By TRAVIS CLARK
Past the midway point in the USSF Division 2 League, and the Austin Aztex have yet to take the foot off the pedal.
The Aztex sit atop of the Second Division table, six points clear of Vancouver in the NASL Conference. It's been the goal trio of Eddie Johnson, Maxwell Griffin and Jamie Watson leading the way, combining for 20 of the club's 30 goals thus far in 2010.
Vancouver's defense has carried them thus far, as the Whitecaps are tied with future MLS counterparts Portland, conceding just 10 goals on the year. Scoring goals have been a problem at times, but with a solid foundation to build from, the Northwest club should be difficult to reckon with in the postseason.
Here's a look at this week's power rankings:
1. Austin Aztex (10-2-5)
Last Match– Won 2-0 vs. A.C. St. Louis on July 17.
Next Match– vs. Miami FC on Tuesday, July 31.
Outlook: A prolific offense has now partnered with a solid defense to buoy Austin to this position. Only two losses at this point in the season is significant, but even more so is the fact they've won twice as many games. The key now is maintaining the consistency and translating success into the postseason.
2. Vancouver Whitecaps (7-2-8)
Last Match– Won 3-1 vs. Miami FC on July 14.
Next Match– vs. Portland on Thursday, July 22.
Outlook: Vancouver has done well despite being ninth in the league in goals scored — accomplished by the ability to keep the ball out of their own net. The coaching staff is confident enough in the offense to deal midfielders Ricardo Sanchez and Jonathan Steele to the Tampa Bay Rowdies for future considerations.
3. Rochester Rhinos (7-4-6)
Last Match– Lost 1-0 vs. Carolina Railhawks on July 17.
Next Match– at FC Tampa Bay on Thursday, July 22.
Outlook: Rochester is entering a tricky three-game stretch in its schedule, and will look to snap a three-game winless streak heading into tonight's game in Florida. The road comes with the Rhinos looking good in the standings, eight points off pace of Austin. A good stretch here could see the New York club put pressure on the league leaders.
4. Portland Timbers (6-5-5)
Last Match– Won 2-0 vs. Miami FC on July 10.
Next Match– at Vancouver on Thursday, July 22.
Outlook: It's been almost two weeks since Portland took part in league play — two friendlies at home saw to that — and a four-game road trip is on the books. No one outside of Ryan Pore has scored more than once — the league leader, who has 10 tallies on the year, needs help from struggling Mandjou Keita and emerging talent Bright Dike to help push the Timbers up the standings.
5. Carolina Railhawks (6-3-6)
Last Match– Won 1-0 at Rochester Rhinos on July 17.
Next Match– vs. Rochester Tuesday, July 27.
Outlook: Before the season, the biggest question facing Carolina would be if they could score goals. The defense was solid, and has been, and so far it's been a solid return, led by Etienne Barbara and Sallieu Bundu. For now, the Railhawks can enjoy a weekend off as August closes in with Carolina in good standing for a playoff spot.
6. Montreal Impact (6-7-5)
Last Match– Won 3-0 vs. A.C. St. Louis on July 21.
Next Match– vs. Vancouver on Wednesday, July 28.
Outlook: Up north, Montreal has managed to grind out results. That's the best way to put it — Tony Donatelli's modest goal tally of 5 and a -3 goal differential is good enough to land in the top 8, but if Montreal doesn't keep improving, they won't find themselves alive for long. Former Toronto FC striker Ali Gerba has been brought in an attempt to boost that goal total.
7. NSC Minnesota Stars (7-9-4)
Last Match– Tied 1-1 vs. Puerto Rico Islanders on July 21.
Next Match– at Vancouver on Sunday, July 25.
Outlook: Expansion club Minnesota has done well — keeping expenses down, winning games, and doing well in the standings. Of course, they have played a few more games than other teams, but have proved that they can finish strong enough to make run at a postseason spot.
Last Match– Tied 1-1 vs. Puerto Rico Islanders on July 15.
Next Match– vs. Rochester on Thursday, July 22.
Outlook: A strong start to 2010 and Tampa Bay's renewal has slowed tremendously. The club hasn't won since May 29, and the struggles have forced a number of changes. They've taken on Andre Akpan on loan from Colorado, and added Ricardo Sanchez and Jonathan Steele. Starting tonight, they'll learn if that will be enough to make a difference.
9. Puerto Rico Islanders (5-7-5)
Last Match– Tied 1-1 at NSC Minnesota Stars on July 21.
Next Match– vs. Rochester Rhinos on Saturday, July 24.
Outlook: It's been a tough road for Colin Clarke and the Islanders. Puerto Rico finds themselves at the bottom of the USL Conference — though to be fair, it's a much more competitive environment than in the NASL Conference and the playoffs aren't as far away.
10. Crystal Palace Baltimore (5-8-4)
Last Match– Tied 0-0 vs. Rochester Rhinos on July 14.
Next Match– vs. A.C. St. Louis on Saturday, July 24.
Outlook: Crystal Palace Baltimore has enjoyed a decent season on the field, particularly after making the jump to second division soccer. But financial concerns loom in the background — the struggles of parent club in London seem to be felt here, with Palace playing home games in three separate venues over the course of the season. Whether or not the team can get past that distraction and grab a playoff spot seems unlikely.
11. Miami FC (2-6-9)
Last Match– Tied 1-1 vs. Puerto Rico Islanders on July 17.
Next Match– at FC Tampa Bay on Sunday, July 25.
Outlook: Nine ties from 17 have the Blues bogged down at the bottom of the standings. It caught up with former coach Victor Pastora, who has since been replaced by Daryl Shore. The former Fire assistant takes over a team currently out of a playoff spot. Paulo Araujo Jr. has been a bright spot with 7 goals, but it's going to be a tough road for a team that's won only two games in 2010.
12. A.C. St. Louis (3-10-4)
Last Match– Lost 3-0 at Montreal on July 21.
Next Match– at Palace Baltimore on Saturday, July 24.
Outlook: It's a bleak outlook for the new team in St. Louis. They've had to get rid of coach Claude Anelka and some of the foreign players in an effort to keep the club solvent through 2010. There's no indication that things will get any better either on or off the pitch.