By TRAVIS CLARK
In many ways it's fitting that the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers close out the USSF Division 2 season against each other.
Apart from their regional rivalry, both teams are making the jump to Major League Soccer in 2011, but have one eye on winning a trophy in the second division before the year is up. When the two meet this weekend (Saturday, 7:00 p.m.), it's a possible playoff series later in October, and for Vancouver one last chance to determine its playoff opponent.
By the time Saturday's game kicks off, the Whitecaps may already know their fate — Carolina holds the tiebreaker, and the two sit equal on points heading into the weekend. If the Railhawks win against Austin, they'll win the NASL Conference and automatic No. 2 seed. A Carolina loss would open the door for Vancouver to secure the conference and second place with a win or draw.
Here's a look at the rest of this weekend's D-2 action:
Austin Aztex vs. Carolina Railhawks, 7:00 p.m.
It's a rather unfortunate way for Austin to close the season — two games in the span of three days, and both on the road. The biggest concern for the Aztex though, is the health of leading scorer Eddie Johnson, who suffered a concussion last week against St. Louis. The Railhawks won't roll over, obviously, as they can secure the NASL Conference with a win at home.
Crystal Palace Baltimore vs. FC Tampa Bay Rowdies, 7:30 p.m.
Pride will be the only thing on the line as two of the worst teams meet down in Florida. Each side hopes to close out strong and build excitement for 2011. Simply winning would be an accomplishment for Baltimore, losers of seven straight and barely able to generate offense. Tampa hasn't been much better, watching a solid start to 2010 go to waste.
Puerto Rico Islanders vs. Miami FC, 7:30 p.m.
No implications in Miami, as the Islanders simply await to learn the identity of their playoff opponent. Miami, with a four-game winning streak entering this one, will look to make it five in a row and really finish strong under new head coach Daryl Shore.
Rochester Rhinos vs. A.C. St. Louis, 8:10 p.m.
Two losses to Miami have really been a massive dent in Rochester's chances for a top seed. Instead, the Rhinos have to take care of business with a win in St. Louis, before hoping that Austin loses both games on the weekend — not an extremely likely scenario. Of course, staying healthy and gearing up for the playoffs is important as well, especially against a team they should beat in A.C. St. Louis.
Austin Aztex vs. Montreal Impact, 2:00 p.m.
Austin's approach to their second tilt of the weekend will be determined by Friday's and Saturday's results. A win on Friday, or a Rochester loss or tie on Saturday, would secure the top seed (and a first round matchup with Puerto Rico) for Austin. If Eddie Johnson is healthy, he'll want to make sure the league scoring title is his, and his alone as well. The Impact won't be easy to deal with — the mid-season addition of Ali Gerba has proved a success, while the club has gone on to win five of its last six.