We're heading into the final weekend of regular season NASL play, and all six playoff spots in the eight-team league have been claimed, with teams having either one or two games to play.
Last week, we conducted a thought experiment in which we recast this season under the schedule format that will take effect next year. In the interest of seeing it through to its completion, we have updated the Clausura schedule. But first, let's review the standings according to the official table, shown above.
Atlanta and Edmonton are the odd ones out. Sorry Eddies, sorry Silverbacks (Chiefs?).
The other six teams are safely in the playoffs, and all that's left to play for is home-field advantage and the first-round byes given to the top two finishers. The San Antonio Scorpions are assured of a first-round bye, but Tampa Bay has a shot at overtaking them for the regular season title. Tampa Bay, in second place, still needs to fend off Puerto Rico and Carolina to keep its first-round bye.
The Carolina RailHawks are nearly assured of home-field advantage in the first round (barring a hemorrhaging of goals that would allow Fort Lauderdale to overtake them on goal differential), and they can overtake Tampa Bay by claiming all six points in the teams' two meetings this week, in Tampa Wednesday and in Cary Saturday.
Minnesota? Well, they're happy to be in the playoffs. And surely they're not put out about being the sixth seed. After all, that humble seeding served them well last year.
Now, let's look at the updated Clausura:
As can be seen clearly, the Clausura title is now a two-team race, with Tampa Bay and Carolina level on 23 points with two games remaining against each other. Both teams have all to play for: a slot in the Soccer Bowl to play the Apertura-winners San Antonio. (Carolina needs to take four points from these games, though, because the Rowdies have a nine-goal edge in differential, which will be the first tie-breaker.)
The principal argument for having a generous playoff pool is to keep as many fans invested in the possibility of playoffs for as long as possible. There's no question that under the present system, six teams are preparing for the playoffs; on the other hand, the split-season format gives us just three teams that are banking on winning the NASL trophy.
Whether one is better than the other is for each person to decide. But it's clear that the new format will provide its own brand of late-season excitement. It just won't be as evenly distributed.