Only four teams earn a trip to the North American Soccer League playoffs, yet it’s hard to be fully eliminated from the playoff contention until the closing weeks of the fall season.
The RailHawks have their work cut out for them.
The Indy Eleven clinched a spot as the fall champ, the New York Cosmos are on their way to winning the spring and FC Edmonton is proving tough to catch as one of two at-large berths given to teams with the most combined points from both seasons.
Carolina has only won back-to-back matches once since starting off the spring season 4-0. The team entered the weekend in seventh place overall and touting the second-worst goal differential, minus-10.
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Luckily for Carolina, three of its final five matches are at WakeMed Soccer Park, where they’re 6-2-5 (W-L-T). On the road, they’re a paltry 3-9-1. Only five of the NASL’s teams, including Carolina, play on real grass.
“I think our field fits our style a bit better, we can pass and move a bit better at home,” said Austin da Luz, who scored the winning goal against Edmonton in a 1-0 win last Saturday.
KEYS TO FINISHING STRONG
Despite the mid-year signings of forwards Matt Fondy and Mexican star Omar Bravo – they’ve scored 10 goals since coming aboard – the offense has been lacking.
Carolina has tallied three goals in its last seven matches.
On the bright side, it has only allowed six goals during that same span, which is a large improvement over the six goals it allowed at New York on Aug. 27, a season low point.
“We’ve worked hard on that defensive side of things, our attitude is first class,” Clarke said. “We’re scoring goals, winning 1-nil, and it feels good.”
The offense can put the ball in the back of the net. The defense can stall out opposing attacks.
But can the RailHawks do both simultaneously and earn a playoff berth?
With five matches left, the RailHawks have 33 points and a minus-11 goal differential, which is the first tiebreaker.
With New York, Indy and Edmonton safe and Ottawa, Jacksonville and Puerto Rico eliminated, these are the teams the RailHawks are currently rooting against the most.
Carolina has three games against the same teams it’s battling, and none may loom larger than an Oct. 22 showdown with Minnesota.
Minnesota United: In their last season before moving up to MLS, the Loons have 36 points (plus-four goal differential) with five matches to go.
Minnesota plays Tampa, Puerto Rico, Edmonton, the RailHawks and New York.
Tampa Bay: With six matches left, the Rowdies have 36 points (plus-two goal differential).
Tampa plays Minnesota, Edmonton, Miami, Indy, Ottawa and Jacksonville.
Miami FC: With five left, Miami has 36 points (plus-one goal differential).
Miami plays Oklahoma City, Tampa, Jacksonville, New York and Edmonton.
Fort Lauderdale: With five left, the Strikers are right behind the RailHawks with 32 points (minus-eight goal differential).
The Strikers play the RailHawks, Edmonton, Puerto Rico, Rayo OKC and Ottawa.
Rayo OKC: With five left Oklahoma City has 32 points and a minus-one goal differential.
OKC plays Miami, the RailHawks, Ottawa, Fort Lauderdale and Indy.
Sat., Oct. 8: vs. Fort Lauderdale
Wed., Oct. 12: vs. Oklahoma City
Sat., Oct. 15: at Indianapolis
Sat., Oct. 22: vs. Minnesota
Sat., Oct. 29: at Puerto Rico