By JOHN BOSCHINI
Are the Carolina Railhawks in trouble?
After months of near total domination of the NASL, a key departure to Europe in team captain Brad Rusin and the announcement of Martin Rennie as the future head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps have undoubtedly been a distraction. Carolina's lead has shrunk to seven points following a 1-1 draw with Minnesota in a mid-week matchup and the Railhawks are winless in August.
The Montreal Impact are seven points adrift of a playoff spot with only seven games to play. A silver lining in the disastrous season for the Impact is if it is somehow able to catch sixth-placed FC Edmonton, Montreal holds the tie-break advantage. The Impact takes on Minnesota as the Stars search for a good seed in the playoffs.
The second- and third-best teams in the standings meet for a crucial matchup in Tampa Bay. FC Tampa Bay has experienced a resurgence of late and is riding a four-game unbeaten run. Puerto Rico is riding a three-game winning streak and the Islanders need a win to keep the pressure on the Railhawks.
FC Edmonton takes on the Atlanta Silverbacks in the weekend's final game. FC Edmonton needs a few wins to lock up its playoff spot while Atlanta is pretty much just playing for pride at this point. However, Atlanta has been known to pull off a shocking result or two during the course of the season.
Here is a look ahead to this weekend's action in the NASL:
NSC Minnesota Stars at Montreal Impact (Saturday, 2:30 p.m.)
Since when did the Montreal Impact have offense? The league's lowest scoring team has exploded over the past two games for seven goals. Eduardo Sebrango has emerged as the team's leading scoring threat and will be vital if the Impact is to make a dramatic push into the playoffs.
The NSC Minnesota Stars have been secure in midtable since the beginning of the season. Joe Warren has been stellar for Minnesota all season, keeping a scant 0.95 goals against average.
Fort Lauderdale Strikers at Carolina Railhawks (Saturday, 7 p.m.)
After being far and away the most dominating offensive in the first half the season, Carolina's attack has gone flat. The Railhawks haven't scored more than one goal since July 23 and the offensive tandem of Pablo Campos and Etienne Barbara will have to re-discover its consistency.
The Strikers are unbeaten since July 20 and are in no danger of falling out the playoff picture. Fort Lauderdale has locked down its defense, not allowing more than one goal over the past four games.
Puerto Rico Islanders at FC Tampa Bay (Saturday, 7 p.m.)
Without much fanfare, FC Tampa Bay is now the second-highest scoring team in the NASL. Mike Ambersley and Aaron King have combined for 16 points during the season and have formed a dangerous striking partnership.
The Islanders have a top-five scorer of their own with Jonathan Fana. The Dominican native has scored eight goals with an assist with David Foley backing him up with six goals and six assists.
Atlanta Silverbacks at FC Edmonton (Sunday, 9:30 p.m.)
It was all a little too late for Atlanta's season. The Silverbacks have been outscored 10-0 in their past three games and are completely out of the playoff picture. Atlanta has conceded an astounding 47 goals in 21 games and will have to find some serious help along the back line in 2012.
FC Edmonton needs to stop the bleeding going into the playoffs. After rising to as high as second during the summer, the newcomers have dropped five of their last six games and need to find a win in order to regain some confidence.
What do you think of this weekend's action? Can Puerto Rico make up more ground on Carolina? Will Montreal start to claw its way back into contention?
Share your thoughts below.