By TRAVIS CLARK
With the hottest team in the league sitting out this round of fixtures, it's a chance for a couple of other sides to catch up to the Portland Timbers.
Leading the pack is season surprise Austin Aztex. In their second year of existence, the club has enjoyed a solid start to the season, thanks to an all-around team effort — with Eddie Johnson, Leonard Griffin and Jamie Watson all chipping in two goals apiece. Three points would give Austin the most points in USSF D-2.
A trip to Tampa Bay this weekend gives Austin a chance at a third straight road win — an impressive accomplishment, even at this season's early stage. They'll look to spoil the Rowdies' home opener (7:30pm) Saturday evening, as professional soccer returns to Tampa Bay.
Here's a look at the rest of D-2 action this weekend:
NSC Minnesota at Montreal Impact, 2:30pm
After a decent start to their 2010 expansion year, NSC Minnesota's record has started to reflect their inexperience. Louis Crayton's season-ending injury (ACL tear) has left Joe Warren to shoulder the goalkeeping duties. And while he has been serviceable, a trip up to Saputo Stadium is just what the Impact will need to resolve scoring woes. The Impact have only scored twice in three games, and the availability of leading scorer Roberto Brown is uncertain. Brown was sent off last week against Toronto FC in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, leading to a team-imposed suspension. That, combined with Montreal's trip to Vancouver in the middle of the week, means Minnesota could eke out a point on the road.
A.C. St. Louis at Rochester Rhinos, 7:00pm
Can A.C. St. Louis make it two in a row? After picking up that first-ever win as a franchise, St. Louis takes a trip to northern New York, aiming for a first-ever winning streak. Rochester will be itching to get back out and actually win in front of a home crowd this time — they were thwarted last week on a soft penalty call that allowed Carolina to equalize. Luke Kreamalmayer has been one of the few bright spots for St. Louis, and if Steve Ralston remains sidelined, it's unlikely the visitors will come away with anything.
Carolina Railhawks at Miami FC, 7:30pm
Three draws in three home games isn't the worst start, but it's not what Miami FC had in mind when it brought in the likes of Christian Gomez and Abe Thompson during the offseason. It's a pretty bland return thus far — two goals scored, two allowed, all in three games. Scoring goals against a tough Carolina defense won't be easy, and this game could easily be headed for another draw, given the same troubles that have plagued the Railhawks this far.
Crystal Palace Baltimore at Vancouver Whitecaps, 10:00pm
With the Nutrilite Canadian Championship in full swing, the fallout for the two USSF D-2 teams involved could be felt this weekend. Fortunately for Martin Nash and the Whitecaps, listless Crystal Palace Baltimore is making the long trip out west and will be ripe for the taking. One goal in three games doesn't bode well, as does the five-game road trip they currently find themselves on. Matthew Mbuta has the club's only goal in 2010 — from the penalty spot — and the rough going should continue against the Whitecaps.