By JOHN BOSCHINI
Half of the teams in the NASL have already started their winter breaks while the four remaining teams are left to battle for a place in the inaugural NASL final.
The sixth-seeded NSC Minnesota Stars and No. 4 Fort Lauderdale Strikers survived the pressure of a one-off quarterfinal against No. 3 FC Tampa Bay and No. 5 FC Edmonton, respectively, last weekend to advance. The Stars welcome a semifinal challenge from the top-ranked Carolina Railhawks, while the No. 2 Puerto Rico Islanders play host to Fort Lauderdale with both games taking place Saturday.
After nearly playing its way out of the playoffs, Minnesota finished the season on a three-game unbeaten streak and pulled off a surprising 1-0 upset of FC Tampa Bay. The suddenly hot Stars have found a great deal of success against Carolina this season, winning two and drawing two in four contests with the regular-season champions.
Puerto Rico and Fort Lauderdale have been much more evenly matched during the regular season, with each team winning one and drawing two of the four regular-season games. Fort Lauderdale exploded in the quarterfinals with a five-goal thrashing of FC Edmonton but need to shore up an occasionally leaky defense to contain Puerto Rico.
Here is a look ahead to the first leg of the NASL semifinals:
Fort Lauderdale Strikers at Puerto Rico Islanders (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.)
The Islanders have had a first-round bye for nearly a month now, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to playing a competitive fixture again. Jonathan Fana and David Foley lead the Islanders attack against Fort Lauderdale's defense. Brian Shriver and Eduardo Coudet form a potent attacking threat for Fort Lauderdale.
Puerto Rico has turned its home ground into something of a fortress, going undefeated at the Estadio Juan Ramon Loubriel during the regular season.
Carolina Railhawks at NSC Minnesota Stars (Saturday, 8:30 p.m.)
The Railhawks rattled off a 10-game winning streak in the middle of the season but have faltered down the stretch, losing four games in a row to end the season. Whether the league's top-scoring offense and stingy defense can bounce back from a bout of complacency remains to be seen.
The Stars have played well when desperate and are hoping to keep this unlikely run of form going for another week. Late-season signing Luke Mulholland has been one of the driving forces behind Minnesota's resurgence and will have to come up big if the Stars are to beat Railhawks' goalkeeper Brad Knighton.
What do you think of this weekend's games? Which teams do you see grabbing the edge heading into the return legs?
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