by Neil Morris
After trailing the Vancouver Whitecaps all season, Carolina inched ahead in the race for the NASL Conference lead last weekend with their victory over the Puerto Rico Islanders. The NASL Conference winner will earn the second seed in the upcoming eight-team USSF D2 playoffs. Going into the final weekend of the season, Carolina and Vancouver are tied at 44 total points and a 10-goal differential. Carolina has a solid lead in the second tiebreak, a 41-30 advantage in total goals scored. So, if Carolina defeats Austin, Vancouver could only win the conference by defeating the Portland Timbers Saturday night by a wider margin than Carolina bests Austin.
Over in the USL Conference, Austin’s season-long dominance has been tested lately by the Rochester Rhinos. Austin presently holds a 53-51 points lead but has a game in hand over Rochester. A win by Austin over Carolina will clinch their conference crown and the top seed in the playoffs. Anything less means Austin will have more work to do Sunday night during their final regular season match at Montreal.
Carolina and Austin are the not only their current conference leaders but also the two top scoring teams in USSF D2. Austin has two of the top 10 goal scorers in the league — Eddie Johnson is 2nd with 14 goals, and Max Griffin is tied for 4th with 9 — as well as four of the top 10 assist leaders. Both Johnson and Griffin have also been tapped as USSF D2 Player of the Month this season. On the other hand, the RailHawks and their ever-changing lineup do not have a single player among the league leaders in any major category other than Amir Lowery's 5th-place tie in fouls committed.
However, Carolina and their recent roster additions have been gelling as of late. Since their 3-2 loss at Austin on August 22 (the teams only previous meeting this year), the RailHawks have won four of their last seven matches. Meanwhile, Austin — once a league juggernaut — has tasted victory only thrice in their last nine games.
“They’re tough, but I think we were bad in the last game [at Austin],” says the RailHawks’ Matt Watson. “I think we can play a lot better against them, so we have something to prove. And, obviously, with a chance to win [the conference], that alone should get everyone up for the game.”
“It’s going to be an exciting game,” said RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie. “Austin has a lot of threats going forward, and you have to manage that really well. They’re a very good team. I think it’ll be interesting to see them on this field, as their field is very hard to play on. But, I think the keys will be moving the ball well and taking our chances, and then marking their dangerous players.”
Kickoff is 7:00 p.m. at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.