath life into this team and create a context where draws stay draws rather than turn into last minute one goal losses.
Michal Mravec, Atlanta Silverbacks
The Atlanta Silverbacks are in a precarious position. Owned by the league and facing a MLS expansion into their city, the organization is facing a real existential crisis. Ignoring the carpetbaggers that Atlanta United will be and putting the ownership question out of their minds, the players and coaches of the Atlanta Silverbacks put together a solid season.
There are more than a few quality players on the team: defenders Simon Mensing and Paul Black, Goal of the Year winner midfielder Junior Burgos, stalwart holding midfielder Michael Reed, and forwards Jaime Chavez and Pedro Mendes. I’d look to shine a light on central/right midfielder Michal Mravec.
He didn’t get many starts (only eight) and only played 729 minutes, but when Mravec was on the pitch the Silverbacks were a better team. With Europa League experience, the Slovakian came to play for Atlanta this season with a slew of other quality journeymen assembled by manager Gary Smith such as former MLS champion fullback Kosuke Kimura.
Mravec has vision, patience, and technical skill. While not a necessarily playmaker or flashy on the pitch, he does know how to create and seize upon channels to spring attackers. If there was a stat for 2nd assists or if key passes were registered, then I wholeheartedly believe more would see his value. He is quietly one of the better play build-up midfielders I’ve seen in the league.
A team that is in dire need of strengthening its central midfield and the spine of the squad are the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Defensive midfielder Richie Menjiver is a solid player but too often his talent is diffused by him having to spread himself too thin covering the entire center of the field by himself. That’s not to say Juan Guerra, Justin Chavez, or Keith Savage are poor players. If the Rowdies poached Mravec, then they would suddenly discover just how good Menjiver can be next to someone who could consistently get the ball out to Tampa’s dangerous and eager wingers and playmakers.