By TRAVIS CLARK
Three full weekends of USSF D-2 action remain, and for NSC Minnesota, the stakes are higher than ever.
A battle for that last playoff spot is still up for grabs, and this weekend gives the Stars a chance to take another step closer to that goal. After Tampa Bay could only muster a 1-1 draw against the Austin Aztex Thursday night, Minnesota will host the Vancouver Whitecaps (8:00 p.m., Saturday) looking to open up the gap even further.
The two sides last met in mid-August, with the Whitecaps winning 1-0. Breaking down the dominant Vancouver defense – which has conceded a league-best 18 goals — is key for the Stars to come out with three points. And a win would give Minnesota the upper hand heading into their regular season finale against Tampa Bay.
Here's a look at the rest of this weekend's D-2 action:
Miami FC vs. Rochester Rhinos, 7:30 p.m.
Pride is all that Miami FC has left at stake, and a tough matchup awaits after a long trip to upstate New York. Rochester is on a quest for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. It's been a significant team effort for the Rhinos to get them to this point — Frankie Sanfilippo, Andre Hoxie, Troy Roberts have all been among the contributors, and will look to lead the Rhinos to a strong finish.
Carolina Railhawks vs. Crystal Palace Baltimore, 5:00 p.m.
A respectable season has completely unraveled in Baltimore, and with three games left, the end is in sight. Baltimore has mustered only 18 goals from 27 games, by far the worst in the league. Carolina has a small chance at catching Portland for third and will need a strong performance out of their forward line to pile on the misery in Baltimore.
Portland Timbers vs. Puerto Rico Islanders, 8:05 p.m.
Renovations to PGE Park in Portland will keep the Timbers on the road, and a swing down to Puerto Rico is a chance for Gavin Wilkinson to test out and prepare his lineup for a playoff run. Ryan Pore remains in the lead for league's top scorer, and will look to close that out. The Islanders are coming off a mid-week loss to Toluca in Mexico, making this a difficult match to handle with the short rest.
Austin Aztex vs. A.C. St. Louis, 8:10 p.m.
By their high standards, the Austin Aztex are slumping — winless in four out of their last five, it's got to be something of a concern as they steam towards the playoffs. A late slip up could cost them the No. 1 seeds as well. Eddie Johnson lingers behind Ryan Pore in the chase for the goal-scoring lead in D-2, and he'll be looking to get going against versus St. Louis. As for the home side, when their season ends, it will be interesting to see what lies in wait for the franchise's future.
Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Montreal Impact, 2:00 p.m.
Slowly but surely, a shot at the playoffs is slipping away from the Tampa Bay Rowdies. After Thursday's draw, the Rowdies are five points behind Minnesota, and have just one game in hand. This trip to Montreal is a must win — coming up shy could spell doom. Montreal has to be careful as well — they are level on points with the Stars and could slip up if they aren't careful. Ali Gerba's 7 goals in just 10 games have helped revitalize what had been a lagging campaign.