With two chances in four days to pull away and essentially end the race for the final spot in the NASL’s unique “Championship” postseason tournament, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers failed on both occasions. Taking just one point from the two games, the Strikers now sit behind Tampa Bay who defeated Carolina 1-0 at Al Lang Stadium Saturday night. The loss eliminated the RailHawks from any postseason consideration. Fort Lauderdale drew San Antonio 0-0 on Wednesday at home in front of a sparse crowd of under 3,000 fans and lost last night in Indianapolis in front of a much larger and active crowd.
Fort Lauderdale won the season series with the Rowdies and boasts a +1o goal difference on the Rowdies. But at this point that does not matter. As Ken Mendonca and I discussed in our post match Rabble.TV show Strikers Coach Günter Kronsteiner oddly choose the same starting XI for yesterday’s 2-1 loss to Indy Eleven that he did in the disappointing midweek draw against San Antonio. In fairness to Coach Kronsteiner the highly-influential wide player PC has been injured, forcing a change on the right side of midfield. Last season, the Strikers Manager was able to cobble together results to get Fort Lauderdale all the way to the title game with an undermanned squad that didn’t rotate much. This season, however Kronsteiner has a more talented side, albeit one that has now shown they cannot take their chances when presented to them, unlike last season’s scrappy bunch.
Tampa Bay has struggled with form and consistency since July, but when the team needed a result most, they got one last night. A near-sellout crowd at Al Lang Stadium spurred on the Rowdies who now control the NASL Championship picture. This is in direct contrast to Fort Lauderdale whose inability to draw fans to games down the stretch this season has raised concerns about the club – though as a veteran of covering and being around this sport in Florida, I believe it reflects more an apathetic marketplace in southeast Florida that will always find excuses not to support local or domestic soccer. Sure the Strikers organization needs to improve and has made mistakes, but it’s tough to invest big money in promoting a product when many locals seem so dismissive of it.
While Tampa Bay and Jacksonville embrace NASL and Orlando embraced USL, a division lower than NASL and now has one of the most complete football/soccer clubs in the country with a women’s pro team (NWSL) and a B team/development team in USL, south Florida won’t support the local game. Sure when Real Madrid plays Chelsea or Brazil plays Colombia, Joe Robbie Stadium is full, but the market has proven time and again to be elitist when it comes to this sport. The real losers from this are the Fort Lauderdale Strikers players who on paper have one of the three best squads in the league, but have constantly been let down by lack of fan support or local media attention, save one very loyal and dependable Sun Sentinel beat writer.
What we saw in St Petersburg yesterday is unlikely to ever happen in south Florida for a serious club match in a US-based league. Fans creating the atmosphere, willing their team to a goal in the first twenty minutes and getting them through the rough patches. We’ve seen it all year Orlando City get results in MLS they shouldn’t have because of 30-40k screaming and singing fans that willed them to victory or late comeback draws. But in southeast Florida, the Strikers much like the MLS Fusion before them have played in virtually obscurity, facing the double-whammy of a hostile domestic press that sees soccer as a threat to American sports and soccer snobs who only like the foreign version of the game – the result is a local club who has one of worst home field advantages in the three professional US soccer leagues.
Fort Lauderdale is probably better off playing its last game of the season away which might mean something if Tampa Bay slips up the previous night in New York. The Strikers travel to Jacksonville to face the Armada on Sunday, a day after Tampa Bay faces New York. Unlike most soccer leagues in the world, and the precedent set by NASL in 2011, this season’s final weekend will result in games that are meaningful being played at four different times across two different dates. In other leagues and international competitions, final matchdays have synchronized kickoffs to avoid any sort of gamesmanship or playing a certain way based on other results. But because NASL has chosen not to follow that precedent in 2015, Tampa Bay could eliminate Fort Lauderdale before the Strikers play, or hand Fort Lauderdale a lifeline before they kickoff.
Either way, this scenario should have been avoided by NASL officials who have shown a lack creativity in scheduling all season. For example, this is the Strikers first trip to Jacksonville, a bus ride away, but the team has made two long cross-continent multi-connection plane trips to Edmonton earlier this season. It is also worth noting, just like last season when Fort Lauderdale played San Antonio in the NASL Final, this season’s title game will be held on a FIFA International date, when World Cup Qualifying occurs and many NASL players will be with their national teams and unavailable to their club sides.
Back to the Tampa Bay v Fort Lauderdale race. Here are the scenarios.
- Tampa Bay beats New York. Rowdies advance, Strikers eliminated regardless of result
- Tampa Bay draws New York, Fort Lauderdale loses to Jacksonville. Rowdies advance, Strikers eliminated
- Tampa Bay loses to New York, Fort Lauderdale loses to Jacksonville. Rowdies advance, Strikers eliminated
- Tampa Bay draws New York, Fort Lauderdale draws Jacksonville. Rowdies advance Strikers eliminated
- Tampa Bay loses to New York, Fort Lauderdale draws Jacksonville. Rowdies eliminated, Strikers advance
- Tampa Bay draws New York, Fort Lauderdale beats Jacksonville . Rowdies eliminated, Strikers advance
The good news for everyone is that at least one Florida pro club will be in postseason!